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.