Lloyd L. Streeter

Every twenty years, or so, the ruling lay elder issue surfaces again among Bible believing Baptists.  Often, a group of laymen in a church will decide that they want neither congregational government nor a pastor who guides the people.  Typically, that group of laymen will either try to establish a Board of Ruling Elders in their local church, or, if their efforts are resisted, to start a church of their own with the desired lay elder government.

Recently, the lay elder concept has become more popular among some Baptists. In 1990, the GARBC, over the protests of many stalwarts, admitted a church which had a board of lay elders (in addition to a board of deacons and a board of trustees). It is believed by many that the teaching of Dr. John MacArthur has done much to soften Baptist attitudes toward the ruling lay elder idea.

Historically, there have been three types of church government in Christendom.  Episcopalian government is rule by bishops and the clergy. This form of church government is employed by the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal denominations, and, to a lesser degree, by Methodists and Lutherans.  Episcopal government is completely without any scriptural basis.  It is a very dangerous and heretical system because it destroys the autonomy of the local church and sets a hierarchy to rule over the doctrine, practice, and conscience of God’s people.

Presbyterian government is ruled by a presbytery on the denominational level and by a board of elders on the local church level. This board of elders may be called by different names but is present in almost every church of the reformed tradition.  Presbyterian government, with its board of ruling lay elders, is just as unscriptural, heretical, and dangerous as its Episcopal counterpart.  Elder rule destroys congregational government, violates democratic discussion and procedure, and relegates the biblical office of pastor to the station of a “hired hand.”

The third form of church government, of course, is congregational.  This is the form of government which is both true to the Scriptures and true to Baptist history.  It is a system that makes the congregation the final decision-making body and allows the pastor to guide and influence the people by means of his example and preaching.

In congregational government, each member of the body has one vote.  Each member is responsible before God for using his vote and his influence to keep pure the church’s doctrine, to keep orderly the church’s business, and to keep holy the church’s worship and practice.  The scriptural form of church government allows for the pastor to lead, guide, even rule, in the congregation; but his power is not a legal one since he has only one vote like all the other members; rather, his authority is a moral one.  The pastor’s only power is the power of his influence, his counsels, and his position as a God-called, biblical, local church officer.  No doubt, God intended that the pastor should be the most influential member of the local church in matters of business and worship.  God calls the pastor to be the teacher, leader, shepherd, and expounder of His Word in the flock of God.  However, the pastor does not have any more legal authority than any other member.  He must not, and can not, “Lord it over” God’s church (I Peter 5:3).  In deciding all matters of opinion, the majority rules in Baptist churches with congregational government.

Some confusion arises, perhaps, because the Bible speaks of “elders that rule” (I Timothy 3:4-5; 5:17).  What is not usually understood is that the word “elder,” in the New Testament, is simply another word for “pastor.”  As a matter of fact, the words “elder,” “bishop,” overseer,” and “pastor” are words that all refer to the same office in the local church.  These words are all interchangeable as they refer to this church office.

Emery H. Bancroft, the noted Baptist theologian, explains the significance of the words “elder,” “bishop,” and “pastor” in his book, Christian Theology, Systematic and Biblical:

The passages in which the elders appear as church officers are as follows: Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4; 10:17; 21:18; I Timothy 5:17; 19; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; I Peter 5:1; II John 1; III John 1.  This term is by far the most frequently used of them all. This probably grew out of the fact that it was already an established word among the Jews, and while it describes the same office as the other two, bishops and pastor, it has rather the idea of maturity and experience, thus describing the character of the officer rather than the function of the office.  Another term for this office is “bishop.”  There are only a few places where this term appears: Acts 20:28; Phil. 1:1; I Timothy 3:1,2; Titus 1:7.  The word bishop from the Greek (episcopos) means literally an overseer, and in the margin of the Revised Version is so rendered.  This title of overseer as applied to an officer in the church looks rather to the functions of the office than to the character of the officer, describing his care, his outlook upon those who are committed to his keeping, as a leader, guide, and teacher.  It carries with it more of the idea of authority and rule than does that of elder.  The third title for this same office is that of “pastor.”  There is only one passage where the word is used, that is Ephesians 4:11, where, in describing the gifts bestowed on the Church by the ascended Christ, the Apostle says, “and some pastors and teachers.” This term seems to have in it the thought of shepherding.  See John 10:11; Hebrews 13:20; Acts 20:28; I Peter 2:25.  Thus the term pastor, “shepherd,” involves the personal tendency and spiritual concern which the bishop-elder should exercise over his flock. (J. F. May Press, Hayward, CA, 1949, p. 236)

The Bible teaches congregational rule in such passages as Acts 6, where men were chosen out from among the congregation for special work; in Romans 14, where the congregation had power to receive certain members; and in I Corinthians 5, where the congregation had power to discipline its members.

A church may have more than one minister, such as a youth minister, assistant pastor, minister of education, or minister of evangelism.  But, it would appear from a study of the New Testament that a church has only one elder-bishop-overseer-pastor.  The term “Senior Pastor” is as foreign to the New Testament as the term “under-shepherd,” inasmuch as the term is not found in Scripture and seems to indicate that there should be a plurality of elders.

There is only one “chief shepherd” for the flock of Christ (I Peter 5:4), and that fact would tend to set the procedure for the local church as well.  One pastor (elder) is responsible for taking the oversight over each local flock to feed it and care for it (I Peter 5:2).

Each of the seven churches of Revelation, chapters 2 and 3, had only one elder-pastor.  The elder-pastor is addressed there as “the angel [messenger] of the church of Ephesus” (Rev. 2:1); “the angel of the church in Smyrna” (Rev. 2:8); “the angel of the church in Pergamos” (Rev. 1:12); and so forth.  This same language is used for all seven of those local churches (see Rev. 2:18; 3:1, 7, 14).  It would seem that each of those churches had only one elder, otherwise Jesus would have addressed them in the plural.

Epaphroditus was the only pastor of his church at Philippi (Philippians 2:25).  James was the only pastor of his particular local church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:13). And it would appear that Timothy was the only pastor at his church at Ephesus (I Timothy 1:2-3).

Yes, there is to be only one pastor in each local church, according to the Bible; and that one pastor-elder is to be both teacher (Ephesians 4:11; I Peter 5:1; Acts 20:28) and ruler ( I Thessalonians 5:12; I Timothy 3:4-5; 5:17; Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24; and I Peter 5:2).

In many Bible cities, there were many local churches, each of them having a pastor, so the elders are mentioned at Ephesus, for example, in the plural (Acts 20:28); whereas, when the bishop and deacons are mentioned as from a specific local church, then the “bishop” is singular (I Timothy 3:2) but the “deacons” are plural (I Timothy 3:8; 11, 12).

The conclusion of the matter is that the present day movement to have a “Board of Ruling Lay Elders” to rule over the church and over the pastor is an unscriptural invention.

The word “deacon,” on the other hand, means servant.  Any movement to make deacons into a “Board of Elders” (in everything except name only) is as unscriptural as any other form of elder rule.

Congregational rule is scriptural, but, practiced biblically, it does not take away the pastor’s authority, making him simply a hired hand to “preach the sermons.”  Lay-Elder-Rule advocates like to call the pastor the “teaching elder” to distinguish him from the “ruling elders.”  They divide, in an unscriptural way, the functions of the pastor’s office, giving to the pastor the teaching responsibilities, but giving to the “lay elders” the “ruling” part of the pastor’s work.

Edward Hiscox in his book, New Directory for Baptist Churches (which has been a standard book on Baptist government since shortly after the Civil War), says, on page 100, under the heading “The Pastor’s Authority”:

The pastor is to be loved, honored and obeyed, in the Lord.  He is placed over the Church by both the Head of the body, and by the free and voluntary act of the body itself.  Though he professes no magisterial authority, and has no power, either spiritual or temporal, to enforce mandates or inflict penalties, yet the very position he occupies as teacher and leader supposes authority vested in him.  On the one hand, the minister is not to be regarded with ignorant and blind devotion, as if possessed of super human attributes, whose official acts must be venerated even though his private life be scandalous; not yet, on the other hand, is he to be considered a mere puppet for the capricious mistreatment of such as wish to show their independence, and “use their liberty for a cloak of maliciousness.”

Dr. Clay Nuttall was absolutely correct when, in his book, The Weeping Church, he wrote:

The third level of discipline–discipline by the pastor–is the one that is most neglected.  This is the major cause of heartache in the local flock because no one but the pastor can accomplish it.  When a brother goes to a brother, he goes as a peer.  While the shepherd should and must act in tenderness, he must act.  Discipline by the [shepherd] is a despised subject, but since it is a Biblical mandate we cannot dismiss it.  Further, let us be reminded that a church without pastoral discipline will be a weeping church.  The pastor will weep in his own failure when he faces the Great Shepherd of the sheep.

The shepherd’s tools include a rod; therefore, a pastor must exercise discipline.  Since he is elder/bishop/shepherd, this discipline extends to his oversight in every area.

His supervision of paid staff, including multiple pastors, must include the heavy responsibility of directing, guiding, and, if need be, releasing them by use of that oversight.  Since all volunteer persons also fall within his God-given administration, he must be willing to dismiss them from service.  The pastor’s tool for discipline is the ability to remove from service and place of leadership.  There can be no exception to that rule or a monstrosity of headship is created.  He must reprove and rebuke with the authority of the Word (2 Tim. 4:2). Without pastoral discipline he is not shepherd at all.

We do not agree with all that W. A. Criswell has done.  Especially, we do not agree that he should have stayed in the Southern Baptist Convention. However, we do heartily agree with this noted Baptist scholar and pastor when he says of the pastor:

Anytime there is anyone else who is leading the church, they will be a poorly-led congregation.  I do not care who he is, how many there are, or however they may be organized.  The church may be run by a clique, or by an organized group, or just by anybody, but God intends for the rulership of the church to lie in the pastor.  He is under God, responsible to the Lord for the church.  These who stand by his side are fellow helpers.  A deacon is a diakonos, a servant, a helper.  He is to stand by the side of the pastor and hold up his arms like Hur and Aaron.  You will have a mighty church if you have laymen and deacons who stand by the side of the pastor and help him build up the house of God.  They make an unbeatable team, a consecrated deacon and a dedicated pastor.  It takes both of them. [Quoted by Dr. Kenny McComas in The America Review, 1st quarter, 1985]

Charles Haddon Spurgeon made some interesting comments in discussing the need for the men whom God calls.  In his sermon, “The Two Draughts of Fishes,” he speaks of the Plymouth Brethren, whose assemblies are ruled by elders:

The Plymouth-ist strives to get rid of the pastorate, but he never can, for the Lord will ever continue to give pastors after His own heart to feed His people, and all attempts made by the flock to dispense with these pastors will lead to leanness and poverty of soul.  The outcry against the “one man ministry” cometh not of God, but of proud self-conceit, of men who are not content to learn although they have no power to teach.  It is the tendency of human nature to exalt itself which has raised up these disturbers of the peace of God’s Israel, they will not endure to submit themselves to the authorities which God has Himself appointed, and abhor the teachings of the apostle, where he says, by the Spirit of God, “Obey them that have rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable to you.”  Brethren, I warn you, there is a spirit abroad which would pull down the men whom God Himself has raised up, that would silence those into whose mouths God has put the tongue of fire, that foolish men might prate according to their own will to the profit of no one, and to their own shame.  As for us, we shall, I trust, never cease to recognize that agency by which the Lord works mightily among us.  We would check no ministry in the Church of God.  We would be too glad to see it more abundantly exercised.  Would God that our solemn protest against that spirit which, under pretence of liberty to all, sets aside the instrumentality by which the Lord especially works.  He will have you still keep the fishermen to nets and to their boats; and your new ways of catching fish without nets, and saving souls without ministers, will never answer, for they are not of God.  They have been tried, and what has been the result of the trial?  I know not a Church in existence that has despised instrumentality, but it has come to an end within a few years either by schism or decay.  Where upon the face of the earth is there a single Church that has existed fifty years where God’s chosen instrumentality of ministry has been despised and rejected? “Ichabod!” is written upon their walls.  God rejects them because they reject God’s chosen way of working.  Their attempts are flashes in the pan, meteoric lights, will-o’-wisps, swellings of proud flesh, bubbles of foam, here to-day and gone for ever on the morrow.

In the light of Baptist history and doctrine, and in the light of common wisdom, the modern Ruling Lay Elder movement should be rejected.  It is a movement that would have proud men install themselves as rulers over God’s church-men who have not been called by God to that work, have not been gifted by God for that work, and have not been trained for that work.  It is a movement that would place over God’s churches a form of government which is totally contrary to God’s will.