Friday, May 22, 2009

Baptists and Plurality of Elders: Who Started This Nonsense?

A prominent Baptist professor at a seminary in Greenville, South Carolina, wrote, in a book published in 2001, "In most, if not all the apostolic churches, there was a plurality of elders."

Well, surely this young chap has been caught up in the Reformed influence of the trendy conservative evangelicals, right?

Not so much.

William Williams (eat your heart out Bob Roberts) was a member of the 1859 founding faculty of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which was actually established in Greenville. He wrote those words in 1874 in his book, Apostolical Church Polity, which was reprinted in 2001 in Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life. The quote is on page 531. (At the time of this writing you would pay over $75 for this book on Amazon, but friends of this blog can download it for free here.)

So friends, can we please put to rest this (at best) uninformed notion that a plurality of elders is incompatible with historic Baptist congregationalism? Perhaps it might be useful to consider Polity and By Whose Authority (also downloadable for free) before one would publicly assert or believe such claims.


Reforming Baptist said...

One of the things I've noticed about churches with an overemphasis on congregational church government is that they are often at a stalemate concerning any kind of vision or mission. Sheep need shepherds, they need leaders! They are not meant to lead themselves.

C A Watson said...

I would like to bring out a distinction. I really don't care about either a singular elder or a plurality of elders. I do think that a church should be elder lead as opposed to elder ruled. In other words, the church is ruled by congregational polity while the vision, direction, and policy is set by the elder(s).

Anonymous said...

CA Watson, the problem with that is that the word specifically says that elders are to rule. Elders don't get approval from sheep.

Ben said...


I'm not going to argue with James on this point. I merely want to be on the record personally regarding the fact that though elders are said to rule in 1 Timothy, this should not be construed to preclude the congregation's right and responsibility to preserve right doctrine in the church and to act on matters of church discipline.

Anonymous said...

Ben, you are spot on with the original post about multiple elders in baptist churches not being a novel thing. That is a great quote.

While I know you weren't looking to debate the meanings of "rule" in this blog, I was thinking more of Hebrews 13.