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

by | Aug 25, 2021 | Theological Issues | 0 comments

My introduction into Baptist life came in the mid-1970s when as a 15-year-old youth, I started attending a Southern Baptist church in Marietta, GA, Calvary Baptist. The church was then pastored by John Darnell, and he began to discuss with me my relationship with the Lord. Having trusted Christ through the influence of a Gideon’s New Testament, he informed me of my need of baptism (immersion) and soon I was dunked in a tank in the church basement. I became a “Baptist” because I got all wet!

I didn’t really know what a Baptist was, but I began to hear Bible preaching for the first time in my life. Before long, I was invited to a youth prayer meeting sponsored by another church, Piedmont Baptist Church, then under the capable leadership of Clifton C. Duvall. I was inclined to attend these youth Bible study and prayer meetings because some of my high school friends attended, especially those of the more delicate gender! Yes, I went to a church meeting for the wrong reason. At that meeting, as an eleventh-grade male, I met the young lady who would eventually become the love of my life about seven years later.

I went pretty regularly and started hanging out with the youth group. I attended and later joined the church. I began singing in the youth choir. I had a youth pastor in those days, Greg Merritt, who went on to become the first 21st century president of the SBC. Not sure why Greg started going by James, but I knew him as Greg. Anyway. it was a decent group of Southern Baptists who loved the Lord. Bro. Cliff was the pastor and there were deacons, some who smoked (one brother told me he started smoking before it became a sin) and some who didn’t. I couldn’t say how qualified they were as spiritual men. I was new on my discipleship journey, so such things were above my pay grade. The important thing is that there were no elders in the church. Just deacons and what they did, I really didn’t know.

I attended this church until college. At Bob Jones University, I began to hear that the SBC was full of “liberals.” Well as an eager Bible college student with a desire to learn the Word, I thought who wants to hang with liberals? (There is a gap here recounting just how I got to BJU and why which is worth rehearsing but would take too long to tell and doesn’t contribute to this essay). That summer I worked at a Christian camp and decided to join the church where the camp director was a member, a good independent Baptist church in Madison, IN, today Grace Baptist Church, pastored by my long-time friend Joel Almaroad. This was now the third church of which I had been a member and like the previous two, it also had deacons but no elders. Bro. Joel had been a part of a church in south Georgia that was Southern Baptist in its origination and it had deacons but no elders. He grew up in a church with deacons only, so that’s the kind of a church he started.

I remain connected with Grace through my university years, eventually returning to Indiana to serve as an assistant pastor. As a student living in Greenville, I attended Mt Calvary Baptist Church for a while, under the new ministry of Jesse Boyd, an ex SB man who had dropped out of his PhD at New Orleans over the liberalism of Frank Stagg. What made Mt Calvary unique was that they had elders. Huh? I thought that was a Presbyterian thing. Seemed that some Baptist churches had elders. I don’t think that church was elder run, but elder led. I attended a variety of churches over my six years in Greenville, partially to see how others did ministry. Some of these churches were out of town and I served in them for the school year, but Mount Calvary was the only church I had ever attended with elders.

I finished my studies at BJ in 1980, earning both a B.A. and an M.A. I had gained a good basic grasp of the Bible, some Greek, less Hebrew. I had no church history, no pastoral theology beyond what incidental training happened in a class called “Preacher Boys.” After five years of preparation, I was ready to go out and conquer the world. (Well, maybe not!) Boy did I have a lot to learn! My fiancée and I were married after grad school and we were accepted to go to Canada to work among the indigenous peoples in a place called Hole River in Manitoba. It was a great place to live, at the mouth of the Wanipigow River. I could hunt and fish all I wanted. The people generally accepted our ministry, and we are still “connected” to many today, thanks to Facebook. I could give a decent bible study, but how to plant and grow a church? Not much hope there. As far as discipleship and ecclesiology, I was bewildered.

In four years, our ministry came to an end, and we decided to go further north to a town in Alberta, High Level, where we spent four years trying to establish the MacKenzie Highway Baptist Church. We were moving toward constituting the church when Joshua, our youngest, was born, ten weeks early, so after he came home from the hospital, we began to consider a change in location. Clearly, I needed more training and Joshua needed better health care. We decided to go to Windsor, Ontario so he could get the care he needed and so I could attend the Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. Thankfully at Detroit, many of the holes in my education were filled in—church history, Baptist theology and polity, counseling, etc. I also pastored a small church in Windsor, Emmanuel Baptist. Again, as has been the case in my journey, in all these places—High Level, Windsor, Detroit, I was following a pastor/deacon approach to ministry with no consideraton of elders. We had deacons at Emmanuel. As far as I know, that’s all they ever had.

Sometime during my years in Windsor (the 1990s), I became aware of a booklet Mark Dever had written, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (1997). It wasn’t the book that it is today, just a pamphlet, outlining Mark’s ecclesiological views including elders. Here was the first real biblical argument for elders. I don’t know when 9Marks began having weekenders where this approach to ecclesiology was discussed, but I never had a chance to attend one. Nor did I remain at Emmanuel long enough to think about moving the church toward elders. There was pushback in my circles over the idea anyway, but as time went on at Emmanuel, I tried structuring the deacon meetings toward what I later learned was at least elder-like (whether intentionally or because I just thought our spiritual men should do more spiritual ministry). We talked about the spiritual needs of the assembly and prayed for members who struggled. We tried to dispense with the business of the church (financial issues) early in the meeting so we could devote our time to important issues (soul care). I also encouraged the godly men at the church to take a more active role in the ministry of the Word. I had several good men who could fill the pulpit and they gladly did so.

I tried not to press my agenda for the church but always wished for consensus in our meetings. Emmanuel was a blue-collar church. Some of the men worked at automotive plants in town and were used to “punching out” at the end of their shift. When quitting time came, the work stopped. One of my predecessors joked with the men that they should bring their lunch to church in case the sermon went long. The expectation was that the church should stop by noon whether the sermon was done or not. I suggested at one deacon’s meeting that we talk to the church to see if they would agree to shift the Sunday AM meetings by a half hour so that the morning service would begin at 10:30. That way no matter how long I preached, we would be sure to be done before noon. Of course, we could have just made a decision to move the meeting time, but we believed in congregationalism, so we wanted congregational input. After a few weeks of discussing things among the members and discussing this among ourselves, we decided that it was not in the best interest of congregational harmony to try to change the service times. This is how we tried to manage things—get a sense of the congregation’s attitude before we moved forward with major issues.

During my time there, I came up with the bright idea that we needed a new piano. I did some research and presented my findings to the deacons. The intent was then to gauge the interest of the congregation before a formal recommendation was put to a vote. But the issue never went to the assembly because the leadership couldn’t reach a consensus. There was resistance over the cost and the timing of the project. Therefore, the idea was withdrawn. Ironically, a few years later, we did buy a new piano with congregational approval. Later in my pastorate, I was criticized because I always got what I wanted. Well, truth be told, sometimes what “I wanted” did not receive consensus support from the leadership, so what I wanted was tabled. This was precisely what happened in the case of the time change and the new piano. No consensus, no putting these to the congregation for a vote. I figured that if the church leadership was split on a decision, the congregation was bound to be divided also. But the congregation wasn’t always aware of the discussions in our meetings where some of my ideas never went far for lack of consensus.

At the end of the day, I tried to operate the church on what I would later understand as an elder model. If I were to take a church today, it would either be a church already committed to elders, or one that would be open to being taught on the importance of elder leadership—not elder rule, where the elders make the decisions and the congregation has little input but elder led, where a group or plurality of good and godly men lead the church in its service to Christ.

Next week, I want to offer some observations on elder leadership in Baptist churches. How many does a church need, how are they to function, who should be an elder? But for now, this will serve as an introduction to my journey to understand elder plurality. 2 Tim 2:2 “what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.”

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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