By Whose Authority/Elders in Baptist Life
From Gospel Translations
The Significance of Matters of Polity
Americans tend to be impatient with anything that is not utterly essential. Yet in order to be faithful to God’s revelation, we must realize that there are more gears in our transmission than “essential” and “unimportant.” Some issues, though not essential to our salvation or our Christian identity, are nevertheless very important—and church polity is one of them.
Polity is significant in that it is essential, or at least very useful, for protecting the corporate witness of the church. The differences between evangelical Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches can look pretty slight when they are all healthy and functioning well. But let some serious sin occur, and observe what happens: the differences immediately begin to emerge. Some people have wondered why I published a book entitled Polity when three of the ten books that comprise it are taken up entirely with the practice of church discipline. For the same reason doctors study diseases when they are interested in health, how the church body deals with diseases shows us how the body works and how it acts when it is healthy. Who has the responsibility to deal with unrepentant sin in the church? The minister or the bishop? The elders? The congregation as a whole? And what is the ultimate court of appeal under God? The pope? The Southern Baptist Convention? The General Convention of the Episcopal Church or the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America? These issues matter. And if you have any doubt, look at how the Episcopal churches have suffered in the last few years because they have exported the responsibilities from their congregations to the unbiblical structures above them. Polity matters.
Elder Leadership in the Context of Congregationalism
Under God, the final judicatory authority resides not with a pope or a convention, not with a national assembly or a pastor, not with a regional association or a state convention, and not with some committee or board, whether paid or unpaid. Final responsibility for the discipline and doctrine of the congregation, under God, lies not with the deacons or the elders. It lies with the congregation as a whole.
Congregationalism may or may not be attractive, efficient, well-understood, well-practiced, easy, universally loved, or impervious to distortion and corruption, but it is biblical. It is biblical in two senses: First, only the congregation is finally accountable to God for the church’s actions in discipline and doctrine. No outside person or body is. Second, the whole congregation is so accountable. This is the picture that we find in the New Testament. I confess that the evidence is slight and the specifics nearly non-existent, but the picture is consistent and the implications important.
Dispute. Jesus teaches his followers in Matthew 18 that the final court for matters of dispute between brothers is the congregation. So we read in verses 15 to 17 that the final step for resolving a dispute is to “tell it,” not to the elders, but to the ´εκκλησ´ια, the church or the congregation. Acts 6 provides an example of this. When a dispute arises between the Grecian and Hebraic Jews over the feeding of widows, the apostles tell the congregation to “choose seven men from among you” to wait on the needs of these poorer members in the Jerusalem church (v. 3). The proposal “pleased the whole group” (v. 5). The congregation then chooses seven individuals whom they present to the apostles for prayer.
Doctrine. Paul implicitly teaches the Galatians in Galatians 1 that the final court for settling disagreements in matters of doctrine is the congregation. Paul exhorts these young Christians in Galatia that even if he, an apostle, should come and preach a different gospel from the one they had already accepted, they should reject him. And so with any errant missionary. Interestingly, Paul says this to young Christians; he is not writing to the elders. And he is writing about the matter of the most theological importance—the gospel itself! Yet he places his trust in them. The gospel had saved them, and its cognitive, propositional content is more significant than even claims of apostolic calling, let alone succession. Paul assumes that that message of the gospel is perspicuous, even to young believers.
Discipline. Paul teaches the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 5 that the final court for settling matters of discipline is the congregation. Paul writes about a scandalous situation in the Corinthian church, and he writes not just to the pastor or leadership, but to the whole congregation. He tells the whole congregation they are to act, and to act by not associating with the offending party.
Church membership. Finally, Paul teaches the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 2 that the final court for determining church membership is the congregation. He writes to them about a repentant sinner whom they had earlier excluded: “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him” (vv. 6-8). Paul writes to the whole congregation about an action they had taken as a whole, urging them now to take a different course.
Much more could be said about congregationalism, but I hope I have offered enough evidence to make clear that, according to the New Testament, it is the congregation as a whole that must finally take responsibility for its life together—for disputes, doctrine, discipline, and membership. The congregation may shirk that responsibility, but it will never lose it before God. The evidence, though slight, is consistent and clear.
Elder Rule or Elder Leadership?
What, then, is the responsibility of the elders in the context of congregationalism? It is important to distinguish elder leadership within a congregational context from an elder rule that does not recognize the biblical role of the congregation. A biblical elder-led congregationalism is distinct from presbyterianism because it does not appeal outside the congregation to another final backstop against sin and wrong, and it is distinct from the kind of elder-rule practiced in many independent and Bible churches because it recognizes that the final responsibility indeed rests with the congregation.
The difference between these two terms, “elder leadership” and “elder rule,” is an important one. The translators of the King James Version translated the Greek word προεστˆωτες, describing the elder’s function in 1 Timothy 5:17, as “rule.” More modern translations have used “direct” or “govern.” Indeed, then, elders are certainly supposed to rule, direct, or govern.
Yet in our contemporary context, the phrase “elder rule” is typically used to mean resting final authority in the hands of the elders as opposed to the congregation. And that, as we have just seen, is what neither our Lord Jesus nor the Apostle Paul seemed to envision. Even in areas of indisputable elder responsibility, like orthodox teaching, the congregation does not lose its final responsibility. Thus in 2 Timothy 4, where Paul warns Timothy about the times of terrible teaching to come, he does not just blame the elders, as one might expect; he blames those who “gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (v. 3).
So a better word for summarizing the function of the elders in a local congregation than “rule” might be “direct” or “lead.” The word “rule” sounds final or ultimate; “lead” seems more appropriate for describing the normal God-given role of elders, who must be recognized but who may also be set aside by the congregation. In conclusion, the most biblical model seems to be a form of congregationalism in which the elders normally and regularly lead.
Relationship of Elders to Others
To the Congregation. What, then, is the relationship of elders to the congregation? By championing congregationalism, I am certainly not saying that the congregation is always right, that it is inerrant, and that the Holy Spirit so superintends the workings of each congregation that its actions and conclusions are always in accord with God’s will. No form of government in this fallen world, whether papal, congregational, or anything in between, is promised infallibility. We know that when Christ returns he will find faith on earth, because he is the one who has determined to build his church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Nevertheless, the best of congregations, like the best of men, can and do fail. So the congregation that fired Jonathan Edwards had every right to fire him, but I believe they were wrong in their decision to do so.
At the same time, the call to Christians to obey their leaders (Heb. 13:17) in no way implies the infallibility of leaders. Elders and pastors also make mistakes, and for those mistakes (speaking as an elder), we will have to give account to God (James 3:1). Even so, we cannot ignore the call God gives us to lead his church. So we preach and teach, we study and pray, we evangelize and disciple, we examine and exhort, we deliberate and decide.
Ultimately, however, elders can act only by teaching and persuading the congregation. All of the duties, responsibilities, and obligations elders possess have been given to us by the congregation we serve. Certainly God must call us, and we expect an internal witness to this divine call. But that internally sensed call of God must be confirmed by a visible congregation, by a particular flock that asks us to shepherd them and follows us when we do. For this reason, an elder cannot be either installed or removed except by a vote of the congregation.
Once a congregation confirms an elder’s call, the leadership of elders should normally be trusted, particularly on matters that are both significant and unclear. Elders have been recognized for exactly this sort of careful work.  To “the Pastor.” A further longstanding concern among Baptists and other congregationalists has been how elders should relate to the one among them who is commonly called “the pastor.” Many Baptists wrestled with this question in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as they considered the role and place of ruling elders. What most Baptists finally and rightly concluded was that the distinction between ruling and teaching elders is not biblical. The authority elders accrue is to come through their ministry in the congregation, and particularly through their teaching and explaining of the Word.
The elder we usually refer to as the pastor these days—the person like me—is the one who is generally set apart to fill the pulpit on Sunday. He typically marries and buries. He is often paid, either part-time or full-time. If the church is larger, he may be the one who hires and fires and who sets the direction for the church as a whole. In our congregation in Washington, D.C., I am recognized as an elder by virtue of my call as the senior pastor of the church. Anyone we hire to work in ministry will either be called an assistant or a pastor. The title “pastor” is reserved for those whom the congregation recognizes as an elder.
Among these elders, I have only one vote. Because of the leadership responsibility I have as the main public teacher, a special degree of authority is undoubtedly attached to my voice in elders’ meetings. But the other brothers who serve as elders at our church probably have a good assessment by now of where I am most helpful, and where I have less to contribute. Though formal authority between elders in a church is equal, there will always be those who garner special regard in one area or another.
To the Staff. What about the relationship of the elders to the staff? Many churches are large and prosperous enough to have multiple staff members. Should these members of the pastoral staff be regarded as elders in the church? Perhaps, but there are some challenges to this view. On the one hand, if all the elders in a church are also employees of the church, it frees up the elders’ schedules to work together more easily. On the other hand, it may discourage and hinder the development of leadership within the congregation. Also, employees can be dismissed more easily than elders who have well-developed and organic leadership ties to the congregation. In our congregation, the staff, most of whom are not elders, determines how to carry out the pastoral directions set by the elders.
To the Deacons. What about the relationship of the elders to the deacons? In many SBC congregations, deacons fulfill the role of plural, non-staff elder leadership; need we condemn this practice as unbiblical? We must recognize the significant difference in the qualifications Paul lays out for the two offices. Since elders are required to be able to teach God’s Word, while deacons are not, men may rightfully serve as deacons who are not qualified to serve as elders. Furthermore, the teaching ability Paul requires of elders almost certainly refers, in part, to a greater knowledge of Scripture. Such knowledgeable Christian brothers are exactly the ones we should most naturally acknowledge and trust as leaders in the church.
In our own congregation in Washington, the deacons work to facilitate various services in the church—from pulling the budget together, to helping to prepare for baptisms and the Lord’s Supper, to facilitating our care for those in financial need. The deacons do not act, as it were, as a second house of the legislature, a kind of House of Representatives to the elders’ Senate. Their work is to care for the physical and fiscal needs of the church, to create unity in the body, and to support the work of the pastors and elders. The deacons should be the body’s “shock absorbers.”
To the Nominating Committee. There is a final relationship we should notice, and one that I think presents one of the reasons we should most care about restoring the biblical practice of a plural eldership in our churches: the relationship of the elders to the nominating committee. In many of our churches, nominating committees have for decades led the congregation, directing it in some of the most crucial decisions for the ongoing ministry of the church. These committees, though sometimes full of fine Christian men and women, are not bodies required in Scripture. Their members do not need to meet any particular biblical requirements. Too often, their decisions are motivated by worldly concerns, such as not disappointing a longserving member or keeping a balance of ages, genders, or even family connections. Surely the nomination of servants and leaders in our churches is best left to the most mature among us, and to those who meet the basic biblical qualifications laid down for elders.
- ↑ The SBC was founded on exactly this type of non-salvifically essential distinctive. Yet the recent rejection of two manuscripts by Broadman & Holman (a press wholly owned by the SBC)—one on multiple elders within a congregational context, and one against the practice of infant baptism—both point to the need for a press that will explain and defend the biblical distinctives of our denomination.
- ↑ In his translation of the Bible, William Tyndale translated εκκλησια as “the assembly.”
- ↑ An even more fundamental matter of polity than multiple eldership is the defense of a regenerate church membership.
- ↑ It is also matched by the evidence of the immediate post-Apostolic period. So Clement of Rome writes of elders being commissioned “with the full consent of the church,” in his “First Epistle to the Corinthians.” In Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Maxwell Staniforth (New York: Penguin Books, 1968), 46.
- ↑ The point here is not the distinction between the use of the phrase “elder led” as opposed to “elder ruled,” but the distinction between those congregations that do and do not recognize their biblical responsibility not only to obey (as in Heb. 13), but also on occasion to disobey (as in Gal. 1) their leaders. God will hold teachers accountable for what they teach (see James 3:1), but the congregations who sit idly listening to serious error are not, therefore, absolved of responsibility. They should refuse to follow such leaders. Congregations that teach they have no such responsibility, but assign the responsibility of discerning the truth solely to the elders, have abdicated a biblical responsibility. On the other hand, congregations that recognize that they should follow their leaders under normal circumstances, but that there are occasions in which they should not, reserve to themselves responsibilities recognized and taught in the Scriptures.
- ↑ Though I am happy to defend this as the biblical model, I would not suggest that a church without this model is not a true church. Nor would I suggest that the precise polity must be a matter of agreement between churches in order to cooperate together in missions, evangelism, and education.
- ↑ For more on the particulars of discerning in which matters the congregation should simply submit to the elders in trust, see my Display of God’s Glory (Washington, DC: 9Marks, 2001), 40-42.
- ↑ Another difference is that many Baptists have historically recognized deaconesses (based particularly on 1 Tim. 3:11), but not elderesses (for which there is no biblical evidence).
- ↑ Thanks to Buddy Gray, pastor of Hunter Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, for his own careful reflection and teaching on this matter conveyed to me in personal conversation.