Our study of elders in New Testament churches has suggested that the concept of lay elders is not as self-evident as some of its advocates propose. Our argument consists of four premises.
First, Scripture describes plural elders in first-century New Testament churches, but does not prescribe this plurality, removing the need to find and appoint volunteer elders to constitute a plurality. Second, the New Testament prescribes the financial remuneration of elders who rule well in 1 Timothy 5:17. We suggested the descriptive interpretation of the word malista in 1 Timothy 5:17 is more likely: that the elders who rule well are the elders who labor in the Word and teaching. Third, we suggested it is unlikely that Paul believed in different kinds of elders (vocational and avocational). Paul regarded an elder’s authority as residing in his teaching, and expected Timothy to give himself entirely to this by laboring in the Word and teaching. Fourth, if eldership is always a vocation and not an avocation, then Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 9 that remuneration should come from one’s vocation.
If these premises are correct, then we conclude that the descriptive understanding of malista in 1 Timothy 5:17 seems to have the weight of evidence on its side: every elder should be laboring in the Word and doctrine, and therefore every elder is worthy of financial remuneration, though in different degrees. A church which receives this labor from an elder, but expects him to do it at his own expense, is disobeying Scripture. Unpaid, volunteer elders seem harder to defend on this score.
But in fact, it is usually not a matter of compulsion. Many “lay” elders are not given to this kind of labor, and many of the churches who call them as elders do not expect or require it from them. By adopting the restrictive view of malista in 1 Timothy 5:17, churches create room for an elder who can rule well without an intense labour in studying and preaching the Word. In fact, it’s hard to distinguish many “lay” elders or “ruling elders” from what the Bible describes as deacons.
Maybe They’re Deacons After All
I find it interesting that no New Testament command is given to remunerate deacons. It seems to be expected that deacons will be unpaid, or “lay”, to borrow the terminology. Comparing 1 Timothy 3:1-7 to 3:8-13 shows that deacons are identical to elders in their qualifications, with the single exception of one quality: “able to teach.” (It is true that elders are also distinguished from deacons by the fact that they are not to be “new converts” (v. 6), but this is fairly similar to the idea that the deacons must “first be tested” (v.10).) Interesting that “able to teach” is the sole characteristic that distinguishes elders from deacons, and it is this distinguishing characteristic, laboring in teaching and preaching, that Paul calls to be remunerated in 1 Timothy 5:17-18. Could it be that the men some call “lay elders” are actually deacons?
I think some people mistakenly equate and restrict church leadership to eldership. Leadership is not restricted to eldership, though eldership is the primary form of church leadership. A church may have many people who exercise subordinate or implicit forms of leadership within the church, under the oversight of the elders, for example small-group leaders, Sunday School teachers, or ministry administrators. Some forms of subordinate and implicit church leadership are necessarily exercised through the role of deacon. Of course, I understand the differences between elders and deacons. I know the difference between spiritual oversight and necessary administration. Baptist polity in three propositions is elders lead, deacons serve, and the congregation decides. In fact, I am even happy to affirm Alexander Strauch’s simple definition of a deacon as “one who assists the elders”. Nevertheless, I reject the idea that the elders provide all the spiritual leadership for a congregation, and deacons are the informal servants in the church, the chair-stackers and runners. Philip and Steven were possibly deacons (or proto-deacons, if you like) of the church at Jerusalem, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find men of equal spiritual maturity and influence in many of today’s “lay” elders.
Given how these offices are paired in Scriptures such as 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Philippians 1:1, we ought to see that these offices are not separated by a gaping chasm between elder-leadership and deacon-service. Rather, the servant-leaders (elders), and the leading-servants (deacons), give themselves to leading and serving the church as a team, with pastors taking oversight. Yes, there have been abuses in Baptist circles, such as deacon-led churches and deacon “boards” that control the pastor (or the church). These are unbiblical, but veering into the opposite ditch—suggesting that deacons are nothing more than the informal servants in a church, or not a church office at all—is hardly the solution.
What distinguishes elders from deacons is their teaching leadership (not merely some kind of standalone, avocational leadership) through which they take final oversight, and provide the spiritual direction and leadership for the congregation. It is precisely this teaching leadership, and the laborious study it requires, that Scripture commands be financially remunerated. If you have a man with all the biblical qualifications of an elder (making him a spiritual leader in character and qualification) but remove the requirement to lead through teaching with its required remuneration, what do you have? I think the answer is deacon, not “ruling lay elder”.
Indeed, while Scripture does not prescribe (or even describe) the role of a deacon, Acts 6:1-7 may give hints, if this passage does in fact describe proto-deacons of the Jerusalem church. These men administered benevolence, administered the material property of the church (which included the finances), and cared for the members. Sounds a lot like some modern “lay elders”, to me. It freed up the apostles to focus on the Word and prayer, which sounds a lot like the job description of a “vocational elder”, to me.
It seems odd and ironic that some of those churches with “lay” elders, whose Scriptural justification is less than certain, would regard a church that has only one remunerated elder as semi-biblical (or unbiblical), when such a church is seeking to follow its understanding of the prescriptions of 1 Timothy 5:17-18 and implications of 1 Corinthians 9:3-14, not merely mimic the descriptions of the book of Acts while possibly ignoring (or explaining away) the prescriptions of a pastoral epistle.
Much of this debate hinges on how you interpret malista in 1 Timothy 5:17, combined with your view of vocation and remuneration. My understanding of it and 1 Timothy 3:1-13 leads me to this position: a church is permitted to have more than one elder, but it is required to have at least one elder and at least two deacons. Every elder that it calls is to be remunerated, or offered remuneration in some form. Ministry should not be built off the unpaid backs of genuinely qualified and called pastors for whom ministry is their vocation, not an avocation. Remunerate those men, or do not call them. And title those spiritual leading-servants whose vocation is not that of pastor-teacher what they actually are: deacons.
If your ecclesiology looks different to this position because of how you interpret malista, I can respect that. If you can justify “lay” elders based upon that word in 1 Timothy 5:17, together with the book of Acts and some epistolary references to plural elders, I can understand that, without agreeing with your theological method. But given the ambiguous biblical evidence for “lay” elders in a church, and the amount of difference hinging on the interpretation of one Greek word, surely this should lead us to be careful in declaring another’s position unbiblical, and to avoid theological sneering and patronizing comments. Rather, let’s humbly defend our ecclesiological positions with careful exegesis and sound theology. Let those adhering to some form of baptistic ecclesiology agree that the two offices of elder and deacon are what Scripture requires of the local church, and that the implementation of the number of elders and their remuneration varies from context to context.