A Response to NelsonPrice.com on “Elders”

As I have written before, there are many important ways in which Dr. Nelson L. Price has positively impacted the state of Georgia and the world for the cause of Jesus Christ. [If anyone doubts this fact, I would strongly encourage you to read the introduction to the post just linked before commenting here.] Regrettably, however, Dr. Price has established himself as an opponent of reformation within the Southern Baptist Convention. I say “reformation” and not simply “reformed theology” because among the articles at his website (www.nelsonprice.com), there is material not only arguing against the “five points of Calvinism,” but also calling into question the doctrines of biblical eldership and biblical church discipline. Though there are also many articles on his website with which we would heartily agree, those that are written in opposition to reformation are of such a serious nature and Dr. Price himself is such an influential figure within Southern Baptist life that I am beginning a category to respond to some of his articles here on Strange BaptistFire.

First, I would like to address his article titled “Elders,” which concludes with the following paragraph:

In general Southern Baptist Churches have not used an “elder” form of governance as has the Presbyterian Church. Of late some have begun using it. Changing the form of church governance can be traumatic for a congregation. If a church has one that works in place it is a good one and need not be change simply because of a current trend.

Let’s examine this paragraph point-by-point:

  1. “In general Southern Baptist Churches have not used an ‘elder’ form of governance as has the Presbyterian Church.”

If Dr. Price means to distinguish between the ways in which ‘elders’ have been understood in Baptist ecclesiology and in Presbyterian ecclesiology (with Presbyterians holding to a distinction between ruling and teaching elders and an idea of elders meeting together in a governing body superior to that of a local congregation), then he is certainly correct.

If Dr. Price means to assert that most Southern Baptists Churches throughout the history of the Southern Baptist Convention have not held to a plurality of elders, I would also be willing to cede the point– certainly most Southern Baptist Churches today do not have a plurality of elders, and if Dr. Price claims that most SBC congregations in the past have not had a plurality of elders, I will take his word for it, although it would be nice to see some documentation to this effect.

I do think that it is important to note, however, that before the founding of the SBC, Baptist congregations regularly had a plurality of elders, and that there is evidence that this trend extended into the early Southern Baptist era. For example, W.B. Johnson, the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention, argued for congregational church government overseen by a plurality of elders, pointing out, “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.” Likewise, Baptist scholar J.L. Reynolds, writing about four years after the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention, similarly acknowledged a plurality of elders as normal church practice, noting, “The apostolic churches seem, in general, to have had a plurality of elders as well as deacons.”

  1. “Of late some have begun using it [that is, a church government including a plurality of elders]. Changing the form of church governance can be traumatic for a congregation.”

– At any time when traditions have been established, changing those traditions can certainly be traumatic for the congregations involved. Just read the Reformers or the Puritans. But, as we have learned from these historic heroes of the Christian faith, we must be willing to undergo personal trauma and even to lead others through trauma in order to promote greater fidelity to the word of God.

  1. “If a church has one [that is, a church government] that works in place it is a good one and need not be change simply because of a current trend.”

We should all agree with the second part of this sentence, i.e., that changes in the church should not be changed simply due to cultural trends.

The first part of this sentence seems to be sheer pragmatism [“it ‘works’”= “it is good”].

I don’t believe that Dr. Price is consciously trying to engage in pragmatism, however. It seems from earlier statements in his essay that he honestly believes the Bible does not teach a specific form of church government. He writes, “There is no Scripture that teaches a church has to have a board of elders,” and, “Most scholars agree the New Testament does not teach a specific form of church governance” [again, I must add that I wish he would give citations for particular scholars he has in mind].

But there is good news concerning church government. Namely, we do not have to base our views of church government on what has been the general practice of Southern Baptists. Nor do we have to base our views of church government on cultural trends. Rather, Christ, who promised to build His church (cf. Matthew 16:18), has given clear commands and examples through his apostles so that we may know the standard for church government. And what is this standard? Quite simply, church government is to be congregational, and the congregation is to be served by deacons and overseen by elders. As congregationalism and the office of deacons are not generally disputed among Southern Baptists (though many would admit that the way deacons often function within a congregation leaves much to be desired), I will briefly demonstrate where we see a plurality of elders in Scripture:

  1. Paul commands Titus to appoint elders [plural] in each town. (Titus 1:5)
  2. In writing to Timothy, Paul refers to the elders [plural] who direct the affairs of the church. (1 Timothy 5:17)
  3. In instructing Timothy about church discipline, Paul refers to an accusation against an elder in the congregation, not against the elder. (1 Timothy 5:19) [Also, unless Paul is teaching that Timothy should not accept accusations against another elder in his own congregation– meaning that there was at least one other elder with Timothy– then whom would Timothy possibly be accepting an accusation against? Was Paul setting up Timothy as an external-to-the-congregations-judge over lesser elders? We think not.]
  4. Paul greets the bishops [plural] in the church [singular] at Philippi in his letter to the Philippians. (Philippians 1:1)
  5. Luke records Paul’s sending for the elders [plural] of the church [singular] in Ephesus. (Acts 20:17)
  6. Paul instructs the Ephesian elders to fulfill their role as bishops [plural] to the flock [singular]. (Acts 20:28)
  7. At the end of Paul’s first missionary journey, he and Barnabas had elders [plural] elected in each church [singular]. (Acts 14:23)
  8. References to the elders at the Jerusalem church always occur in the plural.
  9. James instructs his readers to call for the elders [plural] of the church [singular] to pray over a sick person. (James 5:14)

[see Mark Dever, By Whose Authority? Elders in Baptist Life, 19]

The list above does not even begin to delve into the rich source of how we see the New Testament teaching of elders within the overall ecclesiology presented in Scripture. God’s Word provides abundant instruction and example on how churches should be structured. I would encourage Dr. Price and anyone reading his essay to look into this material and find that as Christ’s servants we do not have to be slaves to traditionalism, pragmatism, or the endless quest for contemporary relevance. As we trust in the Holy Bible, we are free to serve God within the setting He has provided.

–SDG

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16 Comments on “A Response to NelsonPrice.com on “Elders””


  1. Andrew,

    Great stuff man. Glad to see you point out the fallaciousness of Dr. Price’s argument. Of course, if you think evangelical Calvinism is an oxymoron, then I could see where you would miss the historical attestation and biblical warrant for elder-led ecclesiology.

    Recently, I wrote an open letter to Dr. Morris Chapman on biblical eldership where I provided additional resources, articles, and scores of biblical texts in case anyone is interested in looking further into biblical eldership.  Perhaps someone might find it beneficial. 

    Anyway, I take back my “lazy blogger” epitaph from Said at Southern.  :) 

  2. Paul Says:

    From my study, it appears that both arguments can be made (multiplicity of elders and single elders). When it says in Acts that they appointed elders in every place, is it multiple elders in multiple places or an elder for each of the multiple places? Both English and Greek appear to have the same grammatical dilemma. For example, “Would all husbands please stand with their wives?” Multiple husbands with multiple wives? or Multiple husbands each with their wife? You can’t know for sure except from context. Is the speaker talking to a polygamous culture or monogamous? In the same way both arguments can be made. Ephesus (Acts 20) was a large town. Were there multiple congregations? Possibly. Did each have one or several elders? We can’t be sure. What did happen is that Paul talked to all of them. This appears to me to be one of those hills that I would hesitate to die on.


  3. Paul,

    Please notice that in your example, “Would all husbands please stand with their wives?” both husbands and wives are plural. In the Scriptural examples I have cited, “elders” is consistently plural, whereas “church” is consistently singular. Additionally, Paul’s admonition of Timothy not to except a charge against an elder without mulitiple witnesses makes no sense unless either: 1) There are additional elders serving in a congregation with Timothy, or 2) One abandons congregationalism altogether and adopts an episcopal form of church government.

    -Andrew

  4. Thomas Twitchell Says:

    1925 BFM: A church of Christ is a congregaton…Its Chriptural officers are bishops, or elders and deacons.

    1963 BFM: A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is a local body…This church is an autonomous body…Its Scriptural officers are pastors and deacons.

    2000 BFM: A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation…Each…In such a congregation…Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons.

    It would appear then that the 25, 63, and 2000 are all in agreement. The 25 recognized bishops as equivalent to elders. The Scripture only uses pastor in one place, Ephesians, eventhough variations of the same root are found in several places. The terms overseer, episkopos, from which we get bishop, the term elder, from presbytes and presbuteros, as well as shephard are all equivalent terms that indicate an idea describing a single office filled by a plurality of men. Peter is recognized as an overseer, elder and shephard, all of which carry the same conotation in reference to the care of the people of God, but he was just one of twelve. The council of Jerusalem is the protoype and plurality is the consistent view of Scripture flowing from it. The writers of the 63 and the 2000 carry forth this view of the 25 resolving two terms into one. In each the single congregation is to be overseen by a plurarity of pastors. The idea of plurality of eldership is historically consistent with Southern Baptist BFM and Biblical Ecclesiology. It is Price who is inconsistent.

  5. Paul Says:

    Andrew,
    After more study, what I find is that our English texts include “each” and “every” to indicate plurality. So change my example to, “Would every husband….” Also, in Acts 9:31, our English Bible reads “churches” when it’s actually a singular form in Greek. The plural was put in because multiple places are listed. My point is, this is one of those arguments that can’t be settled definitively. What I believe is far more important is that we obey what is very clear regarding elders and their qualifications and duties.

  6. Steven Says:

    I am a layman who read Alexander Strauch’s “Biblical Eldership”. I was convinced by the scriptures and the sheer evidence of the failures that occur when this system is not used. However, no one else feels this way. It appears that many hold strongly and passionaltely to a Pastor/Deacons model in which deacons run things. I have learned to be quiet…and no longer do I read books which only serve to isolate me in the Southern Baptist Convention.

  7. Thomas Twitchell Says:

    “I have learned to be quiet…and no longer do I read books which only serve to isolate me in the Southern Baptist Convention.”

    Steven, do you understand what you are doing here? Is it not the same as being silence by the Magistarium of Rome? It is precisely. As you eloquently stated, “the sheer evidence of the falilures that occur when this system is not used.”

    I “feel this way,” as do thousands of others who have looked seriously at this problem. The reason that the plurality of elders mentality never passed away completely is because there have always been men who held “strongly and passionately,” to it. They, however, unlike those who hold to a Pastor/Deacons model, are right.

    We should follow Luther who followed Peter in obeying God not man, in “unless I am covinced by Scripture.” SBC’ers have always been people of the book and issues like this are no different than the issues of Calvinism vs Arminianism. If we believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, that it is inspired and infallible, and we can demonstrate beyond doubt that one truth is presented in opposition to another and we do not stand for that truth, we have over thrown Sola Scriptura. Our witness to the world, then becomes vacuous.

    I hope that your aquiesence is not final. You might be surprised that if you stick to your guns and speak what you know to be right, just how much impact it can have even if it doesn’t immediately appear to do so.

  8. Steven Says:

    Thomas,

    I wrote my comment about being quiet sorta tongue-in-cheek, but after I wrote it, I realized I was half serious. It is overwhelming at times to have a passion and conviction on this and other issues but to not only not have an audience, but a what seems to be millions of people who are against you. I just want to thank you for your exhortation- You have no idea how encouraging it is.

    What can a 28 year old layman do to share some of the convictions with the church? Many of them have never heard of anything like this..I won’t be a layman forever. Lord Willing, but until then, I am not taken very seriously. I need to get Mark Dever and 9Marks to come to a presentation or something.

    Once again, thank you for your exhortive charge…It came at just the right moment.

    Exalting in the Grace of Christ,

    Steven

  9. Thomas Twitchell Says:

    Thanks for returning my post Steven, often when I repond to blogs people take it as harsh and unloving. What’s a brother to do, I am working on it and it is not easy. I too, have in the past become frustrated, and often silenced. The Lord worked it out this way. I was the lone Reformed sheep that was unpenned in my SBC congregation. What happened is that I found myself teaching my daughter open theism to explain semi-autonomous free-will. When I heard myself, I was broken. Well, that began a long trek to discover the doctrines of grace for myself. The Spirit graciously provide ample resourses.

    In the process I encounted the doctrines of Eldership thanks to John Piper, Mark Deaver and now a host of others. So, along with being a “born-again” proponent of the doctrines of grace in my church I also began to infuse in conversation biblical views of governance.

    To tell you the truth I was and still am in many ways what James White would call a “stage cage Calvinist.” God has, despite my often rude demeanor taken the truth and broken loose, first the most senior Deacon, then the second, and now it appears that a third and possibly even my Pastor who has begun to teach out of 1 Peter the doctrines of grace.

    He could use your prayer, he is a very smart man, but young in the Augutinian/Cavinistic/Reformed system. However, by God’s grace he is encouraging the transition to an Elder form of governance. We are in the process of rewriting our constitution and hopefully will have as our base documents, the 1689 and the Abstract of Principles along with reference to the historic documents of the SBC. This is a dramatic and exciting change. And dangerous. Pray for us.

    You see, though my frustration, and my sins were evident, once I began to be free, I could not stop myself from the exchange of ideas. I am 55. I was called out of the work place believing that God wanted me to train for ministry. It is five years and I realize that I have trained and he has made it clear that I will never be ordained. My consolation is that even if I do not see the ripened fruit of what he has begun in our midst, it cannot be denied that speaking the truth in love, even if it did not look like it, has its work independent of me. It has to do with this: “For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth and make it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not retun to me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall proper in the thing for which I sent it….

    you shall go out with joy….Isaiah 55 begins, Ho, Every one who thirsts, come to the waters. These were Jesus’ words and with sure conviction they are our life.

    The Lord bless you,

    tt

    http://treasuresoldandnew.blogspot.com/

  10. genembridges Says:

    Ever notice that those who decry the plurality of elders model usually do one or both of the following:

    a. Serve in churches with more than one pastor and with deacons who act as “ruling elders” themselves and/or teach and who often rubber stamping the pastoral leaders’ decisions. Often they give themselves wiggle room by saying that they are the “senior pastor” and the others are “associates” or “assistance.” That’s a blatant exercise in the word-concept fallacy every time they rail against a plurality of elders on that basis.

    b. Serve as single pastors of churches, but have deacons who rule and teach. Again, to argue against the plurality of elders model are doing it already.

    The fear here is “Presbyterianism,” but that’s a straw man. Who is arguing for church courts, synods, assemblies, and presbyterys? Ironically, the association when originally formed functioned as a de facto presbytery, in the days before we conventioned ourselves.

    Now, back to my vacation. See you in July.

  11. Thomas Twitchell Says:

    genembridges,

    One of the first breakthroughs among our Deacons and our Pastor came when they were shown that according to our constitution our Deacons were defined as Elders. More than than, they funcitoned as Elders. The only thing that they were lacking was a sound mind when it come to the understanding of Scripture. Now, they are studying to show themselves approved. It is great. Their interest is reviving in the Word of God. They are lovers of God and now understand the seriousness of their previous folly, and the seriousness of their calling.

    But, you are right, I would guess that in most cases there is already a defacto Eldership. They just do not know it. And, I would agree that in some congregations the “Senior Pastor” runs everything and the Deacons merely rubberstamp it.

    In our congregation, however, there is another problem, congregational rule. So what we have is a pure democracy, where the majority rules, meaning that what ever the power is in the congregation, is who rules. It is frought with all the attendant political power struggles you can imagine. I would imagine that this is the case in many churches. Elder rule is the only counter to that.

    One of the interesting things about the republican form of government is the separation of powers so that there is a balance, ideally, within the federal headship and between them and the masses. We elect officials in the hope that they will rule with wisdom and do what is right, and not what the will of the people is. It is a unique system that does not elect headship to carry out the desires of the people, but appeals to the authority of righteousness, or at least it shoud. Our founding fathers, at least those who came from a Reformed background, knowing the depravity of man, understood this principle and divided the powers trusting that between the people and the elected officials that the tendency to self engrandizement could be controlled. The system of Elder rules is such a system, where men filled with the Holy Spririt are chosen from among the people. These men being duely tested and approved, rule, not out of selfish ambition and not for the honor of men, but according to the rule of Scripture. They rule not to satisfy their needs, nor the needs of the people, but the needs of the body of Christ. Being of Christ, as one body, but many members we have one course of action which is the building up of one another in love. There is in this the ideal of mutual edification, honoring first the weakest and least. Under the constitution of the US this idea is called “the common wefare.” It is quite different from the socialist welfare state that we see today in the US which is manipulated for power. Instead, our welfare is without discrimination, for we also honor those who are given to us as strengths, our teachers, our Elders, our Deacons and Pastors, the ladies in the hospitality committee and the men buliding the walls of a new classroom. To each is given by the Holy Spirit gifts according to the working of that same Spirit for the mutual edification of the entire body. In our communion (common union) we share the bread and the wine. In that body of Christ we understand the proper discernment of sharing oneanother’s burdens and taking the towel and girded about follow the Lord’s example in washing the feet of the saints.

    Let’s remember then that if anyone should learn anything, that as a Christian he is to share it with his teacher so that they both will grow. And that each working with their own hands will have to give to him who cannot. Perhaps in time we can return to proper relationships and really complete the goal of the great commission, making disciples, baptising them, and teaching. Yes, and teaching them to keep and to do, all that Christ has taught us.

    May the Holy Spirit teach us so that we are reminded. May he take the things that Christ has given us, and bring them to our remberance.


  12. If my last two posts did nothing else, they got Gene Bridges to write something here at SBF again, and for that I’m happy. :)

  13. Doug Simmons Says:

    Nelson Price is a man full of unconfessed pride. One tour through his web site is evidence. Harsh language I’ll admit, but how much coddling do we need to be be against prideful religious types?

  14. Paul Says:

    Andrew,
    I have finally taken the time to go to Price’s website. (I’d never been there) At first his comments re: elders seemed more or less even-handed although I too can’t buy the pragmatic, If it works it’s good. Then I went to look at his views on Calvinism, Oh Brother! I almost thought it was a far-left description of Bush (horns and tail and all). Now I understand much better what you are addressing and why you would look with some suspicion at his views on eldership. Thanks for putting up with my comments.
    Soli Deo Gloria


  15. Paul,

    re: “Thanks for putting up with my comments.”

    I appreciate your comments, even if you disagree with what I’ve written.

    -SDG

  16. Thomas Twitchell Says:

    Re-read Price’s article on Elders.

    Maybe someone can confirm this for me. He asserts that “most” scholars agree that a certain form of governance cannot be discerned from Scripture. This would seem to confute his assertion that God is not the author of confusion. And Paul, who claimed that the mystery of the church had been revealed to him and that that was what he was relating to Timothy.

    Grudem concludes that the multiplicity of Eldership is the most biblical for of governance. Obviously Grudem sees in Scripture a particular bent.


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