SBC Tomorrow welcomes William Harrell as guest contributor*
Over the last several years there have been a number of changes which are causing confusion in Southern Baptist ranks. Those changes, if incorporated into our Southern Baptist Zion, will make us look and act more like Presbyterians than Baptists. I will not attempt to define what all those changes are, but I do want to focus on one in particular. I have observed that many Baptist churches which try to institute the office of elder in their Baptist way of church life, find themselves suddenly embroiled in controversy. This does not happen every time, but the problem arises frequently because good Baptist people realize that having the office of elder in their church is something outside the normal practice of our Baptist heritage...>>>
It appears to me that the more the Calvinistic theological model is employed, the more an involved pastor will want to bring the elder system of church governance into the church. Confused by this action, many people resist, asking why this is being done. Others know so little doctrine that they fail to perceive the new direction which is quite different from the traditional one. Many times churches placed in this situation either split or go through a lengthy internal struggle, an unnecessary struggle in my view. The problem may be stated succinctly: the manner in which the “office” of elder is being employed in the new model is not Biblical. Consequently, when a pastor imposes on his church the office of elder as an additional office to the Pastor and deacons, he is asking his church to adopt an office which the Bible knows nothing about.
Consider: in the New Testament Church there are only two offices mentioned--Pastor and Deacon. One has to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel in order to force the office of elder into the system. First Peter 5:1-6 remains a very important passage which offers clarity to our understanding of biblical church governance. Three words are indicative of the clarity we assert: “elder” (v.1), “feed” (v.2), and “taking the oversight” (v.2). All three of these terms refer to the same person, the person serving as Pastor of the church.
The term “elder”(v.1) is presbuteros. One can easily see the resemblance between that word and the word “Presbyterian.” It is translated “elder” and refers to the Pastor serving as spiritual statesman of the church. In other words, the Pastor is the one who sets the theological agenda for the church. He is the one to whom the people to get spiritual guidance . The Pastor sets the tone for the spiritual depth of the church. He is the elder; but he is not a separate person from the Pastor. He is one and the same.
In verse two, we find the word, “feed.” The word translated “feed” is poimen and refers to the spiritual leader, the Pastor. In addition, the verb form of the word translated “feed” is poimaino; it refers to one who rules and acts as shepherd. That is, the Pastor tends the flock. He takes care of them and guides them. The problems of the church are brought to him. The sick depend on him. The instruction which properly guides the church is given by the Pastor. He “feeds” the flock by preaching to them and instructing them in God’s Word. In fact, preaching is his main task, and a church which has a Pastor who spends the proper time preparing to preach God’s Word, is a fortunate church indeed.
Sadly, this portion of the Pastor’s duties is usually the one on which he spends the least time. One of our greatest problems today is that our Baptist people don’t know what they believe nor why they believe what they do believe. Too frequently, the fault for this resides squarely in the lap of the preachers. While the Pastor can’t make his congregation absorb what he preaches, neither can he expect them to be correct in doctrine unless he feeds them the Word. So, the Pastor is both the elder statesman (v.1) and the shepherd (v.2).
Furthermore, we find the phrase ”taking the oversight” relevant to a biblical understanding of “elder” as well (v.2). The phrase “taking the oversight” is one word in the Greek—episkopos—and means “overseer.” Sounding similar to “Episcopal,” it is the word from which we get the term “Bishop.” Therefore, it refers to the Pastor as overseer or administrator of the church, managing the affairs of the church. Any church which is run by a committee will have problems because the biblical approach is for the Pastor to be the one overseeing the church. The point is not that committees are unnecessary, Indeed we could not run the church without committees to take care of various functions. Rather, the point is, committees must come under the supervision of the Pastor who serves as the overseer--the Bishop—of the church.
In verse one, the Apostle Peter says ”The elders which are among you I exhort.” He then goes on in to give them the exhortation and instruction concerning the function of elders. He says “lead your people spiritually; preach to them; feed them God’s Word; guide them properly”….(Harrell paraphrase). Moreover, he tells them ”take charge; manage the situation; oversee the church.” So it is easy to see that Peter was not offering instruction about three people in multiple roles but one person in multiple functions—the Pastor.
Those who institute the office of “elder” in the church are forming a new office the Bible does not institute itself. Biblically, the only two offices in the church are the Pastor and the Deacon. Consider the Apostle Paul’s instructions to Timothy (3:1-10). In referring to the Pastor (vv.1-6), Paul points to the administrative portion of the Pastor’s task when he refers to him as “bishop” (v.1). Later, Paul says that the deacon must qualify for his position just as the Pastor does (v.8). Notice the Apostle Paul mentions only two offices: Bishop (administrator, manager, Pastor and elder statesman) and deacon. The deacons neither run the church nor are given the task of setting church agenda. That is the job of the Bishop (administrator; manager). Instead, the deacon is a servant (diakanos). Deacons assist the Pastor in serving the church’s needs. Hence, deacons biblically constitute the second office in the church.
Paul also deals with the same subject in Titus (1:5-9). Paul tells Titus to “ordain elders in every city” as I had appointed thee (v.5). Afterward, he lays down the pastoral qualifications (v.6), and then says ”For a bishop must be blameless…” (v.7). It remains obvious by his wording that the “elder” (v.5) is also the “bishop” (v.7).
Baptists are, as every Baptist ought to know, a congregational people. They don’t have a hierarchy over them to govern them as other denominations do. Every pastor should be a “pastor-teacher.” That term is used by Paul in Ephesians 4:11 where the Apostle is talking about the gifts given to the church. A.T. Robertson observes that Paul lumped the two designations together. The two words should be hyphenated designating that it is actually one individual. Thus, the Pastor feeds the flock, rules the flock, guides the flock, and, according to the Apostle Paul’s instructions to Timothy, teaches the flock.
Finally, we do well to remember when Baptists institute a model for church polity which includes the office of elder in addition to the Pastor and deacons, they are actually violating the Baptist Faith and Message which serves as our doctrinal guide as Southern Baptists. The Baptist Faith and Message recognizes only two offices in congregational polity-- Pastor and deacon. While we are not a creedal people, and therefore have no ultimate authority but the Bible, we nonetheless have a confession which clearly demonstrates our theological heritage. And, our confession states, as does the New Testament, we historically have only two church offices, neither of which is the “elder” in its extra-biblical sense.
One may see how the terms “teaching elder” and “ruling elder” are confusing if they refer to someone other than the Pastor. It seems to me that they are actually calling an assistant to the Pastor an “elder.” If that is what some are referring to then they are wrong again because those staff members performing certain tasks are not the elder but an assistant to the Pastor. Associate to the Pastor in Education or Associate in Administration are more correct and less confusing titles. I’m sure some of those in favor of instituting the elder approach in Baptist churches will say that I just simply don’t understand. What I don’t understand is why people, primarily our Calvinist friends, want to force Baptist churches into the Presbyterian mold.
In summary, when one goes beyond those two biblical offices, they are structuring a church in a way which goes beyond the Biblical model. Consequently, Christian harmony will not be produced. But, as stated earlier, some seem so wed to an agenda to promote Calvinism in our Baptist churches that they simply won’t recognize that the Bible does not authorize the separate office of elder. So, a church properly constructed will have a Pastor (elder, shepherd or ruler, and the administrator), and the office of Deacon who are servants of the church, assisting the Pastor in certain duties.
This writer really thinks that if one wants to take Baptist churches into a system which has the elder as a separate office in addition to the Pastor and deacon, then they should simply either form themselves a Presbyterian type congregation or join one. Leave the Baptists alone. We do not want nor do we need to copy the Presbyterians in church form or in their theology. Identify with them but don’t ask Baptists to modify themselves in order to satisfy the Calvinistic leanings to which some in our convention are now firmly joined.
William F. Harrell
*Since 1981, William "Bill" Harrell has served as Pastor of the historic Abilene Baptist Church in Martinez, Georgia. Abilene Church is one of the oldest churches in Georgia founded in 1774 by the legendary Separate Baptist, Daniel Marshal, and was originally known as Red’s (pronounced Reed) Creek Baptist Church. Pastor Harrell is well-known in Southern Baptist denominational life, having served on various boards and committees at both state and national levels. Indeed from what we can tell, our brother Harrell has served longer on the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention than any other person. SBC Tomorrow welcomes his timely perspective on the so-called "elder-ruled" model of church polity unfortunately gaining substantial support among some Southern Baptists today, particularly the "Reformed" community in Southern Baptist sub-culture.