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:
- “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.”
- “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.
- “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:
- Paul commands Titus to appoint elders [plural] in each town. (Titus 1:5)
- In writing to Timothy, Paul refers to the elders [plural] who direct the affairs of the church. (1 Timothy 5:17)
- 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.]
- Paul greets the bishops [plural] in the church [singular] at Philippi in his letter to the Philippians. (Philippians 1:1)
- Luke records Paul’s sending for the elders [plural] of the church [singular] in Ephesus. (Acts 20:17)
- Paul instructs the Ephesian elders to fulfill their role as bishops [plural] to the flock [singular]. (Acts 20:28)
- At the end of Paul’s first missionary journey, he and Barnabas had elders [plural] elected in each church [singular]. (Acts 14:23)
- References to the elders at the Jerusalem church always occur in the plural.
- 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.