Elders: Are They Baptistic?

Elders are the subject of arguments raised by some Southern Baptists on social media who are opposed to a plurality of elders. Here are some of their points of contention:

  1. Churches with a plurality of elders are more Presbyterian than Southern Baptist.
  2. Pastors who believe in a plurality of elders are playing semantic games with the current Baptist Faith and Message 2000, which mentions “pastors and deacons” as the offices of the church.
  3. A plurality of elders is not a Baptistic approach to church government and is not supported by the history of the Southern Baptist Convention.

This post will delineate why a plurality of elders is not only Baptistic but is a form of church polity consistent with the history of the Southern Baptist Convention.  While I’m not advocating a plurality of elders and deacons as the only possible form of biblical church government, nor am I attempting to give a full explanation of this approach to church polity, I am contending that it is a form of church polity that is consistent with the history of Baptists in general and of Southern Baptists in particular.

Throughout history, Baptist confessions mention elders and deacons as offices in the church.  

The 1689 Second London Baptist Confession states, “A particular church, gathered and completely organized according to the mind of Christ, consists of officers and members; and the officers appointed by Christ to be chosen and set apart by the church (so called and gathered), for the peculiar administration of ordinances, and execution of power or duty, which he intrusts them with, or calls them to, to be continued to the end of the world, are bishops or elders, and deacons.”[1]  The first confessional document for Southern Baptists, the Abstract of Principles (1859), echoes the Second London Baptist Confession stating, “The regular officers of the church are Bishops or Elders, and Deacons.”[2]  The first edition of the Baptist Faith and Message written in 1925 describes the offices of the church as follows, “Its scriptural officers are bishops or elders and deacons.”[3]  So, the earliest Baptist Faith and Message upheld the plurality of elders as well as the interchangeable nature of the words “bishop” and “elder”.  The 1963 version of the Baptist Faith and Message changed this part of the section on the church to read, “Its Scriptural officers are pastors and deacons.”[4]  Regarding this change and the interchangeable nature of the terms “elder”, “bishop”, and “pastor”, Baptist statesman Herschel Hobbs wrote, “Pastor—this is one of three titles referring to the same office. The other two are ‘bishop’ and ‘elder.’”[5]  These documents indicate that the word “elder” is not foreign to Baptist and Southern Baptist confessions and tradition and that a plurality of elders was practiced in some Baptist and Southern Baptist churches of the era.

Early Baptist associations also mention a plurality of elders in their documents.  

In one example, the Charleston Baptist Association’s Summary of Church Discipline (1774) reads, “If there is not a sufficient presbytery in the church, neighboring elders are to be called and authorized to perform that service….The elders being satisfied with regard to the gifts, graces, soundness of principles, and becoming life and conversation of the candidate; the church being met, and giving their suffrage for his ordination, a sermon is to be preached on the occasion, and he declaring his willingness and inward call to take upon him the sacred office, 1 Cor. 9:16.[6]

In addition to documents from Baptist associations, various church documents also show a plurality of elders being a part of early Baptist life and Southern Baptist roots.  In 1735, the Welsh Tract Church sent some of its members to found one of the earliest Baptist churches in South Carolina, the Welsh Neck Baptist Church (a church that is still part of the current South Carolina Baptist Convention).  The Welsh Tract minutes describing these members’ departure to South Carolina read:

Our brothron and sisters whos names are as followeth Abel Morgan teaching Elder (Abel Morgan is returned) James James, Ruling Elder Thomas Evan, Deacon Daniel James Samuel Miles [Wilds] John Harry John Harry Junior Thomas Harry Jeremiah Rowel Richard Barrow Thomas Money Nathaniel Evan Mary James Annie Evan Sarah James Mary Wilds Elizabeth Harry Eleanor Jenkin Sarah Harry Margaret William Mary Rowel Sarah Barrow, are removed to Carolina and was recommended by a letter to ye church of Christ in Charles Town or elsewhere in South Carolina, or they might constitute themselves into a church from us Nov 1735.” [7]

Note the mention here of teaching elders and ruling elders, showing this church polity was a part of the earliest Baptist churches in our country.

Numerous Southern Baptist statesmen mention a plurality of elders being a part of practice within the SBC from the time of its inception.  

William B. Johnson, former pastor of First Baptist Church of Anderson , SC, and the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention wrote in his work entitled The Gospel Developed Through the Government and Order of the Church of Jesus Christ (1846), “That over each church of Christ in the apostolic age a plurality of rulers was ordained, who were designated by the terms elder, bishop, overseer, pastor, with authority in the government of the flock.”[8]  Speaking of the practice of churches in the New Testament, Johnson asserted, “It is worthy of particular attention, that each church had a plurality of elders, and that although there was a difference in their respective department of service, there was a perfect equality of rank among them.”[9]  Johnson not only believed that a plurality of elders was an acceptable form of church government in SBC churches, but also advocated that SBC churches should have a plurality of elders, stating, “Whilst a plurality of bishops is required for each church, the number is not fixed, for the obvious reason, that circumstances must necessarily determine what that number shall be.”[10]  J. L. Reynolds, former pastor of Second Baptist Church in Richmond, wrote in his work entitled Church Polity or the Kingdom of Christ in its Internal and External Development (1849), “The permanent officers of a Church are of two kinds:  elders (who are also called pastors, teachers, ministers, overseers or bishops) and deacons.[11]  Describing the practice of the New Testament, he stated, “The apostolic churches seem, in general, to have had a plurality of elders as well as deacons.[12]  Finally, William Williams, one of the founders of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a former vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote, “In most, if not all the apostolic churches, there was a plurality of elders.  The circumstances of the early churches rendered such an arrangement very advantageous, if not absolutely necessary.”[13]  Clearly, the above quotes indicate that a plurality of elders was a familiar form of church polity in early Southern Baptist churches.

Finally, on a personal note, my great-great-grandfather Elder James McKnight was an elder in a Baptist church in Eastern Kentucky.  His church had a plurality of elders who shared shepherding responsibilities in their congregation.  In addition, the church had deacons who ministered in a serving capacity in the church.  The photo that headlines this article pictures a number of the elders of his church and other churches in the mountains there.

So, a plurality of elders is not simply a Presbyterian concept.  Referring to a plurality of elders is not a play on semantics, trying to alter the wording of the current Baptist Faith and Message (2000).  No, a plurality of elders has been an acceptable form of church polity in Baptist life in general and Southern Baptist life in particular since the beginning.  While one might not agree with a plurality of elders and deacons as a preferred form of church polity, to ignore the presence of this form of church government within Baptist history and the history of the SBC is to deny the facts and to ignore Baptist history.

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[1] Second London Baptist Confession (1689)

[2] Abstract of Principles (1858)

[3] The Baptist Faith and Message (1925)

[4] The Baptist Faith and Message (1963)

[5] Hobbs, What Baptists Believe, 85.

[6] The Baptist Association in Charleston, South Carolina, A Summary of Church Discipline (1774), in Dever, ed., Polity, 120.

[7] Records of the Welsh Tract Baptist Meeting 1716 to 1828, Pts. I and II, 1, 83-86.

[8] William B. Johnson, The Gospel Developed Through the Government and Order of the Churches of Jesus Christ (1846), in Dever, ed., Polity, 190.

[9] Ibid., 192.

[10] Ibid., 194.

[11] J.L. Reynolds, Church Polity (1849), in Dever, ed., Polity, 346.

[12] Ibid., 349.

[13] William Williams, Apostolic Church Polity (1874), in Dever, ed., Polity, 531.