Monday, September 17, 2012

Concerning Elder Rule Among Baptist Churches

In recent years, there has been a push among some Baptists for elder ruled churches. Even among some BMA pastors, I’ve heard people say, “it’s the biblical way.” So, I went looking to see if I agreed with that claim. I found that there are some rather lengthy papers written about it. I intend to get to the point much more quickly.

What Is An Elder?

When referring to elder rule today, most people are using the term elder to indicate a church member who serves on a board that oversees the business of the church. You won’t find this definition in the Bible. The only support you will find in the Bible for anything near this definition is 1 Timothy 5:17, “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the Word and doctrine.”

The thing that makes this verse controversial is the word especially. Some people believe that it implies that there can be those who rule while they “labor in Word and doctrine” and those who rule, but don’t “labor in Word and doctrine.” George W. Knight III says, however, that the word translated as especially in the King James has the same meaning as that is. It sounds different when we read the verse as “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, that is those who labor in Word and doctrine.” Now it appears to be giving us a definition of who an elder is rather than defining two different kinds of elders.

In reading through the New Testament, what we find is that elder, bishop, and pastor are words that all refer to the same office. You never see the phrase “elders and bishops,” “bishops and pastors,” or “pastors and elders.” So, if elder rule is biblical then it must be that it is the pastor who is supposed to rule, not some elected board of governors.

How Should An Elder Rule?

It is common practice among some independent Baptist churches and certainly among some denominations for the pastor to be in charge of everything. Until recently, this practice has been much less common among associational Baptists. Going back to 1 Timothy 5:17, what we see is that to rule is to “labor in Word and doctrine.” The early churches didn’t have a system in which the pastors (sometimes they had several) were gathering together and make a lot of decisions. Initially, they didn’t seem to think there was a need for that sort of thing. They were gathering in people’s houses, so there weren’t as many decisions that the church was responsible for as what we have today. It wasn’t until the conflict with the Grecian widows (Acts 6) that they realized there was business to take care of. At that time, the elders ask the church to choose deacons to make sure the widows were being taken care of, so the elders could continue to give themselves to “prayer and to the ministry of the Word.”

A preacher is certainly a man to be respected and by nature of the fact that he is standing before the church and teaching, he is a leader. But his primary responsibility is to study the Bible so he can teach the church members how they ought to behave. If he is doing that well, then he doesn’t need to make the administrative decisions. Those who are making those decisions will have learned from his teaching what it is that God would have them to do.

But Does That Men Democracy?

Every church has respected leaders. These are often the pastors, the deacons, the Sunday school teachers, and other highly visible people. If these leaders are teaching what God would have them to, then when the monthly business meeting comes around, the members of the congregation will try to vote the way God would have them to. So, there’s nothing to fear from congregationalism, in and of itself. If you do have reason to fear that the congregation is going to go against the will of God, then it probably started with bad leadership. So why would you want to hand power over to a board of leaders who have been leading the congregation astray anyway?

Perhaps you aren’t convinced. What did Jesus say? In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus dealt with the issue of a bother who has trespassed against us. “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 a heathen man and a publican.” Notice that the church is the final authority on the issue. He didn’t say to go to you pastor, though your pastor may be one of the one or two. It is the church that has the authority to exclude this man from their fellowship.

The size of a church often makes it necessary to use committees and boards to get things done. You simply can’t call the who church together every time you need to buy toilet paper. But the biblical model is one in which every member has the responsibility to seek God’s will and all members as a body have the final responsibility to make decisions concerning the church. Elders are not to be a board with little input from the underlings, but they are to be equals with the rest of the church members. Elder are to lead by what they teach and the examples they set, not by lording it over the church.