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

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series

"Elders in a Baptist Church"

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In considering the question of lay elders, we have seen that the New Testament describes but never prescribes a plurality of elders in a New Testament church. It does, however, prescribe the remuneration of elders that rule well. In part 2, we saw that ruling well is likely best understood as equivalent to laboring in the Word and teaching. In other words, the vocation of an elder is that of laboring intensely in the Word and preaching. There is no such thing as an elder who does not labour in the Word and teaching, and therefore there is no such thing as elders that lead apart from this labor. If so, then permanently unpaid, “lay” elders seem ruled out by 1 Timothy 5:17. While this verse does not settle the debate, it raises the question of vocation or avocation in relation to remuneration. The concept of lay elders – that some elders voluntarily and permanently work at some other vocation besides labor in the Word – is worth examining. Can eldership be an avocation?

Eldership: Vocation or Avocation?

Webster’s defines avocation as “a subordinate occupation pursued in addition to one’s vocation especially for enjoyment”. No one questions that a “full-time” pastor views his eldership as his vocation. But what of the “lay” elder, whose time is spent primarily as a financial planner, or surgeon, or I.T. Manager? What is his vocation, exactly? Is it his eldership, or his career? Does he see himself primarily called to be a pastor, or to be a surgeon, financial planner, or marketing manager? Why is it only the “staff” elder who seems to see his only calling to be that of pastor?

This is not a question of working two or three “jobs”. Many have to do so, for financial reasons. A “job”, to use the rather unfortunate term, is mostly a financial means to an end. A vocation, on the other hand, is a calling. Vocation deals with the question of what domain of creation someone believes he is primarily called to labour in for the glory of God and the good of his neighbor. We all wear multiple hats, but we can all distinguish between our vocation and our avocations.

An unmistakable disparity exists between most “lay” and “teaching” elders, when it comes to ministry as one’s vocation. While “staff” or “teaching” elders feel prompted to pursue full-time ministry, attend seminary, and equip themselves to shepherd, many “lay” elders would not have considered the task of shepherding to be their calling in life had not the “teaching elder” invited them to do so. Granted, all pastors are encouraged to pursue the office by someone. But it is hard to argue that most “lay” elders have pursued the office with the initiative and effort that “staff” elders have, as if it is their primary vocation. Judging by appearances, some lay elders are elders by avocation, not vocation.

Texts such as 1 Timothy 4:15, 2 Timothy 2:3-7, 2 Timothy 2:15 and 2 Timothy 4:5 seem to suggest that Paul expected eldership to be Timothy’s primary and not subordinate occupation, one entirely given over to leading through teaching. It is impossible to separate an elder’s oversight or leading from his teaching, which makes it unlikely that Paul had two classes of elder in mind when penning 1 Timothy 5:17.

If eldership is truly a man’s vocation, then Scripture makes it very clear: all else being equal, a man is to earn his living from his vocation.

My defense to those who examine me is this: Do we have no right to eat and drink? Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working? Who ever goes to war at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk of the flock? Do I say these things as a mere man? Or does not the law say the same also? For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.” Is it oxen God is concerned about? Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope. If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things? If others are partakers of this right over you, are we not even more? Nevertheless we have not used this right, but endure all things lest we hinder the gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who minister the holy things eat of the things of the temple, and those who serve at the altar partake of the offerings of the altar? Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:7-14)

Notice the fairly strong case for remunerating those whose vocation is pastoring. In the context of explaining why he is eligible for financial support, Paul brings at least five supporting arguments.

1) The apostles themselves were financially supported (vv. 3-6).
2) Natural law indicates that people should live from their calling: soldiers and farmers reap the financial benefit of their callings (v. 7).
3) The Old Testament Law reflects the same principle: oxen were to be able to eat some of what they trod down, and priests were to eat of some of the sacrifices and offerings (vv. 8-10, 13).
4) Material giving is an appropriate response to spiritual ministry, for spiritual ministry is of greater value than material concerns (vv. 11-12).
5) The Lord Jesus has commanded us to support those who preach the gospel (v. 14).

If eldership is one’s vocation, financial support from it and for it is a just expectation. Scripture does not prescribe the extent of this remuneration. It may meet only some of a man’s needs. He may choose to refuse that support: he may be independently wealthy, supported by others, or able to otherwise support himself as Paul did, without blurring the line between vocation and avocation. We use the term “bi-vocational” not because we think a human may have two callings, but because pastors are often forced to work to support themselves in their calling.

However, even if the man forgoes support from the church, the church should be willing and able to give or offer double honor to a man it calls to labor in the word and doctrine amongst them. Churches should know that if a man is truly called to the office of overseer, the church that calls him must be prepared to remunerate him, be it a periodic and growing honorarium, or a full-time salary. What is inescapable is this: if pastoring or eldership is a man’s vocation, it is hard to Scripturally defend the idea that his remuneration should permanently and involuntarily come from a source other than the church that called him. To put it another way: it appears that every elder should aim to be “full-time” in the ministry, if it is his vocation.

For a pastor, outside employment should be viewed as a (hopefully) temporary means to enable pastoral ministry. As those who have done so know, how does an elder give himself to the Word and teaching without enormous strain on his other responsibilities? The principle of Acts 6:2-4 can apply to outside employment as well as the administration within a church: it is better for elders to be able to give themselves to the Word and prayer, and if they are freed up to do so, it is better for the church.

If eldership should not be a man’s mere avocation, and if one’s vocation and one’s remuneration are ideally to be united, then a church should seriously question the idea of building its ministry off the backs of unpaid pastors. Is it really permissible to have several men who are worthy of double honor, but just never receive it? The church that expects (or demands) that its elders labor intensely in the Word without pay is disobeying Scripture. Building a pastoral staff with volunteer elders who have either no hope or no desire to leave their outside employment also seems to me to be presumptuous.

Advocates of lay elders need to thoughtfully consider whether their lay elders see eldership as their vocation. Consider, does the church with five “lay elders” and one “staff” elder actually have six pastors? And do all six see themselves primarily as men called to be shepherds? Do the other five “lay” elders regard themselves as bi-vocational, tent-making pastors? This I have yet to see. Further, if they all share the same vocation, why do the “lay elders” so often serve terms of a few years at a time, while the “staff-pastor” is a lifer? Why is seminary training usually required or urged for only the “teaching pastor” (a redundancy, if there ever was one)? Let’s be honest: all too often, such churches are working functionally with three offices: pastor, lay elder, and deacon.

Indeed, it is worth comparing the role and qualifications of the average “lay” elder with that of a deacon. This will be our final consideration in the next post.

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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.