Friday, November 02, 2007

Ruling Elders in Baptist Churches (Part 4 )

Continued from Part 3 of 4

Second, Presbyterian polity teaches that God’s governmental order is elder-ruled, not congregational. Au contraire! Congregational government has solid Biblical ground. In Acts 6, the congregation governed in selecting deacons and presenting them to the apostles who did not question the democratic power of the congregation but commissioned them.

In Acts 13, the Antioch congregation, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, commissioned Barnabas and Saul. In Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council on the efficacy of Gentile conversion was composed of the whole Jerusalem congregation, apostles, leaders, and believers from across the Mediterranean.[1]

Third, beyond the obvious, that Presbyterian polity is designed for Presbyterians, not Baptists, there is a more important reason for steering clear of ruling elders in our Southern Baptist churches: It is not Biblical.

In my reading of Scripture, the term elder refers not to a self-elected clique who controls church finances and operations, but instead refers to what we today call pastors. Deacons, in turn, function as practical-needs ministers to the community and the church fellowship.

In Titus, the exhortation to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5) means to appoint a plurality of pastors in every municipality who oversee as shepherds the local bodies entrusted to their care (Acts 20:28).
[2] What is often proposed in elder-rule among Baptists amounts to an unelected, self-perpetuating board of deacons. That puts us back at square one.

Fourth, what about the doctrine of the priesthood of believers? Norman Maring and Winthrop Hudson wrote, “When Baptists . . . advocated a congregational form of church government, they did not do so because it offered a convenient administrative procedure by which decisions could be reached easily by a show of hands. They did so because they believed that Christ intended the full participation of the members of the church in its total life, as implied in the doctrine of the priesthood of believers.”

The Biblical model for church governance is both elders and deacons,[4] and that is what the Baptist congregational model provides.[5] Elders (pastors) tend to the spiritual needs of the church,[6] and deacons tend to the practical needs of the people of God (Acts 6). Indeed, in Southern Baptist history, the elder or elders were the pastors of the churches.[7]

Baptist polity incorporates both elders (pastors) and deacons already. What we need is not a new church government. We need to train our deacons in biblical models of servant ministry.[8]

[1] James Leo Garrett, Jr., “The Congregation-Led Church,” in Brand and Norman, 165-6.
[2] Further, Paul tells Titus to ordain/appoint the elders. Southern Baptists do not ordain ruling elders, but instead sees elders as pastors, an office Baptists have always affirmed and ordained.
[3] Garrett, 179-80.
[4] Gerald Cowen, Who Rules the Church? Examining Congregational Leadership and Church Government, (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2003), 13-14.
[5] Hobbs, 178, 183-191.
[6] Dever, 24. Dever says, “remember that the preacher, or pastor, is also fundamentally one of the elders of his congregation.”
[7] Ibid, 20-21. What Dever misunderstands is that the titles pastor and elder were interchangeable, not some lost-treasure, Calvinistic underpinning of Baptist churches.
[8]Ibid, 12.