By Whose Authority/Elders in History

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By Mark Dever About Eldership
Chapter 4 of the book By Whose Authority

The Early Church and the Development of the Monarchical Episcopate

If the New Testament church universally employed the plural- elder model, how and when did it change? That the immediate post-apostolic church changed rapidly and radically, few Protestants would deny. In everything from the rise of infant baptism to the belief in the efficacy of the sacraments and the role of works in salvation, the centuries following the departure of the last of Christ’s apostles saw rapid doctrinal decay among the fledgling churches. It is no surprise that such changes should occur in matters of church organization and governance as well.

The shift from elder congregational leadership described in the New Testament to the full-blown episcopacy of the Roman Catholic church occurred over several centuries. In the early church document called the Didache, written in the late first or the early second century, the only church officers are elders and deacons. Yet as early as the second century, Ignatius, an early church father, refers to a council of elders, called to give counsel to a chief pastor, or bishop. Ignatius uses the words presbyter (elder) and bishop distinctly from one another. This distinction is crucial for understanding the centralization of authority that occurred in the church of the second and third centuries.

During this time, leading pastors/elders of churches in the urban centers that experienced early evangelization seem to have become the informal arbiters of questions of orthodoxy. This development took place more slowly in some places than in others. Egypt, for instance, was notably slower in moving beyond its more informal associations and de-centralized structures of authority. But generally, it seems that competent and noted pastors like Ignatius of Antioch were gradually recognized not only as the first among equals, as Timothy at Ephesus or James at Jerusalem might have been; they came to assume a formal office that was eventually recognized as an episcopate distinguishable from local church eldership. Such bishops seem to have accrued authority not only in their own congregations, but also among congregations in their general area and sometimes even in wider regions, as in the case of the “metropolitan sees” of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and, by the fourth century, Constantinople. These larger metropolitan sees eventually began vying for position against one another until finally the see of Rome became dissatisfied with its own informal authority over the other metropolitan bishops and insisted on its exclusive preeminence. As the bishop of Rome increasingly staked this claim to be the sole arbiter of matters of truth in the faith, the full flowering of the transition from congregational elder leadership to a centralized authority was complete.

It is not difficult to see how, in an era of vigorous church planting, rapid geographical expansion, ever-looming heresy, and celebrated martyrdoms, certain central locations and their noteworthy bishops began to acquire a respect and deference that would be extended to their successors. Cyprian of Carthage, one century after Ignatius, insisted that the recognition of a single authoritative bishop was closely linked with the unity of the church in the world. Jerome, writing in the fourth century, admitted the identity of bishop and elder in the New Testament, but argued for the historical need to commit oversight to one person. In the struggle to identify orthodoxy amidst a sea of heresy, one can understand such centralizing tendencies in order to ensure conformity, even uniformity.[1]

Reformation Recoveries

The Bishop of Rome managed to maintain an ecclesiological hegemony in the West for the better part of a millennium. This centralized authority was finally questioned at the time of the Protestant Reformation, when a number of thinkers and churchmen recovered the assumption that Scripture, rather than the mere antiquity of traditions, is sufficient for determining the doctrines of the church. As the critical gaze of the Reformers began to fall across their churches, they required some word of Scripture—at least some intimation or implication—to justify their doctrines and practices.

For early Anabaptists, Reformed, Congregationalists, and Baptists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, offices in the church entered a state of flux. Even some of the magisterial reformers began to recover the identity of bishop and elder. The discovery that no biblical basis existed for an episcopacy not only destabilized the authority of Rome in western Europe; it also threatened the monarchs who had for centuries leaned upon the structures of the church for supplying everything from order to education to income. Thus, the Reformers’ movements away from episcopal structures were at first piecemeal.

While Martin Luther declined in practice to interfere with the distinct extra-congregational role of the bishop, he repeatedly emphasized in his sermons and writings that bishops and elders or pastors were all the same office in Scripture. He denounced the bishop of Rome as a false prophet with whom no bishop should be in communion. He furthermore denied that the pope had a unique authority given him through succession from Peter, as the Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16 had long claimed. But for Luther and his successors, as long as the office of bishop or pastor was recognized, other external aspects of church organization within and among congregations were understood to be matters appropriately settled by human law, normally at the discretion of the state.

John Calvin, who was less encumbered by inter-princely politics than Luther, pushed even harder for the church’s polity to be defined by Scripture. Calvin was zealously committed to what has been called the regulative principle, the idea that both a church’s polity and everything done during its weekly gatherings should be explicitly or implicitly commanded in Scripture. He also recovered the single identity of the bishop and the elder, thus removing a level of authority above and apart from the local church. Calvin called for ministers of the Word, or what the New Testament describes as elders or pastors, in every congregation. But he drew a distinction between “elders” (what Presbyterian churches today call “ruling elders,” that is, non-ordained elders) and “ministers of the Word and the Sacraments” (what Presbyterians call “teaching elders”).

Calvin’s careful scholarship in the early patristic period is rehearsed in Book IV, Chapter 4, of his famous Institutes of the Chrisitan Religion: “In each city,” he wrote, “these [elders] chose one of their number whom they specially gave the title ‘bishop’ in order that dissensions might not arise (as commonly happens) from equality of rank. . . . The ancients themselves admit that this was introduced by human agreement to meet the need of the times.”[2] Following this example, the Reformed churches in Geneva, Germany, the Netherlands, and Scotland developed a series of inter-locking courts that would settle disputes of doctrine and discipline between congregations and foster the unity of the churches in an area with a reformed magistrate.

Anabaptists’ polity was fluid. They were “radically de-centralized,” as James Stayer puts it, “most of them making exclusivist claims and condemning the other [groups of Anabaptists].”[3] Various offices, including elder, proliferated among them. In the 1529 Discipline of the Believers; How a Christian is to Live, we find the statement, “The elders [Vorsteher] and preachers chosen for the brotherhood shall with zeal look after the needs of the poor, and with zeal in the Lord according to the command of the Lord extend what is needed for the sake of and instead of the brotherhood.”[4] A basic pattern of delegated leadership within a congregational structure emerged.

In the Reformation period, then, a return to ancient patterns followed on the heels of an affirmation of the sufficiency of Scripture. Protestant churches began to give non-ordained members more responsibility, and many of them returned to the congregational election of officers. At the same time, Reformed groups and some Anabaptists recovered the idea of a plural eldership. The Church of Scotland, reformed through the preaching of John Knox and others, established the office of elder. In England, the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists, and the Baptists also recovered the office from the New Testament. And to the Baptists we now turn.

Baptist Elders in the Past

“It’s not Baptist,” the lady protested when I advocated adopting elders in Baptist churches. Strictly speaking, she was not correct. I understand what she meant: in the churches she had known in the second half of the twentieth century, she had never seen or even heard of Baptist elders. But other Baptists had.

We have already mentioned the use of the word “elder” in Baptist statements of faith from the past. But was that word simply used synonymously with our modern word “pastor,” or even “senior pastor”? Did Baptists in the past understand that the New Testament recognizes a plurality of leaders called “elders” in one local congregation?[5] Let me present a sampling for you.

Throughout seventeenth-century England, Baptists affirmed the office of elder. In 1697, Benjamin Keach wrote of “Bishops, Overseers, or Elders,” clearly implying that these New Testament titles refer to one office.[6] Keach presented it as essential that a church have one or more pastors, but not that it have a plurality of them. He rejected the Presbyterian practice of having a separate group of ruling elders who do not teach, saying that if that practice was in the apostolic church, it was only temporary, because neither the qualifications nor the duties of the so-called ruling elder are laid out in the New Testament.[7]

In the eighteenth century, Benjamin Griffith wrote in favor of distinguishing ruling elders from the pastors or teaching elders. [8] Citing Exodus 18, Deuteronomy 1, 1 Timothy 5:17, 1 Corinthians 12:28, and Romans 12:8 as the basis for his argument, Griffith asserted that the distinction between the two offices is shown by the fact that the ruling elder would have to be ordained to become a teaching elder. The demarcation between ruling and teaching elders was common in the Philadelphia Baptist Association in the eighteenth century, but in this practice Griffith and his contemporaries disagreed with their English counterparts of the previous decades.[9] The Charleston Association’s 1774 Summary of Church Discipline did not recognize a distinction between the two offices, but it did affirm that ministers of the gospel in the New Testament are “frequently called elders, bishops, pastors and teachers.” The Summary also implied that there is sometimes within one local congregation a “presbytery.”[10]

In the nineteenth century, Samuel Jones of the Philadelphia Association wrote, “Concerning the divine right of the office of ruling elders there has been considerable doubt and much disputation.” Jones then summarized the arguments for and against ruling elders and essentially conceded that Griffith’s defense of ruling elders is weak. But he still argued the office is beneficial and not forbidden and left congregations free to keep ruling elders if they found them useful for assisting the pastor.[11]

Turning to the South, the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention, W. B. Johnson of South Carolina, wrote in his book The Gospel Developed that “each [New Testament] church had a plurality of elders.”[12] Concerning his present day, Johnson asserted, “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.”[13] For several pages, Johnson then delineated the duties and benefits of a plurality of elders in a local congregation.[14]

In 1849, J. L. Reynolds, pastor of the Second Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia, wrote that “the apostolic churches seem, in general, to have had a plurality of elders as well as deacons.”[15] Nevertheless, Reynolds maintained that “the number of officers, whether elders or deacons, necessary to the completeness of a church, is not determined in Scripture. This must be decided by the circumstances of the case, of which the party interested is the most competent judge.”[16] Reynolds competently and carefully dissected the arguments in favor of a distinct class of ruling elders. [17] And he devoted a whole chapter to defending the interchangeability of the terms “bishop” and “elder.”

In 1874, William Williams, a member of the founding faculty of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote, “In most, if not all the apostolic churches, there was a plurality of elders.”[18] Williams then speculated that this was true perhaps because the early Christians could only meet in small groups, and each small group needed an elder to instruct them. Therefore, a plurality of elders was a product of temporary circumstances and should not be perceived as a continuing requirement for churches. Williams also disagreed with any idea of a separate office of ruling elder. In short, he placed the plurality of elders in the same category as deaconesses, the holy kiss, and the frequency of the Lord’s Supper. All are matters that should be left up to the “pious discretion of the churches.”[19]

I could go on. C. H. Spurgeon had a plurality of elders at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in nineteenth-century London.[20] J. L. Burrows, pastor of First Baptist Church, Richmond, for twenty years and chairman of the Foreign Mission Board for six years, wrote in his book What Baptists Believe, “Elders and deacons are the only officers [Christ] has instituted.”[21] It is indisputable that at the beginning of the twentieth century, Baptists either had or advocated elders in local churches—and often a plurality of elders. And they had done so for centuries. A. H. Strong, president of Rochester Theological Seminary and author of the influential 1907 Systematic Theology, summarized the position perhaps most Baptists in America held at the beginning of the twentieth century: “In certain of the N.T. churches there appears to have been a plurality of elders. . . . There is, however, no evidence that the number of elders was uniform, or that the plurality which frequently existed was due to any other cause than the size of the churches for which these elders cared. The N.T. example, while it permits the multiplication of assistant pastors according to need, does not require a plural eldership in every case. . . . There are indications, moreover, that, at least in certain churches, the pastor was one, while the deacons were more than one, in number.”[22]

Current Influences in the Revival of Elders in Baptist Churches

Why has this office of elder been revived among some Southern Baptists in the latter part of the twentieth century? I have no extensive research for the comments that follow, only anecdotal experience and my own reflections. The “whys” are difficult questions to answer not only for historians; even those living in the midst of change can have difficulty discerning causation. I have been an elder at a Baptist church in England, and I have preached in Baptist churches in South Africa that had elders. But here in America, what is causing the re-evaluation that is indisputably occurring?

Let me suggest two factors unrelated to the inerrancy controversy in the SBC, and three factors related to the controversy, all of which may partly explain an otherwise surprising surge of interest in this ancient office.

Causes Unrelated to the Inerrancy Controversy. First, the idea of elders in local churches has been raised by prominent advocates outside the Southern Baptist constituency. John MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, has for many years advocated and practiced having a plurality of elders (of which he is one) lead the congregation. MacArthur has published a variety of writings that touch on this issue, but perhaps most widely read is his thirty-two-page booklet Answering the Key Questions about Elders (1984). In 1991, John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, a Baptist General Conference church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, also led his church to adopt a plural-elder model of leadership. He has written a sixty-three-page booklet, Biblical Eldership (1999).

Even more broadly, a number of widely-used contemporary systematic theologies testify to the New Testament evidence for a plurality of elders. Since its completion in 1985, Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology has been perhaps the most widely used systematic textbook in Southern Baptist seminaries, and in many other evangelical schools as well. At its publication in the mid-1980s, few systematic theologies had gained such wide usage since Louis Berkhof’s Dutch Reformed work in the 1930s. In Erickson’s section on the church, he carefully lays out episcopalian, presbyterian, and congregational polities, showing the strengths and weaknesses of each. He gingerly advocates congregationalism, though not with the vigor of earlier divine-right congregationalists like John Owen and Thomas Goodwin, nor even with the mildness that characterized writers in the American South in the nineteenth century, like W. B. Johnson and J. L. Reynolds. Erickson also makes two qualifying provisos: a more presbyterian form of government will probably be needed when the congregation becomes very large, or when it is filled with more immature Christians.

Wayne Grudem’s popular 1994 Systematic Theology, also used in many Southern Baptist and evangelical seminaries, states, “There is quite a consistent pattern of plural elders as the main governing group in the New Testament churches.”[23] Grudem points to two main conclusions from the New Testament evidence: “First, no passage suggests that any church, no matter how small, had only one elder. The consistent New Testament pattern is a plurality of elders ‘in every church’ (Acts 14:23).” And, “Second, we do not see a diversity of forms of government in the New Testament church, but a unified and consistent pattern in which every church had elders governing it and keeping watch over it (Acts 20:28; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:2-3).”[24] When Grudem wrote his systematic, he was a member of a Southern Baptist church in Chicago with elders.

Second, the idea of elders in local churches has been raised recently due to more internal and pragmatic considerations, namely, a frustration with current structures in our congregations. Many Southern Baptist churches increasingly sense that the present structures are simply not working. Some churches led by a single pastor suffer under an authoritarian rule too much like the Gentile leadership Jesus forbade in Mark 10:42.[25] Other times, young pastors have gone into churches and found them ossified, effectively ruled by deacons, a nominating committee, a personnel committee, or some other group that has no biblical standard of maturity in understanding and teaching the Scriptures. And for those churches where our congregational heritage is still rightly valued, that congregationalism is too often wrongly exercised with an anti-Christian individualism, rather than as part of the corporate responsibility we will bear before the Lord. Furthermore, where baptismal and membership ages plunge lower than driver’s license, elementary-school, or even pre-school ages; where church membership generally requires nothing other than a one-time decision; and where regular attendance is not even required for membership, it cannot be surprising that meetings of members for church business become more and more ineffective. As John Hammett has argued, “Many Baptist churches have strayed so far from regenerate membership that they are incapable of responsible church government at the present time.”[26] Congregationalism fades as membership expectations evaporate.

Causes Related to the Inerrancy Controversy. I believe the SBC’s inerrancy controversy also produced some echoes, or unintended results, leading to a re-evaluation of church government and the prominence of the topic of elders in recent discussions. The least important of these echoes is the accelerated larger cultural trend to be less attached to particular denominations. Brand loyalty is down everywhere. Throughout much of the twentieth century, Southern Baptists assumed such loyalty would continue, and did not work to create or cultivate it. The inerrancy controversy led to a rupturing of the denominational womb that many Southern Baptists had lived in their entire lives. As a result of the intramural fighting, conservative Southern Baptists began looking outside the fold in a way their more liberal counterparts had done for decades. There they found a wide world that stretched from southern California megachurches to Chicago-based schools and publishers. Many of us in the 1970s learned that we could not depend on our Baptist Student Unions (mine had a female minister who denied the bodily resurrection). The books we read from “our” people sorely disappointed us. Dale Moody’s The Word of Truth, for instance, not only served as a poor guard against liberal mainline Protestantism; it more often advocated liberalism’s tenets. And the seminaries were increasingly untrustworthy. So John Hammett, quoted above, went to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and I went to Gordon-Conwell. Many others of our generation have similar stories.

All of this interaction with broader evangelicalism was multiplied by the rise of the Bible churches and Dallas Theological Seminary’s influence among conservatives. Gene Getz, longtime Dallas professor, advocated a plurality of elders. Interestingly, a 1977 paper from the Conservative Baptist Association of Oregon attempts to address the growing problem of elders in Baptist churches—and ascribes it entirely to the growth of the Bible churches.

Other denominations, too, became more familiar to us. Though the churches of Christ and the Brethren had long had elders, we never talked much with them. By the 1970s and 1980s many of the fastest growing churches around us were—of all things—Presbyterian! The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), born in 1973, quickly began to raise questions about the old canard among some Baptists that Calvinism is anti-evangelistic. Now, thirty years later, PCA churches are full of former Southern Baptists, and it is not because these former Baptists have all been convinced of the validity of infant baptism. Many of those churches—even with their unbiblical practices of infant baptism and extra-congregational government—were out-evangelizing, out-teaching, and even out-disciplining our Southern Baptist congregations.

Through all of this, we were finding allies—even Anglicans like John Stott and J. I. Packer—with whom we had more in common than we had with many of those whose salaries we paid to teach in our institutions. As these outside voices gained fresh respect, we gave more consideration to their arguments and practices. Subjects we had not discussed for a century or more once again became topics of conversation—like church government and the role of elders. This thawing of inter-denominational conversation was new for many in the more conservative circles of the SBC.

A second unintended consequence of the SBC’s inerrancy controversy was that conservative Southern Baptists were forced to reconsider our denominational identity, and that inevitably included studying our Baptist past. And what we found in our past, among many larger and more important issues like inerrancy, confessions, and Calvinism, were elders aplenty! I am just old enough to remember that across from my grandmother’s house in Kentucky lived an old, retired Southern Baptist minister who was called by the title of “elder.”

A final explanation for this renewed emphasis on elders emerging from the inerrancy controversy is simply the renewed emphasis on the inerrancy of the Bible itself.

In defending the inerrancy of the Bible—fighting for it, and even firing over it—it is not surprising that people would open the revered book, would begin studying it afresh, and would ask questions about the plain meaning of texts. In the context of loosened loyalties and openness to redefinition, we can easily imagine that if none of these other factors had obtained—outside influences, inner frustrations—we still might find ourselves scratching our heads today, staring at the Bible, and saying, “Why don’t we see elders in our churches like the ones in the early church?”

  1. For more on this, see Cyprian’s famous On the Unity of the Catholic Church. For some of the earliest references, see Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, eds., Documents of the Christian Church 3rd ed. (London: Oxford, 1999), 68-90. A classic study of this topic is Hans von Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1969). Though von Campenhausen denies any intended complete presentation of church structure within the New Testament and would not seem to adhere to a Protestant understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture, the historical aspects of his work are careful and well repay time spent in the reading.
  2. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, in Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977, 8th printing), IV.iv.2. Cf. Elsie Anne McKee, “Calvin’s Teaching on the Elder Illuminated by Exegetical History,” in Timothy George, ed., John Calvin & the Church: A Prism of Reform (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), 147-155. John Owen, an early champion of congregationalism, defended the separate office of ruling elder. See John Owen, The Works of John Owen, vol. 16, ed. William Goold (London: Johnstone and Hunter, 1853), 42.
  3. James Stayer, “Anabaptists,” in Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, vol. 1, ed. Hans Hillerbrand (New York: Oxford, 1996), 32.
  4. Werner O. Packull, Hutterite Beginnings (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 312. Cf. Emir Caner’s summary in Gerald Cowen, Who Rules the Church? Examining Congregational Leadership and Church Government (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003).
  5. See Greg Wills’ succinct summary of this in his article “The Church: Baptists and Their Churches in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” in Polity, 2nd edition, ed. Mark Dever (Washington, DC: 9Marks, 2004), 33-34.
  6. Benjamin Keach, The Glory of a True Church, in Dever, Polity, 65.
  7. Ibid., 68-69. Cf. James Renihan, “The Practical Ecclesiology of the English Particular Baptists, 1675-1705: The Doctine of the Church in the Second London Baptist Confession as Implemented in the Subscribing Churches” (Ph.D. dissertation, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1997).
  8. Benjamin Griffith, A Short Treatise, in Dever, Polity, 98.
  9. Renihan writes, “The majority of the writers and churches did not recognize a distinct office of ruling elder” (200). Also, “The majority of particular Baptists were committed to a plurality and a parity of elders in their churches” (205). Renihan, “The Practical Ecclesiology.”
  10. Summary of Church Discipline, in Dever, Polity, 120.
  11. Samuel Jones, Treatise of Church Discipline, in Dever, Polity, 145-146.
  12. W. B. Johnson, The Gospel Developed, in Dever, Polity, 192.
  13. Ibid., 193.
  14. See ibid., 189-195.
  15. J. L. Reynolds, Church Polity or the Kingdom of Christ, in Dever, Polity, 349.
  16. Ibid., 350.
  17. Ibid.
  18. William Williams, Apostolical Church Polity, in Dever, Polity, 531.
  19. Ibid., 537. Though without citing Williams, Gerald Cowen has recently rehearsed this same argument in his book Who Rules the Church?
  20. ”To our minds, the Scripture seems very explicit as to how this Church should be ordered. We believe that every Church member should have equal rights and privileges; that there is no power in Church officers to execute anything unless they have the full authorization of the members of the Church. We believe, however, that the Church should choose its pastor, and having chosen him, that they should love him and respect him for his work’s sake; that with him should be associated the deacons of the Church to take the oversight of pecuniary matters; and the elders of the Church to assist in all the works of the pastorate in the fear of God, being overseers of the flock. Such a Church we believe to be scripturally ordered; and if it abide in the faith, rooted, and grounded, and settled, such a Church may expect the benediction of heaven, and so it shall become the pillar and ground of the truth.” C.H. Spurgeon, “The Church Conservative and Aggressive” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 7 (1862; repr. Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Press, 1969), 658-659.
  21. J. L. Burrows, What Baptists Believe (1888), 14, cf. 12 and 16.
  22. A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1907), 915-916.
  23. Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 912.
  24. Ibid., 913.
  25. Mark 10:42-45: “Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”
  26. John Hammett, “Elder Rule in Baptist Church” (unpublished, 2003), 11.
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