Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Ruling Elders in Baptist Churches (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1 of 4

The issue here is whether ruling elders, from Presbyterian polity, should be part of a Baptist church. The question itself seems incongruent. Ruling elders are Presbyterian, not Baptist. If you want ruling elders, there's a simple way to get them. Leave the Baptists and become Presbyterian. The notion is akin to going to an Argentine steakhouse and demanding to know if they have Chinese dim sum on the menu. If you want dim sum, go to a Chinese restaurant. If you want ruling elders, join a Presbyterian church. They are still taking new members last time I checked.

But that is not the real issue here. There is a political and historical context behind the illogical construct presented here. That context is current Southern Baptist life and the perceived failure of the ministry of deacons among Southern Baptists.

To be fair to deacons, their function has become skewed since the advent of professional pastors who come and go from churches. Deacons, especially in rural settings, have been forced to provide continuity for the congregation in the absence of an elder/pastor, and thus became a board of directors.

Because of the leadership failures of deacons in the local church over the last half century, many Southern Baptists have a distaste for deacons. Deacons have become a separate power block in the church, through which administrative decisions must be passed like a second house of the legislature.

Deacons and their ‘boards’ have given themselves a bad name in Southern Baptist churches because of their election based on popularity and not true spiritual authority, their low level of discipleship, their lack of intimacy with Christ, or even the absence of personal salvation.

Then there is their reputation for power grabs for control of the church, their adversarial relationships with pastoral leadership, an attitude that in ‘my’ church we are going to do it ‘my’ way, and sometimes blatant immorality. In many instances, the old ‘deacon board’ in praxis already amounts to a session of ruling elders.

That great Baptist divine James Randolph Hobbs writes, “Deacons should remember that they have no authority over the church and that they cannot take any action that is final. It is well that this should be definitely understood because in not a few Baptist churches of our land the Board of Deacons is now functioning very much as the Session of a Presbyterian church, exercising the authority of the church. This is absolutely contrary to Baptist usage and principles.”[2]

Accordingly, some Southern Baptists have looked for an alternative to what some would call deacon-possessed churches.
An attractive alternative for many Southern Baptists has been elder-led churches, that is, the Presbyterian idea of ruling elders. In their glee to dump deacons, some Southern Baptists do not notice a few important changes with ruling elders that can make deacons look like schoolboys in knee britches.

Article continued in Part 3 of 4

[1] Mark E. Dever, A Display of God’s Glory: Basics of Church Structure, (Washington: Center for Church Reform), 12.
[2] James Randolph Hobbs, The Pastor’s Manual, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1962), 197-8.