On Plural-Elder-Led Congregationalism

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).

  12Comments

  1. Adam Harwood   •  

    Good summary. I also found _Perspectives on Church Government_ (B&H, 2004) to be helpful, especially the essays by Akin and Garrett.

  2. Jason Fletcher   •  

    Dr. Finn,

    Thanks for the summary and recommended resources. The last link to Phil Newton’s work is incorrect and needs to be corrected as it points to “Why Elders?”

  3. Bart Barber   •  

    Nathan,

    I concur that at least some variant of plural-elder-led congregationalism is sound biblical ecclesiology, with the following caveats:

    1. Missing from the list is “Single-elder-led congregationalism” or even “Primary-elder-led congregationalism.” It seems to me that the number of elders and the hierarchy (or lack thereof) among the elders are questions that can be separated from the relationship among the voting congregation, the deacons, the committees, and the presbytery. The schema in the article (which, admittedly, does not purport to be exhaustive) leaves no room for healthy balance in the roles of congregation and committees but in the plural-elder-led model. I would contend that plural-elder-led congregationalism, rightly done, is sound biblical ecclesiology but is not the sole sound biblical ecclesiology. As we leave tomorrow for our work in Senegal, we do so in the hopes of planting a church there. When we come to have three or four believers in the village, I think that such a church might very well be worse off from an artificial insistence upon finding two elders than it would be if we were content to have just one.

    2. I am thankful for your further subclassification within plural-elder-led congregationalism of churches in which all of the elders are paid or some of the elders are paid. Would you agree with me that in some plural-elder-led congregations, the outcome in the matter of paid or unpaid elders is not happenstance? That some practitioners find it an important—or even indispensable—facet of the polity to ensure that some of the elders are unpaid. And if so, does this not simply replace the “teaching/ruling” dichotomy with a “paid/unpaid” dichotomy with no greater scriptural basis?

    I confess that this is just a drive-by. I’m headed out of the country tomorrow, and it is doubtful that I’ll remember to look back here upon my return in a few weeks. Is it OK if I just leave my remarks here and go on about my business?

    I’m thankful for you, brother. God bless.

  4. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Thanks for the catch, Jason. I fixed it.

  5. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Bart,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Let me interact with each of your caveats.

    1. Leaving off single-elder-led congregationalism was an oversight. (And a pretty egregious one, no doubt!) Now, to your caveat. I recognize that many churches only recognize one man as the sole elder. I think this is biblically acceptable, though not ideal. It seems that the weight of the NT evidence assumes a plurality of pastors, even in what were likely (mostly) smaller and medium-sized churches. So I think I would say that churches should always be working toward identifying potential elders and raising up new and additional leaders, but in some churches, there may be only one man who meets the biblical qualifications–the paid (or, in some cases, unpaid) solo pastor. I would think this is especially the case with some newer churches such as the one you will be working with in Senegal.

    2. I do agree with you that some advocates of plural-elder-led congregationalism seem to assume that having unpaid elders is a virtue. And I agree, to a point, that that position also creates a dichotomy. But I think this dichotomy, when the prescription is removed, has some biblical warrant, based on 1 Timothy 5:17. My reading of that verse is that churches have elders, some of which labor especially in preaching and teaching, and the latter should be taken care of financially. But that would assume that some of the elders *might* not be paid. Of course, I reject in toto the presbyterian reading of this passage, which makes a distinction between ruling and teaching elders. So I think I would say that this passage assumes a plurality of elders (even if others perhaps do not), it doesn’t mandate that all of them be paid (thought they may be), but it does say that ideally at least some of them should be paid (assuming this is possible). I see the issue of paying all versus paying some as adiaphora, a matter to be determined contextually. But I do agree completely that some argue prescriptively for unpaid elders; I do not make this a matter of prescription.

    Thanks again, Bart. I hope the Lord richly blesses your mission trip. I will pray for you today as soon as I hit the “reply” button!

    NAF

  6. Robert Vaughn   •  

    Nathan, good brief presentation of the subject. I agree with you in principle, though we might vary some in practice. I think Bart makes a good point about not artificially creating a plurality of elders. If God only gives us one elder, then so be it. I think the main thing we need to learn in Baptist churches is to not insist on keeping a single-pastor model when God has provided the material for a functioning plurality of pastors.

    In addition to the books you mention, I was impressed by Sam Waldron’s perspective in Who Runs the Church?: 4 Views on Church Government. For those who might be interested, I have provided a fairly thorough list of Bible verses dealing with plural elders (and related verses) HERE.

  7. dr. james willingham   •  

    Dear Dr. Finn: While there is evidence for a plurality of elders, there is no doubt left about the congregational nature of the ekklesia. And the fact that Peter limited the elders to being ensamples, models for imitation, suggest that their authority was of a moral nature. He specifically cuts the ground out from under any form of hierarchialism by forbidding them to lord it over God’s heritage. The Presbyterians are a good people, but their synods and presbyteries demonstrate how infiltration and change can be worked much more quickly. While I am not a Landmarker by any means, I do think that J.R. Graves in his work, Intercommunion, makes a tremendous contribution to ecclesiology in his discussion on the ekklesia of Ephesus and the ochlos (mob or crowd). In fact, I think K. Schmidt’s discussion of ekklesia in TWNT was wanting due to a misunderstanding of the differentiation between the two groups.

  8. Tyler B   •  

    Thanks for your discussion here.

    I am a member of a church that functions as a plural elder ruled model but makes no distinction between teaching and ruling elders, though one of the elders is the primary preacher and receives a salary where the others preach a few times a year and are not paid. We refer to them all as pastors and/or elders, and they shepherd and lead the congregation. They are in charge of the spiritual things and delegate most physical tasks and decisions to members that serve in a deaconal type of position. But at the end of the day they call the shots and lead the congregation. I understand my role in Hebrews 13:17, and their role to not lord their authority over us.

    I don’t understand where the congregationalism part comes from in scripture? I understand the democratic like structure as we in America live in a type of democracy, but I don’t see where this model comes from for the church in the Bible or early church history? I was researching this very thing when I stumbled upon this post and thought maybe you could help me understand where this type of governance comes from biblically?

    Thanks,

    Tyler

  9. Robert Vaughn   •  

    Hi, Tyler. I just happened back by and read your post. I hope Nathan will deal with this in depth, but I want to point you quickly to a couple of things. I point to a number of scriptures that relate to the subject of congregationalism (without looking like an American style democracy) in my blog post Coming to Consensus. Also there is a book online called History of Congregationalism from about A.D. 250 to the Present Time by George Punchard. It might yield some interest from an historical vantage point.

  10. Jaime   •  

    It depends on what kind of democracy you are talking about: Constitutional or “revolutionary” democracy.
    The first one, is the classical anglo american, protestant (puritan), democracy. The second comes from French revolution and the is current democracy today. The first appears as an application of Scripture to menpolity and consecrates the law over the people. The second is an scape fromall spiritual order and founds the will of people as superior to law. You, americans, have a great conflict in your society between this to ways of thinking, when some of you think that government can legislate over life, and some others stand on the principle that life is far beyond of any discussion. Constitutional democracy is a civil projection of bible democracy. (Sorry, my english is not well, I am a foreing baptist).

  11. Elijah Thompson   •  

    I really appreciate this view. My church holds to this model and it works out wonderfully. The amount of accountability it provides is great. I have seen many church split over the actions of a single man. It is a little more difficult to do this when more that one man is leading. It provides balance. Thanks for the post brother. I wonder if you know the amount of times elder and pastor is plural in the new testament? I heard the statistic once and would like to again.

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