IX Marks Provides Discussion on Biblical Eldership

This month, IX Marks provides some helpful discussion on biblical eldership. Here’s an excerpt from the IX Marks eNewsletter:

This issue of 9News and the next are devoted to the topic of elders. This month, we asked a number of thoughtful pastors like John MacArthur, Alexander Strauch, Tom Schreiner, Sinclair Ferguson, and others what lessons they had learned in selecting men as elders. Mark Dever and Paul Alexander offer their collective thoughts on finding the right men. Justin Taylor and Matt Schmucker reflect—exegetically and practically—on whether unbelief in an elder’s children disqualifies him. And Burk Parsons and Benjamin Merkle discuss nominating and ordaining elders.

Follow this link for a discussion on “Selecting Elders,” and find other links at the bottom of that page.

I especially commend the discussion to my many Baptist friends. :)


35 Responses

  1. While you’re on the subject, I’d like to recommend Dever’s Polity (a compilation of historical reprints of Baptist books with some contemporary analysis) and Greg Wills’ Democratic Religion, both of which provide fascinating insights into the historical Baptist practices concerning membership and elders. Oh yeah, and the direct command in Scripture that is apparently not a fundamental of the faith, given the rarity of its practice–church discipline. Those who believe that the traditional Baptist forms of the past 50-100 years are the historic ways Baptists do things may be primed for some paradigm shifts.

  2. FWIW, I think the elder thing is worth considering- but the more crucial emphasis, I would say is the congregational role.

  3. Hey, Greg. Can you explain what you mean regarding the congregational role?

    I would describe our polity as robustly congregational, and we have a plurality of elders.

  4. I mean that congregational rule seems to me to be a more necessary part of church health than elder plurality. In my (admittedly limited) experience, a close knit single pastor/deacon type leadership model could fulfill many of the same advantages as the plurality model, especially in a small, rural congregation.

    I’ve studied this issue with some degree of interest, but thus far have not seen enough conclusive evidence to lead me to implement any change. Besides, I can certainly understand how you can make a case for Scripture allowing plural elders, but I fail to see where such polity is mandated.

  5. Greg, I agree with you that the importance of congregationalism is underrated, but I disagree that it’s more important than elder plurality.

    You should come to a Weekender.

  6. I’m working on it. I’d like to do the one in September.

  7. I’m with you Greg. I see the value of plurality, but I don’t see a Scriptural mandate. Dave Doran made one important point at the last MACP that I thought pertenant, though. It seems clear from Scripture that all elders should be paid, or at least offered remuneration. That was is broken by most “elder rule is mandated” churches.

    The other thing that bugs me is this artificial difference between “the pastors” and “the elders.” There is no distinction biblically, so why create one. Either call them both elders or pastors. This idea that the staff guys are pastors and the lay guys are elders is artificial.

    Again, I see lots of positive value in having plurality of elders, but in everything I’ve read by Dever, MacArthur, et al, I have yet to see them prove a biblical mandate for plurality.

  8. 1. Who said anything about a mandate or distinguishing between pastors and elders?

    2. I wouldn’t suggest that anyone is in sin because he doesn’t lead his church to a plurality of elders. The Baptists of the 18th and early 19th century might have, but they also would have separated from folks who weren’t 5-point Calvinists. Some of the Puritans might have too, but they would have done so on the grounds of the regulative principle, and no one believes in that stuff anymore, right? (See Iain Murray’s The Reformation of the Church.)

    3. I think the best argument for not pursuing a plurality of elders is that we have found a better form of church leadership than the one the apostles advocated. It just doesn’t seem like very many of the folks who don’t like plurality are willing to be straightforward that that’s what they really believe.

  9. 1. Isn’t it the common practice of most elder-rule churches to have both pastors and elders as distinct functions? In my limited experience I have never seen a church where the staff pastors and lay elders are called the same thing, but I’m sure there are some churches who do.

    2. Again, I see a whole lot of value in a plurality of elders, and even including “laymen” (i.e. not full time staff) as elders, provided (1) the “lay” elders are paid or at least offered pay for their ministry and (2) there is not some kind of artificial titular distinction between staff pastors and lay elders. But again, I fail to see a biblical mandate that churches must have a plurality or that they must have “lay” elders. I see wisdom in it, but no mandate.

    3. Again, show me where the “better form of church leadership” “advocated” by the apostles is plurality. Everything I’ve read by MacArthur and Dever simply assumes the fact without proving it.

  10. I should note here that I want to be convinced that plurality is mandated in Scripture! I’ve wanted to have that proven to me for some time because, again, I see a lot of value in it, and I agree that “deacon rule” is all to prevalant and unbiblical!

  11. “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine” (1 Timothy 5:17).

    That has been my understanding of the difference between teaching elders and ruling elders. All elders must be apt/able to teach, but those who do the labor (studying, teaching, preaching) deserve more honor.

    My experience with elders is limited to three OBF churches. In each, the “pastors” have been those who do most of the teaching. While the “pastors” and “elders” have both been involved in leading and shepherding, the senior “pastor” has always served as the chairman of the Session (board of elders).

  12. Scott,

    1. I think there’s a difference between a distinct function and a distinct way of referring to people. I’m not saying that’s ideal, but it shouldn’t be discounted. And for the record, I also believe there is an important difference between elder rule and congregational rule with plural elder leadership. Lot’s of single pastor churches have elder rule, even though they think they’re congregational.

    2. I agree with you about pay, but I think you’re underestimating the weight of Scripture in support of plurality of elders. When every reference to the leadership of a NT church is plural, that’s significant. And it’s not just Paul. It’s also Luke in Acts, Peter, and James. Is this a mandate? Maybe not. But it seems that the burden of proof is on an anti-plurality person to come up with a reason to depart from the biblical pattern. Also, Titus 1;5 is an apostolic command to a particular individual to appoint a plurality of elders.

    3. By Whose Authority: Elders in Baptist Life came out about a year ago and lays out the biblical case pretty plainly.

  13. Scott,

    In some churches there is the thick distinction you mention between pastors and elders. In many churches there is not that distinction. Southeast Valley Baptist Church has 5 elders. 2 are paid Full Time. We have offered at least part time to others – (part time because we simply yet do not have the ability to put all on full-time paid staff) to this point they have declined because of a variety of reasons. If you were to visit an elders meeting here – you would see 5 men who are equal. I am the first among equals – a bit more equal – but we all submit to each other…..Unless you’ve experienced it coming out of a typical Pyramid and Box type leadership structure…..It’s hard to imagine how it works.

    Scott as to proof. You have 16 or 17 NT assemblies in the NT that are said to have had elders (pl) vs. elder (singular). Notice Phil 1:1 Bishops and Deacons – several ancient church fathers note that there was one congregation in Philippi with a plurality of Bishops and Deacons. (I know church fathers are not inspired). You have the James passage Let the elders (pl) lay hands, etc…..I understand we can see a first among equals pattern with James and the Jerusalem Council or possibly the “angel” of each of the 7 churches in Asia Minor…..

    Let me turn this around the other way….Can you find one passage of Scripture that clearly marks a transition out of the consistent practice of multiple elders in each assembly?

    By the way…..Let me stick this in here…..I don’t call churches or pastors that have a more centralized approach to decision-making and pastoral leadership automatically “abusive” or “sinful.” I obviously believe a certain style is more consistent than others. In past conversations with certain leaders I’ve been fairly passionate about my view….and some have read into that that I would simply mark all non-eldership churches or leaders as sinful, etc…..I don’t hold this view that way. I know I have come off that way…..that’s not my heart. I fully believe that a NT church could have a single pastor before having a plurality of elders. I believe that is essentially what the NT evangelist was.

    For what it’s worth. Thanks for the topic Chris.


    PS – I see the passages in question teaching all elders must lead and teach to some degree or another.

    PPSS – I see the 1 Tim passage placing special honor on the one who leads and teaches to the mark of excellence – in most of our churches this would be the senior pastor or pastor-teacher.

  14. Scott,

    I appreciate your spirit here. And you’re right to make us prove the point. If you wish – I will be happy to send you the chapter in my D.Min work from Central where I deal with the data on this.


  15. Thanks for the interaction. This is helpful for me.

    First, the 1 Timothy 5 passage. I have never been convinced that this passage argues for two classes of elders. In fact, it seems to me to argue against that. It says that ruling elders are worthy of double honor if they rule well. “Especially” signifies a sub-group of those who labor to teach under the category of ruling elders. So it seems to me like all elders are ruling elders, but not all necessarily labor in the word. This doesn’t delineate two separate groups; it simply points out that not all the elders (who all rule) will labor in the word necessarily.

    Again, let me be clear that I am not anti-plurality. I just don’t see a mandate.

    Which brings me to the next point. Narratives are not normative, correct? Just because historic accounts (biblical or otherwise) say that certain churches had multiple elders does not prove a mandate to me. With that said, many of the passages used to prove that there were multiple elders in various churches seem suspect to me as well. Addressing the elders is Ephesus, for instance, does not conclusively prove that Ephesus had only one church in the whole city with multiple elders. That’s one possibility, no doubt. but there may well have been multiple churches each with one elder.

    I do not disagree with the possibilities of many of the arguments here. But they are just possibilities in my opinion; not mandates.

  16. There are a number of questions on the table. Does the Bible require or at least commend a plurality of elders? If so, are all of those elders equal? And should all of them be paid? For the sake of clarity, I think dealing with them individually is probably.

    As for plurality, the Bible provides sufficient evidence that a plurality of elders was the norm for a mature church (I say “mature” as opposed to a church plant setting or similar situation where there is a lack of qualified men to serve as elders). Though the term “elder” and “bishop” occur in the plural frequently, the clearest texts for this discussion are those which address elders or bishops (plural) in a church (singular):

    * Acts 14:23 (“elders in every church”)
    * Acts 20:17 (“he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church”)
    * Acts 20:28 (“take heed to the flock over which the Holy Ghost has made you overseers”)
    * Philippians 1:1 (“to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.”)
    * I Timothy 5:17 an 19
    * Titus 1:5 (“ordain elders in every city”)
    * James 5:14 (“let him call for the elders of the church”)

    This doesn’t even include the references to the elders at Jerusalem. So regarding the first point, there is no shortage of evidence that the norm for the NT church was a plurality of elders.

    BTW, if I Timothy 5:17 doesn’t argue for two types of elders, it still can’t be denied that it argues for a plurality of elders. Again, we would do well to keep those points distinct in our minds and in the discussion.

  17. Ben, you make a good point about the difference between a plurality of elders and what is usually understood by the term “elder rule.” I think some argue against having multiple elders because the assume churches that have elders aren’t congregational. In my experience “elder rule” is the exception, not the rule. Again, we have multiple elders, but our polity is congregational.

  18. Scott,

    I agree with you that there are not distinct classes. In other words, I do not believe that 1 Timothy 5:17 distinguishes between functions or roles. Based on 1 Tim. 3, all elders are to be involved in the teaching work of the church, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the primary pulpit ministry. As I see it, there are two ways to take the verse. Here’s a couple translations that emphasizes the distinctions:
    1) . . . especially those whose work is preaching and teaching (NIV, incidentally).
    2) . . . especially those who work particularly hard at preaching and teaching (very close to the NASB; ESV is more neutral).

    Obviously, I prefer the second, though as I understand it, either is grammatically plausible. I’m interpreting in light of 1 Tim. 3 and the absence of any such bifurcation in the NT.

    I’m certainly not ready to declare narratives normative, although when you see a clear pattern–particularly one that weaves its way through different authors and genres–I think you need a really good reason not to pursue it as an ideal.

    It seems as though you’re wondering whether references to elders (plural) in one city could refer to multiple single pastors of multiple house churches. But as Chris has pointed out, several of the references refer to elders (plural) in a church (singular). So if you’re going to argue for multiple single pastor led units in one city, you have to concede that Paul is calling those multiple units “the church” in that city. That is, perhaps, plausible. Some people do believe that. There’s a word for them. I’m not going to say it here, but it starts with “Presby” and ends with “terians.” ;-)

  19. Ben,

    That isn’t an exclusively Presbyterian argument. We were taught that position (multiple single pastor led units in one city) at Faith. They have a booklet by Dr. Manfred Kober- “The Case for the Singularity of Elders,” where this position is briefly presented.

  20. You’re right that non-Presbyterians teach it, but the inescapable outcome is precisely Presbyterian. If you follow this line of argument, you have to concede that “multiple single pastor led units in one city” are referred to as “the church” in that city. (See Chris’s references above.) The logical end of that reasoning is a presbytery. It destroys genuine congregationalism and makes the best argument I can imagine for Presbyterian polity. But I just don’t think you really want to go there.

  21. Ben, my grandfather was an elder (along with others) in a mainline Presbyterian church. Are you thinking of bishops?

  22. Chris,

    I just got done talking to all of the Baptists that I know and none of them said that they would actually consider you a friend. I just thought I would let you know so that you could correct that misinformation in your article.

  23. Andrew, you are grievously mistaken. I’m confident that I could produce the names and emails of at least three. Well, names anyway. First names.

  24. FWIW, this article offers a good understanding of Presbyterian government. The author points out the difference between democratic (congregational), monarchical (episcopal), and presbyterian governments. He also says that elders are elected by the congregation. I come away with the idea that our church is a mixture of presbyterian and congregational. Something like presbyterian government without the synod or general assembly.

  25. Andy,

    Correct me if I’m wrong. My understanding of Presbyterian polity is that bishops and elders are more or less synonymous, but bishops are more closely associated with the particular elders who tend to serve on the presbyteries.

  26. Ok, now I see that link, Andy. Thanks, it was helpful. They don’t refer to bishops in Presbyterian government though. The presbytery is made up of all the teaching ministers and one ruling elder from each church in the region.

    My understanding of the difference between congregational and presbyterian depends primarily on whether there is any ecclesiastical authority over the congregation that is outside the congregation. The PCA would have that. I don’t think you would. In my mind, that makes you essentially congregational. But a secondary factor that’s significant is the level of involvement the congregation has in the government of the church. Is the congregation ever engaged in church discipline (Matt. 18 and 1 Cor. 5)? Does it elect leadership (Acts 6 and, perhaps, Titus 1:5)? Is the congregation the entity ultimately responsible for doctrinal fidelity (continued pattern in Epistles)? The more those things are true, the more congregational a church is. Of course, that doesn’t mean I think that pure democratic congregationalism is the ideal form. Elder leadership serves a purpose.

  27. Ben,

    I think you understand it right. My question came to mind when you wrote about “multiple single pastor led units in one city.” That made me think of an episcopal polity.

    “Episcopal polity is a form of church governance which is hierarchical in structure with the chief authority over a local Christian church resting in a bishop.” —Wikipedia

    From what I have gathered, the Presbyterian hierarchy is based on multiple elders serving on presbyteries, synods, and assemblies as opposed to individuals.

    “Presbyterian polity is a method of church governance typified by the rule of Assemblies of presbyters, or elders. Elders make decisions for the local church in a body called the … Church Session. Groups of local churches are governed by higher assemblies of elders, called church courts, known as Presbyteries, Synods, and General Assemblies. Specific roles in church services are reserved for an ordained minister or pastor known as a teaching elder, or a minister of the word and sacrament. It was developed as a rejection of governance by hierarchies of single bishops (Episcopal polity.)” —Wikipedia

    All that to say, do Presbyterians really believe in the “multiple single pastor led units in one city” idea?

  28. Hey, Chris, if you need a Baptist friend, I’ll be glad to volunteer!!

    Just a thought on something you said:

    “BTW, if I Timothy 5:17 doesn’t argue for two types of elders, it still can’t be denied that it argues for a plurality of elders.”

    I would suggest that the word ‘argues’ would be incorrect. ‘Assumes’ would be more accurate. The passage is not arguing for or against a plurality of elders, it is assuming it to be the case. Of course, Timothy is in Ephesus, where we know there are mulitple elders in some way, either as a plurality in one big church or (more likely IMO) an intederminate number in multiple churches.

    When it comes to polity, I think there are a lot of things we don’t do that were done in the book of Acts, simply because we don’t have living apostles and they had no successors. Christianity is a religion of the Spirit, we have only two mandated external forms, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We have two mandated offices, but very little if any instruction on how all of that works out in practice. Hence, I am with Scott on the view that plurality of elders is not mandated. In fact, I would suggest that when it comes to polity, any structure that produces faithful disciples is fine. (I might have to hand in my Baptist card for that one!)

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  29. FWIW, Robertson says that the most probably meaning of 1 Tim 5:17 is “those who work hard or toil in preaching and teaching.”

    My reading of the passage (in connection with other passages) is that all elders (pastors) rule, but some rule well and are worthy of double honor. Among those that rule well and are worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard (and it is assumed this is obvious because of the fruit of that laboring in the God’s Word through their preaching/teaching) in the Word are worthy of this double honor.

    I think the parallel type of statement in Galatians 6:10 helps us to understand the way this sentence is structured. As those who are of the household of faith are part of the larger group of “all men” in that passage, those who “labor in the word” are part of the larger group of “the elders that rule well.”

    So, I find it hard to get to a distinction among elders as rulers vs. teachers from this passage, as well. I would further argue that in Ephesians 4, the gifts that are given includes the combination gift of “pastors and teachers”, which I believe is better rendered with an understanding of “pastor-teacher” and which would indicate that part of the defining characteristic of the elder/pastor is teaching. I am open to learning on this, but I do not find anywhere where there is a pastor/elder who is not also a teacher.

    To muddy the waters even further, I will say that I probably lean towards the idea of multiple elders – but I would have Chuck Phelps’ view that the multiple elders are the multiple elders/pastors of the church staff. I would also say that in many Baptist (and even Bible churches) where the Assistants/Associates are viewed as second-class Pastors would not fit this mode. The Assistants/Associates must actually be an integral part of the decision-making process if they are indeed fellow elders with the Pastor, but this is probably fruit for another discussion.

    FWIW, Christian Markle and I (among others) had a discussion on 1 Tim 5:17 – it can be found at http://www.sharperiron.org/showthread.php?t=1971

    Also, I believe that the Chuck Phelps interview on SI and the subsequent discussion (this was early 2005, I think) also addresses this topic.

    In Christ,

    Pastor Frank Sansone

  30. I have just a moment today, guys.

    Don, I think your argument that the multiple Ephesian elders could refer to multiple Ephesian churches with one elder each is problematic, or at least speculative. Frankly, you could use the same argument to address NT deacons. Perhaps the 7 deacons in Acts 6 were actually representing 7 smaller church units in Jerusalem. After all, it was a big church. Perhaps we should argue against a plurality of deacons on the same basis. Of course, I’m being facetious, but I think the arguments are essentially the same.

    Anyway, you still have other passages dealing with a plurality of elders in other cities. Consider Philippians 1:1. Was Paul referring to several churches in Philippi? If so, did each have only one elder? And if we want to argue for that, did each also have only one deacon? It’s much more natural to take it as a single church with a plurality of elders and a plurality of deacons, I think.

    In the days ahead, I’ll probably start separate threads dealing with 1) the question of plurality of elders, 2) the question of distinction among those elders, 3) the question of remuneration of all elders, etc. Discussing those issues individually would probably help eliminate confusion that blog discussions can invite.

    I probably can’t comment further until this evening. Thanks for the interaction. And I’m glad to have at least one Baptist friend with both a first and last name. :)

  31. Chris, I only say that there could be multiple churches in the Ephesus region because that is what the commentaries say. They base that on this comment in Ac 19:

    ESV Acts 19:8 And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. 9 But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. 10 This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.

    Paul’s time in Ephesus resulted in the evangelization of Asia, a whole province, not just a city. Some also say that the book of Ephesians contains no personal greetings because it was intended as a circular letter to a number of churches.

    Yes, all of that is speculative, but it isn’t unreasonable.

    And last, if you are trying to eliminate confusion in blog conversations… well… never mind!!

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  32. Andy,

    Good point. What I was describing would probably be a hybrid between Episcopalian and Presbyterian.


    Good point on plurality of deacons.


    You wrote:
    “In fact, I would suggest that when it comes to polity, any structure that produces faithful disciples is fine.”

    I appreciate your honesty that your arguments are based on pragmatism rather than Scripture. Would you also apply that application grid to the music you use in your church?

  33. Hi Ben,

    There is no biblical mandate for plurality of elders. The Bible is silent on the issue as a requirement. We observe that in at least some of the churches there were a plurality of elders, but none of these observations mean that such is required. In fact, as a matter of practicality (pragmatism if you will) all churches today of any size have a plurality of elders. The debate hinges on whether elders should all be paid pastors of the church (not absolutely necessary in my opinion) and whether or the elders should be considered equals or whether one should be the ‘elder of elders’ so to speak. I tend to prefer the latter, a pox on all committees!

    In the ongoing discussion, I would challenge anyone to supply Scriptural mandates that would suggest any one political form in the New Testament. I see elements of all of them, and mandates for none.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  34. I just want to say that Dr Manfred Kober’s work on singularity in polity does not represent all he could say. The paper was ment as a short paper presented to students at Faith Baptist Bible College . He was “preaching to the choir”. The School is “approved” by the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC), and they follow Baptist Polity. If you were to incorporate the short paper on “Purality of Elders” in his lectures on theology, it is consistant, as anyone who has sat under his teaching would know. Out of this context it is easy to be critical. And I might add, the organism of the local Church is under the provence of the Work of the Holy Spirit, and Christ is the Head. He determines what a local congregation requires. He is the giver of gifts and the one who seperates believers to each ministry(spiritual gifts) which they have for the benefit of the “body”, as he wills. The only thing that we can do as believers is to set back and see what He determines. That is exactly what Dr. Kober trys to do in his short paper. I for one have had alot of experience in this area, and have seen how it is expressed in real life. I have been to over 60 different churches which have both pural and singular elders. From California to Germany. Usually the polity made little difference in the assembly. It certianly does not make it more spiritual. Dr David Nettelton said to me at a time that I was struggling with this issue, “Why does it matter?” My answer at the time seems unimportant now. Folks that get caught up in these things to the exclusion of other issues are going down a wrong track. The treal issue is “Where has God placed you?” If you trust the Head to lead you, He will. Just be submissive enough to follow. Purality or singularity will take care of itself. As you grow, you will come to understand it’s place in the greater part of Christian Theology. If you listen to people like Dr Kober, you won’t go far wrong. I might add here that he has hazarded his life for the Gospel sake. He is for real.

  35. Hi, Paul. Thanks for chiming in.

    I think we need to be careful regarding how much importance we assign to this issue. Certainly the number of elders in a church is not as important as “the greater part of Christian Theology.” We shouldn’t make it so. That said, I don’t think anyone in this discussion is focusing on it “to the exclusion of other issues.” This is one discussion among many we’ve had. It’s not the most important one, but neither is it much ado about nothing. Whether a church is congregational, board run, a benevolent dictatorship, or a not-so-benevolent dictatorship is quite important. And contrary to your experience, I believe that it can make a great deal of difference in the life of the assembly.

    Interestingly, “Baptist Polity” is a hard phrase to define, I think, at least as it relates to the number of elders. Dever, the host of IX Marks site to which I originally linked, is a Southern Baptist. He argues that Baptists have held to a plurality of elders for centuries, and he provides the writings of such men in the book he edited entitled “Polity” (subtitled “A Collection of Historic Baptist Documents”). His book “The Deliberate Church” is also a helpful read for those seeking more instruction on this issue. Roughly the last half of the book deals with the selection and function of elders. It’s excellent.

    Again, thanks for the discussion.

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