Number Our Days
I mentioned last week that I was working on a writing project for a new dictionary of Christian history. One of the entries I was assigned to write was the entry on MLK. Here is that entry
King, Martin Luther Jr. (1929–1968) was an African-American Baptist pastor and Civil Rights leader who was assassinated on 4 April 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee at the Lorraine Motel by James Earl Ray. King had gone to Memphis to aid the Memphis sanitation workers in their strike for better treatment and higher wages.
MLK was born in Atlanta, Georgia, to Michael and Alberta (nee) Williams in 1929. “Daddy King” was an alcoholic sharecropper’s son from rural Georgia who left the farm and came to Atlanta where he eventually met Alberta, the daughter of A. D. Williams, pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Michael succeeded Williams at Ebenezer when his father-in-law died in 1931. In 1934, at the behest of the church, Daddy King traveled to Berlin to attend the Baptist World Alliance and came face-to-face with nascent Nazism. He toured Germany during that visit and witnessed the rising threat. Following the trip, King returned to Atlanta and had his name changed to “Martin Luther” after the well-known German reformer. He had his son’s name changed as well. Going forward, they became Martin Luther King, Sr. and Jr.
MLK Jr. was raised in a pastor’s home during the height of the “Jim Crow” south, experiencing the racism commonly directed toward the African American community. Jr. was admitted to Morehouse, the college of both his father and grandfather, in 1944 as a junior in high school, after Morehouse expanded its enrollment to permit younger students who could pass the entrance exams. This was driven by the decreased enrollment due to the need for soldiers during the Second World War. After Jr. graduated in 1948 at the age of 19, he enrolled at the Crozer Theological Seminary, a Northern Baptist school in Upland, Pennsylvania, where he became the student body president. At Crozer, King was introduced to the Social Gospel ideas of Walter Rauschenbusch. Following his graduation from Crozer with his B.D. in 1951, he attended Boston University, where he studied theology under Edgar S. Brightman, who was then promoting Boston Personalism. King graduated with his Ph.D. in 1955, submitting as his dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Weiman.”
During his doctoral studies, he began his first pastorate at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama at the age of twenty-five. Also, he met and married Coretta Scott, a music student at the New England Conservatory of Music 18 June 1953. While pastoring at Dexter Avenue, King led the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955), begun after Rosa Parks (1913–2005), a seamstress and civil rights activist, refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus for a white passenger. King, who was by this time becoming active in the early Civil Rights movement, advocated a position of non-violence, spurred on by the influence of men like Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948). He was arrested after turning himself in and fined $500. It was the first of thirty arrests King would experience during his brief career.
In 1957, King and others formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to help organize black churches to protest civil rights abuses through non-violent means. In April 1963, King was arrested for his 13th time and incarcerated in the Birmingham jail under the supervision of Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, Commissioner of Public Safety. From jail, King penned “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” which argued that oppressed people had the duty to seek the end of their oppression through non-violence.
A few months later, King was in Washington, D. C. at the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” that saw more than one quarter of a million people attend. At that rally, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream Speech” which became a catalyst for the enactment of the Civil Rights Act (1964). He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at age 35 in 1964, the youngest man ever to receive this honor, for his promotion of non-violence in the struggle for civil rights. King remained at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement through the next four years, also objecting to the War in Vietnam, delivering a speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” before an audience of three thousand at Riverside Church of New York City. He was controversial, charismatic, and courageous. His life and work are memorialized at a national center, The Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta and at the Ebenezer Baptist Church next door, the church he co-pastored with his father after his departure from Montgomery in 1959.
As can be seen, the entry is brief and offers little commentary. I grew up in the era of Dr. King. I have vague memories of the struggle for civil rights. I have little to no recollection of the churches (Episcopal) I attended during my childhood. Except for one sermon. It was after the death of either MLK or Robert F Kennedy—they died within two months of each other April 4 and June 6, 1968, with MLK killed first. The minister lamented the number of guns he had bought his children over the years, that they could fill the railing around the altar. He proceeded to preach on gun control. I don’t remember what he said, just the occasion for him saying it.
I remember the struggle to make MLK’s birthday a holiday. Many Christians vigorously opposed a day to honor him, especially where I went to university. I had no knowledge of the sensibilities of the school I attended through the 1970s when I went there. I met a fine student who influenced me to attend at a time when my life was largely directionless. I learned much there, and I have great appreciation for the men and women who were my teachers. As with any institution some instructors are better than others, but I had some fine Christian teachers.
However, the school was still struggling with its racist past. I was there when African-American students were first admitted to the student body but with no allowance for interracial dating. I hadn’t been schooled in the issues of racism by then and I can honestly say that while attending, I have few recollections of overt racism, except the color bar for students–we had oriental students when I started just no African American ones. Subtle racism perhaps, but overt? Seldom. As I matured, I entered ministry and went to Canada, to work among the Ojibwe Indians. The racism I encountered there was anti-Indian. There were few blacks living anywhere near where I was. My second ministry was further north in Alberta. More indigenous peoples, few if any blacks. But still plenty of racism.
I encountered white racism against blacks when I returned to the US to pursue my PhD. The Georgia church I attended had few African Americans attending. I didn’t give it much thought as we were in a northern Atlanta suburb that seemed predominantly white. However, in time, a few men in that church let loose with some ugly comments that let me know I was in the deep south. These men were old enough to be my father. I winced at their comments and wish I had said something to rebuke them, but I felt embarrassed to challenge them. Then I came to Minneapolis to teach and heard a respected leader utter a reprehensible racist joke under his breathe while preparing to speak in chapel. I did challenge the man afterwards.
Sadly, racism is ever present with us. Am I a racist? I hope not. Through my teaching career, I was constantly reading and thinking through the material I taught my students. I was also aware of the tensions in the wider evangelical world. Over the years, I made about a dozen trips to Africa to teach African brothers church history. I wanted to be sensitive, so I tried to tailor my notes to reflect their world. I developed a History of Christianity in Africa course. However, my course on Baptist history was almost exclusively a class in white history. Why was this so? There were important African American preachers, many of them former slaves, that left their mark for Christ. Why didn’t I discuss them? I worked to expand my notes.
I said all this to say that today our nation remembers MLK. He was a Baptist. He wasn’t a conservative. I heard once that King wanted to attend a more conservative school but was denied enrollment. He attended Crozer, then under the grip of theological liberalism. He embraced their theology. He also was deeply flawed. In 1991, a panel of Boston U scholars determined he plagiarized in his dissertation. The FBI dogged him as “the most dangerous man in America.” Because he advocated the violent overthrow of his government? Hardly. Just the opposite. They didn’t like his ideas. King left a mark on American history that cannot be ignored. I have often wondered recently how much of the anti-King rhetoric I heard over the years was generated more by racism rather than by a desire for orthodoxy. He was vilified by many professing Christians down through the years. But America’s leaders have all been deeply flawed men and women.
In 1964, my alma mater gave Alabama governor George Wallace an honorary degree. The same George Wallace who the year before when inaugurated as governor of AL stated “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever!” Between MLK and George Wallace, who was the better man? As an historian, it is my duty to remind us of our history—the good, the bad and the ugly. MLK is an important part of the American story. It is fitting that we remember him today.
I’m back. After a two-month hiatus from the blog that saw me concentrating on other writing projects, I am going to be shooting for weekly blog essays on various topics going forward. I am also finishing a writing assignment for a new dictionary of Christian history. Fascinating research about some fascinating topics and individuals, with about a 50/50 split. The essay on Charles Hodge of Princeton reminded me again of what a prodigious scholar and churchman he was. I was supposed to write 500 words about him, but—seriously!!!—500 words is hardly doable! The essay ended up being 650 words, but I am not sure I did him justice! I hope to offer some of these stories in the days ahead on the blog.
However, I recently had a new (old) essay published by the American Baptist Quarterly that is the impetus for this week’s blog. The essay was written more than ten years ago using research I came across when I was given a grant to use the collections of the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York. The RAC, as you might imagine, is the repository for the archival material of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (1839–1937) founder of Standard Oil and the richest man in history until recently when early last November he lost that eighty year distinction when Elon Musk overtook him, at 340 billion which is what JDR’s fortune was valued when adjusted to inflation. He was also a Baptist layman who fell under the influence of men like William H. P. Faunce (1859–1930), pastor for ten years of what would become Riverside Church. In Sr.’s day, it was Fifth Avenue Baptist Church. Sr. moved his family and his rapidly growing oil business headquarters from Cleveland, Ohio to New York to Fifth Avenue where he attended the church once pastored by Thomas Armitage. Faunce became pastor in 1889, before he went to Brown University in 1899, becoming the president for the next thirty years. He raised the ire of the fundamentalists during the controversy of the 1920s.
As I was working on various collections of Rockefeller material related to the Northern Baptist Convention—Sr. and Jr. were heavy contributors to the NBC, sometimes donating upwards of nine percent of its annual budget—I came across a collection of letters that Augustus Hopkins Strong (1836–1921) wrote to his son Charles Augustus Strong (1862–1940) during the final decade of AHS’s life. The younger Strong had been raised to follow in his father’s footsteps, even studying at the Rochester Theological Seminary where his father was the president and professor of theology. However, Charles went to Harvard after RTS and studied philosophy under William James and became a close friend of George Santayana, with whom he shared a philosophy prize together to study in Europe and maintained a life-long friendship.
The reason the letters were in the RAC was that Charles had married Elizabeth Rockefeller (1866–1906), the eldest child of JDR, Sr. whom Charles met in Cleveland when his father AHS was a pastor. In the absence of JDR’s regular pastor, AHS preached a funeral for a JDR child and the two men—the future theologian and the future oil magnate became acquainted, with their children ultimately marrying. AHS and JDR became “friends” which served the seminary president well as AHS often tapped JDR’s larder for the needs of RTS. The RAC is also the repository of the Charles Augustus Strong papers.
Without telling the full story recounted in the article (read the essay!) the short version is that Charles “lost” his faith and was put under church discipline by the family’s church, Second Baptist of Rochester in 1892. He became an out and out skeptic and never returned to Christianity. In the letters I “discovered” (I am not aware that any AHS scholar has cited from this collection ever!), about four hundred in number spanning about ten years, the elder Strong tried to woo the younger man back to his Christian roots, even going so far as to convince the Second Baptist church to rescind the church discipline without Charles returning to the faith.
It is a tragic story of the abandonment of the faith from one generation to the next. Yet this is hardly an isolated incident. In 2019, I had a similar essay “A Young Man’s Difficulty with His Bible: Not My Father’s Faith” published in Once for All Delivered to the Saints, where I discuss a comparable story—the life of Faunce whose father was orthodox while the son left orthodox Christianity during the ascendancy of theological liberalism among Northern Baptists. The father, Daniel W. Faunce, wrote a series of books about the Bible that seemed to track his efforts to woo his son to return to historic orthodoxy (see the Faunce essay for details).
This brings me to my ultimate purpose in writing this essay this week—a pastor’s greatest heartache is watching his children abandon the Gospel he has labored so long to declare. It has happened again and again—in church history and in contemporary life. I learned recently of a brother whose child informed him of such a departure. In fact, I have a list of children of ministry brothers who have experienced similar personal sorrow for whom I personally pray on a regular basis that they might return to the faith or, in many cases, might be converted. Children who announce to their parents that they no longer believe what they were led to believe as children, may not have lost their faith. They may actually not have possessed it in the first place. Many of these now adult children made “professions” of faith and were duly baptized in their faithful father’s churches by their fathers who were, in turn filled, with great expectations regarding how God might use their children for his glory in future days. Yet in adulthood, out from underneath the watchful eye of their fathers, or perhaps while still living at home, these children walked away from Christianity. Of course, pastors are not the only ones who experience this heartache. Many a fine Christian couple has wept over the departure of a child from Christianity. It is a great sorrow.
The list of sin and depravity that these ministry children engage in need not be rehearsed here. Sometimes, these wayward children do not formally renounce Christianity but practice sinful behavior at variance with their Christian profession. At other times, they announce rather publicly their rejection of Christianity. Of course, the question that is agonized over by my ministry brothers (and their wives) is “Where did I go wrong? How could my son or daughter do this? What did I miss?” Let me say at the outset, that as fathers, we failed our children in many ways. We were too busy, too distracted, too forceful, not forceful enough, too rigid, too lax, too, too, too. Yes, we do soul searching as we should, but we must also remember that it is not a wonder that so many reject Christianity but that so many don’t! The ministry can be hard on our children. Try as we might, we cannot always insulate our children from our own sins or the sins of others. We work constantly to shepherd their hearts toward God. But remember, only God can change the heart of anyone—you, me, and our children. We beg God for his mercy, yet at times, all the pleading in the world seems insufficient to stop what is happening with our children.
This essay is not meant to be one of gloom and despair but one of hope. What can we do when this happens to our children? Our sons and our daughters? What can we do? First, we must remember to love them unconditionally. Our unconditional love, like God’s unconditional love for us, not loving them in their sin but loving them despite their sin, may yet touch their hearts. We also need to pray for them regularly without nagging them. They likely know what we think and have heard it all before, a hundred times. Will rehearsing things over and over really help or will it drive them further away? Look for occasions to slip in gospel truth into conversations without being overbearing. Petition others to pray for them. Petition God to send other messengers to bring His Word to their hearts and minds. As ministry men, we should pray for each other and for each other’s children (and now that I am a grandfather, for our grandchildren). We must hold out hope that the grace of God can reach into the darkest places and shine light. It’s not over until it’s over. May God be merciful to us and to our children. In this ever darkening world, we desperately need his grace and so do our children. God’s purposes will not be thwarted. Can we trust Him with these needs?
What we must not do is what AHS did. At the end of his journey, his regrets over his son’s departure from the faith prompted him to do some bizarre things. He petitioned the Second Baptist Church to repeal the act of church discipline of twenty-five years earlier. The church agreed but this action was taken without Charles ever returning to the faith. AHS tried to convince CAS that he really was a Christian even though there was no evidence or claim to that end. It’s a sad story, made sadder by AHS’s appeal. God be merciful!
My ETS paper — Baptists and Freemasonry, A Conflicted History. I am reading this in Ft Worth on Tuesday, at 9AM.
As many of you know, I have written a couple of essays on freemasonry in the past, here and here. I have been interested to see that these essays are being accessed daily, though it has been months since they were written. The first essay has been my most read post, not initially but in the aggregate. I continue to get readers of the post virtually every day. That essay has also been my most commented upon post. I am not sure if people are expecting me to endorse or renounce freemasonry, but the readers keep coming. I thought an update on my “Baptists and Freemasonry” project is in order.
First, let me remind you that I became interested in this when I was asked to consider finishing a biography that Baptist historian Terry Wolever had started but was left incomplete due to his sudden death in April of 2020. Terry was the editor at Particular Baptist Press in Springfield, MO for twenty years. He was a tireless researcher and a prodigious author. Terry had numerous projects on the go when the Lord decided his earthy journey was over. Among the projects left incomplete was a biography of Stephen Gano, son of John Gano, important early American church planter responsible for starting First Baptist Church of New York City. Terry had already written on John and thought that Stephen was worthy of a monograph as well.
I agreed to consider the project and I received a box of material from PBP that Terry had collected. In the box was a copy of a printed sermon Undissembled Love to God and Man, the Duty of Christians and Masons that Stephen delivered before the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons in Providence, RI in 1800. It seems that Gano was a freemason. Regrettably, I was never able to discuss this interesting finding with Terry, but I did discuss it with Gary Long, pastor of the Sovereign Grace Baptist Church of Springfield and head of the press. Gary told me that not only was Stephen a free mason, but so was his son-in-law, the noted Baptist historian, David Benedict. Benedict was the first pastor of the Baptist Church in Pawtucket, RI, where he labored until the issue of freemasonry compelled him to resign his ministry. Coincidently, Benedict also spoke before the Grand Lodge in 1830.
While never being exposed to the movement up close and personal, I supposed that Christians opposed the movement generally. Charles G. Finney certainly did. But of the Baptist connection, I had little information. How could good and faithful Baptist pastors be involved in freemasonry? (Spoiler alert—I’m not going to answer that question here and not yet, so if you want to stop reading, feel free!) I was puzzled about this and as I had little connection with freemasonry with little knowledge of the group, I decided to investigate this interesting story. In my second essay on freemasonry, I mentioned Southern Baptist leader George W. Truett who was a mason. In fact, numerous Southern Baptist leaders (and laymen) have been masons. I have the new study of Truett and his nemesis J. Frank Norris on order. I look forward to seeing what, if anything, O. S. Hawkins says about Truett’s freemasonry.
I decided that this topic was worthy of a deep dive in the historical relationship between Baptists and freemasons in the United States. It is really quite a fascinating narrative. To date, my plan was to read a paper on this topic in two weeks at the Evangelical Theological Society, meeting in Fort Worth, TX but as we have no help with our son, I may be unable to attend. Still the fruit of my labor will be included in a book of essays being put together in honor of Terry Woelver.
Let me say that through my research, I discovered a mixed reaction to freemasonry among Baptists in the late 18th and early 19th century. A number of leading Baptist pastors in New England had affiliation with freemasonry and delivered addresses or sermons before gathered masons. Many were masons and some were in masonic leadership. Samuel Stillman of Brattle Street Baptist Church of Boston delivered a sermon before “Free and Accepted Masons” in Charles-Town in 1785 entitled Charity Considered. Stillman was not a brother, but he spoke sympathetically on the masonic belief in charity. “With the Constitutions of Masonry I profess myself acquainted; and am pleased to find that by them, every mason is obliged to pay strict attention to his morals.” Other Baptist pastors, including Gano and Benedict, were freemasons and delivered equally conciliatory addresses before gathered masons. Some even gained recognition in leadership positions in lodges. William Rogers (1751–1824), pastor of First Baptist of Philadelphia (1772–1775), was active among Philadelphia freemasons, serving as Grand Chaplain from at least 1811–1821, regularly offering prayers at masonic meetings. He was periodically referred to a “Rev. Dr. Bro. William Rogers.” Benjamin Munro Hill (1793–1881), during his pastorate in New Haven, CT, was elected “Rev. Sir Grand Prelate” (1827) and eventually Generalissimo of the Encampment of the Masonic Knights Templar in New Haven (1829).
While there were numerous freemasons among the Baptists at this time, being a freemason was not without its troubles. Stephen Gano and seven others were accused of “devilry” by his wife at his church in Providence. Despite several attempts to mediate the issue before the church, Joanna’s (Gano’s fourth wife) accusations were finally brought before the church with Stephen reading the charges. As a woman, Joanna could not speak in the church meeting, so her husband read the accusations. Immediately after the reading of the charges, Stephen requested the church to act. Stephen and the others were not condemned by the church, whereupon, one of the men charged brought accusations against Joanna, not for her views on freemasonry but for her “unChristlike spirit.” Joanna left the church but remained in Providence, and they no longer lived together as husband and wife.
David Benedict also had issues in his church. He eventually left the pastorate of the church over freemasonry, yet remained in its membership. Churches and Baptist associations began to question freemasonry and its propriety for Christians. Benedict addressed agitation over freemasonry among the churches in Fifty Years among the Baptists (171ff). When freemasonry came before the association in 1813, Stonington Baptists, at the behest of the churches at Exeter and South Kingston decided not to make a determination on the propriety of churches fellowshipping with freemasons because to do so would mar the unity of the churches in the association.
This is but the beginning of the story. Soon antimasonry would erupt in American life, in part over the mysterious disappearance of William Morgan who planned to publish an exposé on masonry, eventually Illustrations of Masonry, 1826. Many believed he was kidnapped by the masons and murdered in an effort to preserve their secrets. Some Americans became concerned over the political influence of the masons and formed an antimasonic party that became the first third party in American politics. Baptists were compelled to deal with freemasonry more regularly in church life. Historian Henry C. Vedder determined (197) that “many churches were divided by the question, and the growth of the denomination was seriously interfered with.”
This is but the opening of what has become a conflicted history. Baptists have not spoken with one voice about freemasonry. Some of our brethren have been strongly in favor of the society while others have been virulently antimasonic. There are reasons for both views—pro and con—among Baptists, but the discussion of these ideas will have to await a later day. Stay tuned. For now, I continue to expand my understanding of Baptists and freemasons. I actually think that a long treatment of the subject may be in order. Time will tell. The story is very interesting. Judging from my blog readership, others think so too. As a final remark, I have been surprised by the number of Baptists, since writing on this topic, who have shared their stories of freemasonry. On Monday, I talked to an older man, a retired pastor and lover of Baptist history, who informed me that his father and father-in-law were masons. He decided, as a young man, to not follow in their footsteps, a position that troubled them deeply.
Unrelated and half a world away, word came out of Sudan this week that the uneasy truce that had been in effect in that country since 2019 when President Omar al-Bashir was deposed by a military coup after thirty years of dictatorship has been suspended by the current military leaders. Concern now is that those in control of Sudan will remain in control rather than turning the country over to civilian leadership in mid-November as had been anticipated. This sort of civil unrest is sure to have a debilitating effect on evangelistic efforts in that country which had been opening up recently. One of my former students from my teaching in Africa is from the Sudan and will likely be impacted by this instability.
Speaking of Africa and on top of these stories, my son and his family experienced a robbery a week ago, while the family was at church. Thieves who must have been watching their coming and going, seized the opportunity to enter their property when they left for church and stole cash and technology, including some funds they were saving to be disbursed for an ongoing house renovation project. Thankfully, they recovered some of the personal documents that were taken the next day when the family discovered a bag had been tossed over their wall with the documents inside. But the event was unsettling to say the least.
All of these incidents point to the real uncertainty that Christian workers face around the world nearly every day. While North American Christians argue over vaccines and masks, social justice, worship, and a host of other issues, Christians around the world continue to work for gospel advance in places that are less than stable. Many countries in Africa and Asia have experienced increased poverty due to the uncertainties of the pandemic, making things like kidnapping and burglary greater possible threats to outsiders. Political unrest is ever present in this world from Afghanistan to Sudan to the very steps of the US Capitol making life increasingly dangerous, especially for Christians. None of these incidents specifically targeted believers, but Christians live in and around these places and seek to bear witness for the Lord Jesus despite the instability that is ever present. Christians experience the same instabilities that these events bring to the general population.
How should the church respond to the world and our gospel workers during these perilous times? First, we need to be aware that these co-laborers have left their homelands to take the good news of Jesus Christ to difficult places knowing full well that these decisions come with a certain amount of risk. Many of these places have diseases that the workers are unaccustomed to. They have to learn to live in environments where disease and pestilence are real possibilities. Prayer is the most urgent thing we can do for our overseas partners. Certainly, one thing that Christians should pray for regularly is for the personal safety of these gospel workers in their difficult environs. When political unrest or natural calamity adds additional burdens to the daily life of these gospel workers, greater prayer needs arise. Additionally, our gospel workers need wisdom, wisdom to know just how to respond in these difficult times. Each situation is unique and there is not a one size fits all approach to these problems. Gospel workers need divine guidance through God’s word and good counsel to determine how to best operate under these unique situations. Finally, prayer needs to be offered for the trauma that gospel workers experience during times of increased safety concerns. Gospel workers may be devastated over certain calamitous events. Likely the experience of the seventeen workers in Haiti has sent chills down the back of many gospel workers worldwide. Many labor in places where security is a genuine concern. Will they be the next to face such a threat? Should they stay and minister or leave and seek safety? There are no easy answers. Husbands are concerned for their wives and wives for their husbands especially if they travel in difficult areas. Parents are concerned for their children and children for their parents. The anxiety that these gospel workers may face is enormous and our prayer can help them carry the burden by lifting them up to the Lord. There is something comforting knowing that the church is praying for you back home.
This is part of the “holding the ropes” burden that we assume when we commission foreign workers. Financing them to get to the field is only a small part of our overall ministry to these servants. Encouraging them while they are on the field is our great privilege and burden. When my wife and I first went to serve as gospel workers in Canada, among the Ojibwe, our connectivity with those “back home” was limited to expensive telephone calls and slow mail service. Today, churches can stay in regular contact with their gospel workers through email and any number of internet-calling services. Just before I began this essay, I called my son in Zambia, via Facetime, to get his permission to tell part of his story in this essay. We talked and saw each other through this wonderful technology! What a boon for gospel advance. We just need to use this regularly to appreciate its full potential. I am aware of a missionary who visits with his sending church pastor weekly via this technology. There is just no reason not to know what is happening on the field in almost real time.
Being aware of the needs is only part of the burden we bear with our gospel workers. Looking for unique and specific ways we can increase our commitment to these workers during these specific times of need is also important. In my son’s case, churches and individuals have risen to the occasion to make up the losses experienced, including one church who specifically helped my son fix his security breach with the hopes of prohibiting this from happening in the future. Christians back home need to be aware of occasional expanding needs of their workers on the field, praying fervently for God’s grace on their lives and being prepared to offer what additional assistance may be needed in a temporary or long-term situation. I am grateful, for example, that some churches and individuals have stepped up to provide additional financial support for my son and his family during their crisis.
We live in uncertain times. Is the pandemic nearing an end? Will things get back to normal, whatever normal is? Our gospel workers need rope holders to help them carry their burdens. In recent days, those burdens have become heavier to overseas laborers I know. Let us remember to pray for our gospel workers. They need our help!
Elders are a part of the biblically ordained offices for the New Testament church and, while many churches use elders poorly, this does not negate their value or their biblical import. Elders only work when they work. I offered several examples of prominent churches who had elders but some of the very individuals who committed themselves to serve as elders by accepting the position in a local assembly, rejected their office when the elder collective decided against their views, and they, for all practical purposes, abandoned the elder principle and exposed their churches to chaos, some publicly and others privately. Elders only work when they work. A tautology? Well, not really. Elders only work when those who are committed to the practice remain committed to the practice in trying times. Every church experiences difficult times of one sort or another. Elders are a part of God’s good gift to his churches to help lead and feed the flock, especially through stormy waters. So, what does the Bible teach about elders?
Elder plurality is an important part of this instruction. How many elders does any particular assembly need? There are plenty of proponents of elders who argue that a church must have an elder plurality regardless of church size. God never intended the church to be ruled by a single pastor but to be led by multiple elders. “Shared leadership has the benefits of balancing people’s weaknesses, lightening the workload, and providing accountability.” Amen and amen! Evidence of this may be found in Acts 11:30, the church at Antioch, which had multiple elders who commissioned Paul and Barnabas to Gospel ministry; Acts 15 which discusses Paul’s visit to the church at Jerusalem and his meetings with the “apostles and elders” (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22 and 16:4). Πρεσβύτερος, the Greek word from which we get our word elder, is in the plural in each of these verses, πρεσβύτεροι. Also see Acts 20:17 where Paul calls for a meeting of the elders of the church at Ephesus to assemble before him for discussions and Acts 21:18 where Paul returns to Jerusalem and meets with the elders. Mention should also be made of Tit 1:5 where Paul instructed Titus to appoint elders (pl) in every place (singular). James instructs the sick to call for the elders of the church to pray for the one sick (Jas. 5:14) while Peter instructs “elders among you” not to dominate their flock (1 Pet 5:1) calling himself an elder. Clearly many biblical churches had multiple elders. Doesn’t this settle the matter? Antioch, Jerusalem and Ephesus had multiple elders so churches today who wish to follow the biblical pattern should have multiple elders. Absolutely . . . almost. Are churches without an elder plurality, churches out of order?
The real issue to be addressed is the question of why these churches had multiple elders? Was the intention of the Holy Spirit, the ultimate author of Acts, to teach prescriptively that all New Testament churches have multiple elders, or is God recording in his Word the practical outworking of NT churches who recognized that as these churches grew, so too did their elder requirements. Large churches need more elders, smaller churches need fewer. So how many elders does a church need? As many as it needs. In the same way that the church at Jerusalem chose seven men to be the first deacons because two men were insufficient to meet the needs of the group, as churches increase in the number of people to be ministered to, there is a compelling need for more elders. Churches need as many elders as churches need!
Another consideration for the churches at Antioch, Jerusalem and Ephesus was the nature of these churches themselves. How did they meet, all together as large city churches with one in each location? Hardly. They met in houses, smaller house churches or small groups. The logistics of gathering the saints in these early days suggests that rather than one mega church in each city, there were multiple smaller gatherings requiring an expanded elder network to provide spiritual care. The story of Aquila and Priscilla certainly suggests this—they had house churches in Ephesus and Rome (1 Cor 16:19 and Rom. 16:3). This is an explanation for why Paul tells Titus to appoint elders in every town. The word πόλις signifies a population center as opposed to a rural area. It could be a city or a town. The important issue is that it was a population center. Again, no mega churches were in view here. More likely it was house churches. Hence the need for multiple elders.
I am not arguing that since today larger numbers of believers can meet in big church edifices, single pastors are all that is necessary. I am only suggesting that the city churches of the New Testament aren’t comparable to the big mega churches of today. They were the sum total of believers in Antioch, etc., not ABC Church at the corner of Appian Way and Rome Boulevard that was large enough to gather thousands of worshippers. Lakewood Church of Houston meets in the former Comcaq Center, former home to the Houston Rockets. The building can hold nearly 17,000. One man may be able to preach to 17k people, but one man cannot shepherd even a fraction of that number. Elder plurality in the early churches was driven by need. A church needs as many elders as it needs—in most cases, this means a plurality of elders.
What about a newly planted church? Should it begin with elder plurality? That depends. I remember reading in Christianity Today about the formation of Stonebriar Church in the Dallas area when Chuck Swindoll was president of Dallas Theological Seminary. Chuck decided in 1998, that he would start a Bible study at a country club. Two hundred people showed up for the first meeting. The next week, attendance doubled. It doubled again the following week. Within a few months, the church was running two thousand. Clearly from the beginning of this mega church, elder plurality was needed. How would a church even vet elders in this kind of rapid growth situation? There was a large SBC church in our area in the early 2000s that was planted to be a mega church. It had a full company of leaders from the beginning chosen ahead of time and paid for by the area association.
Few churches start like this today, especially in countries with small Gospel presence. American mega churches with superstar preachers may require large numbers of elders, but small fledgling churches in virgin territory may take a while before the congregation has a qualified plurality of men to serve as elders. Elder plurality is a goal to be aspired to, but not a minimum qualification in forming a church. A congregation needs as many as it needs. From the beginning, the church planter’s main job is to disciple leadership from whom the new assembly may select other elders and deacons. You have to start somewhere. Shared leadership is the goal to be sure.
I would make the same argument for deacon plurality. If one understands Acts 6 as the formation of the early diaconate, then the number chosen was based on the needs of the group—in Jerusalem’s case it was determined that seven men were needed. If this teaches us anything, it teaches us that a church needs as many deacons as it needs. In the early stages of church planting, a small group of six families may not need any deacons but it will become apparent that if the church grows at all, deacons will soon be necessary. Again, the church planter may need to disciple a man or several men toward becoming deacons. In the Acts church, many of the converts had come from Judaism and were almost “prequalified” to be deacons. They had been faithful Jews who became faithful Christians. I emphasize this because my esteemed and learned theology teacher used to argue that a church couldn’t start until it had a pastor and a deacon (or two). Yet many global churches start with just a handful of converts who need discipleship from non-Christian backgrounds. Diligent training and discipleship will bring qualified leadership to light in time, hopefully short time if the church is to grow.
For those who start a church and yet have no elders or deacons from the beginning, the church planter should seek the input of the men who attend, and he may find that he has qualified men already. Even in a small church with a single elder and no deacon, the pastor or elder need not act like the lord or boss. He would benefit from consultation with the church men. The goal is shared leadership not a single captain who has absolute authority over the whole ship.
I have a friend who has taught pastoral theology for years who doesn’t like the notion of “lay” elders. In other words, the way to determine what a church needs is, as it grows, when will it be able to afford more dedicated workers? Of course, dedicated elders are a lofty ideal and, elders who can be provided for by the assembly is the goal, but in church planting, even the first elder may have to work to provide for his family. Does this make him less qualified to be an elder? At various points in my ministry, I hung drywall and worked as an EMT out of necessity. If a man is going to be a “lay” elder, regardless of his work outside church, he must commit himself to do the requisite work in the assembly to carry out elder function.
It is important to remember that elders are not a panacea to solve all the problems within a local congregation. Elders are good and the multiplication of them should accompany the growth of the church. But simply having them will not insure that a church will weather the storms that come her way. Elders only work when they work . . . when those who serve as elders are committed to follow the duties of an elder. In recent weeks, I have pointed out churches that have had elders but either some elders refused to work with the other elders, or some elders refused to follow the decisions of the majority. In these cases, the churches have been thrown into turmoil. Elders only work when they work. What about arguments for a single pastor as the best model? I will address this question next week. May God grant his grace to do things decently and in order to his glory!