FAQ on Elder Ratio


To:                   The members of Capitol Hill Baptist Church

From:              Jonathan Leeman, for the CHBC elders

Date:               July 20, 2014

The elders of Capitol Hill Baptist propose the following motion to the members of CHBC:

We recommend removing the following phrase from article 5, section 2, of our church constitution: “A majority of the active eldership shall be composed of church members not in the regular pay of the church.”

By removing this clause, the constitution will no longer require a majority of the elders to be non-staff or lay elders. We are making this motion because we believe it will allow the elders to better serve the church.

In the past, even recently, the ratio has prevented the elders from nominating men whom we unanimously believe are qualified to serve as elders. Certainly there is no biblical passage that states that every man who is qualified must immediately be affirmed. At the same time, there is no biblical rationale for preventing a qualified, congregation- and elder-endorsed man from serving who wants to serve. And doing so deprives the church of a shepherd it could otherwise have.

Furthermore, we see no precedent in Scripture to divide the single body of elders into two with a formal power structure that specifies which “kind” of elder must possess a permanent majority. This formal division hardwires a tension around questions of authority into the framework of elder relationships. We believe it is better to affirm simply with Scripture that the elders possess a shared oversight of the flock. Any “checks” on authority inside the elder board should occur through the natural course of relationships, each man working to love and correct any brother in error. And any “extra” authority an elder or group of elders acquires should be the consequence of faithful service rendered, such as naturally accumulates through consistent and faithful teaching or a pronounced track record of one-on-one care for the sheep. This way, we better avoid making formal prescriptions where the Holy Spirit hasn’t and introducing subtle imbalances into our governing structures.

To look at the issue from a broader scope, Scripture “fears” not a preponderance of staff or lay elders (see 1 Tim. 5:17). It “fears” unfaithful elders. And the present constitutional provision guards against one possible imbalance—a majority of unfaithful staff elders. But it doesn’t guard against another danger—a majority of unfaithful non-staff elders. The Bible therefore presents a balanced solution to both dangers by giving final authority to the congregation, including the authority to install or remove elders (see Gal. 1:6-9).

The job is yours, church, to ensure you have elders who equip you with a knowledge of the gospel and Scripture “for building up the body of Christ… so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:11-14; cf. 2 Tim. 4:3).

* * *

Since we first proposed this motion a couple of months ago, a number of questions have arisen that we thought would be useful to address:

If you want a staff elder to serve, why not just nominate a lay elder to keep the ratio?

Every time we have a man that we unanimously agree should be nominated, we do! We work hard in every elders meeting to affirm men characterized by an evident love for Christ (John 20), godly character (1 Tim 3), the ability to teach (1 Tim 3), and a willingness to serve (1 Peter 5).

Why are you bringing this change to the congregation now when the clause has served us well for so long?

We would not necessarily agree that it has served the congregation well for so long. It’s kept us from affirming elders whom we would have affirmed.

However, we are confident everything specified in Scripture has served us well: a plurality of faithful elders (see Acts 20:17-35), congregational rule (Matt. 18:15-20), a culture of discipling (e.g. Acts 2:42-47; 1 Tim. 5), and faithful expositional preaching (e.g. Neh. 8:8; Acts 17:11).

The clause seems prudent and permissible. When is prudence okay and when is it wrong?

Certainly there are areas in a church’s life subject to prudence: “What time do we meet?” “Which instruments should we use?” “Which Bible translation?” But the more a matter impinges on how a body governs itself—i.e. distributes authority—the more we should seek to be as close as possible to what’s explicit in Scripture. Why? Church authority exists, among other things, to protect and preserve the gospel over time. An important matter! And when the stakes are as high as preserving the gospel, we should feel deeply reluctant to rely on human wisdom. Prudential mechanisms, keep in mind, cut two ways: sometimes they help; sometimes they can hurt. Church history clearly teaches this lesson.

As a secondary benefit, we think this sets a good example for other churches whose situation might be different than ours.

Doesn’t the ratio promote a diversity of life experiences, which is useful for pastoring?

Pointing to a diversity of life experiences is an argument for having lays elder, not for making them a necessary majority. To say a majority must be non-staff, strictly speaking, requires arguing that diversity trumps other biblical attributes. For instance, imagine a smaller, less healthy church where there is one staff pastor and none of the laymen are biblically qualified. This provision (if it were followed) would still insist that some of these unqualified men be affirmed for the sake of keeping the constitution.

So diversity is good, but not at the cost of requiring some future version of the church to affirm lay members who are not qualified just to keep the ratio.

Isn’t the elder ratio a wise protection against false teaching?

Hypothetically, yes. But one can name churches where a majority of faithless lay elders had the opposite affect on faithful staff elders. More importantly, the Scripture clearly gives the job of protecting the church against false teaching to the congregation (Gal. 1). It is because you are consistently studying the Word and applying it by God’s grace that false teaching is kept at bay (see Acts 17:11).

Couldn’t removing the elder ratio gradually lead to the professionalization of ministry at CHBC and the implicit downgrading of secular vocations?

Perhaps, but the opposite is true as well. Removing the ratio doesn’t remove the informal distinction between staff and lay—some guys still get paid to elder while others don’t. But the ratio formalizes the distinction between lay and staff by differently distributing power along lay/staff lines. It heightens the sense in which “There’s something different about those staff guys!” by insisting that they belong to a permanent minority.

Couldn’t removing the elder ratio gradually lead to all staff elders?

Hypothetically, yes. But it could also lead to all lay elders. The presence of a ratio doesn’t push things one way or another. Other factors in the church’s life do. And there might be time in a church’s life when it needs all one or the other. Again, picture the church with a solo pastor in which no layman is yet qualified. That’s a biblically tenable position. Or picture the church where all the elders receive pay outside the church. That’s a biblically allowable spot, too. Again, the biblical “fear” is not too many staff or lay elders, but bad elders.

Could this mean that staff elders determine their own salaries?

We want to make sure that this does not happen. Therefore, we will be asking the standing compensation committee to seek a permanent policy solution that ensures that it doesn’t. We assume that this will take a little bit of research time to see what other churches do.

Doesn’t the elder ratio protect against the possibility of excessive staff power or “group think” in the future?

Hypothetically, yes, but this cuts both ways, too. Consider W—- Bible Church. For decades, WBC was a bastion of faithful expositional preaching and a majority of wise, godly lay elders. Then in the 1980s WBC hired a pastor who moved in a seeker-sensitive direction. The church increasingly chose elders known for their business smarts and professional success, and the church grew more and more unhealthy. Several senior pastors and splits later, the membership had dropped from 1000 to 200. The elders (all lay) unanimously voted to make the church a satellite campus of a prominent megachurch church with video preaching. The congregation voted “no” twice, the second time with the elders threatening to resign and leave, which they then did. Morals of the story: lay elders are just as likely to “go bad”; and congregations actually can step up and fulfill their God assigned role of protecting the church.

In short, Scripture provides everything we need for life and godliness (2 Tim. 3:15-17).

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan Leeman is the Editorial Director of 9Marks, and an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in Cheverly, Maryland. You can find him on Twitter at @JonathanLeeman.