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Being Baptist: Elders in the Church

Recommended resource: Church Elders by Jeramie Rinne



But Having Elders is Presbyterian not “Baptist”!


Sam Amadi, over at 9Marks, helpfully addresses this first objection:


Historically, many Baptists have both affirmed that New Testament churches were led by a plurality of elders and practiced plural elder leadership in their churches. Regrettably, many Baptists have deviated from that scriptural practice. For that reason, quite a few Baptists today are unfamiliar with the polity advocated, even in their own churches, just a few generations ago. History is filled with many examples of Baptists, both British and American, affirming a plurality of elders.


For instance, in 1697, Benjamin Keach mentions in The Glory of a True Church that churches should establish an “elder or elders” to lead the church. Likewise, in 1743, Benjamin Griffith argued in A Short Treatise Concerning a True and Orderly Gospel Church that churches should maintain a plurality of elders. You can find similar affirmations in the writings of William Kiffin, Hanserd Knollys, and Charles Spurgeon.


Plural eldership was also advocated by some of the earliest leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention. W. B. Johnson, the first president of the SBC, wrote “each [New Testament] church had a plurality of elders. . . . a plurality in the bishopric is of great importance for mutual counsel and aid, that the government and edification of the flock may be promoted in the best manner.” Once again, you can find similar affirmations of a plurality of elders in such works as J. L. Reynolds’ Church Polity (1849).

(Quoted from 9Marks “Mailbag #84” at 9Marks.org)

The rule for our churches is, of course, not what church history teaches us, but what the Scriptures teach us, so to the Scriptures we now turn:

Elders, Bishops and Pastors – different words for the same office

The terms for elder (presbuteros), pastor (poimen- “shepherd”) and overseer (episkopos- “bishop”) are used interchangeably in the New Testament.


Acts 20:17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. And when he came to him, he said to them….


20:28 …pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for (Greek: pastor) the church of God…


1 Peter 5:1-2 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the suffering of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight.


1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:7 say that they are describing the qualifications for the office of “overseer (bishop)” but have always been understood to be the qualifications of that of an “elder” or “pastor.”


Ephesians 4:11 is the only time in the NT the word “pastor” is used as a noun and nothing indicates that it should be read as a different office than that of elder.


This has led Baptist churches (and many other Protestant churches) to conclude that there are only two offices in the church: elder and deacon.

Plurality of Elders

Most commonly in Baptist churches, one hears the term “pastor” used rather than “elder” and, unless it is a larger church with multiple pastors on staff, it has become common to have only one elder - the pastor- who works with a “board of deacons” to oversee the administrative tasks in the church.

The example given to us in the Scriptures, however, is that the local church should be ruled by, not just one, but a plurality of elders.


Acts 14:23 “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church…”

Philippians 1:1 “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.


James 5:14 “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him…”

The Concept of a “Lead Pastor”

Even churches with a plurality of elders typically have one who is referred to as “the” pastor. This may be the one elder in the church whose ministerial duties are their full-time paid job and whose job description includes preaching each Sunday. Where do we get that idea from?


1 Timothy 5:17-18 “Let the elders who rule well be considered of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’”


Clearly the word “honor” in this verse is referring to financial compensation for those elders whose particular job it is to preach and teach. When considering that multiple elders were appointed in newly founded churches (see Titus 1:5), it is hard to imagine that they all could have been financially supported but Paul clearly expects that some would be.


Presbyterians use this passage to justify dividing their elders into two classes: teaching elders and ruling elders. Ruling elders are not expected to be gifted in teaching but, instead, focus on administration-related duties such as bookkeeping, etc. This distinction is not commonly found among Baptists as the qualifications for elder in 1 Timothy 3 include “able to teach” (vs. 2). What Baptists and Presbyterians do share in practice is that the group of elders that rule in a church are composed of some who are paid and others who are volunteers. The paid elders typically handle the majority of the teaching within the church although the volunteers (at least in Baptist churches) should be ready to handle teaching duties as needed.


Baptists, therefore, see Scriptural warrant for having full-time paid elders and these are typically referred to as the “pastors” indicating their status as those who earn their living through the ministry but who share the same position as the volunteer elders who work collectively to oversee the ministries of the church.


By virtue of being in the position of handling the bulk of the public preaching/teaching load, one of paid elders will typically take the position of “lead pastor” or “teaching pastor” and will often be seen as the “first among equals” in relation to the other elders. Although all the elders are equal and share equal responsibility before the LORD in leading the church, this particular elder’s opinions are often deferred to. An example of this might be seen in Paul’s letters to Timothy. When Paul writes to the elders in Ephesus, he specifically addresses Timothy and calls him to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:3) to “put these things before the brothers” (4:6), to “command and teach these things” (4:11), and to “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:1-2). This seems to indicate that, among the elders, Timothy played a special role in the church in Ephesus. Greg Gilbert, having served in a church with no specific “lead pastor” and a church with a “lead pastor” points to three benefits he has observed of the latter: 1) Continuity- He notes that, while it can be interesting to have a variety of speakers to address the congregation, he has noticed the value of having the sustained emphasis and vision of a single voice that is drawn out over a course of a number of years; 2) Leadership- leadership is facilitated by having a point person and it helps to have someone who is expected to have thought through things before the elders have gathered in order for them to, then, discuss it; 3) Inevitability- the emergence of a lead pastor is almost inevitable as the congregation notes a particular skill set in one that stands out among the rest of the elders. Gilbert comments: “Yes, I want my congregation to know that they have seven pastors, and I want them to know that all seven of those pastors are godly, wise, super-competent, and spiritual men. But all seven of us also recognize that it’s a good thing for one of us to be able to exercise leadership among the elders themselves, to facilitate discussion, and to do some advance thinking—and then to communicate the leadership and final decisions of the elders to the congregation.”

How They are Chosen

Elders are those who have been set apart by the Holy Spirit to oversee and care for the church (Acts 20:28). This points to the fact that they are not the head of the church but that God is. It is common to hear elders described as “under-shepherds” to Christ who is the Chief Shepherd and head of the church (Eph. 5:22-30).


Because it is the Holy Spirit who sets apart men for such a task, the congregation is to watch for those whom God has set aside.


How do we recognize them? 1 Timothy 3:2-7 and Titus 1:7-9 provide us with the characteristics that should describe a candidate for the office and the Scriptures tell us that God has distributed gifts among His people that are to be used within His church. So we look for men who are already actively demonstrating these characteristics and utilizing their gifts.

It has been noted that the list of characteristics describe nothing in particular that we shouldn’t expect to see from any believer. There is much truth to this. There are, however, two things that do stand out:


First, the ability to teach (1 Tim. 3:2). This does not mean that every elder must be a skilled orator. Paul himself denies that he would fit that bill. But an elder must be able to present the truth, to call the church to lives lived in obedience to the Word, and to present the gospel to unbelievers so that they might see their need for a Savior.


Second, he should have a desire for the office (1 Tim. 3:1). There are many who fulfill the qualifications of elder but who do not desire such a weighty responsibility. It becomes the job of the congregation, with the help of the sitting elders, to discern whether a candidate desires the office because of the leading of the Holy Spirit or because they desire, what they perceive to be, a position of power and influence that they might use for personal gain.


Ultimately, however, the situation should not arise where a congregation is having to coax a member to run for the office. The fact that they do not desire it is evidence that the Holy Spirit has not called them to it (see 1 Peter 5:2).


Churches approach the process of selecting elders differently because the Scriptures offer no hard and fast rules regarding such a process. We know that Timothy was instructed to appoint elders (2 Tim. 2:2) and that helps to inform how some churches initiate the process. Many churches, while welcoming nominations/suggestions of those whom to consider from the congregation, leave the responsibility for the formal nomination for the office to the sitting elders. This is because 1) the sitting elders have the responsibility of shepherding the flock and the nomination of a new elder is a particularly weighty act in the role of shepherding; 2) the sitting elders need to feel confident that they can work well alongside the candidate and that they share a common philosophy of ministry; 3) to protect the flock from unnecessary hurt feelings or division; 4) to keep the selection process from becoming a popularity contest.


Since Baptists are congregational churches, the final affirmation or denial of someone to the office falls to the congregation. We can consider the arguments already put forth for this type of polity in a previous post, but this particular concept is supported by the fact that we do know that the congregation can bring charges against an elder (1 Tim. 5:19; Gal. 1:8). This demonstrates that the congregation is ultimately charged with protecting the gospel witness of the church. We also can take cues from Acts 6:1-8 even though it is dealing with the selection of deacons.

Responsibilities

1 Timothy 5:17 “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”


“Rule Well” The Greek word behind “rule well” is proistemi which has two basic meanings: 1) to exercise leadership; 2) to care for someone or something. This is the same word found in 1 Timothy 3:4 and 12 where Paul says that elders and deacons must rule their households well. Hence the use of the term “overseer” to describe elders. They are expected to oversee the affairs of the church. The clear implication is that the administrative duties that keep a church operational fall upon the shoulders of the elders as well as the preaching and teaching duties. Acts 6, which we will discuss further when considering deacons, does not contradict this conclusion. The deacons were, indeed, chosen by the congregation to oversee the administrative task of food distribution to widows, but this was done at the instruction of the elders of the church (at this time the apostles). The apostles did not say “We are busy with teaching and praying the distribution of food is not our responsibility.” Instead, they came up with a plan and put it into motion.


Churches handle the church budget in a variety of ways. While the work of putting together the budget and conducting the necessary administrative work behind keeping bills paid and accounts balanced may fall to the deacons and church treasurer, and, while it may require congregational approval, the elders should inform and guide the process since the budget is a reflection of the church’s ministry priorities. It is a part of the way the elders “rule well” and the budget also “teaches” (see below) what is important to the church and in the Kingdom.

“Preaching and teaching” The majority of the teaching will fall on the elders but they certainly don’t have to do all the teaching in the church. In fact, this would be a near impossibility in many churches given the variety and number of classes that are conducted on a weekly basis. The elders do have, however, a special responsibility of oversight over what is taught. They are responsible before the LORD for what is taught and will be held accountable in ways that the congregation will not (see Hebrews 13:17).


It should also be noted that “teaching” takes place in the church every time the congregation sings (see Colossians 3:16) and every time someone leads the congregation in prayer. “Teaching” takes place every time the church recommends a book, posts a blog post, or comments on social media. This does not mean that elders have to keep a tight grip on each of these areas of church life but they should be seen as ultimately responsible for their content and, thus, have “veto” power when the content of any of these goes outside the boundaries of orthodoxy or, even, simple good taste.

1 Peter 5:1-3 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you, not for shameful gain, but eagerly, not domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock.

“Shepherd the flock” Elders, generally speaking, feed, lead, protect, and nurture church members like shepherds do with sheep. Shepherds often risked their own life for the sake of their sheep and elders should be willing to do no less. Their leadership should be marked by a servant’s heart and they should be able to say with Paul “What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5).


“Exercising oversight” See “rule well” above.


“Being examples to the flock” Two implications come from this charge. First, the elder must be concerned about his own character. In no way is he perfect, but he should strive to be able to say “imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Secondly, the elder must be among the congregation. The only way an elder can be an example is for the congregation to be able to observe them. The elder should, then, be expected to be at the gatherings of the church, opening up their home to members and joining in other opportunities for fellowship.

Acts 6:4 We will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.

“Devoted to Prayer” Recognizing that they are powerless to accomplish anything apart from the power that God alone provides and that only the Holy Spirit can bring anyone to maturity in Christ, the elders should be committed to praying for one another, the members of the congregation, the ministries of the church, and the propagation of the gospel.


“The Ministry of the Word” While this falls under the preaching/teaching responsibilities of the elder, it deserves mentioning that an elder should be expected to be a student of the Word. Daily study of the Scriptures should be built into the calendar of an elder and, in particular, a paid elder who keeps regular church “office hours” should be able to have a portion of time each day set aside for uninterrupted study.

Hebrews 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (see also 1 Thess. 5:12,13).

While this passage describes the responsibility of congregants to the elders, the implication is clear, that if a congregation is called to “submit” to the church’s elders, they must…


“Be Trustworthy” In a congregational system, the congregation is the final court of appeal on certain church matters. That being said, there will be times when the elders will have to deal with situations in which they will have to ask the congregation to simply trust them. The clearest example of this might be in an instance of church discipline. The Matthew 18 process of discipline may have come to its conclusion and the elders feel that the person in question should be publicly disciplined and removed from the membership of the church. The congregation is responsible for the final say and must do so as informed church members. The elders, however, may be privy to certain details in the case that may be best left unsaid for the sake of the offended, the offender, or for the witness of the church. In order for the congregation to act, the elders must give enough information as necessary, but they also must use their best judgment in just how much to share and, in these cases, the congregation needs to trust their leaders. If the elders have been found to be unworthy of such trust, then they, themselves, may need to be disciplined or you may need to find another church because not all elders are trustworthy. But if someone has a hard time trusting their elders, the first thing to do is for them to examine their own hearts to see if pride is the actual issue.


“Take the Task Seriously” Elders “will have to give an account.” Church Father Chrysostom commented that “The fear of this threat continually agitates my soul.” Elders know that they have been entrusted with a serious charge and should approach the task, not wanting to be found unfit, unwise, ignorant, lazy, or possessing the fear of man. They recognize their insufficiency and see the task as so great that it should be expected that they may, at times, regret being placed in such a role- but they know that they have been entrusted with this call by the LORD and prove to be unwavering no matter the challenge for His name’s sake.


“Joyful” In the face of the weightiness of the call, elders should be marked by a certain joy in the LORD and a joy in the task that He has put them to. Good elders take great joy in watching God conform the congregation more closely to the image of Christ, seeing the congregation using their gifts for the good of the Body, being among the congregation, breaking bread and feasting on God’s Word together, and being able to provide shoulders to lean on when sorrows and troubles come.

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