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

This entry is part 1 of 4 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.

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.

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.

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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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.