By Whose Authority? Elders in baptist life by Mark Dever
Before writing this article, I gave one of our church’s staff members a list of Southern Baptist churches with elders and asked him to track down any further church names that could be added to the list. Aside from the many churches within other Baptist denominations that have or are moving toward elder-leadership, he easily assembled a list of sixty SBC churches within a couple of days. I have little doubt that given more time he could double, triple, or even quadruple that list. The churches are all over the country. They are large and small. They are Calvinistic and not. Some have pastors who are well known, but most do not. The only two criteria required for inclusion on the list were having elders and belonging to the SBC. It may also be worth mentioning that our staff member reported that the pastors with whom he spoke again and again described at length the blessing their fellow elders had been to them in their mutual work of shepherding.
Some people assume that the SBC churches with elders are strange, perhaps overly-picky about doctrine, small and statistically unimportant outliers in the world of the Southern Baptist Convention. I am not so sure about that.
From Hayes Wicker in Naples, Florida, to Jeff Noblitt in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, pastors with elders are leading growing churches. An increasing number of Southern Baptist churches with a plural eldership have thousands attending, such as David Horner’s Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Buster Brown’s East Cooper Baptist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Dennis Newkirk, pastor of Henderson Hills Baptist Church in Edmond, Oklahoma, reported that his church regularly has 2,800 attending and is about to move into a new $23 million building. And he loves having elders. Wade Burelson, current president of the Oklahoma Baptist Convention, also pastors a church with elders—Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Oklahoma. Of course, many of us who have elders are middle-sized or smaller churches. But the move to plural eldership is a current trend within Southern Baptist churches, a trend that seems set to continue.
My own experience echoes the experiences of the pastors our staff member talked to on the phone. I first visited our congregation on Capitol Hill in the summer of 1993. I was open with the pulpit search committee about my belief in the Bible’s teaching on a plural eldership. They were surprised, and, I think, a little put off. After teaching on the subject from time to time for a few years, we finally adopted a new constitution and our first set of elders in 1998. For the last six years, the brothers that I have been privileged to serve with have given thousands of hours of their time to prayer, discussion, discipling, teaching, and shepherding the flock along with me. They have made up for some of my deficiencies. They have encouraged and corrected me. They have made what could be a very lonely job into a joy and delight.
And I think our congregation has flourished in no small part, under God, due to their work.
Certainly some issues are more significant for Baptist identity these days. The practice of membership in most of our churches falls woefully short of the biblical picture. This, in turn, tarnishes our witness to the gospel and hinders our evangelism and discipling. Bloated membership lists, plummeting baptismal ages, irregular attendance, and the absence of church discipline mark too many of our churches. The changes needed for us to bear a distinct witness of life and light in our dark and dying day are great. One of the greatest helps we could give faithful pastors and ministers would be groups of godly men to serve as elders—
men who are members of the church but largely not in its employ, who meet the biblical qualifications.
We can preach biblically faithful, culturally unpopular messages on the exclusivity of salvation through Christ alone. We can preach strong messages on the wrongs of divorce and abortion and sexual activity outside of marriage. But in most of our churches we would not even know if we had abortion doctors in the membership. And if we did, I fear too many of our churches would not know how to work to build a context of meaningful relationships that would give rise to appropriate church discipline in a case of unrepentant sin.
The problem in the Southern Baptist Convention was never most fundamentally in our seminaries. It was and is in our churches. In order to help Christians in this dark day turn our soaring sermons and thundering denunciations into more than just a bunch of hot air, but into incarnated corporate witnesses to the glory of Christ, we need help. And one crucial means of help God has granted his church that we ignore to our peril is the provision of multiple elders for giving careful, faithful, brave servant-leadership in days filled with both danger and opportunity. It works and it is needed. It is biblical and it is Baptist.