I am stepping out of my hiatus for one post because I have been provoked by thoughts on elders in Baptist life. In the most recent issue of Deacon magazine, Greg Pouncey, Pastor of First Baptist Church Tillman’s Corner, Mobile, Alabama, contributes an article entitled, “The Reemergence of Elders in Baptist Life” 38:4 (Summer 2008): 28-31. I found a fair and balanced discussion in the article for the most part, although I wish the article could have given more space to the analysis of the Scriptures; (but I know that editors place limitations or word count on these types of articles). Yet I took issue with the section on “potential weaknesses of the elder system” (31).
As one who is pastor of a congregation that has recently transitioned to an elder-led congregationalism, I am quite excited about the men Hillcrest has affirmed as “Acting Elders” from April through October, 2008. I hope many other Baptist churches will experience the joy of having men leading who have the highest composite of Christian character, who are skilled to teach the whole counsel of God, who hold a clear vision of the relationship between Christ, his work, and the kingdom of God, and who serve alongside of their senior pastor in shepherding the people of God through meek, Christlike service.
I am printing my response here because I doubt whether a response this long would be printed in “letters to the editor.” I have written it as a letter to the author of the article.
May 27, 2008
Dear Brother Greg:
I appreciate your article, “The Reemergence of Elders in Baptist Life.” The article was most irenic and very gracious toward those who have come to embrace a model of pastor, elders, and deacons within congregational life. You were very careful to avoid inflammatory terms and words of accusation. I felt that your brotherly tone was a mark of Christian character being carried over to the written page. Thank you for demonstrating grace.
While reading your article I noted several items to which a response seems important. My concern is that some omissions, along with the selected “potential weaknesses” given, might give those skeptical about elder leadership the wrong idea about what Biblical elderships means for a local congregation. Armed with your article as the approach to this issue, members of congregations might find good reasons to dismiss altogether what Scripture has to say about elders.
Here are some of the concerns I see, along with some responses and suggestions:
1. It is true that “today, most leaders of the church carry the title of pastor,” and the term used for pastor “signifies a shepherd who tends herds or flocks and renders care and superintendence over his flocks” (29). It is equally true that “pastor,” as a title, only occurs once in the New Testament in Eph. 4:11, a passage you recognize in relationship to the charge of pastors. Might I suggest you remind people that we recognize a distinct office of pastor based on this one reference in Scripture primarily, although elder or elders appear at least 15 times in the context of church leadership (and overseer/overseers 6 times)? Might I also suggest that it we be good if we inform our audiences that there seems to be more written about elders having a duty to shepherd (Acts 20:28; I Pet 5:2) than there is about pastors having a duty to lead the church?
2. You write that the terms shepherd and overseer(s) “seem interchangeable, as seen in I Peter 5:2, where the overseers are commanded to ‘shepherd God’s flock among you’” (29). You are correct in noting that these terms show some polysemy (but not ambiguity). However, it is elders, not overseers, who are commanded by Peter to “shepherd God’s flock… overseeing” the people of God. Might I suggest this correction so that your audience hears more accurately what the Scriptures say about these offices? This will help congregationalists to see that elders are to “render care and superintendence over” their flocks, just like the one given to the church as a gift-office—the pastor.
3. In your brief discussion of the work of elders in the early church in Acts, you rightly discuss how they closely worked with the Apostles. But in this brief narrative, you left out a handful of very important appearances of elders in the early church. First, you did not mention the appointment of elders in every city in Acts 14:23. (You did mention the appointment passage in Tit. 1:5). This passage is important as it seems to support the idea of the appointment of elders being part of a “Pauline Cycle” in the establishment of a “Pauline Cycle” in the establishment of new churches.1
Second, the charge by the Apostle Paul to the elders at Ephesus is not mentioned. Of great significance in this passage is that Paul can declare himself innocent of accountability for the lives of the members of the church in Ephesus because he has taught the elders the whole counsel of God, modeled before the elders a life conformed to the whole counsel of God, and commended the elders to carry out their tasks by the whole counsel of God—“the word of His grace” (20:32). The accountability for the “blood” of the membership now rested in the hands of men called “elders.” If wolves among them would spill the sheep’s blood, it would be elders who would stand before God for the slaughter. Might I suggest you mention the weightiness of the charge to the Ephesian elders, so that even if people still conclude that there should be a pastor-deacons model, they must hold deacons to this standard of accountability for their souls?
Third, the approach of James and the elders to challenge Paul’s teaching on the Law in the Diaspora is worth mentioning (Acts 21:17-26). It is clear that James is distinguished among the elders, but the elders have authority within the Jerusalem congregation to approach Paul for the sake of the believers in Jerusalem. Might I suggest that you include the fact that Paul submitted himself to the suggestion of James and the elders? Providing this information will allow your audiences to consider the significance of this for the elders’ discussion.
4. Related to the comments about the early church, there is no mention of the role of elders in responding to the sick-bed confession of a repentant church member (Ja. 5:14-15). James is one of the earliest NT epistles, reflecting some of the earliest established ecclesiology within the church. It would seem that the elders in the churches in the Diaspora had authority in discipline, for restorative purposes—that is, for the good of the church. Might I suggest you include this most positive aspect of the responsibility of elders so that elder leadership might be seen for the good that it is? For your readers and listeners this will help round out a picture of the elder in the early church.
5. You have recognized a Biblical distinction between deacons and overseers (29). Might I suggest that you go one step further and indicate that nowhere in Scripture are deacons ever given the authority to lead or rule, but only to serve? This is so, in spite of the fact that The Baptist Faith and Message uses language that is ambiguous about the distinction in the roles of the two offices.
6. When considering the reasons for reemergence of elders within congregationalism today, you conclude that “though churches who have elders appeal to Scripture as their authority, practical issues in the church seem to be the driving force for the reemergence of elders in some churches” (30). This is your opinion, which is to be respected as such. However, it is given without support. I would be concerned that someone prejudiced against the concept of Biblical eldership could use this to suggest Scripture is not the driving force behind the reemergence of elders. Scripture drives me, for one, in looking at God’s plan for his Bride. I think many of our Baptist brothers would say the same. Further, may I suggest that the existence of the perception of a pragmatic motive behind the reemergence is really admittance that our churches are weak in their care and governance in the current models (which you also seem to suggest)? May I go even further than this and say that the congregational men I know who have recovered an elder model have done so in the vein of the Conservative resurgence, i.e., a return to inerrancy and its implications for the life of the church? Also please note that a return to a Biblical model is intended to solve the problem of immature or erring membership (Acts 20:28; Tit. 1:9), which, as a “practical [issue],” is common to much of congregational life? I believe your discussion would achieve greater balance with these inclusions.
7. You express concern about the unfortunate scenario “when one elder gains more influence than necessary and dictates or intimidates the board to do as he wishes” (31). I share this concern. However, please know that if this danger exists, it exists inherently in the teaching of the New Testament, for it is there that elders are given “rule” and “oversight” (cf. Act 20:17ff, I Tim. 5:17; Tit 1:9-10; I Pet. 5:1-2). Authority – that is, godly, God-given, stewardship authority, but authority nonetheless – is given to elders by their responsibility. It is a lead-by-the-whole-counsel-of-God-and-Godly-example-authority, but it is still authority. I am not suggesting that the Lord should not have prescribed such rule to men, for his will is perfect, bringing him glory and fulfilling our joy. I am suggesting that a corruption of power is a risk we take when we choose to live by grace in a world yet to experience the fullness of redemption. This is why it is extremely important that churches give earnest care to making sure the men they nominate and affirm as elders meet all of the qualifications of elders. Such men would be devoid of a power-mongering trait. Might I suggest that you make it clear that damning the alternative is not a proper means of reasoning for one’s preferred position? May I say further that if the concern you expressed is reasonable for elders in rule, it is equally reasonable for any who are in rule? I have been a member and leader in four Baptist churches in my life. In my experience it is common for one or more deacons to exhibit exactly the type of despotism that you depict in your caution about elder rule. Congregations in the pastor-and-deacons model should be concerned about deacons who exhibit ungodly rule and a lack of humility even as much as they are concerned about this on the part of their singular elder known as the pastor.
8. Your last suggested potential weakness of the elder model, “the congregation might become detached from the workings of the church since they have little to say in anything other than the major decisions of the church,” suffers from two flaws. First, elder led churches are intended to be congregational. The intent of changing or transitioning to elders is not to hide information from the congregation or remove them from the decision-making process. This is a common misnomer about elder-led churches.
Second, there is more to church workings than the “vote” (or “say”) of its members. If voting on financial matters, property acquisitions and disbursements, and leadership change is the crux of what keeps congregational saints feeling connected to the (workings of) church, then we are primarily (only?) connected by our feeling able to be in control of the direction of the church. Subtly this is saying that we are connected as long as we have power. However, connectedness does not require power, just as service does not require a title. If members are serving one another and are serving the lost, enjoying Christ-centered fellowship, demonstrating Biblical hospitality, meeting the needs of the saints in love, and praying together, they cannot become divorced from the life of the church—the real workings of the church.
What is needed to maintain connectedness to the working of the church is a recovery of the communion of the saints. Whether elder-lead or otherwise, the members must take up the responsibility to exercise this aspect of meaningful membership. If the concern is about the display of the Gospel among the congregation, then members will find themselves involved in church life as “members of one another” (Rom. 12:5). A church with this sort of maturing membership, guided by men who meet the qualifications of elders and who are carrying out their duties faithfully, would be a great force for the proclamation of the Gospel to places where Christ’s name is not yet known.
Greg, thank you for a good start at approaching an important issue in Baptist life. May the Lord’s grace be upon you as you lead his people by means of the whole counsel of God, including all that it teaches about elders. I hope to see you at the Annual Meeting in Indy in two weeks. If you will be there, let’s make plans to greet one another. I’ll set aside a copy of my book to give to you, my brother in the Lord.
Rev. Eric C. Redmond
Pastor, Hillcrest Baptist Church
Second Vice President, Southern Baptist Convention
1. David J. Hesslegrave, Planting Churches Cross-Culturally, 2nd ed. [Grand
Rapids: Baker, 2000]). Elders, as this view argues, were a normal part of
establishing each church; (see “every church” in 14:23).