[Editor’s Note: Ben Merkle is Associate Professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern. He is the editor of the 40 Questions (Kregel) series and the author of The Elder and Overseer: One Office in the Early Church (Peter Lang, 2003) and 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons (Kregel, 2008). In light of his expertise in this key area of ecclesiology we asked him a few questions for the record.]
What is the importance of church government for evangelicals in general and pastors or elders in particular?
The form of church government that a local congregation employs is extremely relevant to the life and health of the church. The Church, as the body of Christ, should seek to be pure and spotless. If certain biblical patterns and principles are ignored or abandoned, then the Church will reap negative consequences. Therefore, it is beneficial for the Church to follow the wisdom of God as recorded in Scripture. Church government is important, not primarily because outward structures are important, but because outward structures directly affect who can be a leader in the church, what each leader does, and to whom each leader is accountable. Thus, when we speak of church government or church polity we are really speaking of the roles, duties, and qualifications of those who lead the body of Christ.
Do you think there is a lot of misunderstanding in the church about what elders are and what they do?
There is no doubt that there is a lot of misunderstanding in the church about nature and function of elders. Because most Baptist churches don’t use the title “Elder” for their leaders, many are suspicious of the title. Many assume that only Presbyterian churches have elders and that it is simply not “Baptist” to have elders. This view is wrong for at least two reasons. First, historically Baptist churches used the title “elders.” Second, because New Testament churches had elders, we should not be afraid to embrace the term. The term itself, however, is not the most important aspect. Rather, the qualifications and duties are the more important aspects.
So, why should a church have elders?
This can be answered at a couple different levels. In my book, 40 Questions about Elders of Deacons (Kregel, 2008), I sought to answer the most important and relevant questions regarding the two offices of elders and deacons. This book was written primarily for pastors and church leaders.
My book Why Elders? A Biblical and Practical Guide for Church Members is a summary of that work in a concise and condensed format focusing on why every church should have elders. This book was written primarily for church members. The question, “why elders?” is answered in four main chapters: (1) It is the pattern of the New Testament Church; (2) It provides help and accountability for a pastor; (3) It produces a healthier church; and (4) It promotes the biblical role of deacons. These four reasons are my answers here.
What about deacons? How do their ministries interrelate with that of pastor and elder?
The role of the deacons is not to lead the church but to serve the church. Elders or pastors are the leaders and are given the role of shepherding and teaching or preaching. Deacons, on the other hand, are given the role of taking care of the physical and logistically needs of the church so that the elders can concentrate on their primary calling. In many churches today, deacons function more like elders than deacons. Part of the reason deacons are involved in leading the church is because churches don’t have a plurality of elders. Without a plurality of elders, the church is led by a single pastor. In order to avoid giving this single pastor sole authority over the church, the role of deacons has shifted from the biblical model. But when elders are functioning properly in the church, deacons can likewise effectively serve the church.