Friday, September 08, 2006

Misconceptions About Plural Elder Led Congregationalism

Once every few months I find myself in a conversation about church polity. When I describe what I believe, more often than not people hear something different from what I'm saying. In the interests of clarity, I thought I might offer a few of these misconceptions and how I respond to them

For starters, however, I believe that the biblical pattern of church leadership is a plurality of elders responsible for the oversight and spiritual leadership of the church. Deacons are the servants of the church, not the spiritual leaders. (Just like non-deacons in the church, they may well be capable of spiritual leadership and provide spiritual leadership even though it is outside the parameters of their office.) The elders lead the congregation, but 1 Timothy 5:17 and Hebrews 13:17 imply that their office includes some sort of ruling function.

Despite the elders' role of leadership, the congregation is the final human authority in the church. Scripture either teaches directly or implies that the congregation is involved in selecting the elders and deacons and the final stages of church discipline. The congregation may or may not be involved in decision-making beyond those matters, depending on the wisdom and prudence in specific situations in specific churches.

Within that context, here are the misconceptions I've encountered most often about people who hold to plural elder led congregationalism.
  1. We deny congregationalism. [Certainly not. As I noted above, the congregation is the final decision-making authority in the most important matters the church faces. In many such churches, the congregation is also involved in other matters, such as the budget, building plans, specific expenditures, etc.]
  2. We deny the role of a senior pastor. [Not at all. Although Scripture does not suggest that a senior elder is the ideal, there does seem to be substantial evidence that specific individuals frequently functioned as senior elders/pastors.]
  3. We believe in lay elders. [No way. Perhaps some folks do believe in distinction between pastoral and lay elders, but this is certainly not a universal practice. It seems clear to me from 1 Timothy 3 that all elders are to be involved in the teaching ministry of the church, even if they do not frequently or ever participate in the pulpit ministry.]
  4. We're playing make-believe because the senior pastor always gets his way. [Again, this may be the case in some multiple elder led churches, but it is certainly not the case in all. It seems that some folks are so familiar with the pastor-dictator personality-driven model that they struggle to conceive that some churches are not enslaved to it, and some senior pastors are humble enough not to demand or even expect it.
One other misconception I've occasionally encountered is that a church thinks it is led by a plurality of elders because it has "assistant pastors." Technically, this may meet the definition of a plurality of elders, but my sense is that the assisant pastors in those churches are essentially "junior pastors," not real pastors of the church. More often than not, it seems, the senior pastor is the chairman of the board, the deacons are the board of trustees, and the assistant pastors are the executive vice presidents or middle managers.


Bill Combs said...

If I read you correctly, your position is essentially the same as Mark Dever's. I think he calls his view elder leadership. And he holds to congregational government.

Anonymous said...

But do you distinguish between the term of office between the "vocational professional elder" and the "non-vocational elder"

By this I mean ... do the non-vocational or lay or whatever term you prefer rotate off and subject to reelection ... while the vocational professional elder has a term that does not expire.

If so you just have another board! Two boards instead of one!

Bruce McKanna said...

Like "anonymous" above, I was confused by your use of the term "lay elder," Ben. I have understood the term to refer to a man who serves all the functions of an elder, but does not receive his income from the church. Admittedly, this is an oxymoron of sorts, because there really isn't such a thing as a "clergy elder"; you're either an elder or you're not. The clergy/lay distinction is problematic for other reasons as well, and trying to distinguish between paid and unpaid, full-time and part-time elders with the terms "vocational" or "professional" raise their own issues. So the other guys aren't called? They are unprofessional?

I do recognize the inconsistency of having elders with term limits and others with none, but I know that some churches have handled this by taking a vote of approval (I can't remember what they called it) each year for their pastor(s). Without it, they could not continue to lead the church. I'm not sure if that's a good idea, but I could consider it. Also, even though our elders can step down after their term, we usually have elders that continue to serve for several terms. For those who do step down, we often continue to recognize that they are an elder in status if not in office in informal ways such as involving them in counseling situations.

For us, this arrangement has not seemed like there are two boards on our church. Each elder (including both of our paid pastors) has one vote, and we work hard for consensus.

billy bob said...

what do you think about the brethren system?

Ben said...


Essentially, yes. Although I held this position several years before heard of Dever, his views and his church's pattern has contributed significantly to the development of my understanding and some of the finer points of my view.

I don't agree with him on every detail. Maybe that will come out when I comment on the later posts.

Ben said...

I apologize for the confusion on the "lay elder" terminology. I was using that term in the sense I've mostly heard it, which might better be described as a ruling elder.

Whether non-vocational elders rotate off or not makes little difference to me. It seems like a prudence question for each individual congregation. I don't understand where the concept of two boards comes from. All elders are pastors as long as they hold the office. None is more of a pastor than another.

I'll share my pontifications on pay when I address the brethren system tomorrow.

Ben said...

billy bob,

It's been almost 10 years since I talked to someone from a Brethren church about their polity, but what I remember seems to fit with your Wikipedia link.

I'm assuming you're referring specifically to their preference for a non-vocational pastorate with a pretty strict equality among the elders. Personally, I think it's not inconsistent with the biblical data, but I don't know how they handle pay for the elders.

My understanding of Scripture is that elders ought to be paid. It does seem that elders have the option of declining pay, but I think the church should sense some responsibility to pay all its pastors, although that pay is reasonably proportional to varying levels of responsibility and time commitment. This is the one point on which I differ with Dever, since his church adopted under his leadership a constitutional provision that the majority of the elders be unpaid.

billy bob said...

there is some variety in the way the elders are organized. there is a strong preference toward parity among the elders, but if some elders have formal training or other valuable traits, this will upset the balance in an acceptable way.

there is also a variety in the thoughts regarding elder qualification. some fellowships will choose elders through some process (congregational voting, men-only voting, elder voting, etc.) from the qualified men in the fellowship. in other fellowships, all older men that are not disqualified for some biblical reason are automatically elders.

with the varying quality of elders, it is common for brethren fellowships to not pay any of their elders. but some may choose a few who will work full-time within the church for paid positions.

of course, this depends on the size and prosperity of the fellowship. many are too small to reasonably pay more than one of their elders. so to keep parity, they pay none. usually the elders average only a few hours per week anyway.

if i were an elder with no formal ministerial training spending less than 8 hours per week in the church, i would not accept any pay.

Bruce McKanna said...

A practical question for you, Ben: How are you going to have a plurality of elders if you are going to pay all of them? Either they are all going to have to be bi-vocational, or you will have only one or two elders in a church of less than 300 members.

I would assume CHBC wants the majority of their elders to be unpaid so that it doesn't give the appearance that the decision-makers stand to gain financially from their decisions. Yes, I know the congregation is the final "decision-maker," but the reality is that they make far fewer decisions than the elders. This policy helps avoid the appearance of conflict of interest.

Also, I wish we could get away from the "Who has the final authority?" question, or the elder-rule vs. congregational-rule dichotomy. So often, the way we talk about this pits the elders/pastors vs. the church when they are all part of the church! Perhaps it would be better to say that we believe the elders should oversee and lead the church, but that the church as a whole maintains the responsibility for its faithfulness and integrity in ministry, which includes the "oversight of the overseers" at least in the sense of giving spiritual affirmation and accountability to their leadership and particular decisions.

Irenaeus II said...

Benjamin, would you care to elaborate on how the elders rule if it is the congregation that is really in charge?

Ben said...

billy bob,

Are you an elder in a Brethren church? Apologies if I should have known that.


My opinion is that the church should try to pay all elders, even non-vocational, something. It seems that the payment should be proportional to the time commitment and perhaps the specific area of responsibility, if there is one. That doesn't mean that the payment must be substantial, and it doesn't mean elders can't decline pay, but it seems important to me that the church recognize that the spiritual shepherding function of all elders is valuable and worthy of remuneration.

I understand CHBC's approach, and I don't think it's indefensible. To be fair, those fine points don't seem to me to be the highest priorities.

I wholeheartedly agree with and appreciate your last paragraph. It's a great reminder and admonition.

Ben said...

Irenaeus II,

I think that's a great question. I'm sure I haven't got this all figured out, but I'm never shy to share my opinion as it is right now.

It seems as though the congregation's responsibility of self-government (rule) extends to choosing leadership and applying discipline. It seems as though the elders' decision-making responsibilities (rule) involves the shepherding and oversight of the congregation, especially its spiritual walk and health.

So I see the church as a whole as the final decision-making body on the most momentous of issues. But during those processes, as well as other matters of the body life, the congregation must be compelled to recognize the leadership of the elders.

By the way, one painful implication of that approach is that Baptist churches would have to include associate pastors (yes, even the youth pastor) on their "pulpit committees," rather than just appointing the most respected deacons.

By the way, if you talk to Irenaeus I, could you ask him where in his writings he discusse the possibility that the reshith in Genesis 1:1 can refer to "firstborn son"?

billy bob said...

no i'm not an elder of any brethren church. i have been part of a brethren church for extended periods of time when i'm away from home, but my home church is not a brethren church.

none of my posts have been an attempt to "trick" you into saying something bad about anyone.

Ben said...

No, I didn't take it that you were baiting me.

Irenaeus II said...

Please note that the works we have of his are Armenian (not arminian), and that Joseph Smith tried to use him for support. When one considers other writings of his, you see no problem with what he was saying.

Irenaeus II said...

Ben, if I can, I would like to push your view somewhat.

Regarding the choosing of leadership, what is the basis for the church as a whole selecting its leaders?

Regarding deacons, what is the basis for the church as a whole selecting its leaders? Before you jump to Acts 6, I have a follow-up question for you: is that passage descriptive or prescriptive?

Ben said...


I wasn't implying that was a problematic view of Gen. 1:1. There's some really old rabbinic evidence that it was read along those lines. I'm just looking for the citation to research it.

The passage is descriptive. I don't make the case that Scripture requires the congregation to elect deacons. I do think that we ought to take the textual pattern of what the early church did seriously when we formulate our polity.