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.


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.