I posted three brief pieces recently which drew lots of traffic my way. The common theme concerned elder-rule and/or elder-led1 polity among Southern Baptist churches. In the first part >>>
I showed how Acts 29 Network requires both churches and church plants formally affiliated with the network2 to embrace a plural elder rule polity as the only acceptable form of church government. The second two pieces constituted selected portions from an academic paper written by Dr. Robert Wring, a paper based upon his doctoral dissertation at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary (part I, part II). Dr. Wring offers scholarly analysis and insightful commentary on the rise in elder- rule/elder-led churches among Southern Baptists.
From the rarity elder boards face in SBC life, one may naturally conclude that elder-rule/elder-led churches are a complete stranger to Baptist life. And while there may be some historical legitimacy to such a conclusion—at least for the most part—the conclusion, nevertheless would be premature. We hope to offer some historical validity to what we suggest here.
On the other hand, some go so far as to suggest that elder-rule/elder-led Baptist churches possess a rich, viable heritage for Southern Baptists. They speak of getting back to what the Bible actually teaches about elders. While most of the 19th and 20th centuries saw the gradual fading away of elders in Baptist life, the loss of focus on elders was due to either neglect of Bible teaching or the rapid spread of the gospel during the frontier days3. In short, these authors see elder-rule/elder-led polity as the New Testament teaching on church government. Anything less is unbiblical.
Is there a rise in the numbers of Southern Baptist churches which embrace elder-rule/elder-led polity? There seems to be. But once we affirm this, it needs to be qualified. For example, Wring offers empirical data which suggest there were a substantial number of Southern Baptist churches in the early 2000’s which embraced some form of elder-rule. Wring writes:
“In 1995, Allan Karr who is the Nehemiah professor at a branch of the Golden Gate Seminary, planted a church wherein it was elder-led with a congregational polity. He expressed to this writer that his experience with this model of church governance was a positive experience. He stated further that, of the two hundred churches in the State of Colorado, about sixty percent have some sort of elder polity. Some of these are a combination of elders with some form of congregational church government”4
While it remains difficult to accept, the number of elder-oriented congregations in a single state convention seems incredible. However, Wring also quotes Rob Norris, then Director of the Denver Association of Southern Baptist Churches, somewhat validating Karr’s figures by asserting “all new church plants” under the auspices of the association installed “some form of elder leadership.”5 Hence, to suggest elderizing churches in the Southern Baptist Convention as presently on the rise must be gauged against the backdrop of an earlier elder renaissance in the West/Northwest.
Why are Southern Baptist churches turning to elder-oriented leadership? A number of reasons have been suggested. For example, implicit in both Phil Newton and Mark Dever’s lament about the loss of biblical teaching on elder-oriented leadership is the tacit assumption that biblical revelation is once again taking precedence over tradition. Newton unequivocally states, “In the end, whether or not Baptists historically practiced plural eldership is secondary. The primary focus for church leaders today must be to understand the teaching of God’s Word, and then to order the church accordingly.”6 Dever too. Answering the rhetorical question,” Is eldership biblical?” Dever replies: “…the abiding concern is not one of denominational identity, but of biblical faithfulness. That’s really the concern of the best Baptists—and the best Presbyterians, Methodists…as well!”7
We have no reservation in accepting either Newton or Dever’s affirmation to allow the Word of God its rightful place as our ultimate authority for faith and practice. Whatever Scripture says, God says. In this we all agree. It is not as clear, however, that the infallible Word of God calls for a plurality of elders to rule God’s congregation. Both Dever and Newton appear to think differently.
Another reason offered for the rise in elder-oriented leadership is a rise in Calvinism. Even a quick glance appears to bear some truth to this observation. Those who are most elder-oriented are also much more prone to be Calvinistic or “Reformed” in the Southern Baptists Convention. Phil Newton is a board member for Founders Ministries, and his church has Founders Ministries in their budgetary expenses.8 Perhaps the most influential Southern Baptist who advocates elder-oriented leadership is Mark Dever, who is Senior Pastor (and elder) at Capital Hills Baptist Church, Washington D.C. Dever is also unapologetically “Reformed.”
In fact, it may not be too much to conclude that the only ones advocating a “return” to an elder-ruled, elder-led, or an elder-oriented focus in local church polity are strong Calvinists. While it may not be universally demonstrable, Calvinists surely make-up the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists who lament what they claim is a waning in Baptist life of eldership.
Others—both individuals and evangelical coalitions--who are influential in Southern Baptist life but who are outside Baptist ecclesial parameters include John MacArthur, C.J. Mahaney, Acts 29 Network, The Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel , and Ligioner Ministries. While some of these groups bear no official ecclesial polity of church government, the groups are definitively dominated by board members and personalities who exclusively advocate elder-rule, elder-led, and elder-oriented church governments. And, given their popularity among Southern Baptists--especially young Southern Baptists--to suggest they make little to no impact on Southern Baptist life—including but not limited to church polity--must be viewed as enlightened nonsense.
Wring cites a study by Oklahoma Baptist University professor, Slayden Yarborough, who surveyed Southern Baptists in the early nineties. According to Wring, Slayden found in the survey of the directors of missions, “two responses” which indicated “there was a relationship between Calvinistic theology and the practice of elder rule.”9 Such should not surprise us. Reformed author, Iain Murray was suggesting such as far back as 1996. He wrote:
In the last thirty years, as is well known, a number of Calvinistic independent and Baptist congregations have admired Presbyterian order and re-introduced elders. For a number of churches this change may have proved beneficial but there has also been cause for misgivings and the old doubt has re-surfaced whether an order can work which gives elders an equality with pastors, and leaves pastors without the greater security built into the Presbyterian system”10
In part II, we'll consider some of our Baptist ancestors and allow them to weigh in on what they thought the Scripture taught concerning eldership.
With that, I am...
1two notations: first, when I mention elder-rule, elder-led or elder-oriented, I am presuming elder plurality; second, there remains a razor-thin distinction between elder-rule and elder-led, so thin in fact, that many who claim to embrace elder-led slip over into elder-rule. In other words, there exists more a rhetorical distinction than a functional distinction between elder-led and elder-rule
2by formal affiliation I do not mean denominational affiliation since Acts 29 Network denies it is a denomination. Rather I mean by formal affiliation churches and church starts which covenant with Acts 29 Network
3Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership, Phil A. Newton, Kregel Academic & Professional , 2005 p.96
4unpublished dissertation, AN EXAMINATION OF THE PRACTICE OF ELDER RULE IN SELECTED SOUTHERN BAPTIST CHURCHES IN THE LIGHT OF NEW TESTAMENT TEACHING, Robert A. Wring, December, 2002 p. 146
8by mentioning Founders being a recipient of church funding, I am in no form making negative implications. FM is a legitimate ministry, and any church, if it so chooses, is perfectly within her rights to support it
9Slayden A. Yarbrough, "Southern Baptists and Elder Rule, Part I: Elder Rule in Southern Baptist Churches in Oklahoma," The Oklahoma Baptist Chronicle Vol. 37, No. 1 (Spring 1994): 12, quoted in Wring, p.139
10Iain H. Murray, "The Problem of the Eldership' and Its Wider Implications," The Banner of Truth, no. 394 (July 1996): 50 (also found here)