Part One: Introduction and Church Leadership
Dave Miller wrote a piece about elders in the life of the church, and why he doesn’t consider it to be a big issue one way or the other. Within the thread comments the idea was teased out that the Bible does not mandate a particular structure for church government. Instead of structure, the focus is upon the character of the leaders and then needs and other influences helped develop unique structures from church to church (city to city).
I wholeheartedly agree that character is more important than structure. It doesn’t matter what structure a church has, if the leadership is not devoted to following Jesus, pursuing holiness, and loving others then the church is not going to be a healthy church. I also agree that God never provided a clear cut structure. There is no Constitution and By-Laws section of the Bible. There is no set order of service. There are no set rules about the number of pastors (elders) or deacons…and so forth.
Yet can we not derive a general mandate from the teachings and examples we find in Scripture about the governing structure of church?
In one sense we do this already: despite the claims of some, whether we are elder-led, deacon-led, committee-led or whatever, if we are Baptist we are some form of congregational. And why? Because we hold to congregationalism as the valid form of church government against our Presbyterian or Episcopalian brethren. We do not hold are selves as non-Presbyterians simply because we have different covenantal views on the relationship between circumcision and baptism, we are non-Presbyterian also because we believe in the autonomy of the local church and authority resting with the congregation.
Yet is it enough to say we are congregational and there are different forms of it, or does the Bible speak in more particulars than that?
While a single blog post cannot cover every minute detail of what the Bible says about church, I want to attempt to address the primary passages and consider how they describe a general mandate for church government. Sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, we Baptist are a people of strong tradition and strong love for our tradition. But as Dave Miller said in his comment stream, to be Baptist is to be people of the Book and not primarily people of tradition. So how should the Book shape our church structure?
In Acts we find two primary leadership offices the Apostles and the Elders. In the earliest accounts of the Jerusalem church (Acts 1-8) the Apostles essentially functioned as the first elders. Then the church scattered into other regions due to persecution brought on by Saul. But after Saul began to follow Jesus and the persecution waned, the church of Jerusalem regrouped in Acts 15 where a group of elders existed separate from the Apostles. Even though Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem to receive direction from the Apostles and elders concerning the Gentiles, the Jerusalem elders were not the elders of all the churches (as some Presbyterian-like board over a group of churches). Instead as churches were planted by Paul and Barnabas, they “appointed elders for them in every church” (14:23).
The term “elders” is used 17 times in the New Testament in reference to this church office. Ten of these times appears in Acts (half the uses in 15, the others: 11:30, 14:23, 16:4, 20:17, and 21:18), three uses are in writings of Paul (1 Timothy 5:17&19, Titus 1:5), once in James (5:14), twice in Peter (1 Peter 5:1&2), and twice in John’s letters (2 John 1 and 3 John 1). In these uses and contexts, we learn the following:
- Elders had authority and responsibility in church matters, including: receiving relief funds for people suffering through a famine; determining the application of sound doctrine (in the case of the Gentiles in Acts 15 where they worked with the Apostles and with the approval of the church); functioning as Holy Spirit appointed overseers charged to shepherd (care for) the church; being an example to the congregation; praying for people within the church; and teaching and ruling well (there is debate over what “rule” means in 1 Timothy 5, I understand the Greek definition to best be along the lines of a shepherding leadership or “shepherd well” if you will).
- Elders were an important enough leadership office to Paul as an Apostle and church planter that either he and Barnabas, or Titus appointed them in the churches in their regions, though we have no record of them appointing any other leaders.
- Peter and John not only considered themselves Apostles but also elders, and Peter wrote to other church leaders in the region addressing them as “fellow elders.”
- Given the connection in Acts 20, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5 between the terms elders, overseers (or oversight) and pastor (or shepherd), we can treat these as three terms referring to the same office.
In Acts 20:28, “overseer” is a term referring to the work of the elders. Paul then uses it in an official way four times in his letters (Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1&2, and Titus 1:7). Peter also references “overseer” in 1 Peter 2:25, calling Jesus the “Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” terms he later connects to elders as their duties, serving under the “Chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:1-4).
The New Testament makes use of the word “shepherd” (sometimes translated in Old English as pastor) multiple times. Most of these are in reference to actual shepherds. A few times (such as John 10 and 1 Peter) it refers to Jesus. Acts 20 and 1 Peter 5 use the verbal form for the duties of elders. Only once is it used in a way that refers to a leader within the church—Ephesians 4:11, where Paul closely ties it to the term “teacher.”
All together, we see there is an authoritative leadership office within the church designed to lead the people as shepherds lead sheep. This office is primarily called by the term “elders” and sometimes by “overseers.” The elders are tasked to shepherd, oversee, and pray.
We know little about the appointment of men to this office outside of the direct appointment by Paul and Barnabas in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, and by Titus in Crete. Yet this was in the birthing stages of these churches.
In 1 Timothy 3, Paul instructs Timothy (who many believe to be a pastor in Ephesus at this point), that “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task,” and then gives Timothy various qualifications these men must possess. Thus, it seems after the eldership was established in the churches, new elders could rise into the position from within the congregation if they had the desire and met the qualifications. This means there had to be a testing of some sort and approval of the men. The Bible gives no direct guidelines for this, however. Yet we are not left without clues.
Just after speaking about the overseers (elders) in 1 Timothy 3, Paul references the deacons. Giving similar character qualifications, he says, “And let them be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless.” If we understand Acts 6 to be a pattern for the choosing of the first 7 deacons (or the proto-deacons since the term was not yet used), the testing and approval was left to the congregation. Also, Paul says in 1 Timothy 5, if an elder sins he is to be rebuked in the “presence of all.” This coupled with Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings on church discipline (Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5) makes it seem the congregation is the authority that tests, appoints, and removes men from the office of elder. Then once the congregation approves a man, the other elders lay on their hands and pray for the man to affirm his position (Acts 6:7, 1 Timothy 5:17-25).
As for deacons, they are another leadership office, but little is said about them. The term deacon means “servant” and as such is used many times in Scripture to refer to individuals or sometimes to all Christians. In clear reference to an office, we have Philippians 1:1 but no additional comment about their work, and 1 Timothy 3:8-13. Paul’s words in 1 Timothy are the most comprehensive concerning the office. They are to be men of godly character, who are sure in their faith and strive to “serve well.”
No particular authority is granted to deacons. In fact, one of the qualifications they share with the overseers in this chapter is telling. An overseer must “manage his own household well” because if he cannot then “how will he care for God’s church?” Deacons likewise must manage their households well, but Paul does not reference this to them “caring for” God’s church. Thus, he gives overseers an authority he does not give to deacons.
Aside from being “servants” by name, the only actual role the Bible gives to deacons is found in Acts 6 (assuming as above this is a prototype description of the office). Luke describes an event in the early life of the church where the Apostles, functioning as the first elders, are faced with a problem: the Greek-speaking widows are not receiving their daily distribution of food aid, and while concerned about this need the Apostles tell the church it is not right for them to give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. So they instruct the church to select seven men of good character, “whom we will appoint to this duty.” The Apostles could then focus on the ministry of the word and prayer.
The seven were appointed to meet a particular need in a particular time—or to serve a certain need. This was a task that needed greater oversight, but the Apostles were unable to provide it directly. Therefore they delegated the oversight to the seven. The seven had an authority to oversee this particular task, but it was a limited authority directly given by the Apostles.
All in all, this is what we can surmise about the leadership of the elders and deacons:
- Elders are a necessary leadership office of the church, deacons are secondary.
- Elders exercise particular authority as shepherds and overseers (we will consider the extent of this authority in the next section/post).
- As shepherds and overseers, the elders’ primary duties are to minister the word and to pray (which taking Jesus as the model shepherd—John 10, and Paul’s admonitions in Acts 20; the ministry of the word and prayer incorporates providing spiritual food for the sheep, protecting them against wolves/false teachers, and providing them God’s vision of spiritual growth and maturity).
- Elders are men of good character and able to teach, raised up from within the congregation with a desire to serve. The congregation tests the qualifications of these men and appoints them as elders (though the particular process of this is left up to wisdom of the individual church).
- When Elders see a need/burden within their oversight that threatens to take away from their time spent in prayer and the ministry of the word they may instruct the congregation to appoint a particular number of deacons.
- These deacons serve in specific tasks as delegated by the elders.
Is there a particular passage or mandate that spells this out as I have it here? No. But given the passages on church leaders this is the general pattern we find for these offices. And if this is the pattern that exists without strong evidence of an alternative pattern, then I contend such a description becomes a prescription (mandate). Is there still some freedom within the particulars of this? Of course:
- The Bible does not prescribe the exact numbers of elders and deacons a church should have. The only place we even find any numbers is Acts 6 where the church had at least 5000 men (not counting women and children), the 12 Apostles serving as elders, and then 7 men to serve as deacons (a number the Apostles gave to the congregation). While no other numbers are given, the majority of references to the offices speak in the plural, so it seems best to have a plurality of leadership.
- Aside from clear congregational selection of deacons, and good reason to suspect the same for elders, the process of selection is not laid out. The church is free to determine its own length of a “testing period” to assure these men are godly and qualified. The church is free to determine its own voting percentage to approve such men—be it 75%, 90%, 1% (if the church lacks wisdom), 81.27% or whatever.
- The Bible mandates a church care for the needs of its elders/those who minister the word (1 Timothy 5, 1 Corinthians 9, Galatians 6), but a church is free to determine how this looks—maybe they pay a salary, maybe they have the elders work bi-vocationally, maybe they supply a house, maybe they provide food, maybe some other means or a combination of these.
I believe this is the general pattern the Bible provides for the function of church leadership. Next we will consider authority within the church. But before we close this post, here’s some questions for thought:
1. If the Holy Spirit inspired the use of the term “elder” as the main name for the primary church leadership office, why are many Southern Baptist churches so reticent to employ it? If I ask, “Where does the Bible speak of the office of pastor?”–the options are either give just one verse or uses passages about elders and overseers (like the BF&M does), so why don’t we simply call it by the main term the Bible uses?
2. If the Bible does not present an intrinsic authority to the office of deacon, but their authority is only derived from delegated tasks given to them by the elders, then why do many Southern Baptist churches treat them as an authoritative office that essentially function as elders?
3. If what I have above is the model the Bible presents for church leadership (even if it is descriptive and not technically “prescriptive”), and no other model is presented, then why do we feel we have the right to change the model? Or do you believe that there is another model and where is it at in Scripture?
4. Character is the most important aspect of leadership. However, Paul as an Apostle of Christ felt it important to establish elders in church plants. We have no record of him establishing any other form of leadership. Therefore can we not assume a leadership structure involving elders is an important part of church life? If this is not a good assumption then why not?
5. Though evidence suggest in church plants elders were apostolically appointed (Acts 14, Titus 1), the only other description of raising up new elders is from within the church (men who desire the position and meet the qualifications–1 Timothy 3:1ff). On the one hand, we only have one indication of this, yet we also only have one indication that deacons are raised up and selected from within the church (Acts 6). Why do many Southern Baptist churches raise up deacons from within but outsource elders (pastors)? Is this biblically preferable and why, or does this rather show a flaw in our discipleship methods?
6. Finally, though the Bible gives no explicit numbers for a church to have in terms of elders and deacons, there is more evidence of a plurality of elders in churches (Acts 14:23, 15:6ff, 20:17ff, 1 Timothy 5:17ff, Titus 1:5, James 5:14, and 1 Peter 5:1) than there is for a plurality of deacons, or even the existence of deacons as a necessary office of the church (1 Timothy 3:8ff, Philippians 1:1, and probably Acts 6:1-7). Therefore why do many Southern Baptist churches put the emphasis on having more deacons than elders (pastors)? I often hear salary mentioned, but is finances a good reason especially when it is not biblically clear that all elders received paid compensation?