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Elders in a Baptist Church: Plural, Yea; Lay, Nay (2)

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series

"Elders in a Baptist Church"

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In some cases, “lay” elders are introduced into Baptist churches because those doing so believe that a plurality of elders is an explicit or implicit requirement of the New Testament. Many believe a church with only one pastor has a sub-standard or sub-biblical ecclesiology, and the pragmatic solution to achieving this supposed requirement of multiple elders is to enlist men as unpaid elders. This is unnecessary, since as part 1 showed, the New Testament does not make the plurality of elders a requirement either explicitly or implicitly. Advocates of a plurality of elders almost instinctively assume that denying that a plurality of elders is a biblical requirement means one must be arguing for a single-elder model to the exclusion of a plurality of elders. On the contrary: multiple elders are permissible in a local church. But so is a single elder.

Is Remuneration of Elders Commanded?

We come to the second matter: whether or not Scripture requires the remuneration of an elder. Should the ministry be built with the labors of unpaid elders simply to gain the desired (or as some imagine, required) plurality, with its benefits? Even if the church sees the plurality as beneficial and not mandatory, can some of the elders be deliberately unpaid? Here is where the Bible is far more prescriptive. Whereas the Bible describes (without prescribing) a plurality of elders, the Bible prescribes that elders are to be remunerated.

Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” (1 Timothy 5:17-18)

The debate around 1 Timothy 5:17-18 hinges on the word translated especially in 1 Timothy 5:17. This Greek word malista can be taken either as restrictive or as descriptive. (It is used both ways in the New Testament.) Here is a world of difference hinging on one word: we are either commanded to pay some elders, or we are commanded to pay all.

A translation of this verse with malista understood restrictively would be: “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, particularly those [elders] who labor in the word and doctrine.” Taken restrictively, it narrows the group of elders who rule well and are worthy of double honor (a term referring to financial remuneration) into a sub-group: those who labor in the word and teaching. Here you can have elders who rule well, and among them, elders who rule well and teach from an intense labor. On this interpretation, the double honor (the financial remuneration) is to be given especially (but perhaps not exclusively) to that sub-group of teaching elders. This would leave the other elders, those who rule without laboring intensively in the Word and doctrine, as legitimately unpaid, or “lay”.

A translation of 1 Timothy 5:17 with malista understood descriptively would be: “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially as those who labor in the word and doctrine.” Taken descriptively, malista equates the elders who rule well to those who labor in the word and doctrine. In this interpretation, there is only one kind of elder who rules well: the one who labors in the word and doctrine, which requires that he be remunerated. (And if he is not ruling well by laboring in the Word, he ought to step down from his office.)

The restrictive position, favored by many Reformed evangelicals, seems to produce problems of a complex taxonomy of elders. For Presbyterians and others, it creates the two offices of ruling and teaching elder. For baptistic groups, it creates the amorphous category of “lay elder” alongside the elder(s) designated pastor-teacher. But once we add the adjectival modifier of “well” to ruling, it would seem that we then have the possibility of 1) elders that rule; 2) elders that rule well; 3) elders that teach; and 4) elders that rule well and teach from an intense labour. On this scheme, the elders in the fourth category need to be remunerated, creating space for “lay” elders, who would be elders from the other three categories.

But it is not that simple. How do we tell a laboring teaching elder from his less diligent counterpart? And is it possible to have an elder who does not rule well who retains his position without disqualification? Furthermore, it seems the double honor is for all elders that rule well, so then perhaps two out of the four categories ought to be remunerated: the ruling-well elders (who do not teach), and the ruling-well teaching elders. But if we are going to remunerate the ruling elder who rules well, how do we distinguish him from his ruling-elder-but-ruling-not-so-well counterpart? In all seriousness, this complicated taxonomy introduces distinctions between elders not seen in other Scriptures such as 1 Peter 5:1-4 or Acts 20:17-31. The restrictive position creates difficulties, if not absurdities and, in my opinion, should be abandoned.

The descriptive position is simpler, and harmonizes with the way the terms elder, overseer and pastor are used in the rest of the New Testament. There is no distinction between kinds of elders. Every elder is to teach. It is precisely his labour in the word and doctrine that is considered by Scripture as ruling well. In fact, understood this way, an elder’s authority exists solely through his teaching of the Word and his exemplary obedience to it. He rules through teaching. And when he does this, in some shape or form, he is to be given double honor. His labor and skill in the Word determines how the church will remunerate him, in comparison to how they will remunerate the other elders. Yes, there is a contrast here, but it is a contrast between elders who teach adequately and elders who teach exceptionally. The accent is on the intensity of the labor of preaching, not on the activity of preaching and teaching, which all the elders are expected to do. Some are more intensely engaged in it, and the church does well to recognize that in its remuneration of them all.

Theological Method textbooks will tell you that the simpler explanation is usually to be preferred over the more complex explanation, and the descriptive interpretation is simpler than the restrictive interpretation of malista.

With all that said, a lot hinges on the interpretation of this one word, malista. While I think the descriptive interpretation is more likely, the text is not an unambiguous one, and neither side can make their whole case using this text. Once again, in good theological method we say, an ambiguous passage is not sufficient to settle a debate. If this is your only evidence for splitting elders into teaching elders and lay elders, it really isn’t sufficient by itself. Nor, for that matter, can 1 Timothy 5:17 prove beyond doubt the position that every elder should be remunerated.

For further evidence, we turn to 1 Corinthians 9, and the question of vocation, avocation and remuneration. We will consider this next.

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About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). 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.