By Whose Authority? Elders in baptist life by Mark Dever
One of the two most divisive issues in Baptist churches today, said John Bisagno1 at a recent Tennessee Baptist Evangelism Conference, is the topic of church government. We no longer live in the ordered days of my upbringing, nor in the days Louie D. Newton2 describes in his book Why I Am A Baptist:
The first step I undertook when I became pastor of Druid Hills Church was to set up the Pastor’s Cabinet, composed of the heads of all the departments of the church life—Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Board of Deacons, Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Finance Committee, Chairman of the Trustees, Chairman of the Board of Ushers, Clerk, Treasurer, Chairman of the Relief Committee, Superintendent of
1John Bisagno is a retired pastor of the First Baptist Church of Houston, Texas.
2Louie Newton was the long-time pastor of Atlanta’s Druid Hills Baptist Church.
the Sunday School, Director of the Training Union, President of the Woman’s Missionary Society, President of the Brotherhood, Minister of Music, Chairman of the Music Committee, Chairman of the Guest Book Committee, Chairman of the Youth Council, Librarian, and Members of the Church Staff.3
What confidence we had in corporate organizational structures in the middle of the last century! Newton continues, Stemming from this idea of the Pastor’s Cabinet, all plans of evangelism, enlistment, stewardship and promotion are first discussed in this small, responsible group, then submitted to the larger groups for questions and suggestions, and finally, after the widest possible conference and agreement, submitted to the church for approval or disapproval.4
Would the Baptists of earlier eras have approved of the plethora of non-biblical offices in our churches? Perhaps so. The Philadelphia Baptist Confession (1742) says in its chapter “Of the holy Scriptures,”
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down, or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture; unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men.
3Louie D. Newton, Why I Am a Baptist (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), 202.
Nevertheless we acknowledge the inward illuminations of the Spirit of God, to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word, and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies; which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed (ch. 1, sec. 6; emphasis mine).
In other words, church government is a matter in which some latitude is appropriate. Baptists have always acknowledged this. At the same time, Baptists have always recognized that Scripture contains specific instructions about the local church’s polity. The purpose of this study is to consider the role of church elders from a biblical, historical, and pragmatic perspective. We will begin with a survey of Scripture’s teaching about elders. We will then examine elders in church history, and finally conclude with some practical comments on elders in Baptist life today.