The Ephesians 4 Project: The Church

Baptist Faith & Message 2000
Article VI:  The Church
A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.
The New Testament speaks also of the church as the Body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages, believers from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation.

Unifying Principles from Article VI
Historically, Baptist have been strong on their view of the local church, and the statement made in the Baptist Faith & Message confirms this for Southern Baptists.  The unifying principles abound from article VI.  We all agree that the church is founded upon the New Covenant in the Lord Jesus Christ.  We all agree that the church is an “autonomous local congregation of baptized believers.”  We all agree the membership in the church is “by covenant in faith and fellowship in the gospel.”  We all agree that there are only two ordinances (baptism and communion).  We all agree that the church is to be operated “under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes.”  We all agree that the two “scriptural offices are pastors and deacons,” though we’ll need to address this one further.  And we all agree that the office of pastor is to be “limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

There are, however two areas in which we need to clarify the doctrine of the church.  In the area of local church autonomy, we must remember that this means that local churches “have the inherent right to draw up for themselves and publish to the world a confession of their faith whenever they may think it advisable to do so.” (BF &M, The Preamble).  Therefore, the SBC has a right to hold the local churches accountable on doctrine and practice only so far as the BF & M demands.  This means that local churches will be similar in many ways, but not uniform.  So, we must be careful not to confuse the denomination with the local church, which leads to a second area in need of clarification.

While we all agree that the scriptural offices of the church are pastors and deacons, we must give the local church some freedom to work out their understandings of Scripture.  Please note that the biblical terms of elder/overseer/pastor each refer to one office and that the term elder is used far more than the others in the New Testament.  I have chosen to use the more familiar words to Baptists of pastor and elder.  The following models must be given a hearing in the SBC because each one is firmly congregational, even though we may disagree on the biblical accuracy of one or more (this is not necessarily an exhaustive lists since a number of variations of these can play out in a local church):

  1. Pastor/Elder-ruled:  Some churches have chosen this model in which the pastor/elder is held accountable by the congregation, but he makes the majority of decisions on behalf of the church.
  2. Pastor/Elder-led:  Some churches have chosen this model in which the pastor makes some independent decisions but is held accountable by the congregation, which has ultimate decision-making responsibilities.
  3. Pastor & Deacon-led:  Some churches have chosen this model in which the pastor/elder is held accountable directly by the deacons, and both the pastor/elder and deacons make some independent decisions but are held accountable by the congregation, which has ultimate decision-making responsibilities.  This appears to be the dominant model in the SBC at this time.
  4. Pastors/Elders-led:  Some churches have chosen this model in which a plurality of pastors/elders make some independent decisions but are held accountable by the congregation, which has ultimate decision-making responsibilities.

Out of these three, it is my understanding of Scripture that only models 2 and 4 are biblically validated, but within the boundaries laid out by the BF & M, each of these is permissible at the local church level.  Notice that I have excluded the elder-ruled model because accountability to the congregation is lessened to such a degree that one would be hard-pressed to prove that it is Baptistic as opposed to Presbyterian.

Despite what some Southern Baptists are saying, each of these models maintains congregational-rule, and we pray each of them is ultimately Christ-ruled.  No matter the model of congregational church polity adopted, there is no reason that we cannot be unified as Southern Baptists.

For His Glory,
Jeremy Vanatta

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6 thoughts on “The Ephesians 4 Project: The Church

  1. Jeremy, concerning the leadership structure of the church, here is where we must weigh tradition with Scripture. It is clear that the recent tradition in the SBC is single-pastor/elder-led congregationalism. However, that’s not the whole story of the SBC. In fact, the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention, William B. Johnson advocated for plural-pastor/elder-led congregationalism.

    So, how did SBC churches get away from this biblical practice? Aaron Menikoff at the 9Marks website answers this question. Here’s a piece of what he says:

    There is a trend among SBC churches toward plural elders in one church. In a sense, SBC churches are actually behind the curve. Conservative Baptists, located predominately in the NW, have had elders for years. It is important to remember, though, that elders are not foreign to SBC churches… As the [19th] century progressed, we saw two alarming trends. First, a trend away from Scripture. Many American bible students adopted a critical approach to Scripture that did not take divine inspiration seriously. As a result, what the Bible said became less and less important. Second, a trend toward efficiency. The CEO + board of directors model that existed in the corporate world became the model in the church with the pastor as the CEO and the deacons as the board of directors. That model stuck throughout the twentieth century. Toward the end of the twentieth century there was a recovery of the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. It had been lost in too many churches and Southern Baptist institutions. When it was found, there was a recommitment to Scripture. We began paying more and more attention to what the Bible said. What did we find? New Testament churches were overseen by more than one elder! Pastors began to write about it, preach on it, and advocate it. This is still going on and explains, at least in part, why we see a return to the elder model in so many Southern Baptist churches today.

    So, basically, a loss of the authority of Scripture and desire for pragmatics led to the tradition we now see in the SBC. However, there is a movement to recover this biblical leadership model.

    Why do you think churches have such a hard time accepting plural-pastor/elder-led congregationalism?

    What are some benefits of plural-pastor/elder-led congregationalism over the single-pastor/elder-led version?

    Do you think that in many churches confuse the office deacon with the office of elder?

    • I believe Menikoff is right on target. Turning from Scripture to the culture for guidance on church polity will be a nightmare at best, and the worst of all nightmares is the poison of pragmatism. But as goes the culture so often goes the church. The culture went to the “feed me” mentality and so did the church. The “feed me” mentality goes like this: “feed them whatever they want and they will come and they will stay and they will be happy” . . . at least as long as you keep on feeding them.

      I think there are at least four reasons that churches have such a hard time accepting plural-pastor/elder-led congregationalism:
      1. Pride in tradition/ignorance—this is when a person says something like, “I don’t care what the Bible says. That is not what I believe.” Or they may say something like, “What you are saying may be true, but we’ve never believed that around here.” Both such statements highlight the danger of trusting in tradition and/or using ignorance as an excuse to avoid what the Bible is saying.
      2. Saving face—this is when a person cannot swallow his pride of tradition/ignorance even when he sees another person’s view of Scripture as either valid or maybe even true.
      3. Saving position—this is when a person is unwilling to give up his own leadership system that gives him the power of decision making, thus he feels threatened.
      4. Mutual accountability—this is when a person feels threatened by the mutual accountability of the congregation and pastors/elders that results from a plurality of leaders and is closely related to the “saving position”.

      I believe the primary strengths of the plural-pastor/elder-led congregationalism include at least six things (these are also noted in Mark Dever’s The Deliberate Church:
      1. It balances pastoral weakness
      2. It diffuses congregational criticism
      3. It adds pastoral wisdom
      4. It indigenizes leadership
      5. It enables corrective discipline
      6. It defuses “us vs. him thinking.

      To answer your final question of whether many churches confuse the office of deacon with the office of elder, let me say, “Yes!” In essence, most deacons in most Southern Baptist churches are serving as functional-elders. This means that they may have the title of deacon, but they are looked to, and often seek to be looked to, as the shepherds of the flock in the kinds of decisions that they make on behalf of the sheep. The main problem with this is that deacons have no biblical authority to lead the church in this way, not to mention that many of them are not “able to teach.”

      Thanks for your comments.

    • Ben, it is unfortunate that some believe it necessary to insist on equating elder-led with an elder-ruled model of church polity. I want to go on record that THEY ARE NOT THE SAME. It’s all in the name and the logical outworking of the name.

      Elder-LED refers to the model in which a singular or a plurality of elders LEAD the congregation by making some or even many decisions on behalf of the congregation, but the final decision-making always comes back to the congregation, especially on the most crucial of issues.

      Elder-RULED refers to the model in which a singular or a pluarlity of elders RULE the congregation by making all of the decisions on behalf of the congregation. The only role the congregation has in decision making is in making suggestions or notifying elders of issues within the congregation.

      I do not believe that the elder-ruled model is as biblically defensible as that of elder-led. The elder-led model, with a plurality of elders, has an abundance of evidence in the New Testament.

      • That’s very good, Jeremy! You know, you and I have talked about churches having functional plural-elder-led polity without calling it that. In fact, WMBC would fit into that category, I believe. We have the basic model, but not the nomenclature. I’m the only offiial elder, but the other men in leadership are functional elders. Do you believe it’s important to actually get the nomenclature right? Why?

      • While it may not be the worst of biblical errors, I do believe that deacons serving as functional elders is a problem, and I do believe that it is important to get the nomenclature right. I believe this primarily from Scripture. I’m not so concerned with what Baptists have said or Presbyterians have said or any other faith tradition has said. I am concerned with what the Bible actually says. The fact remains, the Bible uses the word “deacon” and “elder” to refer to two separate offices in the church. The distinguishing mark of elders is that they must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2), thus carrying much more authority than the office of deacon. The only way to get around this would be to demean the importance of upholding doctrinal fidelity in the preaching and teaching of God’s word. I believe that we must always strive for accuracy in our use of biblical language. Therefore, let’s let deacons be deacons and elders be elders, and let’s not confuse the two offices. Thanks for your remarks and questions.

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