Elder Plurality in Baptist Congregationalism: A Response to Dr. Bart Barber

Phil Newton
| March 18, 2014

Elders in Congregational LifeI am a lifelong Southern Baptist. My parents enrolled me almost sixty years ago in the “cradle roll” at the First Baptist Church, Gadsden, Alabama, and I’ve attended SBC churches since. I have also served on the staff of SBC churches since 1973, and the past twenty-seven years as senior pastor of a church that I planted. During these forty-one years on church staffs, I’ve witnessed many things—good and bad. One of the worst things that I’ve seen is SBC church polity, and one of the best things that I’ve seen is SBC church polity. At the risk of sounding like I’m speaking from both sides of my mouth, let me explain.

In my first staff position, I did not quite understand what was going on after a raucous Sunday night business meeting, but I knew that after the dust settled that Sunday evening, fewer folks, including the pastor, attended. In the forty years that followed, I have watched uncontrolled emotions at business meetings, churches dividing over the most trivial things, people showing up to vote at controversial business meetings—people who otherwise never attended or supported the church, unconverted deacons working to undermine pastoral leadership, and the raw exposure of church disunity. On the other hand, I’ve witnessed godly deacons serving, faithful staff and non-staff elders leading and shepherding the congregation, and remarkable displays of unity in congregational decisions. In my experience, the former took place under traditional SBC polity that mixed deacon control with unhealthy versions of congregationalism. The latter took place with plural elders and deacons giving leadership and service within a healthy congregational framework.

I admit that so far I’ve been purely anecdotal. But as I’ve talked with hundreds of pastors, staff members, seminary students, and church members over the years, unfortunately, my negative anecdotes seemed to parallel their own experiences in SBC churches. Surely, the way that we’ve done congregationalism and church leadership in many SBC congregations falls short of the biblical pattern.

At just this point, Bart Barber’s post, “Of Pastors and Presbyters,” intersects with mine. I join him in despising “so much of what has passed for congregationalism in Southern Baptist churches,” and “welcome and embrace the new openness in our churches to revisit our polity and make it better and more biblical.” Although he and I take different approaches as to what this better polity looks like, we both desire to see congregations exercising healthy congregationalism and pastoral leaders giving solid leadership, for which I am thankful for his insightful post. I will begin in the present post to interact with Dr. Barber, while attempting to offer a biblical and historical rationale in subsequent posts for plural elder leadership within a congregational framework.

First, Dr. Barber identifies, “The rise of the New Calvinism [as] one important factor” in SBC congregations moving toward a plural elder leadership polity. While recognizing that some churches embrace elder leadership under the influence of what he calls “the New Calvinism,” in my own experience of counseling churches through polity change, many have no interest in Calvinism or non-Calvinism of any sort. It’s not even on the table for discussion. They just know that something is seriously wrong with the way that their churches are structured. Some have come to those conclusions through reading Scripture; others through the repeatedly bad experiences of unqualified or misplaced deacons and unhealthy congregationalism run amok. The renewed interest in Calvinism has certainly affected the way that pastors and leaders look at Scripture, and consequently, has moved them toward changes in polity. Consequently, in most of those churches that I’m familiar with, one of the first considerations has been establishing biblical standards and practices for church membership. Some, no doubt, have moved too quickly on changing polity before establishing a good biblical foundation in the church, and thus not allowing a congregation the opportunity to gradually wean itself from unhealthy polity. Others, as Dr. Barber points out, eliminate congregationalism all together, which, we would agree lacks biblical support. While he points to an overt attachment to Presbyterian voices as one cause, the strict elder rule that he has concern for appears to follow more of a Bible church model.

Second, “The sorry state of congregationalism in many of our Southern Baptist churches,” Dr. Barber writes, “is another key factor.” I fully agree! We’ve exchanged the cherished corporate doctrine of the priesthood of all believers recovered during the Reformation and championed by our Baptist forefathers, for the individualistic priesthood of the believer spawned out of the Enlightenment—thus giving each individual the freedom to do or say whatever he or she desires, even if it is wrong-headed and divisive. That’s not biblical congregationalism. The transition in SBC life away from a corporate understanding of believers’ priesthood appeared to come in the early 1900s, particularly under the sway of E. Y. Mullins, through the influence of the Enlightenment on his theology. Contrary to some of the consequent developments to this unbiblical understanding of believers’ priesthood, unless congregations take seriously church membership and its corporate responsibilities to love one another, serve one another, admonish one another, encourage one another, et al.—as taught in the New Testament, e.g. Romans 12–16; Galatians 5–6; Ephesians 4–6—then they lack the corporate character to function congregationally. Consequently, we should not be surprised by the way that some disregard the gospel and church unity under the guise of expressing their opinion in congregational meetings. This takes us back to the need for a renewed emphasis on the Scripture, doctrine, and gospel application to the whole of life so that churches understand their corporate responsibilities.

Third, “A related matter is the weak and sorry state of the office of pastor/elder/overseer in so many of these dysfunctional churches,” according to Dr. Barber. He correctly notes, “Bad congregationalism had eviscerated and emasculated many a minister of the gospel.” So how do we replace bad congregationalism with healthy congregationalism? Does that happen by a pure democracy espoused by 18th and 19th century Baptist leaders Isaac Backus, John Leland, and Francis Wayland (predating the SBC) that left out any form of elder leadership? I will try to demonstrate in my next post how their views of congregationalism led to unhealthy polity among Baptist churches. Unfortunately, while rightly noting the poor condition of pastors/elders/overseers, Dr. Barber reads a modern view of the office of pastor into his position. Even in the 19th century, where do we see titles like Pastor of Worship, Pastor of Adult Ministries, and Pastor of Students? It is very easy for us to think that two thousand years of church life has always been done the same way. But earlier generations recognized the varied giftedness and calling of members, some of whom served as elders shepherding their churches without holding to or fulfilling the chief responsibilities that we accord a senior pastor or staff member. But more on that in another post.

Fourth, “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.” Again, Dr. Barber is right on target with his assessment. Congregations taking seriously the qualifications for deacons in 1 Timothy 3, and the pre-diaconate model in Acts 6, seem to be far and few between. Examining deacon nominees in regard to personal testimony, understanding of the gospel, walk with Christ, family life, doctrine, and service seem to have little place in the process of positioning men to hold sway over local churches. Additionally, have we not also done a disservice to deacons by putting them into an elder-role when they should be involved in a service role? In reality, many of the traditional SBC deacon boards function as elders, to some degree, in terms of giving direction and making decisions on behalf of the church, without the qualifications, teaching gifts, shepherding practices, or the understanding of the office of elder.

Lord willing, I’ll continue interacting with Dr. Barber’s post. Meanwhile, let me encourage you to read his thoughtful musings on pastors and presbyters.