(Note: This will be a five part blog series on the role of elders )
In response to this question, we can speak about this generally in regards to Baptist churches and about our church specifically. For most of those living today, elder leadership seems like a new phase or fad. However, for most of the church history, including Baptist history, there has been a form of eldership leadership that begins with the New Testament. When we look at the plain reading of the New Testament, the concept of elders is hard to overlook.
There are many samples and evidences of Baptist acknowledging an office that is titled both as elder and pastor. Some samples include: The Charleston Association’s 1774 Summary of Church Discipline; W.B. Johnson, the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote “each [New Testament] church had a plurality of elders” in The Gospel Developed and he developed the duties and benefits of a plurality of elders. In 1849, J.L. Reynolds, pastor of the Second Baptist Church of Richmond Virginia, supported a plurality of elders in his Church Polity or the Kingdom of Christ. Other notable advocates of plurality of elders include: C.H. Spurgeon and J.L. Burrows pastor of First Baptist Church, Richmond in his book What Baptist Believe. There are other evidences that plurality of elders were normal up to the
beginning of the twentieth century. (Most of the above research comes from Mark Dever’s book, By whose Authority? Elders in Baptist Life)
For most of the twentieth century, Baptists have seen church leadership influenced more by the rising business corporate environment of the twentieth century as well as the military leadership culture. The corporate business world and military chain of command have utilized and shaped many of our men and church leaders for the last hundred years. In both of these environments, the authoritarian ruler or the
trustee board takes prevalence. The popularity of these leadership models has affected congregational churches.
In the late 1970’s the Southern Baptist entered the “Inerrancy controversy “ or conservative resurgence. The leadership of churches, convention, and seminaries were debating the role of the Bible among the churches and seminaries. This period lasted 15 years until all of the Southern Baptist seminaries were led in a Biblical inerrant direction. Once this issue was resolved, Seminaries were free to continue in the teaching and application of the Bible for the future church leaders. More students were focusing on what the Bible has to say about church leadership. Now that most pastors in our seminaries are not debating the inerrancy of the Bible, there is a freedom to reevaluate leadership and apply the Bible.
It was in the late 1970s and early 1980’s, that I began to hear about elders in church leadership with the start of Providence Baptist in Raleigh. The popularity of teachings by men like John MacArthur, John Piper, and Mark Dever and their view on elders began to impact a generation of church leaders. Today, there are growing numbers of Southern Baptist churches, even in our area that are led with a plurality of elders. Some of those other churches include not only Providence but also North Wake Baptist, Christ Baptist, First Baptist Durham, Central Baptist in Wendell, Imago Deo, Treasuring Christ, Summit Church, Open Door Baptist, as well as many other churches. While I was in Seminary, the elder question was one I wrestled with since my tradition was that of a committee led church with a single pastor. I came to conclude that the New Testament did acknowledge a plurality of elders, but I defined that group of
elders as the pastors in a church.