What Members Are Asking about Elders
If you are reading this blog post, you may very well be at a church that is already led by a plurality elders. You may, like me, be at a church that is thinking toward moving that direction. I’m in a unique setting because I’m not the first pastor at the church I serve to consider moving the church this direction. That explains why there is so much unity (at least so far) on the topic where I am. However, there are lots of questions which is why we are having several meetings to discuss a proposed Constitution which includes plural elder leadership. At our first discussion, three questions stood out. Here they are with a summary of my answers. What are people asking at your church?
(1) Why do so many Southern Baptist churches seem to be moving in the direction of plural elder leadership?
The person who asked this question is exactly right. There is a trend among SBC churches toward plural elders in one church. In a sense, SBC churches are actually behind the curve. Conservative Baptists, located predominately in the NW, have had elders for years. It is important to remember, though, that elders are not foreign to SBC churches. William B. Johnson, the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention, advocated plural eldership in the early part of the nineteenth century. As the century progressed, we saw two alarming trends. First, a trend away from Scripture. Many American bible students adopted a critical approach to Scripture that did not take divine inspiration seriously. As a result, what the Bible said became less and less important. Second, a trend toward efficiency. The CEO + board of directors model that existed in the corporate world became the model in the church with the pastor as the CEO and the deacons as the board of directors. That model stuck throughout the twentieth century. Toward the end of the twentieth century there was a recovery of the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. It had been lost in too many churches and Southern Baptist institutions. When it was found, there was a recommitment to Scripture. We began paying more and more attention to what the Bible said. What did we find? New Testament churches were overseen by more than one elder! Pastors began to write about it, preach on it, and advocate it. This is still going on and explains, at least in part, why we see a return to the elder model in so many Southern Baptist churches today.
(2) Is elder leadership consistent with the doctrine of the priesthood of believers?
This question is rooted in a right appreciation for congregationalism. Congregationalism is a model of church leadership where the congregation, under Christ, is its own final authority. The congregation is made up of believers. Those believers have real authority since they make up the congregation. The person who asked this question wonders how you can have elders in leadership while preserving congregationalism. I think the best answer to this question comes from the Apostle Peter. He lays out the priesthood of believers in 1 Peter 1:5, “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood.” So a local church is, in a sense, full of priests! But then Peter goes on to explain how even these “priests” have leaders in a local church. 1 Peter 5:1-3, “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who will also share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers–not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” So there we have it! In one book of the Bible we have the doctrine of the priesthood of believers and the doctrine of the plurality of elders. Both are present in the local church. Both are part of the Word of God. They shouldn’t be separated.
(3) Have you thought about a formal program of elder training?
I don’t have anything against a formal program, I haven’t given it as much thought as I should. I’ve chosen instead to teach on the qualifications of an elder, model what it looks like to be an elder (as best I can) and keep an eye out in the church for the men who–without a view to being “promoted”–are quietly modeling this kind of Christian life. It’s a more organic method. If I were pressed, I might add that every sermon and every gathering is a form of elder training. Those men who are carefully listening to the Word, carefully modeling the Word, and in turn pouring the Word into the lives of others are the men we ought to recognize as elders.