New Testament missions
I once heard a seminary professor pose this question: is the church a monarchy, an oligarchy, or a democracy? At the time I didn’t know why, but the question rubbed me the wrong way. My time at Bethany has helped me understand what bugged me about the question. The entire premise was wrong. The church is not comparable to a civil government. Its government has a much different dynamic and makeup: it’s the government of a family.
One of the things that distinguishes Bethany Baptist Church from most Fundamental Regular Baptist churches is our commitment to an elder-led church government. We hold this position because we believe it best follows the patterns, teachings, and principles of the New Testament. We believe that under Christ the local church is to be led by a plurality of biblically qualified elders who lovingly and humbly shepherd and oversee the flock of God with the consent and support of the congregation.
A plurality of elders
Before we get started, let’s define what I mean by “elder”. “Elder”, “bishop”, and “pastor” are all names for the same New Testament office. “Elder” describes the office itself. It’s an old term that speaks of dignity and maturity. “Pastor” and “bishop” describe what an elder does. Pastoring is shepherding, which speaks of leading, nourishing, protecting, and giving care and provision. Bishop means overseer, and speaks of the elder’s leadership and supervisory role in the church. We do not make a distinction between “teaching elders” and “ruling elders”. We believe that all elders are teaching, leading pastors with the full duties of the office.
This does not mean that all the elders have identical roles and functions. There are varying levels of gifts, abilities, and opportunities. One of our elders is paid full time to enable him to devote more time to pastoral work. Another elder (yours truly) is bi-vocational. The other elder serves without monetary compensation. And yet, all three of us equally hold the office of an elder with all the authority and responsibility that the New Testament gives it. The paid elders do not hold more authority than the non-paid elder(s). Likewise, each elder should take seriously his responsibility to shepherd and oversee God’s precious church.
Some believe that this position is inconsistent with Baptist polity. However, Kevin Bauder, in his book Baptist Distinctives, argues that a plurality of elders is an acceptable Baptist position, concluding, “Even a cursory reading of the New Testament leads to the conclusion that plural eldership was quite common during the apostolic era…If plural eldership were impermissible, surely the apostles would have corrected the churches that implemented it. They did not. Rather, the apostles themselves appear to have been responsible for it. In view of the widespread practice of the New Testament churches, it hardly seems possible to argue that every church must be limited to a single pastor”. The “traditional” Baptist practice of a single pastor, a board of deacons, and monthly business meetings where the church votes on everything is a relatively new concept. Charles Spurgeon, possibly the greatest Baptist preacher ever, had elders in his church, as have many other Baptist churches throughout history.
But more than being compatible with Baptist theology, the practice of a plurality of elders is extremely biblical. It was clearly the pattern of the New Testament churches.
Acts 14:23: “And when they had ordained elders [plural] in every church [singular], and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.” It was a key part of Paul’s missionary strategy to appoint multiple elders at each individual church.
Acts 15:2: “When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain other of them go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders [plural] about this question.” When Paul and Barnabas went to the Jerusalem church to settle the question of circumcision, they met with a plurality of elders who were all responsible to protect the church from false doctrine.
Acts 20:17: “And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders [plural] of the church [singular].” Another example of multiple elders in a single church.
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 [plural] and deacons.” At the church in Philippi, there were multiple elders. Notice also that both bishops and deacons are mentioned in the plural. Both those positions were filled by several people in this local church.
There were also commands given to church members, that presume that there would be multiple elders in a single church.
James 5:14a: “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders [plural] of the church [singular].” There were multiple elders at the church and each of these elders were to care for the members of their congregation. The commands of this verse (“call for the elders”) cannot be literally obeyed unless there is more than one pastor in a church.
“And we beseech you, brethren, to know them [plural] which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them [plural] very highly in love for their [plural] work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves.” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13) Paul takes it for granted that there would be multiple ministers in the church, laboring in the Word, that were to be honored by the congregation.
Hebrews 13:17: “Obey them [plural] that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they [plural] watch for your souls, as they [plural] that must give account, that they [plural] may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” If the Hebrew Christians had a single pastor, why would the inspired author command them to obey multiple people? The author clearly has in view a plurality of pastors that led the congregation and who were to be obeyed by the church members.
The plain and simple reading of these texts would lead a Christian to believe in the plurality of elders. Even one critic of plural eldership admits that “the New Testament appears to allow for a plurality of pastors in each local church”. We believe that churches should, at the very least, be extremely cautious in straying from such clear scriptural pattern.
Apart from being biblical, I see great practical value to this approach. Single pastor churches ask something rather unfair of their pastor. He’s expected to be omni-gifted, everywhere at once, on top of every problem, the sole bearer of leadership’s burdens, and singly responsible for an organism as precious as the church of God. Functionally, most churches recognize this and often take on associate pastors. Though many avoid the terminology, technically speaking, any church that has an associate pastor has a plurality of elders.
A council of pastors provides the church with the blessing of multiple brothers with different gifts, abilities, and passions. The elders themselves must learn to humbly submit to each other, yielding rather than acting like monarchs. Together they can care for the flock with an effectiveness that is beyond the scope of any one person.
The authority of the elders
I want to return to my opening comments about the church as a family. In most churches, the relationship between the leadership and the congregation is like that of a power-hungry government and a suspicious population. There’s mistrust, tension, jealousy, and competition. The “board” tries to get by with as much as possible. They’ll find creative ways to avoid constitutional requirements and get their own way. The congregation, for their part, is adamant in their resolve not to be “taken”. Everyone wants their slice of the power pie. Business meetings are displays of conflicts, politicking, and self-assertion.
In contrast, the Bible presents the local church as a family (1 Timothy 3:15). In the family, there’s a real authority structure (Ephesians 5:22-6:4). But in a godly home, husbands and parents do not mistreat their wife and children. Rather, they earn their respect with a pattern of self-sacrifice and service. With the exception of parents of young children, authority figures in the family have no ability to force their opinions or desires onto those under them. A husband can’t coerce his wife into submitting to him. Parents can’t make adult children do anything. All they can do is persuade. They must earn the confidence of those under them, patiently teaching from the Word and leading by example. Only after earning the respect of those under them, can family leaders effectively “govern” their fellow family members.
The dynamic of family government is one of love, respect, and trust. That is the environment we’re trying to create at Bethany. In the church, pastor-elders have real, authentic authority as Spirit-appointed overseers of God’s flock (Acts 20:28). This is an authority that the congregation is to respect and joyfully submit to. This is a point on which the Scripture is quite clear:
“Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” (Hebrews 13:17) The author of Hebrews stresses that it is in the self-interest of the church members to submit to the church leadership. Godly elders watch for the souls of their church members, who should do everything possible to aid that effort.
“And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves.” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13) We are to know, honor, and love the pastors-teachers of our church. This helps secure peace in the church.
“Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in the word and doctrine. Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses.” (1 Timothy 5:17, 19) Elders are to be given considerable honor. While they are accountable for their actions, we should be careful not to accuse them without due process.
The church is to honor and obey its elders. But what should the elders’ attitude be? To see themselves as God’s anointed lords over the church? To act as tyrannical rulers, doing what they please regardless of congregation’s desires? God forbid!
Elders are to be good shepherds who die daily for God’s flock (John 10:11). They are not to lord their authority over God’s heritage. Rather they are to humbly lead by example (1 Peter 5:3). From their perspective, respect and submission is something they must earn. They strive to be the kind of Christians that other believers will want to follow.
Elders are accountable to God for how they ministry. Our Lord’s brother said, “My brethren, be not many masters, knowing we shall receive the greater condemnation.” The word “masters” means “teachers” and would certainly include elders. Those who lead and teach in the church will be held to a higher standard. Likewise, Hebrews 13:17 also has a warning to elders. “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” (emphasis added) Elders will be held accountable for how they shepherd God’s flock.
Furthermore, we recognize that church members are not idiots or infants. They’re competent believer-priests. In the Scripture, authority is not the rule of the competent over the incompetent. Often, it’s the loving leadership of equals over equals. A husband is not superior to his wife, but he does have a different role. He should treat her with honor and respect, valuing her counsel, and seeking to win her trust. For her part, a wife should respect her husband’s God-ordained role and joyfully submit to his leadership. In the same way, elders should value each church member as a joint-heir with Jesus Christ, even as the congregation respects the unique role of the elders. The New Testament does not pit elders and the congregation against each other, but presents a model of cooperation and mutual respect.
Technically, Bethany Baptist is a congregationalist church. We believe that each congregation is autonomous and that for elders to operate apart from the consent, support, and backing of the corporate body defies the New Testament pattern (Acts 6:1-6, 15:22). We do hold regular meetings. And, yes, there is voting involved. But we never want these meetings to be boxing matches between the elders and congregants. Rather, they’re family meetings in which matters of ministry are discussed and dealt with.
What separates us from most congregationalist churches in not our management procedures but the spirit and attitude by which we operate. We don’t want to create an environment where individuals battle for control and influence. Rather, we want to foster a biblical atmosphere where each member understands his duties to God’s church and, in love, seeks his brother’s interests above his own. Though the “buck stops” with the elders, any elder that would force his will against the consensus of the church is not qualified for his office. Voting is not a mechanism of power but a means of gaging the sentiments of the corporate body.
When I first came to Bethany, I was completely unfamiliar with the concept of an elder-led government. I quickly fell in love with the concept as I discovered the scriptural basis and observed the practical benefits of being pastored by a team of godly men. Becoming an elder myself has only increased my appreciation for the New Testament model. I’m thankful to God for the blessings of His design.
Manfred E. Kober, The Case for the Singularity of Pastors (Ankeny, IA; Faith Baptist Bible College) p. 2
Kevin Bauder, Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Order (Schaumburg, IL: Regular Baptist Press, 2012) p. 102-3
Kober, Singularity of Pastors p. 2
Constitution of Bethany Baptist Church, article V, section VI