Baptists have invariably subscribed to three principles with regard to the nature and the function of a biblical church:
1. The church’s head is Christ—Ephesians 5:22-24: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.”
2. The church’s membership is baptized believers covenanted to live under the discipline of Christ—Matthew 18:15-17: “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.”
3. The church is to be led by certain officers—Philippians 1:1: “Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:”
I. What exactly is this “plurality of elders” issue all about?
1. The orthodox view
I know many Baptist churches which are overseen by a single pastor, assisted by a group of deacons. Some of these churches are Arminian, others are Calvinist. In the UK, Calvinist churches are often identified as Particular Baptists, Strict Baptists and Gospel Standard; in the US, they are known as Sovereign Grace and Primitive Baptists. Sometimes these churches call their pastor—‘pastor’, ‘elder’, ‘minister’, ‘bishop’, ‘reverend’, ‘brother’, ‘sir’ or simply by their first or last name. Generally speaking, these churches are small, having a membership between 10-100 people. However, in larger congregations, it is not uncommon for churches to have associate or assistant pastors serving alongside the senior minister. This, however, is the exception to the rule. In addition, associate pastors (elders, assistants, ministers), while recognized as full fledged pastors (gifted by God to preach), serve under the oversight of the senior minister.
2. The unorthodox view
I know other churches which are overseen by a plurality of elders, supported by a group of deacons. Most churches are Calvinist, identifying as Reformed (Baptist). This is a relatively recent movement, its roots traceable to the 1950’s. However, it is not uncommon for Reformed Baptists to align themselves with the Particular Baptists of England, thereby adding to their movement several hundreds of years of legacy. They tend to believe the early Particular Baptist churches were governed by a plural eldership, to which they are simply returning to as “reformed” Baptists.
During the 1950’s, a resurgence of Presbyterian theology greatly influenced a number of Baptist ministers. At that time, a revision was made on how Baptist churches should function. Drawing from the Presbyterian teachings on church polity, it was advocated that each congregation should be served by a plurality of elders and deacons. Elders would be responsible for the spiritual welfare of the church; deacons would be responsible for the physical upkeep of the church. As this concept was developed, two camps of plural eldership emerged:
The first camp insists that elders, pastors and bishops are synonymous terms and that all men serving in this capacity are equals in authority and responsibility (though perhaps differing in gifts and ability). The second camp insists that the eldership is divisible between teaching elders and ruling elders. Teaching elders may be called “pastor(s)”, while ruling elders are simply called “elder(s)”. Nevertheless, both camps recognize the need for a full time minister, so among the eldership one man is selected to serve as the chief pastor (receiving a wage from the church), while the other elders are usually expected to have secular jobs and carry out their eldership responsibilities on the side. Both camps demote the office of deacon, granting them management of financial concerns alone.
Clifford Pond, a Reformed Baptist, has served in leadership roles among various churches in the Suffolk and Surrey areas. He has also been a participant with the council of Grace Baptist Mission (previously known as the Strict Baptist Mission) and the Association of Grace Baptist Churches (previously known as the Metropolitan Association of Strict Baptist Churches). Although the historic churches belonging to both of these organizations never recognized or practiced a plural eldership, the Reformed Baptists have seen to it that these churches adopt the new system. Brother Pond is the author of several books, among which is a small publication called, “Only Servants”. Therein he puts forward a case for plural eldership, opening his argument with the following proposition:
“From the 16th century Presbyterians have provided for a number of elders to oversee the life of each local congregation. More recently the Brethren have also followed this pattern. Soon after the Second World War, many independent evangelical churches became convinced that plurality of elders is indeed in harmony with the New Testament but, in some cases, what they thought would be a great blessing has in practice brought discord and division.” (page 14) “In recent times the majority of independent evangelical churches have had one pastor assisted by a group of deacons, but an increasing number of these churches have become convinced that they should be led by a group of elders along with a group of deacons. This has given rise to confusion and a crisis of authority in many places.” (Page 21) “Since the Second World War every part of life generally has been questioned, and churches too have been put under the scrutiny of Scripture. Our worship and fellowship, our evangelism and missionary enterprise have all been affected, as has church administration. For example, in the earlier part of this century the most common structure in local churches was a pastor with a group of deacons. In the absence of a pastor the church secretary often became the leader; but now this arrangement is being seriously questioned and the most significant change has been towards a plurality of elders. These changes have caused an upheaval in many churches, and troubled members have asked ‘Were the people in the past so wrong? We respected them and the Lord blessed their ministry, how can it be that they were so wrong at this point?’” (page 32)
Several important observations (or concessions) are made by Brother Pond.
First, he acknowledges the historic Particular Baptist churches recognized only one pastor assisted by a group of deacons. Indeed, this is supported by the minute books and confessional statements of the individual churches.
Second, he links the concept of a plural eldership to a Presbyterian mode of church governance, borrowed by the Brethren and now copied by the Reformed Baptists. Henceforth, Reformed Baptists may just as easily be called Reformed Presbyterians, for either they are reforming Presbyterian churches by insisting on believer’s baptism, or they are reforming Baptist churches by insisting on plural elderships. As such, Presbyterians and Particular Baptists tend dislike the Reformed Baptists for their off-center reforms.
Third, he observes plural eldership in churches are to be traced after the Second World War, “when every part of life generally has been questioned”. I wish the historic churches continued their line of questioning before allowing such a sweeping change in church governance to be adopted. Sadly, we have reached a point where such questions are no longer permitted. The Reformed Baptists, having successfully made their ‘reform’, now require all remaining churches to ‘conform’ to their dogma. They take the attitude, at least in my experience, that plural elderships are so clearly outlined in the Scriptures, all but the blind and heretics reject them.
Fourth, he admits the imposition of plural elderships among the historic Particular Baptist churches has “given rise to confusion and a crises of authority”; “these changes have caused an upheaval in many churches, and troubled members have asked ‘Were the people in the past so wrong? We respected them and the Lord blessed their ministry, how can it be that they were so wrong at this point?’”
I appreciate Brother Pond’s honesty on these points, which only highlights and confirms the absurdity of those who believe the Reformed Baptists are one and the same with the Particular Baptists. Particular Baptists still exists as a ‘denomination’ and not one of these churches has adopted a plural eldership as the mode of church governance. Only those historic chapels that have been seized by the Reformed Baptists have made the ‘reform’, and not without a great deal of heartache and division among the members.
II. Why should we be concerned about this issue, so long as the churches remain ‘Baptists’?
When the Reformed Baptists began introducing these ‘reforms’ to the Particular Baptist churches after the Second World War, aside from the immediate upheaval among the members, the congregations at that time didn’t have much to worry about. After all, they were ‘frying bigger fish’, as it were. The war had stripped most churches of male members, leaving the congregations most vulnerable without undershepherds to lead and protect the flocks. I suppose many churches in this condition welcomed many things which promised progress and brought some form of stability. No doubt, the young and zealous Reformed Baptist men found an open door of ministry in many of these chapels. It wasn’t difficult, under these circumstances, to manipulate and/or impose upon the small congregations whatever reform they felt necessary. However, after sixty years of ‘reform’, it is quite clear to Baptists with a big ‘B’ that plural elderships threaten the nature and autonomy of a local church. Bob Wring, recognizing the threat, wittily distinguished between Baptist ‘congregationalism’ and Reformed Baptist ‘presby-gationalism’. Plural elderships are nothing short of ‘big government’ takeovers, which eventually attempt to do for the congregation what the congregation is responsible and capable of doing for itself. When Ronald Reagan came to office in 1981, he touched on the problems with big government with regards to the United States of America—“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden.” (Inaugural Address 1981) Now, the church is far different from a nation, but the inherent problems connected with big government is a threat to both. If the body of Christ wishes to preserve its gospel liberty and maintain freedom from an overreaching oligarchy of ‘elders’, then the plural eldership issue should be a matter of concern for every believer.
III. What does the New Testament actually teach about this subject of a plural eldership?
1. The Greek term.
According to Strong’s Greek Dictionary, the term translated ‘elder’ is presbuteros (4245): “Comparative of presbus (elderly); older; as noun, a senior; specially, an Israelite Sanhedrist (also figuratively, member of the celestial council) or Christian “presbyter”:– elder(-est), old.”
2. The ‘church’ references.
Here are eight texts which use the term “elder” (presbuteros) within the context of the churches recorded in the New Testament:
Acts 14:23—“And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.”
Acts 15:22,23—“Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren: and they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia:”
Acts 20:17—“And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church.”
1 Timothy 4:14—“Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery (council of elders).”
1Timothy 5:17—“Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.”
Titus 1:5—“For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee:”
James 5:14—“Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord:”
1Peter 5:1—“The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed:” (Second term means co-elder)
3. Some arguments for plural eldership.
Based on the foregoing texts, plural eldership proponents argue:
(1) In each and every reference, the term elder appears in the plural, signifying each church had more than one.
(2) Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5 declare the elders were ‘ordained’ in every church and every city.
(3) The church in Jerusalem was led by a plurality of elders.
(4) The church in Ephesus had a plurality of elders.
(5) In 1 Timothy 4, Paul refers to a presbytery (plurality of elders), and in 1 Timothy 5 he speaks about making payment to certain men (not all) within the eldership.
(6) In James 5, reference is made to the elders of the church.
(7) In 1 Peter, the apostle exhorts the elders that were among the churches.
4. Several presuppositions taken for granted by the plural eldership advocates.
A presupposition is “a thing assumed as fact, before the beginning of an argument.” I believe presupposition is the underlying fallacy of the plural eldership concept. Their interpretation of Scripture, together with their deduced conclusions, are based on pure speculation and presupposition. Rather than drawing from the Scriptures a point of truth, they are reading into the Scriptures their preconceived notions of truth.
Case in point.
Referring once more to Clifford Pond and his book (Only Servants), he quotes from Robin Dowling, another Reformed Baptist leader:
“The New Testament assumes that every church will have more than one (elder), and when the origins of church elders are examined, the evidence in support of a plurality is overwhelming. Those same origins also teach us much regarding the qualifications and characteristics of elders…It can be seen that government of the churches by a plurality of elders was natural to the early Christians. In modern times virtually every organisation, every society, is ruled by a committee or council or body of some sort. Since the New Testament makes no provision for any alternative organisation then we have no warrant to use any other practice. The diaconate came into being to aid the eldership, not to replace or reduce it.”
Notice how Brother Dowling grounds his entire thesis on the “assumptions” he perceives the New Testament makes with regards to elders and churches. He speaks of overwhelming evidence in support of plural eldership, but all of it is based on the fallacious assumptions of Brother Dowling’s preconceived ideas. Indeed, I find nothing in his conclusions to be assumed by the New Testament or naturally deducted by an unbiased reader of the Bible. One must come at the Scriptures with a Presbyterianized understanding of the term “church” and “elder” in order to reach these conclusions.
In my experience, many (not all) who promote a plural eldership in churches take for granted a number of presuppositions, all which lend support to their false notions on the subject:
(1) The church began on the day of Pentecost.
(2) The church was modeled after the Jewish synagogue.
(3) The invisible church includes all Christians wherever they might live in the world today; the visible church includes only those baptized believers who have covenanted locally with a group of likeminded believers.
(4) The churches of the New Testament were large congregations, meeting at one place in each location (Jerusalem, Ephesus, Rome, etc).
(5) Biblical ‘patterns’ may be reduced to authoritative mandates, insomuch that while the Scriptures do not specify a specific doctrine, yet it may be deducted from repeated features or incidents (patterns).
(6) A divine call to the ministry may be a full or part time vocation.
(7) The board of elders provides an essential balance to pastoral leadership: First, it ensures a pastor does not become lonely; does not fall into error; does not abuse his position; does not think of himself more highly than he ought to think. Second, it gives to a congregation a wide range of leadership personalities and gifts which will be better equipped to oversee the fellowship.
(8) The elders recorded in the New Testament were elected officials, they being one and the same with that of bishop and pastor.
In the studies which follow, these are some of the presuppositions I hope to examine under the scrutiny of the Word of God. It will also not be out of place to consider these presuppositions historically and practically—how have Baptist churches functioned throughout the previous centuries and are the practical benefits argued for a plural eldership actually that beneficial?
5. The ‘general’ references.
Here are twelve texts which use the term “elder” (presbuteros) generically, that is, without any reference to that of church officers:
Luke 15:25—“Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing.”
John 8:9—“And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.”
Romans 9:12—“It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger.”
1 Timothy 5:2—“The elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, with all purity.”
1 Peter 5:5—“Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.”
2 John 1—“The elder unto the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth; and not I only, but also all they that have known the truth;”
3 John 1—“The elder unto the wellbeloved Gaius, whom I love in the truth.
Revelation 4:4—“And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold.”
Matthew 16:21—“From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.”
Acts 22:5—“As also the high priest doth bear me witness, and all the estate of the elders: from whom also I received letters unto the brethren, and went to Damascus, to bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem, for to be punished.”
Acts 24:1—“And after five days Ananias the high priest descended with the elders, and with a certain orator named Tertullus, who informed the governor against Paul.”
Hebrews 11:2—“For by it the elders obtained a good report.”
6. My understanding of the term elder.
I believe the meaning of the term ‘elder’ is defined quite clearly by Strong’s entry in his Greek Dictionary—“elderly; older; a senior.” This is the essential meaning of the term which does not change in its usage and application throughout the Scriptures. This includes the equivalent Hebrew terms of the Old Testament. ‘Elder’ is a generic title given to the older members of society, and by virtue of their age, wisdom, wealth and influence, they are highly esteemed and sought after for help and counsel. No one is ever elected or appointed to an office of eldership—no such office exists. Rather, the term elder is an unofficial title which is naturally and gradually bestowed upon the older members of a community. Although the New Testament infrequently refers to a bishop as an elder (only twice), this is only because every bishop was by qualification already an elder—1 Timothy 3:1-6:
”A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife…one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (for if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)” This is a good description of an elder—he is a household head, one who is the husband of one wife, having his children in subjection, ruling well his own house. Churches did not appoint a man to be an elder; rather, they selected an elder (household head) who had also received a divine call to preach, to be appointed to the office of bishop. Henceforth, the terms ‘elder’ and ‘bishop’ are not synonymous. All older men (especially heads of families) are elders, but not all elders are bishops. It is therefore a mistake to presume the terms ‘elder’ and ‘bishop’ are used interchangeably throughout the New Testament.
If the Scriptures are read with this primary meaning of ‘elder’ in mind, many obscure passages would be made plain. Take, for instance, Hebrews 11. In the third verse we read about the elders obtaining a good report. And then in verses 4-40, the names of several men and women (elders) are recorded. Why are they called elders? Not because they were elected or appointed to an office of eldership, but because they were simply older persons who had earned the esteem and respect of those around them. Now, I believe this meaning of term does not change throughout the Scriptures. Every time the term ‘elder’ is used, it is referring to those who, by virtue of age, are held in respect by those who value their experience and wisdom.
As I hope you see, my approach to this subject is far different from the newfangled views of the Reformed Baptists, as well as the traditional views of the Particular Baptists. Both groups understand the term elder to be synonymous with that of bishop and pastor, whereas I maintain the titles are distinct. In the upcoming studies, I hope to explore the Old and New Testament Scriptures, commenting on every passage where the Hebrew and Greek terms appear, and then drawing basic conclusions on the subject therefrom. It is in this way I will seek to develop the teachings of Scripture on eldership—not from the starting point of presupposition, but from that of precise definition and established fact.
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.