By Whose Authority? Elders in baptist life by Mark Dever
This brief book is composed largely of an address I gave at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary on February 6, 2004. I was invited by Stan Norman to come and speak to the topic of “Elders and Baptist Polity” at the initial meeting of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry. Professor Norman and President Chuck Kelley were kind to extend the invitation and gave me a warm welcome there. Since I was advocating the unusual position of Baptist churches adopting a plurality of nonstaff elders, this paper received a good bit of attention. And because that interest continues, we have decided to publish the substance of the address in book form.
Unlike other 9Marks materials, we understand that this book will probably have its main use in Baptist churches, particularly in those in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention. Now, I do believe that the biblical defense offered in this book for practicing a plural local eldership is sound, and therefore applicable to Bible-believing Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and others. But it was delivered primarily and is now published especially with Baptists in mind.
The issue of the leadership of the local church is an important topic biblically. If Christ gave Himself for the church, identifies with the church as with His own body, continues to care and provide for the church, and will ultimately take the church as His bride, those who shepherd it have a high and holy responsibility.
In order to ascertain exactly how Christ intends his church to be led then, it is worth our time in study, prayer, reflection and consultation with God’s Word, with other Christians, and with those who have gone before us. While lacking a plurality of elders in a local church does not invalidate that congregation’s claim to be Christian, nor even largely Biblical, it does seem to be at odds with a pattern in the New Testament.
Speaking personally for a moment, as a Baptist pastor I have found having a plurality of elders immensely helpful. Our congregation’s contributions to the SBC have not fallen as a result; they have increased. My pastoral leadership has not been compromised by the other men serving with me as elders; it has only been enhanced. We have not been tempted to baptize infants. And our congregation has not become more passive; under good leadership they are even more active in ministry. Each elder is a gift of Christ to His church. Let’s not refuse His good gifts.
As I mentioned above, at 9Marks we get many questions about having elders, especially from Baptist church members, deacons and pastors. That’s why we finally decided to publish this book. In the last few years, two multi-author books have come out, each with evangelical advocates of various kinds of church government setting out their case, and responding to the other authors. Though asked to contribute to at least one of these projects, I had to decline. You see, I do not think that what I am advocating fits neatly into any of the commonly recognized categories.
For example, in this book (and in my earlier book A
Display of God’s Glory) I would suggest that a congregation would benefit by having both a senior or lead pastor, and a plurality of elders, all in the context of congregationalism. In at least one of the multi-author volumes, all three of these aspects of Biblical church life and leadership are pitted against each other. Instead I would advocate a happy helping each of the other, co-existing and re-enforcing each other in the life of the local congregation.
If you’re interested in what other Baptists are saying on this point, you should consider reading some of the other good resources that have recently been published. Phil Newton’s book Elders in Congregational Life (Kregel, 2005) is a practical look by one Southern Baptist pastor at leading his congregation to adopt a plural elder model. John Hammett’s book Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches (Kregel, 2005) is a full ecclesiology written by a Southern Baptist professor of theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. On the 9Marks website (www.9Marks.org), you can listen to an interview I conducted with both of these authors together discussing just such issues.
Paul Alexander and I wrote a book called The Deliberate Church (Crossway 2005), almost half of which is taken up with the practical aspects of such a plural eldership, examples of how it works out, and practices that we have found useful. And then finally, my chapter on ecclesiology in A Theology for the Church, (Danny Akin, ed., B&H 2006) includes a fuller treatment of some of the related issues considered systematically.
Special thanks to Matt Schmucker, director of 9Marks, who has once again had much to do with getting this teaching from my computer to your eyes. May God bless it to your growth in Him, and to the prosperity of the congregations you love and serve.