The following is the first in a series of posts that will address the important matter of church polity. My intent isn’t to “whack” those who disagree with my understanding of church polity, but to provide what I hope will be a perspective that is clarifying and edifying.
One of the reasons why the biblical norm of a plurality of elders in the local church is often rejected is that it is criticized as anti-congregational (as in this message by Dr. Chuck Phelps, much of which I agree with). It is supposed by some that elders “rule” the church with ultimate authority whereas Scripture teaches congregational government—that a church can either have a plurality of elders or be congregational. It isn’t so.
While I don’t deny that there are churches governed by a body of elders (much like there are churches governed by one power-hungry man), that’s the exception rather than the rule, in my experience. Churches led by elders may still be—should still be—overtly congregational. The churches I grew up in were. Tri-County Bible Church is; we have a plurality of elders who pastor this body. (I am 1 of 5 elders.) These godly and gifted men are responsible for the feeding and leading of the flock, and they do an exceptional job. However, our Constitution places ultimate authority in the church (under Christ) in the hands of the membership. Thus, the vital decisions of the body (from major expenditures to the election of leaders to the carrying out of church discipline) are made by the entire membership, not just the elders (Acts 6:5; Mat 18:17; 1 Cor 5:4-5).
Thus, if one of the arguments you use against the concept of a plurality of elders is the importance of congregational government, you should stop assuming that the two are irreconcilable. Indeed, I would argue that situations in which leadership that is shared among a body of elders are more conducive to genuine congregational government than situations in which leadership is centralized in a single pastor.
Now, I want to point out a sermon of John Piper’s that makes this point (and others) exceptionally well. I do so understanding that I risk being written off as trendy and thoughtless—a disciple of men who says “How high?” whenever a reformed, Calvinistic evangelical says “Jump.” That’s not so. I grew up in churches with a plurality of elders and was committed to the idea long before I’d heard of men like MacArthur, Dever, or Piper. The assumption that churches are employing a plurality of elders just because it’s “the thing to do” is insulting since (a) those who hold to the position are submitting to Scripture, not a few notable advocates, (b) those who hold to the position commonly do so in a manner very different than those advocates, and (c) the concept of a plurality of elders isn’t new at all, but is as old as the New Testament and common throughout even Baptist history.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest…
What makes Piper’s message (“Who Are the Elders?“) particularly interesting is the fact that it was preached in 1991, on the very day when Bethlehem Baptist Church moved from a pastor and deacons model to a plurality of elders and deacons model. He provides the following overview of elder leadership:
- Jesus Christ is the head of the church.
- All the members of Christ’s body are priests and ministers.
- Under Christ the local congregation is the final authority in the church.
- God calls some members of each congregation to feed and lead the church as servants of Christ and his people.
- These leaders in the congregations of the early church were elders.
- The function of the elders was to feed and lead.
All of the points are worth considering. Piper’s noting the geographical pervasiveness of elder leadership under point 5 is something I hadn’t considered. For the purpose of this post, however, I want to point out his statements under point 3 regarding congregational government:
“What I mean is that under Christ—his Word and his Spirit—the congregation, and not pastors or elders or deacons or bishops or popes, is the body that settles matters of faith and life. This is not only implied in the priesthood of all believers, but illustrated in Matthew 18:15-17 where the church is the last court of appeal in church discipline…
“So the church—the congregation—is the final court of appeal in matters of church discipline where decisions about membership are made. Since this is the most basic authority in the church under Christ, this shows that the congregation as a body is the final authority in the local church.”
I’d like to consider the idea of congregational government in another post in this series. For now, suffice it to say that the criticism that a plurality of elders is at odds with congregational government is inaccurate.
(Note: One more word of clarification regarding a statement early in Dr. Phelps’ message may be in order. With respect, there are actually many churches that have a Dispensational (vs. Covenant) hermeneutic and yet have a plurality of elders. In fact, many of them couldn’t even be described as Calvinistic. So it’s not accurate to categorize churches that have a plurality as particularly “Reformed.” FWIW.)
Filed under: Biblical Leadership, Church Polity, Elders, Ministry Musings, Mp3's, The Local Church Tagged: | Biblical Eldership, Chuck Phelps, Church Government, Church Polity, Congregational Polity, John Piper, Plurality of Elders