Oct 14, 2008

Wring on Elder Rule

I have read with delight an excellent article titled - "Elder Rule and Southern Baptist Church Polity" and written by Robert A. Wring, Adjunct Instructor at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, Germantown, TN. I think it is an excellent beginning article for any student of this issue. I have excerpted the following as a worthy specimen of his affirmations, ones which I endorse, and which give valuable information.

Notice also how he calls upon Baptists journalists and apologists to take up the issue and do a more exhaustive work than he has done. The Lord willing I intend to answer the call.

Wring says:

"...elder rule is not necessary. It does not have biblical support, nor does it have strong historical Baptist precedence."

"Those leaders who are buying into the idea of elder rule as the proper form of church governance in a Southern Baptist church are being influenced by several factors. First of all, they are following in the footsteps of men like John MacArthur, John Piper, Richard Mayhue, Alexander Strauch, Mark Dever and others who favor the elder-style of church polity. According to Rob Norris, Director of the Denver Baptist Association in the state of Colorado, pastors and church leaders in that association are being influenced by Saddleback Church and Willow Creek Community Church whose leadership style is the practice of some form of elder leadership, or elder rule. At the Willow Creek Community Church, pastored by Bill Hybels, there are eight ruling elders who operate the church like a corporation. The elders are the ultimate decision-making body in the Willow Creek church."

"There is no higher court of appeal in MacArthur’s Grace Community Church than that of the ruling elders."

"In the Shepherd’s Conference at MacArthur’s Grace Community Church, Mayhue has taught a seminar every year on how to move a congregationally-ruled church to one that is elder-ruled."

"Mayhue and others at The Master’s Seminary do not see a congregational form of church polity, or government, or leadership in the New Testament."

"Piper’s church is not Southern Baptist either. In a tape and handout given to participants in his leadership seminars, he stated that his eldership model was based on four criteria: Scripture, culture, history, and local church dynamics. Piper saw a very small amount of clear Bible teaching on the subject of church government and he put more emphasis on culture and history than he did on biblical support. His movement toward elder rule is simply a pragmatic concern at best. Piper’s "Council of Elders" creates whatever ministry bodies seem to be helpful in the church and the elder board "can abolish these tomorrow if they want to. The elders are the church leaders who govern the church." Piper presently has eighteen elders which are a mixture of ordained pastors and laymen (who are in the majority on the elder board). Some are rulers, the others are teachers. The congregation has a limited involvement in the decision-making process of the church."

"Dever’s church is a mixture of elder rule and congregationalism; which makes his church government structure a presby-gational polity; although he argues against the Presbyterian type of church government structure. The eldership of Capitol Hill Baptist Church includes the pastor and at least three laymen who are not in full-time employment of the church. The elders of this church determine a person’s fitness to become a church member and handle discipline-matters, the supervision of the ministry, and the resources of the church. The majority of church-related business passes through their attention, and there is a limited amount of congregational participation and authority."

"Fourth, these well-meaning leaders have misread the pages of Baptist history in general, and Southern Baptist history in particular. In both histories, the term elder was a title for the pastor or pastors of a Baptist church. The term encompassed those men who were called into the ministry, were teachers and doctors, and who were helpers to the pastors of the churches. Some early Baptists had at least one ruling elder whose ministry was like that of the assistant pastor in modern times; he was a helper who assisted the pastor of a local body of believers. After 1845, because of disuse and the development of a proper understanding of the role of ministers and deacons, the office of ruling elders was allowed to die a slow death."

"Fifth, it is usually the churches that are Reformed in their theology that are adopting elder rule as the proper form of church governance."

"Does It Really Matter What Kind of Church Polity Southern Baptists Use?

I think it does. New Testament teaching concerning biblical church officers, Baptist history in general, and Southern Baptist history in particular, congregationalism, and the priesthood of the believer mandate that we practice a polity that is in keeping with what Christ intended for the governing of His church. Elder rule does not support that mandate. Instead, it usurps it and bypasses Christ’s intended principles of church government which are leadership by a pastor(s) and deacons, and the congregational polity which allows every member of the church to participate in the making of informed decisions which affect their corporate lives."

"...the elder rule issue could become more divisive than it already is, and it could develop into a matter of fellowship among grassroots Baptist churches and drive a wedge between denominational loyalty on the local, state, and national levels."

"There needs to be more material written about church polity from the standpoint of contemporary Southern Baptist writers who will produce strong arguments against the elder rule form of church leadership. There is presently a famine of such material in contemporary monograms, systematic theologies, and church manuals. Southern Baptist leaders need to develop their own seminars that will directly address the biblical and Baptistic position on church leadership from the standpoint of our unique Baptist distinctiveness."

"Does it really matter what kind of church polity contemporary Southern Baptists use?

Yes, it does! We need to return to our roots and grow again the Baptist tree that is both biblically true and scripturally sound, and that is historically Baptistic in its beliefs, polity, and practices. John L. Dagg was right. Church polity is not as important as winning people to faith in Christ, but it is important. Why? Because Christ gave commands on the subject in the Scriptures; therefore, we must explore the issue of government in the local church and we must be sure we are doing it right!"



Anonymous said...

I just read this article as well, it is a great piece. I really appreciate what he has to say about Ruling Elders and the Priesthood of believers.

Stephen Garrett said...

Dear N:

I am glad you enjoyed it also. It is a good primer on the topic.

I think he is also right in saying that this topic needs a greater in depth treatment.

God bless and thanks for visiting and commenting.


James B said...

Interesting article. It seems that the author tends to place more emphasis on Baptist tradition than he does Scripture. I find that a bit troubling.

NT scripture is clear that elders are to lead the church. I say 'lead' rather than 'rule' because the only ruler of the church is Jesus Christ. I think the presby-gational model may be closer to what was intended for the NT church. Look at what happens in Acts 6 with the selection of the first deacons. The apostles (the first elders of the first church in Jerusalem) decided that there needed to be someone to help with meeting the physical needs of the widows so that they could focus on carrying out their ministry of preaching and teaching the Gospel and prayer. The leaders of the church decided what needed to be done and then brought it to the congregation to select the men to do it. If by 'elder rule' the author means that the elders become an oligarchy which rules from on high, then they too have missed God's intent for church leadership. The elders must never have the final say on matters that affect the church. Matthew 18 clearly teaches us that the church is the final word, especially in the area of church discipline. The elders are to lead, protect, and feed the congregation. There has to be a level of trust between the congregation and the leaders that they elect. They have to trust their leaders to seek the mind of Christ and carry out the will of the Father in all things. That is why Paul challenges us to not chose our leaders hastily and lays out a pretty strict set of requirements for elders.

The other thing that we have to guard against is confusing our American ideals of democracy with church government. Christ in no way intends for the church (His bride) to be a democracy. It is a theocracy with Jesus at it's head. The author states that one proponent of an elder system 'downplays the spiritual maturity of new believers to the point that he views the ruling elders as being more spiritually mature and more religiously capable of making decisions that affect the affairs of the church because they are more biblically-centered in their thinking.' So what do you do in a growing church that is populated by a majority of new and immature believers? This is precisely what got the church of Corinth in so much trouble. There, they let the majority rule, and they ended up bringing in all kinds of pagan practices into the worship of God. We can also see this in Acts 15 when the Jewish believers wanted the Gentiles to be circumcised. If they had taken a vote on it, what would have happened? I don't know, but what did happen is the apostles and elders met to consider this question (v6) and issued their judgment (v19) to the congregation. The congregation then affirmed the decision (v22). To me this seems to affirm the presby-gational model.

Anonymous said...

I have read the article and Dr. Wring's dissertation. He gives a very balanced study of what the New Testament says about the elder subject in his dissertation. I'm sure that he would send a copy of his dissertation to anyone who would desire one.

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with James B. over Robert Wring, there being a huge difference between elder 'rule', and elder 'led'. As an independent Baptist myself, I would not for many reasons attend Willow Creek Church, or Saddleback Church. But I tend to grow weary of people who condemn anything they do as a blanket condemnation for the rest of the world.( I'm supposed to sell my VW because Hitler once ruled Germany logic?) I suppose the same could be said for the Southern Baptist's who a few years ago failed to have the fortitude to stand up and make a clear Denominational condemnation of the Masonic lodge for church members,instead, leaving it to local churches to decide. For many non-So.Baptists that looked much like a cop out! Perhaps many in the leadership of the So.Baptists were members? Or had friends in high places who were? Who knows. Anyway,back to the point. Had I not experienced many Baptist churches in the past l0 yrs. or so going to the Elder led form of government perhaps I could more easily agree with the Dr. But in talking to these pastors(many of whom were life long indy church) who've gone to this form..they pretty much agree that 90% of the usual nonsense that goes on in your average business meetings;problem areas , etc. has been eliminated for the most part. As it is, churches have so mimicked secular government for so long, many are convinced that to do anything else in their church would be treasonous. (trust me, I know some of these people well). They're the same ones who make sure their kids salute the American flag, before they acknowledge the Christian flag in church! As a veteran, even I find this disturbing. For myself, James B.(and many others) have made more sense than Dr.Wring on the subject. I suppose those who prefer congregations having the final say so in spiritual matters appeals to many churches today. Perhaps that explains the dire straits many of those churches are in? (nothing like having a 75% vote from a congregation that's 85% backslidden huh?) Or as one Baptist deacon was overheard to say.."it's easier to get rid of "one" preacher, than go through a bunch of Elders". And if you think that attitude doesn't exist in many churches, you probably should do better research!