Bob Wring on Church Officers (Complete)

What are the Main Types of Baptist Church Polity?

A review of Baptist Church History will reveal that Baptists have always maintained one type of church polity. Only in more recent days have some Baptist leaders added another way of doing church governance. Baptist history is replete with extant documents that substantiate this observation. When one reads representative Baptist ecclesiastical writings such as confessions of faith, tracts, books, ordination sermons and church minute books, it becomes obvious that this assertion is correct.

Baptists have historically interpreted the New Testament Scriptures to describe one type of church polity. This polity has been described as Congregationalism with the biblical leadership of a pastor and deacons. And if a Baptist church was large enough, it included more than one pastor in church leadership.

In the majority of instances in Baptist History, it has been understood that there are three Greek New Testament words that describe the same pastoral church leader. These are the words presbuteros, episkopos, and poimein. The English words are elder, bishop, and pastor. These terms are used in the Bible in reference to the person we know today as the man of God, the preacher, the pastor, or the one whom we otherwise know as the minister (or ministers). Since the beginning of the nineteenth century we have dropped the name elder and bishop and simply call them pastor(s); but in earlier days of Baptist church history the minister(s) were addressed as the elder or the elders of the local Baptist church.

Some early Baptist churches had more than one pastor/elder in their membership. Others had only one because of size, availability, and need. In some cases, these men were home-grown and worked at some trade while they were the pastor(s) of the church where they maintained their membership. Others were formerly trained and were supported by the church where they served. All of them served under the call, the authority, and the confidence of the local church. These men understood that they worked for the church who called them to fill the pastor’s seat; therefore, they served their churches as leaders and not dictators, nor did they serve as a Board of Directors.

The pastor/elder in some Baptist churches were joined by other pastor/elders who served with them in the ministry. These men were known variously as co-pastors, assistants, and helpers in the ministry along with or under the supervision of the main pastor/elder. Some of these men were preacher/pastors without a charge(1), while others were church planters, etc. All were preacher/ teachers and had to be apt to teach (which is one of the biblical qualification for a pastor).(2)

Sometimes two or three pastor/elders would go into a community and plant a new church. Then with the vote of the church (the new plant) one of these men would be selected to become their pastor/elder. He would be ordained by a presbytery of fellow pastor/elders and then the new congregation would sit under their pastor/elder’s preaching, example, and leadership among them.

These early pastor/elders understood that they served their congregations at their discretion, support, and authority. A congregation would meet often to discuss church business and discipline concerning a member who was reportedly seen intoxicated, accused of adultery, etc. The congregation would meet in a business meeting and the congregation would instruct The pastor/elder(s) (sometimes taking one deacon, or another member of the church with them) to meet privately with the accused and bring back a report to the congregation. Then the church as a whole took action, when necessary, to discipline the errant church member. Often the pastor/elder would carry out the wishes and vote of the church concerning disciplinary matters decided upon by the church members in a regularly called business meeting.

Many Baptist church leaders today are opting for a church polity that is called an elder-led (their words) congregation. The elders generally become a Board of Directors who are usually made up of the pastor (the preaching/teaching elder) and the rest (three or more according to the size of the church) who are laymen (any male member who meets the qualifications of an elder). This is made evidently clear when one examines representative Baptist church Constitution and By-laws on the internet that are from churches that either have or are moving toward an elder-led (their words) church polity. In most cases these documents reveal an elder rule polity with little or no congregational input, authority and participation. These ruling elders are the decision-making body in the church while the congregation simply votes a stamp of approval on what the elders have already decided to do in behalf of the church.

To their credit, however, a few of these Baptist leaders are trying to also have a church polity that is Congregational as well in style. The Board of Elders polity is in tension with a Congregational polity, at best, unless it is understood that the elders work for the congregation and not the congregation for the elders. This raises the question as to what are the duties of the elders. Are they ministers and shepherds of the congregation, or are they a board of directors who rule the church? The New Testament Scriptures and Baptist History hold the clues to the answers this question raises.

One of our most distinguished pastors in America has expressed a commonly used third type of church polity. He was asked what he thought about Baptist church polity when this author was working on his doctoral dissertation. In a book entitled Kingdom Authority,(3) Dr. Adrian Rogers stated that the church is to be pastor-led, deacon-served, committee-operated, and congregationally-affirmed. This way of church polity is the more common type found in most Southern Baptist churches in America. Rogers pastored the large Bellevue Baptist Church with over 22,000 members until his death in 2005.(4)

(1) Without a church in which they were the pastor. They have not received a call from a church to become their pastor/elder.
(2) 1 Timothy 3:2
(3) Adrian Rogers, Kingdom Authority (Broadman & Holman: Nashville, 2002), 169-188.
(4) This article is one of several articles to follow. This first article gives the reader a summary of the author’s research into the subject of Baptist Church Polity. The second article will be a discussion of some of the sources used for the conclusions that are provided in this first paper.

Bob Wring was born in Paducah, Kentucky and became a Christian when he was ten years old.  After serving in the U.S. Navy, he was called into the ministry in 1975.  He has been pastor of the Mountain Highway Baptist Church in Spanaway, Washington since 2005.  He graduated in 2002 with a Ph.D in Practical Theology at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tennessee. His doctoral dissertation was entitled: An Examination of The Practice of Elder Rule in Selected Southern Baptist Churches in the Light of New Testament Teaching. Dr. Wring seeks to promote and preserve the historic biblical teaching of congregational church polity with the biblical leadership of a pastor and deacons.

Bob Wring on Church Officers (Complete)