As I am in the middle of finishing an exhaustive book on the subject of elders, it is frustrating that I am not yet ready to fire back at those who are exerting great effort in promoting this newfangled theory of a plural eldership in Baptist churches. Their forceful claims to have received an inner revelation from God’s Word to which our Baptist forefathers were ignorant, is quite frankly a very arrogant position to nurture. When they boast their theory of leadership in churches is the ‘biblical way’, they censure and condemn all churches who have or are doing it different from themselves—and this includes all historic Baptist churches. Having dealt with many plural eldership advocates, invariably belonging to the Reformed Baptist movement, I’ve come to realize the reality of that adage—“A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” I therefore have no desire to try and reach these men. Rather, I hope to attract the attention of those Baptist brethren who are still on the fence—if you are searching for an alternative understanding on eldership, than that churned out by the Reformed Baptists, then here is a line of interpretation that quashes the traditional eldership theory.
Elders. What are they? In every culture and global community, these are the patriarchs and matriarchs of local and extended family units. These ‘elders’ are never elected or appointed to an ‘office’—they assume this role by virtue of age, wisdom and influence. Elders just starting out—let’s say two parents with children—will be honoured as elders by their children. As these elders grow in age, wisdom and influence, extended family and the local community will naturally recognize their eldership. In many cultures, a council of elders is formed within a local community (village or town elders)—these men and women are not elected or appointed to an office of eldership, but rather, they are naturally honoured and recognized by their community as elders, based on their age, wisdom and influence.
Only in certain Christian churches is the term elder used to denote some type of office. In fact, only in some Christian churches are elders elected or appointed to an office. This irregular practice is rooted in a flawed hermeneutic of biblical texts which refer to elders. It is assumed, because a few scripture passages use the term elder when identifying a bishop, that therefore, most (if not all) references to elders in the early churches must be bishops. The absurdity of this presupposition is comparable to one who boasts that all disciples must be apostles, because both terms are used by Christ to identify the same group of men (Matt 10:1,2). Obviously, the term disciple is a generic title that refers to all Christians, whereas the term apostle is an official title that refers to 12 men set apart by Christ to a special office. While it is perfectly true that these 12 men could be identified as disciples or apostles, it is not accurate to draw the conclusion that the terms are interchangeable—although all apostles are by necessity disciples, yet not all disciples are apostles. The same is true when the scriptures use the terms elder and bishop/pastor. The term elder is a generic title that refers to all household and community leaders (patriarchs/matriarchs), whereas the terms bishop/pastor are official titles that refer to men who have been set apart by Christ to a special office. While it is perfectly true that these men could be identified as elders or bishops/pastors, yet it is not accurate to draw the conclusion that the terms are interchangeable—although all bishops/pastors are by necessity elders, yet not all elders are bishops/pastors. Most elders (household heads—fathers/mothers; aged widows/singles) in a church are spiritual and share natural leadership qualities, but they are not gifted by Christ to serve as bishops/pastors. Those that Christ does gift to serve as bishops/pastors are by necessity elders already—not because they have been elected or appointed as such, but because they are husbands/fathers overseeing their own households. This interpretation is affirmed in 1 Timothy 3:1-13, where the term elder does not appear, but the official titles of bishop and deacons do—and one of the central qualifications for both offices (bishop and deacons) is that the candidate must be a faithful elder (household head).
With this in mind, the six Greek terms that have been translated elder (or its equivalent) throughout the New Testament shed an entirely new light on the subject of plural eldership. Most of the scriptural passages, when found within a church context, refer to household heads (fathers/husbands) and not bishops/pastors. Keep in mind, the wife and children in each household were fully represented by the husband/father—he not only led his family, but he represented his family in all decisions. Never would a wife or the children (if members of the church) publicly disagree or contradict the decisions of the husband/father. As he spoke for his family, it was natural that the congregational order of these early churches revolved around the special gathering of the church elders (household heads—husbands/fathers). It is for this reason, the term elder is usually (though not always) found in the plural—it references all representative household heads (or aged persons). I believe these are the elders mentioned in Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2-16:4; 21:18; 1 Tim 4:14; 5:1,2,17,19; Tit 2:2,3; Philemon 9; 1 Pet 5:1,5; James 5:14; 2 Jn 1; 3 Jn 1—they were the unofficial leaders (household heads/aged persons) seeking the mind of Christ in a congregational context. And, I believe there are only two passages that actually use the term elder when identifying a bishop/pastor—Acts 20:17; Tit 1:5.
What is most interesting, consider the central text which clearly outlines the office of bishop/deacons (1 Timothy 3)—not only does it not even use the term elder, but the title bishop is found in the singular, whereas the title deacon is used in the plural. Strange how Reformed Baptists claim there is not even a suggestion in the New Testament that a church should be served by one bishop/pastor! Furthermore, even if it were conceded that all 25 references (listed above) to elders in churches points to bishops/pastors, not one scripture prescribes that each church must be overseen by a plurality; neither is there one text that explains how such elders are to be elected/appointed, how many there should be, how they are to function among themselves, how they are to function within the congregation or how they are to be financially supported by a single church. If, as the Reformed Baptists claim, the subject of plural eldership is so important, one would expect the Lord to provide clear guidance in His Word to these basic questions.
I often wonder how a single church can justify appointing a plurality of bishops/pastors to oversee her internal affairs, when there are so many churches in need of having just one such officer—is this not a most blatant form of covetousness expressed in churches today?
(1) Reformed Baptists (RB’s) tend to be the leading proponents of this deviant view of eldership. I believe it is partly the result of their inordinate attraction to Presbyterianism—in many regards, RB’s are better described as Reformed Presbyterians. I suspect it may also be the result of a genuine fear of leadership and authority—RB’s seem to convince themselves that authority vested with one bishop/pastor will inevitably lead to an abuse of power; indeed, there is often great resentment nurtured against strong leadership exhibited in a single individual. Perhaps the Marxist ideology of ‘redistributed wealth’ has led these men to construct a philosophy of ‘redistributed authority’. They should consider, however, that an oligarchy can be even more corrupt and dangerous to a group, than a dictator. But I don’t believe the majority of bishops/pastors abuse their authority in the way often stigmatised by the RB’s.
(2) This is the core meaning of all scriptural Hebrew and Greek terms translated ‘elder’ (or its equivalent). Eldership is designed after the family unit, not Jewish synagogue. The first pair of elders in history were Adam and Eve, and the essential meaning of the term has remained invariably the same in all cultures. The technicalities of the scriptural terms and their various contexts are explained in my book.
(3) The implications of this definition leads to the same natural conclusion arrived at throughout history by Baptist churches—authority, whether in the household or church, is vested in a single leader such as a husband/father or bishop/pastor; this leader in turn is assisted by a wife/mother or set of deacons. It is a perversion of social relations to castrate a leader for the purpose of appointing an oligarchy.
(4) The elders mentioned in 1 Timothy 4:14; 5:17,19; 1 Pet 5:1; James 5:14 are interpreted by many as referring to bishops/pastors. However, I would ask, is this an interpretation drawn from the texts, or is it read into the texts? I don’t believe a consistent exegesis can be maintained if the elders in these texts are viewed as bishops/pastors. This is a point well documented in my book.
(5) It may be argued these texts suggest each church had a plurality of bishops/pastors. Although this assertion can be toppled by a close examination of the language used, yet I wish to point out in this brief response that the early churches met in private houses which could only accommodate between 30-50 people. There was not one large city church, but rather, a number of small churches gathering in a single city. I believe each church, if so blessed by the Lord, had its own bishop/pastor overseeing that congregation.
Jared Smith served twenty years as pastor of a Strict and Particular Baptist church in Kensington (London, England). He now serves as an Evangelist in the Philippines, preaching the gospel, organizing churches and training gospel preachers.