Luther’s “Glowing Discovery” by Roland Bainton

“But he did feel constrained to declare himself more fully to the general public. The Ninety-Five Theses had been given by the printer to all Germany, though intended only for professional theologians. The many bald assertions called for explanation and clarification, but Luther could never confine himself to a mere reproduction or explication of what he had said previously. The sermons written out by request on Monday do not correspond to the notes taken by hearers on Sunday. Ideas were so churning within him that new butter always came out of the vat. The Resolutions Concerning the Ninety-Five Theses contain some new points. Luther had made the discovery that the biblical text from the Latin Vulgate, used to support the sacrament of penance, was a mistranslation. The Latin for Matt. 4:17 read penitentiam agite, ‘do penance,’ but from the Greek New Testament of Erasmus, Luther had learned that the original meant simply ‘be penitent.’ The literal sense was ‘change your mind.’ ‘Fortified with this passage,’ wrote Luther to Staupitz in the dedication of the Resolutions, ‘I venture to say they are wrong who make more of the act in Latin than of the change of heart in Greek.’ This was what Luther himself called a ‘glowing’ discovery. In this crucial instance a sacrament of the Church did not rest on the institution of Scripture.”

Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther


“There is indeed something very mysterious in it, that so much good, and so much bad, should be mixed together in the church of God…” by Jonathan Edwards

“There is indeed something very mysterious in it, that so much good, and so much bad, should be mixed together in the church of God; as it is a mysterious thing, and what has puzzled and amazed many a good Christian, that there should be that which is so divine and precious, as the saving grace of God, and the new and divine nature dwelling in the same heart, with so much corruption, hypocrisy, and iniquity, in a particular saint.”

-Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections

Elders and the Dereliction of Theological Duty by Phil A. Newton

“Perhaps even more dangerous is the disappearance of theology in evangelical churches while spiritual leaders–in dereliction of their duties–ignore that it is happening. David Wells has pointed out, ‘No one has abducted theology,’ as in the abduction of a child. Rather, ‘The disappearance is closer to what happens in homes where the children are ignored and, to all intents and purposes, abandoned. They remain in the home, but they have no place in the family. So it is with theology in the church. It remains on the edges of evangelical life, but it has been dislodged from its center. Watchfulness of a congregation demands attentiveness to the church’s theological understanding. Neglect of theology cracks the church’s foundation, and ultimately affects its practice. In our day, one of the chief results of such neglect is the rise of pragmatism, which has moved the church away from a biblically centered ministry that effectively changes the church to a church structure that more resembles the world than the New Testament pattern. Wells adds, ‘It is evangelical practice rather than evangelical profession that reveals the change.’ As evangelicals, we still profess to believe the confessions and creeds of the church, but our practice reveals that we often do not understand the theological implications of what we profess. Spiritual leaders must remain alert and watchful for this kind of neglect.”

-Phil A. Newton, Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership

“…a mysterious element in the whole work of selecting elders” by Phil A. Newton

“This is indeed a mysterious element in the whole work of selecting elders. A congregation seeks to nominate godly men who are confirmed by the qualifications in the Word. The work of the presbytery is to examine the men and present them to the congregation for approval. Then a church sets them apart in a solemn service of ordination. Yet behind it all is the invisible work of the Holy Spirit. He is the One who will ultimately appoint them to this office in the church. John Stott writes,’This splendid Trinitarian affirmation, that the pastoral oversight of the church belongs to God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), should have a profound effect on pastors. It should humble us to remember that the church is not ours, but God’s. And it should inspire us to faithfulness.’

I confess that I do not understand all of this working of the Holy Spirit. But I am humbled by the truth that the Holy Spirit, who corporately dwells among the church (Eph. 2:22), works to set men apart for the noble work of elders. And because the Holy Spirit does this work, the church must pay heed to the importance of both the exercise of its ministry and its response to the elders’ leadership.”

-Phil A. Newton, Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership

“The Recent Demise Of Elder Plurality” by Phil A. Newton

“The past two hundred years have witnessed the demise of elder plurality among Baptists. Pastors are expected to abandon the shepherding role for that of becoming ‘ranchers’, a term used often by church growth leaders. Many well-known pastors resemble corporate CEOs rather than the New Testament office of a humble shepherd. Their staffs, too, have taken on the corporate board air. Churches have become big businesses, requiring corporate structures that mirror many successful companies. Some of the megachurch pastors have achieved such success that they now, in fact, advise businesses.

A candid look at polity in churches at large today raises questions regarding our diligence to conform to Scripture. Are our churches more conformed to the image of Christ? Are we so transformed by holiness of life that we are the salt and light in our communities that our Lord declared us to be? Are the moral and family values of church members appreciably different from the typical American home? Are local congregations nurtured and disciplined as were our New Testament counterparts? Are the inflated membership rolls that have been fomented by the success-driven, CEO model for the church legitimate bragging rights in denominational circles? Does the average church display the kind of unity that the apostles exhorted and for which Jesus prayed? Do church staffs make the most of godly, capable leaders within their congregation? Are pastors and staff members held accountable to anyone besides themselves? Could it be that the alarming rate of immoral behavior among ministers is due to a disconnection between the church staff and a plurality of godly elders comprised of staff and lay leadership?

Baptist forebears sought to anchor their church structure and practice in the teaching of Holy Scripture. Shunning conformity to the world’s designs that were prevalent in their times, these stalwarts used the truths of Scripture to forge a path for their heirs. In the end, whether or not Baptists historically practiced plural eldership is secondary. The primary focus for church leaders today must be to understand the teaching of God’s Word, and then to order the local church accordingly. History merely serves to affirm the veracity of Scripture.”

-Phil A. Newton, Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership

A Brief History of the Plurality of Elders Among American Baptists by Phil A. Newton

“David Tinsley a prominent Baptist serving in Georgia in the late eighteenth century alongside Jesse Mercer’s father, Silas Mercer—-was ordained four times: “The first was to the office of a deacon, the second to that of a ruling elder, his third ordination was to the office of preaching the gospel, and in the fourth place he was ordained an evangelist by Col. Samuel Harris, while he officiated in the dignified character of the Apostle of Virginia.” The first two of these offices represented non-paid, non-staff positions in the local church, placing Tinsley as part of the plural eldership in his church. His service with the noted leader Silas Mercer demonstrates the prominence given to plural eldership among Baptists.

Minutes of the Philadelphia Baptist Association 1707-1807 — notably the leading association of Baptists in the Colonial period– gives ample evidence of plural eldership. In 1738, a question before the association sought to determine whether a ruling elder who had been set apart by the laying on of hands and “should afterward be called by the church, by reason of his gifts, to the word and doctrine [i.e., as pastor], must be again ordained by imposition of hands.” The answer was simple: Resolved in the affirmative.” A cursory reading of the Minutes clearly demonstrates the commonality of plural eldership among eighteenth-century Baptists in the Northeast a distinction between ruling elders and those ministering the Word appears to have been the norm in the Philadelphia Association; ordination of ruling elders was left to the discretion of the individual churches. Plurality was clearly their practice.

In the South, some Baptist churches of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries practiced plural eldership.’It was sometimes a formal recognition of the ordained ministers, the elders of their membership,’ writes Wills. ‘These elders assisted the pastor as necessary in preaching and administering baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They were leaders of the congregation by their wisdom, piety, knowledge, and experience. Such churches recognized the gifts and calling of all elders among them.’

It is found at this point that many Baptists made a distinction between ‘ruling elders’ and ‘teaching elders.’ Ruling elders focused on the administrative and governing issues of church life, while the teaching elders exercised pastoral responsibilities, including administering the ordinances. By 1820 the title ruling elders had actively faded in Baptist church life, ecclesiastical authority coming to reside in the congregation. Some then considered that the pastor and deacons constituted the eldership. Not all agreed, including the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention, W.B. Johnson, who ‘taught that Christ strictly required each church to have plural eldership,’ which implied a distinction between plural eldership and plural diaconate.”

-Phil A. Newton, Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership

“The danger facing modern congregations is to read into the Scriptures a twenty-first-century concept of church government.” by Phil A. Newton

“The danger facing modern congregations is to read into the Scriptures a twenty-first-century concept of church government. We have added plenty of “bells and whistles”: church staff positions soley for preaching, mass media, recreation, committees for every imaginable need, corporate structure rivaling “Fortune 500” companies, and seminars that show every church “how to do it.” This drive to increase growth and expand ministry has complicated the church’s structure. The consequences have been twofold: ministry, with both its privileges and burdens, has shifted to the “professional” staff, while bypassing gifted leaders whom God has already placed within the ranks of membership; and nurturing, equipping, and discipling believers to be salt and light in the world gets lost in the shuffle of big events and choreographed performances. Both the church and the spiritually needy world suffer as a result. That is why understanding the biblical basis for elders is crucial in establishing vibrant, Christ-centered churches.”

-Phil A. Newton, Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership


“Elders need deacons to serve practically, and deacons need elders to lead spiritually” by Mark Dever

“In Baptist circles, and particularly in Southern Baptist churches over the last hundred and twenty years, the prevalent leadership model seems to be a single pastor/elder supported by multiple deacons and often held accountable by a board of trustees.

Granted, the Bible leaves ample room to wiggle on the issue of church structure. But although the evidence is scant, it is nevertheless consistent. New Testament churches are to be congregationally governed yet led by a plurality of elders who are released by servant deacons to devote themselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer…

…Acts 20:17-38 shows that the words elders (presbuterous, v. 17) and overseers (episkopous, v. 28 [also known as bishops) are interchangeable, and that both do the work of pastoring (poimainein, v. 28) or shepherding God’s flock. A pastor, then, is an elder, and an elder is a bishop/overseer–all three terms refer to the same office and the same work of pastoring. Note too that Paul “sent to Ephesus” for “the elders [presbuterous, plural] of the church [ekklasias, singular]” (v. 17). The pattern is of a plurality of elders in each local church.

1 Timothy 3:1-13 distinguishes the office of elder (episkopos) from that of deacon (diakonos). Each must meet the same character requirements, but elders must also be able to teach–an ability not required for the office of deacon. In fact, D. A. Carson has observed that all the qualities Paul lays out for elders are elsewhere in the New Testament enjoined on all Christians–every quality, that is, except the ability to teach. Right away, then, we see that elders are different from deacons in that teaching is pivotal to the elder’s responsibility, while the deacon’s tasks lie elsewhere. Both offices must be present for a church to be organized, led, and served according to the Word.

Acts 6:1-4 further clarifies the distinction. There we read of a controversy between Greek and Hebrew widows about the equity of food distribution among them. The disciples gather the whole congregation and say, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve [diakonein] tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry [diakonia] of the word” (6:2-4). The division of labor is clear. The seven chosen men “deaconed” (served) tables, which released the apostles for “deaconing” the Word.

Deacons, then, serve to care for the physical and financial needs of the church, and they do so in a way that heals divisions, brings unity under the Word, and supports the leadership of the elders. Without this practical service of the deacons, the elders will not be freed to devote themselves to praying and serving the Word to people. Elders need deacons to serve practically, and deacons need elders to lead spiritually.”

-Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church – Building Your Ministry on the Gospel

“Is the issue of membership in a local church addressed in the Bible?” by Mark Dever

“Is the issue of membership in a local church addressed in the Bible? This is perhaps one of the most frequently asked questions about church membership. It may seem like a stretch to say that local church membership is a biblical concept—that is, until we actually start looking for it in the Bible. It’s not as pronounced as the atonement or justification by faith. But the evidence is there, and it is consistent.

The discipline case in 1 Corinthians 5 assumes public knowledge of who’s in the church and who’s not. ‘What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked man from among you’ (W. 12-13, NW). Expelling makes sense only in the context of visible belonging. When Paul tells the Corinthian church to admit the man back into fellowship, he tells them, ‘The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him’ (2 Cor. 2:6, NIV). ‘Majority’ makes sense only in the context of a recognized whole.

We know that lists of widows were kept in the New Testament church (1 Tim. 5:9), and the Lord Himself keeps a list of all members who will inherit eternal life (Rev. 21:27). And God has always wanted a clear distinction to be made between the world and His holy people. One of the main reasons for the elaborate system of animal sacrifice and moral regulation in the Old Testament was to distinguish God’s people from the surrounding culture.

Church membership, then, is a means by which we demarcate the boundaries of the church. This is logically implied by the negative sanction of corrective church discipline. Corrective discipline assumes that it is important for a person himself to know that he is a member of the church. He can’t be expected to submit to the church‘s discipline if he is unaware of his own membership in the church. It also assumes that other members need to know whether or not a person is a member. If he’s being disciplined, then the other members need to know that is the case in order not to associate with him (1 Cor. 59-12; 2 Thess. 3:14-15). Further, corrective discipline assumes that it is important for those outside the church to know who the members of the church are, because one of the main motives for corrective discipline is the corporate testimony of the church in the unbelieving community.

Again, the evidence is not abundant. But it is clear, and it is consistent. At the very least, then we may say that local church membership is a good and necessary implication of God’s desire to keep a clear distinction between His own chosen people and the worldly system of rebellion that surrounds them. It was modeled in Corinth, and is still necessary for the purifying exercise of corrective discipline.”

-Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church – Building Your Ministry on the Gospel

“Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will not be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ. If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you. ‘If I die, then I am not alone in death; if I suffer they [the fellowship] suffer with me’ [Luther].

We recognize, then, that only as we are within the fellowship can we be alone, and only he that is alone can live in the fellowship. Only in the fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in the fellowship. It is not as though the one preceded the other; both begin at the same time, namely, with the call of Jesus Christ.

Each by itself has profound pitfalls and perils. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”

Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community