Jared Smith on Eldership

7. Baptist Churches Have Historically Been Led By A Bishop With Deacons

It is sometimes argued by eldership advocates that they are reforming contemporary churches to reflect the type of governance found in the primitive churches of the New Testament era and the Baptist churches of the Reformation era. However, I have demonstrated that the primitive churches recognized elders as unofficial leaders (household heads), rather than the official leaders (bishops). As for the Baptist churches of the Reformation era, there is no evidence these congregations appointed a set of elders analogous to the type of eldership advocated by today’s proponents.

While it is certainly true that the first and second Baptist Confessions of Faith refer to elders, it is misleading, if not dishonest, to interpret the meaning of these references to be one and the same with the modern day notion of eldership. For instance, here is the language of the First London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1644: “…the office of Pastors, Teachers, Elders, Deacons…” If these four titles are to be regarded as distinct offices, then these churches viewed pastors, teachers, elders and deacons as serving different functions; but if the first three titles were used interchangeably, then these churches recognized only two offices— pastors-teachers, otherwise called elders, and deacons. Consider also the language of the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689: “The officers appointed by Christ to be chosen and set apart by the church are bishops or elders and deacons.” It is clear that only two offices are mentioned here—bishops, otherwise called elders, and deacons.

There are only two official titles given in the New Testament for the office of Bishop—bishop and pastor-teacher (Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:1-13; Eph 4:11). While a bishop or pastor-teacher may also be called an elder, it is not a title representing the office. Although I do not believe the brethren who formulated the 17th century Confessions fully understood this distinction between titles, it is noteworthy that on a subconscious level, they appeared to recognize it. The 1644 Confession identities the office as “Pastors, Teachers”, otherwise called “Elders”; the 1689 Confession identifies the office as “bishops”, otherwise called “elders”.

Hence, both Confessions use one of the two official titles before referring to the office as elder. In addition, neither confession distinguishes between teaching and ruling elders.

Of course, it is further argued by eldership advocates that the 17th century Confessions refer to the terms in the plural, suggesting there should be more than one bishop/pastor/elder serving each church. This is another misleading, if not dishonest, interpretation of the statements. Neither Confession explicitly outlines that a single church must appoint more than one bishop. The terms, referred to in the plural, are used generically in application to many churches. Similar language is found in the Bible—Leviticus 11:26: “The carcases of every beast…” How many carcases does a single beast have? While the language could be construed to mean each beast had a plurality of carcases, this would be a silly deduction. Likewise, there is a surprising amount of ineptness exhibited by the eldership advocates when they attempt to use these Confessional statements to support their claims for a plural eldership.

But the best way to discover what 17th century Baptist churches meant when they drew up these statements, is to examine how each of those churches were actually governed. I have copies of individual “Articles of Faith and Church Rules” for more than 40 Baptist churches ranging between the 17th and 20th centuries.[1] Except for one statement drawn up in the 1970’s, every confession recognized the oversight of one pastor, assisted by a group of deacons.

Far from eldership advocates reforming contemporary Baptist churches to a primitive or historic form of governance, they are actually transforming churches into a bizarre distortion of Presbyterianism. Historic Baptist churches were never governed by these newfangled ideas of eldership, which is the seventh reason Baptist churches today should not appoint elders.

[1] Special thanks to the Strict Baptist Historical Society.