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).

For the Record (Benjamin L. Merkle): Why Elders? A Biblical and Practical Guide for Church Members

[Editor’s Note: Ben Merkle is Associate Professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern. He is the editor of the 40 Questions (Kregel) series and the author of The Elder and Overseer: One Office in the Early Church (Peter Lang, 2003) and 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons (Kregel, 2008). In light of his expertise in this key area of ecclesiology we asked him a few questions for the record.]

What is the importance of church government for evangelicals in general and pastors or elders in particular?

The form of church government that a local congregation employs is extremely relevant to the life and health of the church. The Church, as the body of Christ, should seek to be pure and spotless. If certain biblical patterns and principles are ignored or abandoned, then the Church will reap negative consequences. Therefore, it is beneficial for the Church to follow the wisdom of God as recorded in Scripture. Church government is important, not primarily because outward structures are important, but because outward structures directly affect who can be a leader in the church, what each leader does, and to whom each leader is accountable. Thus, when we speak of church government or church polity we are really speaking of the roles, duties, and qualifications of those who lead the body of Christ.

Do you think there is a lot of misunderstanding in the church about what elders are and what they do?

There is no doubt that there is a lot of misunderstanding in the church about nature and function of elders. Because most Baptist churches don’t use the title “Elder” for their leaders, many are suspicious of the title. Many assume that only Presbyterian churches have elders and that it is simply not “Baptist” to have elders. This view is wrong for at least two reasons. First, historically Baptist churches used the title “elders.” Second, because New Testament churches had elders, we should not be afraid to embrace the term. The term itself, however, is not the most important aspect. Rather, the qualifications and duties are the more important aspects.

So, why should a church have elders?

This can be answered at a couple different levels. In my book, 40 Questions about Elders of Deacons (Kregel, 2008), I sought to answer the most important and relevant questions regarding the two offices of elders and deacons. This book was written primarily for pastors and church leaders.

My book Why Elders? A Biblical and Practical Guide for Church Members is a summary of that work in a concise and condensed format focusing on why every church should have elders. This book was written primarily for church members. The question, “why elders?” is answered in four main chapters: (1) It is the pattern of the New Testament Church; (2) It provides help and accountability for a pastor; (3) It produces a healthier church; and (4) It promotes the biblical role of deacons. These four reasons are my answers here.

What about deacons? How do their ministries interrelate with that of pastor and elder?

The role of the deacons is not to lead the church but to serve the church. Elders or pastors are the leaders and are given the role of shepherding and teaching or preaching. Deacons, on the other hand, are given the role of taking care of the physical and logistically needs of the church so that the elders can concentrate on their primary calling. In many churches today, deacons function more like elders than deacons. Part of the reason deacons are involved in leading the church is because churches don’t have a plurality of elders. Without a plurality of elders, the church is led by a single pastor. In order to avoid giving this single pastor sole authority over the church, the role of deacons has shifted from the biblical model. But when elders are functioning properly in the church, deacons can likewise effectively serve the church.

Questions, Questions, Questions: Why You Should Read Ben Merkle’s New Series

For those of you who were not aware, Kregel Academic & Professional has launched a new series of books edited by Southeastern’s own Ben Merkle. The 40 Questions series is unique in that each book in the series provides (1) a comprehensive summary of its subject; (2) while breaking the subject matter into short chapters (5-10 pages); (3) allowing the reader to find the answers to commonly asked questions without having to read the entire book. The books are written by competent and respected scholars, but are written primarily for the church rather than the academy.

The first book, 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons (2008), was written by Merkle himself. [Merkle is also the author of Why Elders? A Biblical & Practical Guide for Church Members (Kregel, 2009).] The second release is 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible (2010), by Rob Plummer. Forthcoming volumes are 40 Questions about Creation and Evolution, by Southeastern professors Kenneth Keathley and Mark Rooker; 40 Questions about Election and Atonement, by Bruce Ware; 40 Questions about the End Times, Eckhard Schnabel; 40 Questions about Worship, by David Nelson; and 40 Questions about Christians and the Law; Thomas R. Schreiner.

While I’m at it, if you are a prospective college student, seminary student, or Ph.D. candidate, allow me to invite you to come study under Dr. Merkle at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is Associate Professor of New Testament and Greek here at Southeastern. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. from Southern. Before coming to Southeastern, he taught at Cathedral Bible College, Southern Seminary, and Malaysia Baptist Theological Seminary.