Scott Greening is right about one thing: In the past decade “many individuals from ‘congregational’ churches are pursuing elder rule…”
In the March issue of The Baptist Bulletin, a magazine for the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, Greening argues that the switch in church polity to elders by Baptist churches goes against the Biblical case for congregational rule. Greening does, I believe, provide a decent argument for congregationalism, something I am quite in favor of and believe that the Bible does teach. The problem with his argument, however, is its failure to understand elder “led” churches can be in agreement with congregationally “ruled” churches.
I stress the distinction between “led” and “ruled” because I believe it is the distinction that our Reformed Baptist forebears held, and one that allowed them to hold to both a plurality of elders in Church leadership and yet a congregationally ruled church. So J.L. Reynolds, a 19th century Baptist leader, writes in favor of a plurality of elders:
The apostolic churches seem, in general, to have had a plurality of elders as well as deacons. The apostle addressed his epistle to the church at Philippi “with the bishops ad deacons;” sent for “the elders of the church at Ephesus;” and Paul and Barnabas as well as Titus “ordained elders” in the churches of Asia Minor and Crete. It seems, therefore, a fair inference that this was their usual practice.
When we turn to the inspired constitution of the Church, and ascertain that a pastor is to execute only the laws of Christ; that his power is restricted in these wholesome and well-defined limits, all just grounds of jealousy are removed; he and his people are equally under obligation to the Redeemer.
[The Pastor] is to warn and rebuke the disobedient, and, if they prove obstinate and perverse, to bring their case before the Church, for its solemn adjudication.
Elsewhere Reynolds adds that it is the churches responsibility to appoint its own elders and all officers.
Baptists only a few centuries ago, then, did not hold these two positions at odds.
Of course more importantly, as Reynolds explains through his Scripture references, neither does the Bible hold them to be incompatible.
Greening argues that an eldership is inconsistent with the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and that elders inadvertently become mediators between God and man. So he says:
If we take seriously Christ’s role as our one and only formal mediator, and if we accept that the Bible commands the church to corporately determine God’s will based on the doctrine of sanctification, then any organized church polity other than congregational government constitutes a set of mediators between God and the congregation.
This inference seems highly questionable. It seems that Greening’s assumption is that any form of leadership in the church is effectively mediatory. On the basis of this narrow statement any pastor who preached the word or taught doctrine before having taken a church vote is guilty of acting as a mediator. This argument seems to have little logic.
Secondly, Greening argues that a plurality of elders is incompatible with the biblical doctrine of sanctification. Listen this reasoning:
It is difficult to imagine how a church progressing toward a goal of corporate sanctification would never or rarely seek God’s will as a body. Congregational church government is uniquely equipped to achieve this New Testament command.
Such a comment as this makes one wonder where Greening has derived his understanding of eldership (certainly not from those who Biblically apply it).
This is perhaps where Greenings arguments fall so short; they are put up against a straw man. What he has painted a picture of in his article is a totalitarian ecclesiastical regime, and in light of this image he has argued against eldership. No Biblical Eldership ever seeks to subvert Christ’s role as the only mediator, nor does it replace communal seeking of God’s will. A distinction between elder led and congregational rule would have prevented this mistake. Furthermore sanctification as a body has to do with encouraging one another, holding one another accountable, and edifying and teaching one another, how corporate seeking of God’s will directly pertains to corporate sanctification Greening has not made clear.
The distinction between elder “led” and elder “rule” is huge and would have saved Mr. Greening much ink. This distinction clarifies that while the elders are in charge of directing the spiritual well being of the body, through preaching, teaching, and correcting, and are charged with maintaining the churches doctrinal and methodological orthodoxy, the congregation is not exempt from responsibility. Not only does the church appoint its officers, as Reynolds explains, but it holds its elders accountable. Furthermore, and this is the point which Greening sees as most incompatible, the Congregation still has control of the church. The elders “leading” is essentially done through teaching from the word of God. In positions that are difficult and unclear, where theological controversies arise among the members, the elders should generally be trusted to lead the congregation. But, as Mark Dever writes, “All of the duties elders have, all of our responsibilities and obligations have been given us by the congregation we serve.”
The elders lead, but the congregation rules.
Congregations are to hold their leaders accountable, counsel them, and correct them when they are straying from the Word of God. Yet the Bible also makes clear that they are to submit to their elders, and make their ministry a joy, not a burden.
The Biblical commands on these congregational responsibilities cannot be ignored; Mr. Greening would do well to deal with them in his argumentation.
The simple fact of the matter is that Mr. Greening has identified eldership strictly with Presbyterianism. Arguably this is not unreasonable, yet it ignores the history of Baptistic churches which have held eldership and which currently hold it in agreement with congregational polity. Furthermore by so narrowly identifying it with Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches he has not argued against eldership at all, but only against a form of eldership.
On page 20 of the magazine He writes:
A set of leaders who formally (Episcopalian) or practically (Presbyterian) does not dialogue with the congregation in the decision-making process places a mediatory position between the congregation and God.
This argument has no bearing on an eldership applied in the context of a congregational polity, and so again misses the point of attacking eldership directly. Elder “led” churches do not rob the church of its voice and authority, and as such is not incompatible with Congregationalism. Baptists can have both, and since it is the form found in scripture we should.
Mr. Greening, your “Doctrinal Case for Congregational Rule” has touched on none of the relevant passages addressing Elders. You’ve very nicely defended congregationalism, but have failed to see any of the passages speaking on elders, this would not only have made for a more informed article, but may very well have made the article unnecessary. Baptists and Elders are not opposites, they’re Biblical.
Scott Greening, “The Doctrinal Case for Congregational Rule.” The Baptist Bulletin.71:9, 2006. 19.
J.L. Reynolds, “Church Polity or the Kingdom of Christ.” Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life. A Collection of Historic Baptist Documents. ed. Mark E. Dever (Washington D.C.: 9 Marks, 2001 ) 349.
Other Baptists holding to a plurality of Elders include: Benjamin Keach (17th Century), Benjamin Griffith (18th Century), Samuel Jones, W.B. Johnson, William Williams, and C.H. Spurgeon (19th Century), and A.H. Strong (20th Century). Today there are a number of Baptist Churches that hold to both a Congregational rule and an Elder led polity (most notably Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C.).
For an understanding of Biblical Eldership see Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004) and Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership. (Colorado Springs: Lewis & Roth, 1988)
Perhaps this is the reader’s own ignorance but I am more inclined to believe it is the writer’s fault.
Mark Dever, “Baptists and Elders.” Originally delivered at the Issues in Baptist Polity Confrence 2004. Available online at www.9marks.com
Note Hebrews 13:17
There are a number of Presbyterian churches that also do not hold the form of eldership displayed in Greening’s article, I do not know whether such is the case in the Episcopalian church, though I am sure there are some exceptions.