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

Closing Remarks on the Case for Congregationalism by S.J. Wellum

“The church is a Spirit-filled and Spirit-led body, and it requires leaders who are the same. Because there is no qualitatively spiritual difference between the leaders and the congregation, ecclesiological structures need to facilitate interaction between these two groups. Leaders are necessary because the church is still growing in conformity to Christ and there are many threats to that growth. However, leaders are also growing in their commitment to Christ, and therefore both groups need to balance one another as they share in governing the life of the church. Churches filled with unregenerate church members are a terrible problem, but so are churches whose offices and pulpits are filled with unregenerate church leaders.

Congregationalism locates authority in the church as a whole as it follows the directives of its Lord in the Scriptures. Elders and deacons provide leadership and guidance in the church’s work. Where the church and its leaders are at odds with each other, one or both are wrong, and they need to go back to the Scriptures and sort out their differences. Although congregationalism may not be as efficient as other organizational models, we believe it is compatible with the nature of the new covenant people of God and all that is revealed about them and their leaders in Scripture. The church has been described as a ‘colony of heaven’ and as such it should reflect the beauty of a people who are being transformed into the image of our Lord with ever-increasing glory (2 Cor 3:18). When all the biblical data regarding the church as the new-covenant people of God are collated and synthesized, the result should be a way of doing things that is ‘fitting and orderly’ (1 Cor 14:40 NIV), which a healthy practice of congregationalism should yield.”

– Stephen J. Wellum and Kirk Wellum, “The Biblical and Theological Case for Congregationalism” in Baptist Foundations – Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age

Pastoral Persuasion by S.J. Wellum

“There is a sense in which elders can make commands. But since they do not have the power of excommunication at their exclusive disposal, they cannot enforce their commands without the congregation’s assent. This protects them from abusing their authority because they are forced instead to rely on persuading church members according to the Word.

The authority of persuasion is consistent with the regenerate nature of the new covenant community; and along these lines the manner in which apostolic writers like Paul, Peter, and John addressed the church is instructive for elders. Sometimes the apostles spoke to the church as a father would speak to his children. They were affectionate, tender, and patient. Other times they spoke as brothers to other brothers and sisters. Although the apostles were to lead and shepherd the people of God, they were never arrogant in the letters, and they did not bully and push their own selfish agendas. They did not treat the church as if it was full of unregenerate people who must be controlled else they would get out of line and cause difficulty. Rather they appealed to them as those who belong to the same spiritual family and are destined to share in the salvation of God forever. A classic example is Paul’s way of confronting Philemon: ‘Although I have great boldness in Christ to command you to do what is right, I appeal to you, instead, on the basis of love’ (Philemon 8-9). Paul as an apostle could have commanded; instead he appealed on the basis of love. How instructive is this for elders, who don’t have the ability to command in the same way Paul did!”

– Stephen J. Wellum and Kirk Wellum, “The Biblical and Theological Case for Congregationalism” in Baptist Foundations – Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age