For nearly a decade, I’ve been convinced that the most faithful contemporary adaptation of New Testament polity is a plural-elder-led congregationalism. Since January 2012, I have been a part of the elder team at my local church, First Baptist Church of Durham. I’m thrilled to be able to serve the Lord and His church as a full-time seminary professor and a voluntary pastor.
I’m convinced that plural-elder-led congregationalism is a healthier alternative to four polities that are very common among Free Church evangelicals, including Southern Baptists. Option 1 is pure democracy. In this polity, the whole congregation votes on nearly every decision. The pastors and church staff are often treated as mere employees of the church who direct various ministries, but who have no real authority in the church. All of the authority rests in the whole congregation assembled in a church conference or members meeting (often called a “business meeting”).
Option 2 is committee-led congregationalism. In this polity, the church uses democratic processes to make key decisions, but the real authority rests with certain key committees or similar small groups that are compromised of influential church members. In many Southern Baptist churches, the committee that runs the church is the so-called church council. In others, it might be the personnel committee, since these are the folks who keep tabs on the staff. A very common variation of this polity is deacon-led congregationalism, where the deacons function as the chief committee in the church’s hierarchy.
Option 3 is single-pastor-ruled benevolent autocracy. In this polity, the solo or senior pastor is called by the church, but after that, he wields most of the authority. In a larger church, he typically hires and fires all ministry staff, including other pastors. The lead pastor is as much a CEO as he is a shepherd. Members meetings are kept to a minimum; in some churches, only once a year. The pastor is the leader and the people follow his lead.
Option 4 is plural-elder-ruled benevolent oligarchy. In this polity, which is not as common as the others, a plurality of elders rules the church in much the same way as the single-pastor-ruled option. The difference is that the authority is vested in a small group rather than a single individual. In many ways, this polity could be called “poor man’s presbyterianism.” The church is ruled by her elders, but there is no presbytery or classis beyond the local congregation. This polity also frequently makes a presbyterian-like distinction between teaching elders and ruling elders; only the former are considered pastors.
No doubt these are simplistic summaries of the various polities found in our circles, but I doubt they are overly simplistic. I’m personally acquainted with many (sometimes tons) of SBC churches that hold to each of these polities pretty much exactly as I’ve described them. Options 1 and 2 are very common among traditional-minded, small and medium-sized churches in small towns and rural areas. Options 3 and 4 are more common in contemporary-minded, larger churches in suburban areas, as well as newer church plants.
Plural-elder-led congregationalism differs from each of these polities in various ways. Unlike Options 1–3, there is a plurality of pastors. Unlike option 4, all of the pastors are elders, and vice verse; the terms are synonymous. All may be paid staff, or some may be paid and some may be voluntary. Unlike Option 1, the elders/pastors have the freedom to exercise biblical pastoral authority over the congregation in matters of teaching and shepherding. Unlike Option 2, no committees or deacon “boards” are elevated to an unbiblical level of authority in the church. Unlike Option 3, all pastors are equals, even if, based upon prudence and giftedness, different pastors have different roles within the leadership team. Unlike Option 4, the final earthly authority still rests with the whole congregation as it corporately seeks God’s will under the lordship of Christ as it is revealed in the Scriptures.
If you are interested in reading more about the ins and outs of plural-elder-led congregationalism, including the biblical justification for the view, I would recommend the following books.
Thabiti Anyabwile, Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons (Crossway, 2012).
Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, 2nd ed. (Crossway, 2004), especially chapter 9.
John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Kregel Academic, 2005), especially chapter 7.
Benjamin Merkle, 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons (Kregel Academic, 2007).
Benjamin Merkle, Why Elders? A Biblical and Practical Guide for Church Members (Kregel Academic, 2009).
Phil Newton, Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model of Church Leadership (Kregel Academic, 2005).