Tuesday, 31 May 2011

An Appeal for Clarity in Discussing Baptist Elders

A discussion of Elder rule is going on in some Southern Baptist circles (Elderizing the SBC), and it probably affects other Baptist groups as well.


In the discussion of church governance, I find that often people use the term “elder” without sufficient explanation of what they mean. We should first remember that terminology has little value in and of itself. It really doesn’t matter if you refer to those leading your church as a plurality of “elders” or a plurality of “gorillas.” The single issue is whether your church leaders have unilateral authority and are self-perpetuating (i.e., the leaders pick their own replacements).


I am amazed that some ministerial leaders scholars seem to argue for self-perpetuation and unilateral authority of the leadership group on the basis that the Bible uses the term “elders.” There is absolutely no evidence that the earliest churches were governed by the fiat of an elder board or that the elders were self-perpetuating.


In terms of biblical evidence, it appears from 1 Timothy that the indigenous church was expected to choose its own church leaders. In that very troubled church at Ephesus, Paul easily could have appointed church leaders to replace those who had been disfellowshiped (viz. Hymenaeus and Alexander). Or he could have written the church to confirm Timothy’s appointment of church leaders. Instead, he set forth a list of qualifications for church leadership to the congregation at Ephesus. Of course, the list was written ostensibly to Timothy, but as is the case for much of the letter, this was information was not so much written to Timothy as it was written to the congregation. (The church at Ephesus was in such turmoil that a letter written directly from Paul to the church probably would not have been received.) From this, we surmise that the church chose its own leaders.


The claim that the earliest church had a Presbyterian governance requires some far-fetched thinking. It assumes that the apostles appointed a group of church rulers in the infant churches, and that these church rulers continued to serve until they passed on their status to their successors. This really is little different from the notion of apostolic succession of bishops and popes and priests. There really is no indication that elders chose their own replacements.


Some rudimentary church history is important for the discussion. I suspect that early church governance quickly evolved toward an Episcopalian model very early simply because the Roman model of the Caesar was the prevalent model for governance. Thus, the bishop held all authority and ruled by fiat. When the Reformation rediscovered the theology of the priesthood of every believer, some Reformation elements reduced the power and authority of the ruling bishop, divesting it to a ruling Elder board.


Divestiture of the bishop’s power to the elder board was insufficient for Baptists—those who most fully embraced the priesthood of every believer, and the indwelling of the Spirit within every believer. Even the least believer might have insight and was capable of making prophetic contributions to the direction of the church. Consequently, as they strove to apply consistently the doctrine of the priesthood of every believer to ecclesiology, Baptists divested power away from the Presbytery and toward the congregation.


For Baptists, the congregation has all the authority. Indeed, I suspect that many early Baptists avoided the term “Elder” simply because it conveyed a status of too much authority in the church, preferring the term “Deacon,” and so emphasizing the leaders’ servant qualities. Regardless of how the term “Deacon” became the preferred term, Baptists set limits on their leaders.


On one Sunday, when I finished teaching Sunday School, I walked into the church sanctuary, preparing for worship. At the appropriate time, the chief elder (pastor) stood up and, to the absolute shock of the entire congregation, announced to the 150 or so members present that the elder board had decided to dissolve the church, and dispose of its assets, and that there would no longer be any services or ministries. Five minutes later as we sat dazed and astonished, he stood up and said that we must vacate the church building. Such is the authority of a ruling Elder Board.


Baptist congregations delegate responsibility and authority to various church leaders—call them elders (or deacons or trustees or gorillas) if you will. Some churches give greater authority to its leaders than other churches. But in the end, congregationalism gives authority to the congregation to remove its leaders and to appoint new ones when appropriate.

10 comments:

CharlieDale said...

How did you know I've been calling them gorillas?

Tesma said...

Yes, perhaps there should always be an appropriate set of checks and balances that ultimately gives some if not all authority back to the congregation itself. I find it disgraceful that the above mentioned board was able to make such a broad sweeping decision, without any input from the congregation.

Kyle said...

"and that these church rulers continued to serve until they passed on their status to their successors"

Hi Jim,

FYI: The PCA, PCUSA, OPC, and most other Presbyterian denominations elect elders and call pastors by a congregational vote and it takes a congregational vote for them to be released from their duties. Also, a congregation can appeal to the presbytery against a ruling by its elders. In the PCA, Elders do not have unilateral authority and not even the presbytery could dissolve a church.

Please read the "four views" book on who rules the church to gain a better understanding. I am not saying that congregationalists don't have a good argument, but at least argue against historic presbyterianism and not against a straw man.

your presbyterian friend in Jesus,

Kyle

Rev. James M. Leonard said...

Thanks Kyle for info on how church government actually works out in Presbyterian denominations.

It sounds very compatible with Congregationalism.


Jim Leonard

Angie Leonard said...

Kyle,
The church we attended was not PCA, PCUSA, or OPC. It was an independent church with self perpetuating elder board. We were devastated when they were dissolved out from under us. I don't see a "straw man" here, just a deep appreciation for Congregationalism which allows church members input in the governance of the church.

Kyle said...

Hi Angie,

I am sorry that you had to go through that. That would be devastating, which is one of the reasons why presbyterians see the need for connectionalism and accountability which is larger than the local church (Acts 15 etc).

My comments were focused on this paragraph:

"The claim that the earliest church had a Presbyterian governance requires some far-fetched thinking. It assumes that the apostles appointed a group of church rulers in the infant churches, and that these church rulers continued to serve until they passed on their status to their successors. This really is little different from the notion of apostolic succession of bishops and popes and priests. There really is no indication that elders chose their own replacements."

While what Jim is describing is not entirely different from the notion of apostolic succession, the claim that the earliest churches had Presbyterian governance (a claim Presbyterians do make) doesn't assume "that the apostles appointed a group of church rulers in the infant churches, and that these church rulers continued to serve until they passed on their status to their successors." Nor do Presbyterian governments currently function in this manner.

As Jim noted in his note to me, in many ways Presbyterianism functions more like congregationalism than what he describes. A better analogy is that presbyterianism is like the federalist principles upon which our country was founded (federal representation). This actually has a direct relation to Scottish presbyterianism (See Samuel Rutherford's Lex Rex and its influence on Lock and Jefferson). Anyway, I just don't want people getting the idea that the congregation and presbytery don't both provide "checks" against the session, or that they are uninvolved in electing their leaders.

Rev. James M. Leonard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rev. James M. Leonard said...

Kyle, I think the title of this blog article might blunt some of the severity of your initial criticism: "An Appeal for Clarity in Discussing Baptist Elders."

I'm addressing the "Elderizing the SBC" article in which having "Elders" is asserted as being biblical--as if Baptist congregationalism is not. The title expresses the hope that people will clarify what they mean by elders. So long as Baptists are congregational, I would not discourage having a plurality of elders or a plurality of grand naguses.

Thanks for clarifying that the main Presbyterian groups have a strong sense of congregationalism--although this is peripheral to my blog article. Although some comments might have had an apologetical and polemical tone, the article was not meant to prove congregationalism over presbyterianism.

CharlieDale said...

One concern with this good article. I would point out that the New Testament does seem to have two distinct offices: elders/overseers and deacons.

Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3.

I assume these two distinct offices had two different functions even if there was overlap.

Of course, I'm in agreement with your main point, the congregation chooses it's leaders.

Rev. James M. Leonard said...

Right, Pastor Charlie, there seems evidence for offices of Elders and Deacons. And on this basis, people claim that having Elders is biblical. But this is not well-thought through.

These two terms are just translations of Greek terms. The issue is not what their exact formal equivalence is in English, but rather what they mean.

It is also important to note that there is no strict parity of ministerial duties between them back then and us today. For example, in Acts, they are divvied up between teaching/preaching and compassionate ministries. But, I don't know of any "elder" today who says, "I'm too busy ministering to the congregation's spiritual needs to help them in the aftermath of the tornado."

In reality, we divvy things up in most Baptist churches according to direct ministry (Deacons & C.E. Board) and facilities management (Trustees & Treasury).

If someone does the kinds of things that a PRESBYTEROC did in first century, you could refer to him with varying English words. Most Baptists refer to such people as Deacons. A church is no more biblical by changing his title to a different English word ("Elder").


Jim Leonard
Arminian Baptist