Mailbag #84: I Live too Far from A Healthy Church. What Should I Do? . . . Among Baptists, What’s the History of a Plurality of Elders?
I live in an extremely rural area where we have many churches but none that are healthy. What should I do? »
Many Baptist churches now have multiple elders. I understand the biblical case for this, but what’s the history of a plurality of elders among Baptists? »
I live in an extremely rural area where we have many churches but none that are healthy. Most are small and filled with division, focused on tradition, and do not have a love or focus on the gospel. Though they don’t preach heresy, they definitely are not healthy churches. We often leave church discouraged, but we have no other options available to us unless we drove three hours away. What encouragement would you have?
Hey friend, the situation you’re in certainly sounds tough. I’m thankful you desire to be in a healthy church. Assuming the “We” refers to a family, I also want to commend you on leading your family. There may be other options for your family, but four stand out to me.
Plant your own church with a biblical vision for healthy gospel ministry. If this is unlikely, move to option 2.
Work on reforming one of these churches from within. Now, this too may be unlikely. In fact, I’ve found that most people who join churches with the intent of reforming it usually end up damaging it and/or leaving jaded after years of failed attempts. With that in mind, you may really only have two options.
Move. People typically build their lives around family, employment, and children’s education. None of that’s bad. But if the church is the main instrument God uses to display his wisdom and glory and to build his people up into maturity, might that not be a worthwhile reason to consider a move?
I imagine there are a number of reasons why moving may not be feasible. But think of the man who sells everything to buy a field with hidden treasure (Matt. 13:44). Sometimes we do need to abandon our current life for the sake of the kingdom.
Finally, and this may be the most likely option, be a member of an unhealthy church. I know that may sound weird, but it’s possible. If this is God’s will for your life, you will find yourself in the company of millions of other Christians around the world and throughout church history.
Let’s do a thought experiment: Imagine you live in Corinth. The year is 51 AD. One day you’re worshipping Apollo, the next day Paul comes to town and leads you to Christ. What church will you join? Well, probably the only church in town, right? Now imagine that you’ve been there for five years, and things in the church remain really unhealthy. I’m talking about factionalism, hero worship, incest, lawsuits, and more. Where will you go? Well, there wouldn’t be anywhere else to go. So you will stay there in that church and figure out a way to follow Christ in less-than-optimal circumstances.
“But Sean,” you may say, “Corinth is a bit of an exaggeration, don’t you think?”
Maybe you’re right. But let’s look at…
- Ephesus: Well, it seems like they had some unity issues between Jews and Gentiles. They also ended up abandoning their first love (Rev 2:4). Yikes! Ok, what about…
- Thessalonica? Well, they had some really wonky stuff going on with their eschatology that led them to believe some weird things and live in some unchristian ways.
- The church in Galatia? They abandoned the gospel so quick it made Paul’s head spin (Gal 1:6).
When you look at the Bible, it seems like no church is perfect, and most of them are pretty messed up. Jesus has “a few things” against most of them (Rev 2:14). My own church included!
So maybe the best thing you can do is settle in to the best church in your area, recognize it for what it is, love it through its weakness, and pray that God open a door for change. In doing so, you will enter into the experience of many of your fellow Christians around the world today who have no healthy church, but who do the best with what God has given them in his perfect providence.
Your sympathetic brother,
I’m a staff member who was raised and have always been in a single-pastor church context. Many Baptists now are multiple-elder. There’s certainly a strong scriptural case to be made for that position, but I’m interested in the history of it. Historically, have Baptists often had a plurality of elders, or is this something that many Baptists have come to more recently or perhaps adopted from Presbyterianism?
I’m glad you’re concerned with exploring our Baptist heritage on this issue. Modern Baptist churches would profit enormously by resourcing themselves theologically from our Baptist forefathers—they have a good deal to teach us.
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).
As always, the complete historical picture is a bit more complex. But without a doubt, many historic Baptists affirmed that local churches should be led by a plurality of elders. The recent resurgence of a plurality of elders in Baptist churches is not an invasion of Presbyterian polity, but a return on the part of Baptists to scriptural church government and to the theology of our Baptist predecessors.
These figures are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. For more information about elders in Baptist history check out:
- Phil Newton and Matt Schmucker, Elders in the Life of the Church: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership
- Mark Dever, ed., Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life
- Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman, eds., Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age