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Elders in a Baptist Church: Plural, Yea; Lay, Nay (1)

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series

"Elders in a Baptist Church"

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I’ll sometimes hear the claim from some men that a plurality of elders, made up of “staff elders” and “lay elders” in a local church, represents orthodox, biblical ecclesiology and that any church (such as mine) with only one paid elder, several deacons and no lay elders represents a deviation from biblical church polity, or a sub-standard incarnation of it. I do not object to these men for coming to their conclusions about polity, but I confess I do struggle when such men act as if a plurality of “lay” elders is transparently the biblical position and all who reject it must be exegetically dishonest, or hopelessly beholden to some unbiblical ecclesiological tradition.

To be clear: no one needs to convince me that a plurality of elders is a biblically-sanctioned model. I agree with this. As a Baptist, I am convinced that the Bible stipulates only two offices for the New Testament church: elder and deacon. I believe when Scripture refers to a pastor, an elder, or an overseer, it is referring to the same office. I moreover believe that some kind of plurality of elders in local churches seems to have been a pattern in the apostolic church. And on the purely practical level, no one needs to convince me of the wisdom and practical benefit of having several elders in a church. Certainly my own local church practices a plurality of shared leadership, and has had plural elders at different times in its history.

What I am not convinced of is the practice of having several unpaid or “lay” elders in the church, laboring alongside one or two paid elders. The debate occurs because proponents of lay elders believe a plurality of elders requires the presence of lay elders. They regard these ideas as virtually synonymous, and think the one means the other. They regard this equation as supposedly too obvious to require defense. Lay elders are then often introduced because its advocates believe that a plurality of elders is an explicit or implicit requirement of the New Testament, and the practice of ordaining or appointing lay elders seems to them to be the only practical way to achieve the required plurality.

In fact, the concept of lay elders as a kind of orthodox ecclesiology probably dates to Calvin’s introduction of it in Geneva (where there were four offices: ruling elder, teaching elder, deacon, and doctor). Having multiple elders finds circumstantial support in the narratives of Acts and references to elder in the plural in the epistles. However, there is simply no way that careful theological method could turn having “lay elders” into some kind of biblical requirement for churches striving for biblical ecclesiology.

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The most common form of defense I hear of this practice is almost always of the practical and anecdotal kind, rather than the exegetical. “The best thing I ever did was to train up lay elders to serve with me” “Having a team of lay elders protects the teaching pastor from being overburdened” “A single pastor without lay elders leads to megalomania and abuses of power”.

The problem with building the case for lay elders from stories or practical concerns is that one can with some ease recite just as many horror stories of divisive, uncooperative, immature lay elders that ruined a ministry, or speak of the divisions and differences that occur between “staff elders” and “lay elders”. Alternatively, one could speak of the servantlike deacons that served a single staff pastor in a thriving church. At this point, all we are doing is trading anecdotes, hoping that one person’s story is more persuasive than another’s. We need to do more than claim pragmatic results or successes for one system over another. We need biblical evidence one way or another. Furthermore, we need a careful theological method to handle rightly the biblical data.

There are two theological and exegetical points to consider. The first is whether or not Scripture mandates a plurality of elders. The second is if Scripture mandates the financial remuneration of elders.

Are Plural Elders Required By Scripture?

On the first score, the Bible describes without anywhere prescribing the common ancient practice of having a plurality of elders in a church. In good theological method we say, descriptions do not become prescriptions. Simply because some or even all of the churches did something in the first century does not make it normative and required for all churches of all times. Men and women sometimes sat separately in church. People of the same sex greeted with a kiss. The churches used one loaf of unleavened bread and a single cup of wine.

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There could be all kinds of reasons why churches had several elders in the first century. The practice may reflect early carryovers from the synagogue, or how ancient towns and cities were governed. The practice may reflect particular manners and customs of the time. Particular churches in particular cities or towns may have had idiosyncratic needs. The most we can say about the New Testament descriptions of multiple elders in a single local church is that multiple elders were present in apostolic times, and therefore the practice is permitted by the modern church. It is entirely permissible to have several pastors in one congregation.

The real question at hand is how many elders a church of any period is required to have, and how to reach that number. To answer that, we cannot simply rely on narratives. Good theological method will always prioritize didactic passages over descriptive or narrative passages to answer a question of church order. Specifically, we need a passage that is unambiguous as to its meaning, and in its context specifically aims to define church order and church offices.

Titus 1:5 (“For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you”) does not meet these criteria of being unambiguous in meaning and a Scripture that intends to define church order in apostolic, prescriptive form. The command Paul gave to Titus may be unique to Crete or normative for all churches of all times, but we have no way to know from the context, for the reference is historical, not prescriptive. Further, the semantic structure is ambiguous. “Elders in every city” could mean more than one thing. It could mean multiple elders in each city. It could mean elders distributed throughout the island of Crete, perhaps one elder in every house church in each city. It could mean multiple elders in each church. The point is, it is far from unambiguous, and as we say in any Theological Method class, ambiguous passages are not sufficient to settle a debate.

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Elders in a Baptist Church: Plural, Yea; Lay, Nay (3)

For an unambiguous, didactic passage dealing intentionally with church order and the appointment of church officers, we turn to 1 Timothy 3:1-13. Significantly, here Paul deals with the overseer in the singular, but deals with the deacon in the plural. Is this just stylistic? It is doubtful, but even if it is simply Paul’s writing style, it is besides the point. Paul here has the opportunity to mandate a plurality of elders in a church, but instead he speaks of an overseer and deacons. If a plurality of elders is God’s requirement for every local church of every period, the omission here is glaring, and the syntax misleading. Conversely, if we stop turning narratives into imperatives, we’ll see that 1 Timothy 3:1-13 indicates that a church is properly constituted when it has at least one elder and at least two deacons. This is the biblical requirement, and it is all that can be mandated of a local church.

So, on the matter of the requirement of plurality of elders, the New Testament teaching might be summarized thus: a church may have more than one pastor, but it is required to have at least one; and if it has only one, it has not transgressed a New Testament principle.

It’s really very simple: before you tell me that I am required to have a plurality of elders in my church, could you at least supply one New Testament verse that makes it a requirement?

If plural elders is not prescribed by Scripture, what about the remuneration of elders? We turn to that next.

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David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

12 Responses to Elders in a Baptist Church: Plural, Yea; Lay, Nay (1)

  1. Can you cite an example of someone who says that plural elders are required by Scripture? Or someone who says that all who reject plural lay eldership are exegetically dishonest, or hopelessly beholden to some unbiblical ecclesiological tradition?

    Here are some things people do argue:

    1. There are multiple examples in the NT of plural elders in one church.
    * Acts 15:4 – When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders,
    * Acts 15:22 – Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church
    * Acts 20:17 – Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church
    * 1 Timothy 4:14 – Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you.
    * James 5:14 – Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church

    2. There are no unambiguous examples in the NT of a church with only one elder.

    3. A pastor is biblically obliged to disciple men toward qualification for eldership. IOW, a pastor disobeying Scripture if raising up elder-qualified men is not a priority.
    * 2 Timothy 2:2 – and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.

  2. Ben,

    A few samples of those who would argue that the Bible teaches, and therefore requires, that a church should have a plurality:
    https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/do-you-believe-a-church-should-be-governed-by-one-elder-or-several
    https://founders.org/2017/08/30/the-practical-benefits-of-a-plurality-of-elders/
    https://bible.org/article/who-should-run-church-case-plurality-elders
    http://thecripplegate.com/why-im-happy-to-not-be-a-senior-pastor/

    These would all say that a single-elder model is wrong. I’ve had enough conversations with advocates where the implication was that single-elder churches haven’t been or aren’t willing to embrace what the Bible teaches. This series is trying to argue that a church with one elder may, in some cases, be trying to be more biblical, not less.

    1. You’ve cited verses, to which I would add the famous Titus 1:5, that show that it is entirely permissible to have multiple elders in a modern church. All of them describe what was happening in the first century church, including what James’ audience should do in the case of sickness. Descriptions, however, do not become prescriptions.
    2. No, there aren’t, but arguments from silence don’t become prohibitions, either. There are no unambiguous Scriptures showing us what deacons did, for that matter.
    3. Agreed. Elders should train up elders. That’s not the same as saying, elders should train up and install lay elders.

  3. The clinching verse for me is 1 Timothy 5:17. The Greek word malista appears, and on each side of it is a plurality (presbeuteroi–plural; kopiwntes–plural), the second group (kopiwntes) of which is a subset of the first (presbeuteros) (this appears to be the function of this word, malista, throughout the NT; notice Acts 25:26). Thus, the church has a plurality of ruling elders and a subset of this group, also called elders, who, in addition to ruling, works hard in the Word (teaching and preaching). Actually, the verse appears be stating there are three categories of elders: all elders rule, but some rule (worthy of honor), some distinguish themselves by ruling “well” (worthy of double honor), and some rule and simultaneously devote themselves to teaching and preaching.

    This brings up the question of what the “honor” and the “double honor” are. I’ll be interested to see if you cover that verse in your next post.

    I appreciate your emphasis on the genre consideration—narrative is not normative. Nevertheless, his verse comes from the epistles, an epistle that Paul wrote concerning church conduct (1 Timothy 3:17).

    I have never heard someone from your perspective discuss 1 Timothy 5:17, and I am curious to know how you respond to what I am thinking I see there.

  4. David,

    Thanks for the interaction. Yes, in the next post, I deal extensively with 1 Timothy 5:17. In summary, malista is either restrictive or descriptive in 1 Tim 5:17 (it is used in both ways in the NT). The restrictive option narrows the elders into four subgroups, and will lead to the possibility of some elders being remunerated, with the others being legitimately unpaid, or ‘lay’. The descriptive option is that that “elders that rule well” are equated to those that labour in the word and teaching, leading to the idea that a “ruling-well” elder is a teaching elder, and that they should all be remunerated.

  5. David de Bruyn,

    Though I didn’t see the level of dogmatism in the Bible.org article that you imply, the other three make stronger statements at the level of “should/ought” that goes further than I think the text supports. I still didn’t see any of them calling those who disagree “exegetically dishonest.” What do you have in mind there? (I don’t find that sort of rhetoric helpful.)

    The Cripplegate article, in particular, is on dangerous ground when it says that plurality is “the prescription for every church.” That level of hyperbolic dogmatism is characteristic of a certain crowd. Surely we should all agree that it’s better for a church to have only one elder than plural elders if only one man is biblically qualified.

    But here’s the sticking point, IMO. Some who defend the position that a church is not necessarily out of order if it has only one elder seem content to have only one. They make their case on the basis that not all churches have multiple qualified men and/or the ability to pay multiple men a full-time salary. (We can kick that discussion back to your next post.) IOW, there’s no sense that a church would be better served by raising up more men for the task and recognizing their giftedness by installing them into the office. It seems as though some deny that evidence (the NT’s consistent pattern, the instruction of an apostle for a specific church, and the assumption that plurality will be the case) suggests a sort of norm or ideal.

    It may be simply that in my judgment those factors carry more weight than in yours. But that’s where the practical and anecdotal arguments complement the exegesis. Certainly many people have made exegetical arguments for the normal practice of plural eldership in NT churches. Once we’ve established their normality, a natural question might be, “Then why not have them?” If we’re free to have them, and (as the anecdotal arguments go) they’re really helpful, then maybe those who resist plurality do so to the detriment of their churches and even themselves. In some cases, a deeper motivation may be present that’s unhealthy or even dangerous.

  6. Ben,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. The four sites are representative of what I mean. In private conversation, people from the same circles have told me that my church is unbiblical in its polity, or that Baptist churches with one pastor “refuse to deal with the biblical evidence”, which is tantamount to calling one dishonest.

    I am not saying everyone uses that kind of rhetoric. Some of my closest friends and colleagues in SA are TMS grads, and we graciously accept each other’s differences. What I find rare in the reformedish evangelicalish world is the simple statement you make at the end of your second paragraph. I have yet to see any of the most public voices in the plural elder camp say something like, “While a church will always be better served by a plurality of elders, a church with only one elder and at least two deacons is still a properly ordered New Testament church.” I’ve yet to see that kind of even-handedness. Indeed, most of the plural elder groups I’ve known are so nervous about having only one elder, that they have “steering committees’ of elder trainees so as to get four or five elders in one fell swoop when they’ve ‘come of age’. And I think the four sites I link to are pretty representative of the attitude in that camp that Scripture more or less mandates plural elders.

    Now I also know of the opposite error of which you speak, in the IFB churches I grew up in, and in some Southern Baptist churches. You’ll get no argument from me there. In my opinion, the sooner a church has multiple genuinely called and qualified shepherds, the better. I would love a plurality! I have instituted ministry apprenticeship programs and teach in a seminary we’ve begun to raise up such men. I would love to serve alongside genuinely called and qualified elders. And I agree that actively resisting a plurality can be indicative of deeper and darker motives.

    However, to make the point anecdotally: my best men are currently deacons, or deacons-to-be. Some may be elders in the future, even soon. But if or when they are, it will be because they meet the qualifications, desire the office, and see it as their vocation, not avocation. I am the only elder because that is simply the nature of the calling, gifting, maturity and desire of the men in my church. But across town I will find smaller, younger churches of similar faith, with teams of five or six “lay” elders. This represents more than just God’s providence in who attends a church. It represents different views on what constitutes a lay elder. In the rush to plurality, in my opinion, men who are really deacons are given the title elder. And this is driven by the sense that the polity is “incomplete” as long as there is only one elder. It’s this peer pressure in reformed evangelical circles that I quarrel with.

  7. Really great and helpful discussion. Personally, I would put myself in the camp of someone who would say “While a church will always be better served by a plurality of elders, a church with only one elder and at least two deacons is still a properly ordered New Testament church.” I know from personal experience how incredibly helpful to a church a plurality of elders is, but I fully recognize this is not possible in all circumstances and would never insist that Scripture requires it.

    Looking forward to your discussion of vocational vs. lay, as that’s an issue I’ve thought some about as well.

    What especially bugs me in this discussions is churches that I respect who, on the one hand, insist that there are only two biblical offices, but on the other hand distinguish even in language between pastors (paid staff) and elders (lay). It often seems in these situations as well that the lay elders are placed in a higher authority than the “paid assistant pastors.” That’s an even bigger problem, I believe.

  8. David de Bruyn,

    The differences between us on these issues aren’t significant enough to pursue further, IMO.

    One question: What makes you say that a church needs to have two deacons to be properly ordered?

  9. Ben,

    Yes, I think so. Until next week’s post, that is :)

    One elder and two deacons is what I infer from one of the only passages in the NT that aims to define church order and offices, 1 Tim 3:1-13. Paul speaks of the overseer in the singular and the deacons in the plural. While this may be stylistic, it seems to be an ambiguous place to be stylistic. It seems we are as close to Paul’s probable intended meaning when we say a properly ordered church must minimally have one overseer and two deacons.

  10. That’s interesting. You obviously don’t think passages like 1 Timothy 5 and James 4, which give instructions that assume elder plurality, therefore explicitly mandate plurality. (And I’d agree.) But while there are instruction about diaconal qualifications in 1 Timothy 3, there’s nothing whatsoever that mandates a number. But you do see that as a mandate, then? That seems like a rather selective use of the evidence.

    Bottom line to me is that the pattern of plurality for both elders and deacons is quite clear—marginally more clear for elders. While there are no unambiguous, explicit commands for plurality for either office, plurality is presented as the norm and ideal for both. Churches with singular elders or deacons are not out of order strictly by the number of their officers, but may well be if they are indifferent to obligations to disciple towards more qualified individuals—and that obligation seems more clear to me regarding elders. (It’s possible I’m forgetting instruction about training deacons that parallels 2 Timothy 2:2.)

  11. Ben,

    It is not that I don’t see those passages as significant for deciding the matter of a plurality. It is a question of how we weigh the biblical data. As I’m sure you know, three principles for weighing biblical evidence in Theological Method are:
    1) Didactic passages take priority over narrative passages.
    2) Clear passages take priority over ambiguous passages.
    3) Intentional passages take priority over incidental pages.

    Acts and Titus 1:5 are narrative passages, not didactic. Titus 1:5 and 1 Timothy 5:17 are ambiguous and cannot settle the debate. When it comes to 1 Timothy 5 and James 4, these passages are important, but they are incidental to the problem at hand: defining church offices. Healing the sick, remunerating elders, rebuking elders, are what James and Paul are dealing with there. They do not mean to speak about how many elders or deacons a church may or may not have, and therefore carry less weight in making a judgment in this case.
    When we come to 1 Timothy 3:1-13, we have a very different situation. This is a didactic, clear passage, in which Paul’s intention is specifically to define church offices. This is the central passage in the NT for the problem at hand. Since this is Paul’s intention, we ought to place a lot more significance on his use of singular or plural in this passage than in any other. It is hard to imagine that Paul is just playing with literary style at the crucial moment when he aims to tell Timothy how to behave himself in the church of God. While I’d stop short at saying plural deacons is a mandate, I’d say the use of singular for overseer and plural for deacon in a passage that aims to define church order is far more significant than in any other passage in the NT. Which leads to the position: while the rest of the incidental passages in the NT show us that plural elders and plural deacons are permitted, the intentional passage shows us that the minimal order is one elder and more than one deacon.

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