Elders: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Part 2

by | Aug 31, 2021 | Ministerial Life | 0 comments

Last week I began a series on elders in Baptist life by describing my own church journey. I have never been a member of a church that had elders but if I were to start a church today, I would definitely do so on an elder model. Seems like an odd position . . . to believe in elders, but not now or ever to have been a member of a church with elders. Let me explain. In a later essay, I will discuss my view on elder plurality. Coincidentally, as I began to write this essay, word came out about a church in South Carolina whose elders recently accepted the resignation of its pastor, effective immediately, citing unspecified conflict with those elders, only to have him return to the church pulpit the following Sunday after the congregation decided that it wished for him to stay. The only way he is willing to stay was if the church “gets healthy” by changing its governing structure from elders, to vesting control of the church into the hands of the pastors, with the oversight of outside counselors. For now, the pastor is taking time off to “get healthy” himself, but he has agreed to return to the pulpit if his conditions are met. The pastor cited the church’s governance as the reason the church never went past about 1500 in attendance and used the illustration of a man who has been married three times—either he makes poor choices in the women he married, or the problem is not with the women but with him. The church will celebrate twenty-nine years since it was founded this fall, and it has had three lead pastors during that time, none of whom left under a scandal. The problem must be the governance structure—the elders are keeping the church from growing as it would under the proper (pastor-controlled) leadership.

The church’s elders resigned but rescinded their resignation because of governance issues, while there is a plan to restructure the church. Now there are two parties vying for control. The elders have accused the former pastor of breaching his commitment to leave as a condition of his generous one-year salary severance package. Concerns over the appropriateness of pursuing this through the courts are in the minds of some. Dissidents have started a Facebook page to share their concerns which has over 740 members but is a closed group. Needless to say, this story has been criticized by some and is a sad illustration that elders only work when they work.

At this point, I make no judgment as to which side is in the right. The church’s statement about elders is well written and in accordance with biblical teaching. The church website outlines (as of August 25, 2021) the function and authority for elders.

BIBLICAL AND PRACTICAL FUNCTIONS OF BEACH CHURCH ELDERS

Doctrine – Elders are to teach, guard, and advance God’s truth by holding strong to the written revelation of God – the Bible – and calling everyone else to do the same. Doctrine is to be accurately and soundly expressed by the Scriptures and then taught and applied to individuals in ways that instruct, exhort, correct and equip us to walk in the truth, focused on Christ Jesus, illuminated and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Discernment – Elders are guided by the Spirit regarding His will and way for His Body, the church. They are under-shepherds following Christ’s leading – The Chief Shepherd – and with discernment then leading His people.

Direction – Elders have a biblical and practical responsibility to provide direction for the overall ministry and the ministry leaders of the church. This would include determining what God would have us do, why and how He would have us do it, and who would be responsible for the different aspects of accomplishing His will in these initiatives. Biblical, clear, practical, and measurable direction for the overall church is part of the elders function.

Discipleship – Elders are to be models and reproducers of Bible-centered, Christ-focused, Spirit-energized transforming disciple makers.

Biblical Reconciliation/Restoration – Elders are called to lead out in teaching and equipping the body to live in harmony and unity. They are to live and lead as those who help restore relationships, deal with sin in pursuit of forgiveness and healing, and establish ways for the body to grow stronger and healthier in all aspects of their lives.

Shepherding – Protecting, living alongside (knowing!), guiding, feeding, etc.

Biblical Qualities of Elders1 Timothy 3:1-7; 1 Peter 5:1-8; Act 20:28; Titus 1:6-9

This accords with the clear teaching of Scripture. Elders are the best understanding of the Biblical narrative, yet I have never been a part of an elder-led church. I didn’t come to this conclusion until more than two decades in ministry. I mentioned previously that Nine Marks of a Healthy Church was my first real acquaintance for elders in Baptist life. My background and experiences were all under the pastor led/pastor-controlled model. Most of the guys I knew led with a light touch, although there were plenty of stories of churches in my circles where the pastor controlled everything. The founding pastor at Emmanuel was a simple Bible school man with a limited education. I was told that his wife would take the offering plates and “dump the contents into her purse.” Yet there was not a whiff of scandal surrounding this brother or his ministry. That’s just the way they did things in the 1950s. I informed my deacons on several occasions, that while I reserved the right to make certain decisions, even vetoing theirs, I hoped that I would never have to exercise that right. Thankfully, I never did. Of course, that is not a statement I would make today. The men were gracious and understood that it wasn’t my intention to lord over them. I just held a high view of pastoral authority. I was thinking of the spiritual direction of the church, not mundane things like the color of the carpet. I couldn’t care less what color the church was, I only wished for consensus on the part of others.

I have known of pastors that made virtually all decisions concerning their church. The voice of the congregation is seldom heard, and his will is the only will that mattered. Decisions were made in advance of church meetings and taking a vote of the congregation was merely to ratify previously made decisions and give the appearance of congregationalism. Of course, elders aren’t necessarily tasked with color decisions, but what exactly is their role? I will come to that in time.

How did I come to believe in elders, but never be a part of a church with elders? I began to consider elders as the best model for church leadership, as I taught at a seminary where membership in the church that started the seminary was a requirement. The church has always been pastor led. I happily submitted to that situation and tried to be careful as I taught ecclesiology, never wanting to appear to be critical of the church, either in its theology or in its praxis. I thought it would be unethical to do so and tried to exercise caution. Nevertheless, biblical elders became clear to me.

So why didn’t I just change churches? While I believed that elders (plural) and deacons is the intent of the Pauline texts (e.g. 1 Tim. 3), it seemed to me that many Baptist churches, although not having men whose formal title was “elder,” in practice, functioned with de facto elders. The pastoral staff and some deacons shared the spiritual ministry of the flock. This raises an important question. How many elders does a church need? The Bible doesn’t specify a certain number of either elders or deacons. Granted some churches in the New Testament had multiple elders—Ephesus—but the number wasn’t specified or prescribed (Acts 20:17). If one understands Acts 6 as the beginning of the diaconate, then the church at Jerusalem needed seven men to serve for a congregation of three thousand. Why seven? That was how many they needed to get the job done. Given that there is no set number for either office, it seems to me that a church therefore needs what it needs. A small assembly may need only one of each, while a larger congregation may need several elders and several deacons with the numbers expanding as the congregation increases in size.

Simply put, a church needs what it needs! How many individuals are needed to care for the spiritual and material welfare of the assembly? The most compelling reason for elder plurality is that one man cannot shepherd many people well. What is the number of people one man can shepherd? There are varying opinions on this, but common figures suggest 1:100 congregants or 1:150. Obviously, the more people in the assembly, the greater the needs of that assembly. What if a church cannot afford multiple elders? Do all elders/pastors need to be paid? Plenty of ministry men are bi-vocational out of necessity. Why not use deacons to assist? They are to be spiritual men (Act 6:3). Why can’t they help spiritually care for the flock? This is the very thing I tried to do in Windsor. We brought on a seminary student (unpaid) to assist us as well, but I looked for spiritual men in the assembly to help shepherd the flock. Weren’t these men de facto elders? Of course!

My ecclesiology might have been weak on paper, but in practice, it was more biblical. Admittedly, churches with multiple staff do not necessarily operate on the elder model. Many pastors consider their colleagues as men that can simply be hired and fired at their discretion. They are accountable to the pastor and only indirectly to the congregation. They are really assistants to the pastor. They assist in decisions only secondarily. The lead senior pastor makes the important decisions, sometimes with their input, but often without it. One way this works out in practical terms is that when a new pastor assumes leadership, he hires his own staff, men with his philosophy, while existing staff members are released to look for new ministries. This would not ordinarily happen with an elder led church.

Next week I will delve deeper into the nature of elders, their qualifications and duties. I also need to address the plurality of elders. Must all church have multiple elders? Until then, may we seek to think biblically about the church. It’s Christ’s and he gets to set the terms of its structure.

Jeff Straub

Jeff Straub

Church Historian

Jeff is an experienced professor of Christian history and theology. He regularly travels internationally to train Christian leaders. When stateside, he publishes in the field of American religion. Research interests include Baptists and slavery, racism, Pentecostalism, and global Christianity. Jeff has taught around the world including Canada where he resided with his family for his first nineteen years of ministry; Romania, Russia and the Ukraine in Europe; India and a limited access country in Asia; and Zambia and Kenya in Africa.

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