Distinctive Baptist Beliefs:
Nine Marks that Separate Baptists from Presbyterians
Distinctive Baptist Belief #8:
Two Scriptural Officers — (Pastor/Bishop/Elder and Deacon
(not Three Officers –Pastor/Bishop, Elder, and Deacon)

September 21, 2011


By Dr. Lemke, Provost, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, occupying the McFarland Chair of Theology, Director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry, and Editor of the
Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.


Introduction/Summary

All denominations that broadly share the Reformation heritage share more beliefs in common (orthodox Nicean Christianity plus key Reformation beliefs) than beliefs on which we differ. Despite these many points of agreement, it is the points of agreement on which theological discussions tend to focus. In an earlier post entitled “The Middle Way,” I asserted that centrist Baptists are “the middle way” between Arminians and Calvinists/Presbyterians. As evidence for this claim, I listed twelve points of doctrinal disagreement between centrist Baptists and many Arminians. Now, in this series, I am pointing out nine points of difference between centrist Baptist beliefs and the Presbyterian/ Reformed tradition. These nine Baptist doctrinal distinctives I will discuss do not include the five point summary of Reformed soteriology (best known in the TULIP acronym–for a critique of five-point Calvinism from a centrist Baptist perspective see our book Whosoever Will). In fact, most of the nine points that I will be addressing were explicitly held by the Particular Baptists in contradistinction from the Presbyterian or Reformed theology from which they separated themselves. These, then, are distinctively Baptist beliefs. The first Baptist distinctive I addressed was a cluster of interrelated beliefs — soul competency, priesthood of all believers, and religious liberty. The second Baptist distinctive addressed was the age (or state) of accountability; the third Baptist distinctive I addressed was believer’s baptism (or “the gathered church;” and the fourth Baptist distinctive was baptism by mode of immersion, the fifth Baptist distinctive (in contrast with Presbyterian Calvinism) was baptism and the Lord’s Supper as symbolic ordinances, not sacraments; the sixth Baptist distinctive addressed congregational church polity (in contrast to Presbyterian elder rule); and the seventh Baptist distinctive, examined the autonomy of the local church and how it is not a hierarchical denomination. For the eighth Baptist distinctive, I will describe the two scriptural officers (Pastor/Bishop/Elder and Deacon) and how they are not three (Pastor/Bishop, Elder and Deacon).[1]

Let it be said that this series is in no way intended to diminish the practice and beliefs of fellow believers in other denominations. It is intended to clear up some of the nondenominational/ecumenical babble that all Christians believe the same things. There are real differences in doctrine between Presbyterians and Baptists. Each of us has the right and responsibility before God to interpret the Bible to the best of our ability and practice what it says.

This series is designed (as was the earlier article regarding the differences between Arminian denominations and Baptist) to define what those doctrinal differences are.

Distinctive Baptist Belief #8:

Two Scriptural Officers, not Three

While the resurgence of Calvinism in the SBC has brought a reawakening of consideration of the role of elders in Baptist life, it is striking to see that the Calvinistic Particular Baptist confessions did not share this ecclesiology. Both the Second London Confession and the Philadelphia Confession identify two offices in a New Testament church. The first office is known variously as pastor, bishop, or elder, and the second office is of deacon. Clearly, pastors, bishops, and elders are seen as the same office in these Calvinistic Baptist confessions. In one of the rare places that the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message appears to reflect the language of the Philadelphia Confession, it identifies the two scriptural offices as “bishops, or elders, and deacons.” The subsequent 1963 and 2000 Baptist Faith and Message statements omit reference to elders altogether, referring to just two scriptural offices, “pastors and deacons.”[2]

The meaning of the word “elder” as a position in church leadership has varied widely in Baptist life. My first pastorate was in a Texas church that is now over 135 years old, and was blessed to have its church minutes going back to its earliest days when it was literally in Indian territory. The pastor/preachers then were circuit riding preachers who usually went by the title of “elders.” In the historical Baptist tradition, “elders” are primarily pastor/preachers (often bivocational), not ruling elders in the Presbyterian sense.

In the SBC now, the “elders” terminology is currently used only in a small minority of churches. In a 2007 study conducted by LifeWay research (referenced in earlier articles in this series), 405 senior pastors were asked the question, “Which of the following best describes the primary decision-making process at your church?” Among the pastors polled, 42 percent said their church was congregation-led, while 30 percent said their church was pastor-led. The other options and responses, in descending order of frequency include: Committee- or team-led (6 percent); deacon-led (4 percent); elder-led (4 percent); led by a board or council other than elders (3 percent); staff-led (2 percent); and trustee-led (0 percent). Seven percent responded “other.”[3] Even among those which were described as “pastor-led” or “elders-led,” of course, for the overwhelming majority (if not all) of these churches, the ultimate authority for major decisions is a vote of the congregation. Most or all of even those few churches with elders function according to congregational governance, not elder rule.[4] Therefore, when Baptists use the word “elder,” they are usually not using it in the same way that Presbyterians use it.

One unfortunate phenomenon in the SBC is preachers at conferences or seminary chapels who ridicule and stereotype deacons as being obstinate, stubborn, unspiritual, and stupid. It’s a cheap and easy shot to make fun of deacons, but it is tragic, because the office of deacon was not a human invention. The office of deacon was created by God to meet a genuine need within the church (Acts 6:1-8). The office of deacon is consistent with Scripture, with Baptist ecclesiology and doctrinal confessions, and with the historic practice of Baptist churches. In Scripture, we see that the office of deacon is one of two valid offices created in the New Testament church (1 Tim. 3:1-13).[5] I would caution persons against diminishing an office that God has created.

Some younger ministers, responding to “horror stories” about “demon deacons” have replaced the role of deacons with elders. Some young ministers who have banned deacons to create elder boards have discovered they empowered the elder board enough to oppose and destroy their ministry at the church – the same thing they were worried about from deacons![6] Actually, whether we call them lay staff members, elders, deacons, or committee chairmen, they all come from the same group of church leaders. Elders are deacons with more power.

Personally, I’ve never experienced a demonic deacon. Deacons aren’t perfect, of course. I have experienced very human deacons who had strengths and weaknesses, just as do we all. I have experienced deacons whose convictions or judgment differed on some issues from that of their pastor. I have seen some deacon fellowships become more like of a board of directors, losing the focus on servanthood that the office was originally created to be. In rare cases, I have seen deacons who so disagreed strongly with the pastor’s leadership (or they were called upon to voice the disagreement with the pastor or staff by a significant segment of the congregation), that they forced a confrontation that led to the forced termination of the pastor’s employment or a split in the church fellowship. Of course, I have also seen pastors make serious mistakes in judgment and express a nonChristian spirit as well. But overwhelmingly, I have found deacons to be devout and dedicated Christian men who want the very best for the church and for God’s kingdom.

One recently popular perspective in Baptist life is described as a “plurality of elders,” in which ordained or lay leaders perform functions identified in other churches as “church staff.” Mark Dever has been a leading exponent of this plurality of elders perspective.[7] However, this is often not the creation of a third office or the practice of elder rule, but identifying lay or ordained ministers as elders. Nor is it normally inconsistent with congregational governance. I see nothing in the plurality of elders position (utilizing multiple persons in pastoral staff roles) that is at variance with historic Baptist confessions or practice. Furthermore, because the autonomy of the local congregation is foundational for Baptist ecclesiology, individual congregations can organize their leadership churches as they feel led to do so.

The SBC is a fellowship of smaller churches. According to figures from church annual reports gathered by the Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, about 60 percent of our churches (roughly 26,000 of them) have 100 or less in worship attendance each week. Another 18 percent of the churches (roughly 7,700 churches) have 200 or fewer in worship attendance. So, a total of about 33,000 churches, or 78 percent of all our SBC churches are smaller churches. Many of these smaller churches typically have monthly business meetings to vote on virtually every initiative and financial matter. So, in the 98.5 percent of the 40,000 Southern Baptist churches which average fewer than 1,000 in their weekly worship services, practicing democratic processes and congregational polity is very functional.

However, the larger the church, the less practical it is for congregations to vote on every little issue. As churches grow larger, many have moved to a quarterly, semi-annual, or annual business meeting (with called meetings for other major matters). It’s just too much for the entire congregation to vote about every detail. This is particularly true in megachurches, midmegachurches, and (somewhat overlapping) multisite churches. There are 347 “midmegachurches” in the SBC (those averaging between 1,000 and 2,000 in weekly worship attendance) and 177 megachurches (churches averaging over 2,000 in weekly worship attendance).[8] The reality in midmegachurches and megachurches (and even more so with multisite churches)[9] is that congregational rule becomes tenuous.  The predominant number of these churches entrust some smaller group the responsibility to deal with daily operational decisions and ministry initiatives. That small group may be the church staff, the deacons, elders, or some key committees. But again, the ultimate authority resides in the congregation as a whole, and the congregation still has the power (if they are unhappy with how things are going) to fire the pastor, fire staff members, dismiss the deacons, sell the property, redo the budget, or whatever they feel led to do.

Having surveyed the variety of legitimate expressions of the meaning of “elder” in Southern Baptist life, from a perspective of Baptist doctrinal confessions and ecclesiology, churches that have a third office apart from pastors and deacons or institute elder rule have departed from Baptist historical doctrinal confessions and ecclesiology in this practice. This is one of the key ecclesiological differences between Baptists and Presbyterians.


[1] To preview the entire series, you can see the larger article from which these posts are drawn, plus responses from three theological perspectives, from a paper presentation for a conference sponsored by the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. You can see them at Steve Lemke, “What Is a Baptist? Nine Marks that Separate Baptists from Presbyterians,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry 5, no. 2 (Fall 2008):10-39. It is posted in this blog format in SBC Today to facilitate discussion on these issues. The next scheduled article in this series is “Baptist Distinctive #9: Decisional Conversion/Gospel Invitations (not Confirmation).”

[2] BF&M Art. 6. For a scriptural defense of pastor-teachers, elders, and pastors being the same office, see Steve Lemke, “The Elder in the Early Church,” Biblical Illustrator 19 (Fall 1992): 59-62; Gerald Cowen, Who Rules the Church? Examining Congregational Leadership and Church Government, with foreword by Jerry Vines and appendices by Emir E. Caner and Stephen Prescott (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2003); and Gerald Cowan, “An Elder and His Ministry: From a Baptist Perspective,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry 3, no. 1 (Spring 2005):56-73.

[3] “LifeWay Christian Resources Follow-up Poll Examines Hot Topics,” The Christian Telegraph, September 17, 2008.

[4] For example, the church at which the current President of the SBC serves as Pastor — Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Georgia — designates elders to make many decisions for the church, but the congregation still has the final authority – “At Johnson Ferry, we have an elder form of government that is also congregational on certain major decisions.” See Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, “The Autonomy of the Local Church,” in “What Makes a Christian a Baptist?” on the church website.

[5] Steve Lemke, “The Benefit of Having Deacons,” (later retitled “On Behalf of Deacons” and posted on the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry website), in the “Theological Thought” column of the [Louisiana] Baptist Message, vol. 124, no. 11 (28 May 2009), 14.

[6] For but one recent example, see William Thornton, You Can’t Make This Stuff Up,”

(August 20, 2011, at the SBC Voices blog), with an account of a young Calvinist church planter who insists on elder rule for church governance – until the elders fired the young Calvinist pastor, who suddenly became a believer in congregational governance to dismiss the elders.

[7] Mark Dever, “Baptist Polity and Elders,” in the Journal for Baptist Theology and

Ministry Vol. 3 No. 1 (Spring 2005): 5-37.

[8] Thom Rainer, “Megachurches in the Southern Baptist Convention,” (August 25, 2011); and “Midmegachurches in the Southern Baptist Convention,” (September 5, 2011), on the Thom S. Rainer blog, lists the churches in either category last year.

[9] For a discussion of the ecclesiology of multisite churches, see Micah Fries, Multi-site Dialogue (Part 1): Multisite Mistake?, (July 28, 2011), at the Baptist 21 blog (raising concerns about the viability of multisite model); and Jimmy Scroggins, “Multi-site Dialogue (Part 2): Response to Micah Fries,” (August 22, 2011), at the Baptist 21 blog, with a defense of the multisite church concept.

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volfan007

Dr. Lemke,

Thanks, Bro. This is very good stuff.

David

Les

Another good article Dr. Lemke. When I served in pastoral ministry in several SBC churches I too mostly encountered godly men in the diaconate. I will say that in my experience as a SBC church member and as a SBC pastor, the deacons most often functioned similarly to the “session” or elder board of the PCA churches I’ve been in. Sessions, as you know, are made up of elected Ruling (laymen) Elders and Teaching Elders. The session has oversight of the church on daily, weekly, etc. matters. Some matters are taken to the congregation for votes. What and when goes to the congregation is determined by the bylaws of each congregation (except some matters which MUST go to the congregation).

Presbyterians (PCA because that’s all I’ve experienced) also have two offices. Here is what our Book of Church Order says:

7-2. The ordinary and perpetual classes of office in the Church are elders
and deacons. Within the class of elder are the two orders of teaching elders
and ruling elders. The elders jointly have the government and spiritual
oversight of the Church, including teaching. Only those elders who are
specially gifted, called and trained by God to preach may serve as teaching
elders. The office of deacon is not one of rule, but rather of service both to
the physical and spiritual needs of the people. In accord with Scripture, these
offices are open to men only.

So the PCA at least does not have three offices (though some debate that we do).

By the way, where is a SBC deacon’s role specifically defined (besides the scriptures)? Or is there a standard description for deacons in SBC life?

    Steve Lemke

    Les,
    Would it not be fair to say that the BCO departs from the classical Presbyterian pattern of ecclesiology outlined in the standard historic Presbyterian confessions? In addition to the Westminster Confession cited in the article, the Belgic Confession, article 30, says, “There should be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and adminster the sacraments. There should also be elders and deacons, along with the pastors, to make up the council of the church.”

      Les

      Dr. Lemke,

      I don’t think so. But I’m no historian and could be wrong. The Belgic says there should be “ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and adminster the sacraments. There should also be elders and deacons, along with the pastors, to make up the council of the church.” I think the RE and TE serve to fill out the first office of ministers and elders and the deacons fill the other office.

      But as I noted in another comment, there has been debate over the two or three office issue. One can read the Belgic, for instance, and see three offices.

      You can also look at http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html

      which is non-binding, and see how the debate arises.

      The BCO also speaks of evangelists. But he must be a TE, so he is still an elder. One cannot be designated an evangelist without first being a TE.

      And as I said also in another comment, I think some of the way it plays out in actual practice in the PCA is quirky and I think incorrect.

Mark

Les,

You make an interesting point about the number of offices. The BCO perspective breaks down the one office of elder into two orders. Some Baptists comment that having two different types of elders means having another, or a third, office. Interestingly enough, Baptists don’t break down their own pastoral positions by the same standard. For example, a church may have a senior pastor, associate pastor, assistant pastor, music pastor, etc. which no Baptist church that I am aware of would define these pastoral positions as third offices and more.

    volfan007

    Mark,

    Having multiple Pastors/Elders is not an issue in any churches that I know of. And, Dr. Lemke said in the OP that having multilple Elders is not against the BFM 2K. And, no matter what name you give them…Sr. Pastor, Assoc. Pastor, Student Pastor, Worship Pastor…they are still Pastors, even though their ministry emphasizes something different. They are all still Elders…it’s still just one office…
    So, I’m really having a hard time understanding your concerns and agruements about this plurality of Elders issue that you bring up from time to time. A church can have many Elders/Pastors, and still not be a Presbyterian style government….a Church can have many Pastors/Elders, and still be congregational, and still be true to the BFM2K….

    David

      Mark

      David,

      I agree with you. I was just pointing out that having a plurality of elders, lay or staff, does not create a third office. In the not so distant past, it has been stated that lay elders in the SBC create a third office.

      Dr. Wring in the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry Vol. 3 No. 1 (Spring 2005): 188-212, basically argues against a plurality of elders if the elders are not considered pastors employed by the church.

      It has also been stated that if a Baptist church introduces a separate class of ruling elders, as some have done in the past, that it is installing a third office. However, based on the BCO description above even a class of ruling elders would not qualify as a third office.

        Steve Lemke

        Mark,
        I agree with Dr. Wring’s basic intuitions about elders in the Presbyterian sense being introduced into Baptist churches. Although he didn’t seem to be a fan of a plurality of elders, he did seem to acknowledge that it existed in larger churches in the early church. In looking back briefly over his article, I could not find the statement to which you were referring about differentiating volunteer or bi-vocational elders from full-time elders. Personally, I don’t have a problem with lay leaders being considered pastoral/elder/staff. We have done that in small churches with lay preachers and volunteer positions like music minister or youth minister. I’ve also seen people giften in other areas like business to be in volunteer or minimal pay staff positions. Again, the main point is that the elders are perceived as part of the ministerial church staff, not a replacement for deacons or a third office.

          Mark

          Steve,

          I do not mean to get off topic, but I thinking of Wring’s dissertation in reference to a third office out of which the journal article was produced. On page 152 of his dissertation he lists Mark Dever as one who practices the “three-office model of church leadership.” I tied this into the journal article on page 208 where he writes that 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.” If I remember correctly, Wring defines this third office as lay elders who are not in the employment of the church and do not carry out all of the duties of the pastor.

          It would seem then that Wring would disagree with the BCO that ruling and teaching elders are not two different offices, but two classes of the same office. Following the logic of the BCO it would be acceptable as a Baptist to hold that the senior pastor and associate pastor are not two different offices, but two classes of the same office. However, following the thought of Wring it seems that since the associate pastor does not do all of the duties of the senior pastor that an argument could be made that these are two different offices.

          Wring might disagree on the counts that the associate and senior pastors are not laity and are staff. Yet based on Wring’s argument against elders that the offices of elder and pastor are not biblically separate, I would contend that the office of pastor is not biblically separated into senior, associate positions, for example. Further, since Wring does not see room for having preaching vs. non-preaching elders the same could be said that associate pastors are not preaching pastors pushing this division into a third, separate church office.

          I wish I had time to write a response to some of the material in Wring’s dissertation, but that will have to wait.

    Les

    Mark,

    Yes the PCA does distinguish between the TE and the RE. As I noted above, the RE is a member of the church and is elected to the office of elder. In theory, the TEs and the REs are on a par. However in real life the TE who is the senior pastor often practically carries more weight and authority.

    All TEs are actually members of the presbytery. They are sought and called by the congregation but have to be examined, approved and installed by the presbytery. They can also be dismissed from their pastoral role by the congregation, which dismissal must be also approved by the presbytery (usually a perfunctory approval).

    And, the PCA also has some quirkiness in the office of TE. TEs can be senior pastors, associate pastors and assistant pastors. The Sr. and Assoc. are called by the church as I described above. The assistant pastor is called by the session. All three of these still go through the process above. And, the Sr. and assoc. must be removed if necessitated by the congregation. The poor assistant can be terminated by the session. I think these three distinctions are quirky at best. I think if a man is called to be a pastor he should be called by the congregation, not the session.

    As a result of this quirkiness, many multi-staff churches simply bring on the Sr. guy and several assistants. Assistants are easier to dispose of via the session. I don’t think that’s good. The congregation should be involved in the coming and going of ALL pastors in my opinion.

    Anyway, probably more than you asked for or needed in a response.

    Also BTW, I serve on my presbytery’s candidates and credentials committee. We examine every candidate, whether new in ministry of transferring from a place like Park Cities PCA, in the following:

    Bible –
    Theology –
    BCO –
    Church History –
    Sacraments –
    Exegetical Papers –
    Theology Papers –

      volfan007

      Mark,

      If by plurality of Elders/Pastors, you are meaning what Les is saying…that Elders/Pastors should rule the church….then I do have a problem with what you’re saying. If you’re talking about Pastors/Elders ruling the church, rather than congregational rule…then that’s an entirely different matter from plurality of Elders/Pastors/Bishops.

      David

        Mark

        David,

        Of course I don’t believe elders should rule the church in the way a Presbyterian would believe. I bring this up from time to time too. :)

Scott Shaffer

In SBC circles, why aren’t pastors selected in the same manner as deacons?

    Steve Lemke

    Scott,
    I suppose that the two different offices, each with a separate set of scriptural qualifications, begets a somewhat different process. Different processes are also likely driven in part by the fact that pastors are normally called from outside the church, whereas deacons are chosen from within the church.

    Having said that, at times I have unfortunately observed is that neither of these processes is done in the biblical pattern. The calling of pastors tends all too often to focus on their appearance and their skill (usually in preaching), not on the scriptural qualifications. The calling of deacons sometimes focuses on popularity of the candidates in the church and their faithfulness in attendance, not the biblical qualifications.

    What was it specifically about the difference in the process of calling the two positions that you were addressing?

      Scott Shaffer

      Thanks for the response. It seems that SBC churches are inconsistent in selecting pastors. Search committees find a candidate for senior pastor and the church votes. At least I think that is the normal process. Congregational government at its best. Yet, the senior pastor hires a staff of pastors, and they are called pastors, but the church doesn’t select them.

      By the way, some Baptist/Bible churches that are elder-led run into the same issue. In addition, the senior pastor is an elder and member of the elder board, but his hired staff is not.

Steve Evans

I’ve served as an associate pastor in one form or fashion for 34 years and have never been (hired) by the pastor. It has always been a church – wide vote recommended by a committee selected by the congregation. I would not be interested in serving a church that did not have congregational government. It does make sense that the senior pastor would want a say in someone the church is calling. But make no mistake, it is just as much of a call for staff as is it for the senior pastor.

    Scott Shaffer

    Thanks. Are you at an SBC church and is this process typical? I wasn’t under that impression.

Steve Evans

I have always served in SBC churches. Yes, this is typical for 95 % of all SBC churches. Maybe the larger churches do as you suggest but in middle size and smaller churches it is standard operating procedure, ( churches running 600 and less). At least in my small corner of the convention it’s been that way.

Steve Lemke

Steve and Scott,
I have seen the “pastor hires all” pattern in a few churches (my present church has this tradition). I don’t like it very much, particularly when the church doesn’t vote on the new staff members. On the other hand, I think it would be strange for the pastor not to be involved in the interview and decision process. That would almost be like an arranged wedding, in which the husband and wife don’t meet until at or after the wedding. What I think is best is that the pastor (and perhaps other relevant staff members — like an education minister when calling a youth minister) should be on the search committee. But I also think that the search committee (some use the personnel committee) should involve laypersons as well, particularly some who have interest in this particular area of ministry. And the congregation should call the person. If the staff member is called by the pastor, why should he still be employed when the pastor leaves?

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