On Plural-Elder-Led Congregationalism

For nearly a decade, I’ve been convinced that the most faithful contemporary adaptation of New Testament polity is a plural-elder-led congregationalism. Since January 2012, I have been a part of the elder team at my local church, First Baptist Church of Durham.  I’m thrilled to be able to serve the Lord and His church as a full-time seminary professor and a voluntary pastor.

I’m convinced that plural-elder-led congregationalism is a healthier alternative to four polities that are very common among Free Church evangelicals, including Southern Baptists. Option 1 is pure democracy. In this polity, the whole congregation votes on nearly every decision. The pastors and church staff are often treated as mere employees of the church who direct various ministries, but who have no real authority in the church. All of the authority rests in the whole congregation assembled in a church conference or members meeting (often called a “business meeting”).

Option 2 is committee-led congregationalism. In this polity, the church uses democratic processes to make key decisions, but the real authority rests with certain key committees or similar small groups that are compromised of influential church members. In many Southern Baptist churches, the committee that runs the church is the so-called church council. In others, it might be the personnel committee, since these are the folks who keep tabs on the staff. A very common variation of this polity is deacon-led congregationalism, where the deacons function as the chief committee in the church’s hierarchy.

Option 3 is single-pastor-ruled benevolent autocracy. In this polity, the solo or senior pastor is called by the church, but after that, he wields most of the authority. In a larger church, he typically hires and fires all ministry staff, including other pastors. The lead pastor is as much a CEO as he is a shepherd. Members meetings are kept to a minimum; in some churches, only once a year. The pastor is the leader and the people follow his lead.

Option 4 is plural-elder-ruled benevolent oligarchy. In this polity, which is not as common as the others, a plurality of elders rules the church in much the same way as the single-pastor-ruled option. The difference is that the authority is vested in a small group rather than a single individual. In many ways, this polity could be called “poor man’s presbyterianism.” The church is ruled by her elders, but there is no presbytery or classis beyond the local congregation. This polity also frequently makes a presbyterian-like distinction between teaching elders and ruling elders; only the former are considered pastors.

No doubt these are simplistic summaries of the various polities found in our circles, but I doubt they are overly simplistic. I’m personally acquainted with many (sometimes tons) of SBC churches that hold to each of these polities pretty much exactly as I’ve described them. Options 1 and 2 are very common among traditional-minded, small and medium-sized churches in small towns and rural areas. Options 3 and 4 are more common in contemporary-minded, larger churches in suburban areas, as well as newer church plants.

Plural-elder-led congregationalism differs from each of these polities in various ways. Unlike Options 1–3, there is a plurality of pastors. Unlike option 4, all of the pastors are elders, and vice verse; the terms are synonymous. All may be paid staff, or some may be paid and some may be voluntary. Unlike Option 1, the elders/pastors have the freedom to exercise biblical pastoral authority over the congregation in matters of teaching and shepherding. Unlike Option 2, no committees or deacon “boards” are elevated to an unbiblical level of authority in the church. Unlike Option 3, all pastors are equals, even if, based upon prudence and giftedness, different pastors have different roles within the leadership team. Unlike Option 4, the final earthly authority still rests with the whole congregation as it corporately seeks God’s will under the lordship of Christ as it is revealed in the Scriptures.

If you are interested in reading more about the ins and outs of plural-elder-led congregationalism, including the biblical justification for the view, I would recommend the following books.

Thabiti Anyabwile, Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons (Crossway, 2012).

Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, 2nd ed. (Crossway, 2004), especially chapter 9.

John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Kregel Academic, 2005), especially chapter 7.

Benjamin Merkle, 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons (Kregel Academic, 2007).

Benjamin Merkle, Why Elders? A Biblical and Practical Guide for Church Members (Kregel Academic, 2009).

Phil Newton, Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model of Church Leadership (Kregel Academic, 2005).

Book Notice: “The Church: The Gospel Made Visible” by Mark Dever

“For too many Christians today, the doctrine of the church is like a decoration on the front of the building. Maybe it’s pretty, maybe it’s not, but finally it’s unimportant because it bears no weight. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. The doctrine of the church is of utmost importance. It is the most visible part of Christian theology, and it is vitally connected with every other part” (p. ix). Thus begins the new book by Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (B&H Academic).

The Church, the most recent publication to bear the imprint of Dever’s 9Marks ministry, is intended as a popular introduction to the doctrine of the church for evangelicals in general, and for Baptists in particular. This book began as a chapter in A Theology for the Church (B&H, 2007), edited by Danny Akin. Dever utilizes the same structure as he did in that chapter (biblical, historical, systematic, practical), while refining and expanding the content.

For each section, Dever uses a question-and-answer format. The questions include: “What should churches do?” “What should churches believe?” “How should churches worship?” “How should churches live together?” and “Should churches have multiple leaders?” These answers to these questions take on a unique and powerful significance when one realizes that “. . . Christian proclamation might make the gospel audible, but Christians living together in local congregations make the gospel visible (see John 13:34–35). The church is the gospel made visible” (xi). In other words, the local church is “Christ and the gospel on display.”

I recommend this book as a biblically sound, clearly articulated, and compelling treatise on the church. It is written in lucid prose and is accessible for any thoughtful Christian, as well as undergraduate and seminary students.

On the Dangers of Seminary (Pt. 3): The Danger of Allowing Seminary to Replace Church

Hebrews 10: 24-25: “And let us…not [forsake] the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another….

Ephesians 4:1-3: “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

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My years in college were four of the best years of my life. Those were years that God taught me foundational truths about himself, and allowed me to experience the power of his gospel. I served as a youth pastor at Salemburg Baptist church, a co-captain of the FCA on campus, and together with my friend, J. D. Greear, led a Monday night Bible study where we were able in the power of God’s gospel to speak into the lives of college students from every imaginable background.

By the time I entered seminary, I had resigned my job as a youth pastor and was a full-time “youth evangelist.” I traveled and preached to youth and college students, calling them to faith in Christ. Those were great days. I have great memories of preaching at Camp Caswell, Crossroads Camps, South Mountain Baptist Camp, Go Tell Camps, Camp Willow Run, and who knows how many churches.

And boy, do I have stories to tell. One of my favorites occurred when I preached at a Four Square church in South Carolina. J. D. Greear went along with me. While we were on the ride, J. D. informed me that although he had never taken piano lessons, recently he had learned how to play two songs-the hymn Alleluia and the song Faithfully by Journey-so that he could impress a certain girl at college. [Hmmm.] Before too long, we arrived at the church. It so happened that the church pianist was sick that Sunday and there was no replacement for her (at a church of about 50 people). So, after the sermon, I informed the congregation that I had brought a pianist with me and he would play the invitation hymn-Alleluia. I promptly called on J. D., and I’ve got to give it to him: He “cowboyed up” and walked straight to the piano, unfurling his two meat cleavers, and banging out the most jarring rendition of Alleluia that I have ever heard, or could ever have imagined. Finally, the invitation was over and the noise from the piano had ceased. After shaking hands and talking with some of the flock, J. D. and I found ourselves in a conversation with the two pastors (husband and wife) who were trying to anoint us with oil from a test tube of some sort. All of the sudden, Mrs. Pastor told J. D. and I that she had a word from the Lord. I could tell that she was very excited about the prophecy to which she was about to give birth. With baited breath we waited. And then she told us: The Lord had told her I would be a “world-wide” evangelist and J. D. would be my “devoted music man.” Finally, she and her husband prayed over us that God would give us the faith of Kathryn Kuhlman (faith healer, mentor to Benny Hinn). I kid you not.

Now this is only one of the many stories I could tell of those years. There are funny ones, such as the one above, and serious ones, about the victories of the gospel. But there is one type of story I cannot tell: the story of deep relationships formed in the church of which I was a covenanted member. It is not that I didn’t have any relationships, or that I didn’t want to be a part of my church. Instead, it was the fact that I scheduled myself to be gone preaching so much that I was not in any meaningful sense a member of my church.

The church, however, is where God disciples his children. It is where we “all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love” (Eph 4:13-15a). If we want to come to unity in the faith, know Christ, mature spiritually, learn sound doctrine, and speak the truth in love, God’s intention is that we do so within the covenanted community. It is true that there are cases where God calls a man out and sends him where there is no church. This type of calling allows him to be a missionary or even a traveling preacher. However, as a young man I would have been wise to devote significantly more time to my church, being discipled by men older than I, learning to practice my gifts in relationship with the body, and growing up “in all things into Him, who is the head, Christ” (Eph 4:15-16).

Of course I am not saying that it is wrong to travel and preach. But I am saying that a young man should be deeply involved with his covenant community, discipling and being discipled. During my seminary years, I missed out on these things unwittingly. I missed out on teaching, fellowship, worship, and service. In fact, I visited Capitol Hill Baptist Church during this time, and spent a week there with some friends. I will never forget meeting Mark Dever, informing him of my ministry, and then realizing that not only was he not impressed, but he seemed to feel sorry for me. When he asked me in which ways I was involved in ministering to my own church, I had no answer. That was the first time I remember being forced to recognize the deep and abiding value of belonging to a covenanted body of believers.

For various reasons, seminary students are be tempted not to take seriously their call to membership in Christ’s church. Some students might take their preaching schedule more seriously than their calling to church membership. Others might look down upon their pastor because his sermons are not always the “masterpiece” they expect. Still others might consistently neglect church involvement because they find their studies more important. But to neglect the body of Christ is not God’s plan and is never to one’s benefit. I testify to this from personal experience, and offer some advice to students: If you neglect your calling to God’s church, you will hurt yourself, your church, and the future ministry to which Christ is calling you.