When historians turn to consider the early twenty-first century in Southern Baptist life, a number of momentous events from our annual meeting will figure prominently. The revision of the Baptist Faith & Message in the year 2000 marked a turning-point in the history of our confession of faith and will be remembered as a milestone in the story of the Conservative Resurgence. The 2006 election of Frank Page later propelled him into his current role at the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the meeting (its prelude and its aftermath) launched Southern Baptist blogging. The 2012 election of Fred Luter as the first African-American President of the Southern Baptist Convention stands head and shoulders above all of these other historical events as a key element of a story that reaches all the way back to the convention’s formation in 1845.
But something else has been happening in the Southern Baptist Convention—something that has not appeared on the agenda of any of our annual meetings—that will also figure prominently in our recollection of this moment in our history. This is the era when Southern Baptist churches in large numbers began to change the governance of our churches. This is the day of the “elder-led” movement in the Southern Baptist Convention.
The previous form of church government—congregationalism with varying levels of pastoral leadership and responsibility—held sway over Southern Baptist life for a century and a half. What factors have led to its precipitous decline?
The rise of the New Calvinism is one important factor. Groups like Mark Dever’s IX Marks have championed the transition to elder governance as an important means to increasing church health. Other groups among the New Calvinists, even if they have not been as focused on ecclesiology as Dever’s group has been, have lifted up a number of Presbyterian or presbyterial voices as heroes to younger Southern Baptists. The correlation between the elder-led movement and the New Calvinism is tight (although Southern Baptists from more than one soteriological viewpoint are embracing the elder-led option), and when the soteriological pendulum swings the other way, the most lasting impact remaining upon Southern Baptist churches by this movement may very well be the structural changes that it made to local churches by means of the spread of elder-led polity.
The sorry state of congregationalism in many of our Southern Baptist churches is another key factor. For decades nobody in the Southern Baptist convention SAID anything nice about congregational business meetings, and in too many dysfunctional churches it had been at least that long since anyone had DONE anything nice in a congregational business meeting. Furthermore, congregationalism had, in too many places, ceased to enjoin entire congregations in the search for God’s will and had become the vehicle by which mean-spirited tyrants—too many of them unconverted—lurked in the shadows and dominated the church as covert power brokers. I previously wrote about this phenomenon in my blog post Pseudo-Congregationalism Is from Satan. Most of those who experienced these abuses first-hand, plus a number of those who heard the stories, were ready for an alternative.
A related matter is the weak and sorry state of the office of pastor/elder/overseer in so many of these dysfunctional churches. Bad congregationalism had eviscerated and emasculated many a minister of the gospel. A sizable number both in pulpit and in pew knew that something was amiss in an arrangement in which the pastor is little more than a hired speaker forced to cower in his corner in the meeting house.
A final factor to consider is the incongruity between what we as Southern Baptists said about the office of deacon versus what our deacons actually did. Much of the Southern Baptist preaching about deacons in the last half of the twentieth century would meet the formal definition of a riv (a literary device from the Old Testament prophetic books in which God formally airs his grievances against His people). The comparison and contrast between deacons and elders has been a mainstay in this conversation as Southern Baptist churches have considered the change to elder-led polity.
What have the advocates for elder-led polity hoped to accomplish for Southern Baptist churches? Some, before enumerating perceived pragmatic benefits, have simply advanced the case that elder-led governance is the most biblical form of church polity. Southern Baptist congregationalism was made much more vulnerable to these attacks by the abandonment of the word “elder” in Southern Baptist parlance near the beginning of the twentieth century. Since the word “elder” is spread throughout the pages of the New Testament, and since Southern Baptists, having chosen the word “pastor” to the exclusion of “elder,” appeared to the casual observer not to have any such thing as an elder, the moment was ripe to make the case that the “People of the Book” had abandoned something biblical.
Proponents of this change in church polity also reminded Southern Baptists that the elder-led pattern can be entirely compatible with Baptist belief, and indeed, can be identified in Baptist history. Particularly among Particular Baptists, plural-elder congregationalism appears in church minutes and confessions of faith as the practice of many early Baptists.
Among the pragmatic appeals was the suggestion that a transition to the elder-led pattern would liberate pastors from the tyranny of loneliness in an overwhelming task. “God never intended for one man to try to do this job alone” is a winsome slogan to the ears of a group of people who, in survey after survey, are highly isolated and overburdened. To impanel a board of elders is to call for backup, so they say.
Another winsome feature spanned both pragmatism and biblical fidelity: the prospect of elevating the station and power of pastors/elders/overseers in the church. Pastors in beleaguered situations knew that they should have more power to lead and they wanted that power, confident that the church would operate more smoothly and accomplish more ministry once their congregational roadblocks were out of the way.
Causes for Concern
As someone who despises so much of what has passed for congregationalism in Southern Baptist churches, I welcome and embrace the new openness in our churches to revisit our polity and make it better and more biblical. Also, I acknowledge that some of the more careful and faithful implementations of polities more dependent upon the leadership of pastors/elder/overseers in the local church have been both a success and a blessing. Nevertheless, in the broader movement, I see some causes for concern.
The Lapse into Presbyterianism: I’ve been blogging for a long time now, and I hope that my readers recognize me as a cordial interlocutor with my more Calvinistic brethren. Specifically, I am not among those who reflexively cry “Presbyterian!” at every juncture when someone discusses his soteriological convictions. Permit me to air my view that the elder-led approach, if done carefully and well, can be done in a way that is more Baptist than Presbyterian. I am no opponent of these implementations.
And yet, although everything I read from the hand of Mark Dever is unmistakably Baptist, when local churches put down their copies of Nine Marks of a Healthy Church and go about implementing what they think they’ve read, the results sometimes look a lot more like John Knox than Mark Dever. Some of the individual points listed below will serve as the specific indicators of this diagnosis, but I’m going to leave it unsubstantiated for the moment in order to free this space in the essay to speak about the general phenomenon.
A lot of interaction is taking place at this moment between Southern Baptists and Presbyterians or quasi-Presbyterians. Some of this is due to the facts of American Evangelicalism; some of it is due to the unique influence of men like Al Mohler. At least some movement of pastors between Southern Baptist life and Presbyterian life is taking place—Southern Baptist pastors becoming Presbyterian and Presbyterian pastors becoming Southern Baptist. In saying this I am not alleging a wrong (Southern Baptists ought to talk to more people than just Southern Baptists) so much as I am observing a trend.
Because of this interaction and familiarity with Presbyterian life, when local Southern Baptist pastors start out to implement elder leadership in their local churches, the Presbyterian model may be more familiar to them, being as widespread as it is, than is the subtle nuance of the more Baptistic varieties of elder-led polity. Indeed, whether unwittingly or deliberately, “elder led” often becomes something more like “elder ruled.”
Since the move to elder-led polity is indisputably a movement TOWARD Presbyterianism, it is perhaps not surprising that the move sometimes fails to stop short of full-fledged Presbyterian polity.
The Cleavage of the Presbytery: Although a less-noble author might have used that subtitle for a condemnation of immodest female preachers, I’m talking about the unsettling tendency among elder-led Southern Baptists to set aside our unified presbytery for a divided presbytery. A divided presbytery has a bifurcation between preaching elders and lay elders. A unified presbytery holds all pastors/elders/overseers to be occupants of the same biblical office without distinction. After all, the New Testament does not give qualifications for two kinds of elders, does not enshrine terminology for two kinds of elders, and does not assign tasks to two kinds of elders. A misreading of I Timothy 5:17 lies at the root of the error of a divided presbytery.
I’ve spoken with Mark Dever about this topic (although he may not remember and probably doesn’t have any idea who I am). He affirms a unified presbytery and does not agree with the bifurcation of preaching elders and lay elders that is a prominent feature of the Presbyterian system. And yet, is the bifurcation of staff elders and non-staff elders not a bifurcation just the same? Doesn’t it appear important to the IX Marks system that some of the elders be people who are not paid at all? And yet, doesn’t I Timothy 5:17 seem to suggest that all of the elders are paid something, just not all the same thing?
If a careful, conscientiously Baptist, elder-led Southern Baptist church of the new type were suddenly to receive a windfall and were able to provide full-time income to all of its elders, would it feel compelled to go out and elect more elders, just to make sure that at least some of the elders were non-staff? I think a good many of them would. Although there is a strong, biblical case to use the term “elder” to refer to pastors/elders/overseers, and although there is a strong, biblical case to permit multiple elders to serve in a single congregation, where is the biblical case for insisting that some of these elders be unremunerated by the church, or for making any cleavage between different subcategories of elders?
As a final word of clarification, if straitened financial circumstances cause one or more (or ALL) of a church’s pastors/elders/overseers to go unpaid, I have no problem with that. I become concerned when the choice to have unpaid elders is strategic rather than circumstantial.
The Demotion of Pastors: Another remarkable feature of this movement is related to the insistence upon non-staff elders. In many of the congregations that are adopting elder leadership, pastors other than the top pastor in the organization chart—men we might refer to as “Associate Pastor” or “Assistant Pastor” in the traditional parlance—are being excluded entirely from the elder board. And so, in selecting elders, these congregations are passing right over men who have already been ordained into the pastor/elder/overseer ministry, have trained and have been credentialed, and are serving in the role of pastor/elder/overseer in that local congregation. The congregation is passing over these men and are elevating onto elder boards laypeople from the congregation.
I had a recent conversation with a young man being called to one of these churches. After talking with me, he approached the lead pastor of the congregation and asked, “Hey, if I’m the Youth Pastor, and if pastors, elders, and overseers are all the same thing biblically, then why don’t I get to come to the elders’ meetings?” The lead pastor replied, “Wow! I hadn’t thought of that. I just read IX Marks of a Healthy Church, thought it sounded good, and started implementing it here as best I could, but I never considered that other staff pastors might need to be elders. We probably ought to change your job title to take the word ‘Pastor’ out of it.”
As an editorial note, it is remarkable to me that a movement holding out the promise to elevate lead pastors out of situations of bad congregationalism—situations that did not accord to them the rightful and biblical respect and leadership role that pertained to them—would then be used by lead pastors to deny the rightful and biblical respect and leadership role that pertains to other pastors in the congregation. Every pastor ought to be considered a full-fledged elder in our congregations. Indeed, ONLY pastors ought to be considered elders in our congregations.
The Dismissal of Pastors: I know of two pastor-friends in recent months who have been fired by elders whom they themselves installed into the office of elder while the pastors were trying to transition the churches to elder leadership. In case you missed what happened there, these pastors (a) decided to adopt the elder-led model, (b) hand-picked leading laypersons in the congregation to serve as elders, (c) saw to their election as elders in the congregation, and (d) were promptly sent packing by the elders they had selected. In both cases there was no congregational vote involved (unless I’ve somehow misunderstood).
I asked one of them, “If you hadn’t made those guys elders at your church do you think they would have done this or even COULD have done this to you?” The answer? No.
History guys should stick to talking about the past and should avoid prognostication about the future, but I’m going to go there: I predict that the stories of bad Presbyterianism that will come out of this new polity in Southern Baptist churches will make the old stories of bad congregationalism look like a church picnic. Why? Because the selfsame people who did so much damage through the congregational system will be the very ones who worm their way into the local presbytery. You think they were formidable when they held no official position at all? You think they were formidable when they were deacons? Wait until you encounter them as constitutionally empowered ruling elders of the congregation!
Of course, a great many of the churches making this transition are more fortunate for now. After all, a great many pastors will pick people to serve as elders who will not, in fact, turn around and fire them. But this is the rosiest season for the elder-led movement—the season in which first-generation elder-led pastors get to serve with the elders that they have picked for themselves. The test of the movement will come after a few pastoral transitions, once pastors are coming into service alongside a PREDECESSOR’s hand-picked elder board.
Those who are exploring the biblical role of the elder in Southern Baptist life should take the following biblical steps if they choose to implement elder leadership in their churches:
- Extend the office of elder to all pastors, since biblically the pastor, the elder, and the overseer are the same person.
- Restrict the office of elder to only pastors, for the same reason.
- Protect the authority of the voting congregation to select its own pastors/elders/overseers.
- Make it the goal of the congregation to pay all of its pastors/elders/overseers at least something.
- Require all pastors/elders/overseers to do at least some work at preaching and teaching.
- Make it the goal of the congregation to pay more to those pastors/elders/overseers who work harder at preaching and teaching.
- Charge pastors/elders/overseers to keep the congregation informed and to build congregational consensus behind key decisions.
If the elevation of pastors/elders/overseers in Southern Baptist churches will take place along these lines, it can be an opportunity for us to revisit our polity and strengthen it, making our churches healthier and more effective in the accomplishment of our mission.