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apostle/pastor/elder/deacon and all that

As I have mentioned many times here before, I came out of an independent Baptist background, was involved in one of the first modern megachurches, spent some time in a Calvary Chapel, and since then in a Presbyterian (PCA) church. Most of the churches I’ve seen have been, either de jure or de facto, run, owned, or ruled by one pastor, and there has been a relatively weak board of deacons or elders, as well as in some cases more than one paid pastor. I realize my experience is not exactly typical, especially when compared with that of people who attend churches with strong denominations.

The churches I attended growing up formed as splits off Southern Baptist churches, and were at least partly reacting to a theological liberal drift in Southern Baptist seminaries. They tended to associate with one another formally only to sponsor missionaries, in imitation of their SBC forebears. They were in almost all other regards independent, although there were a couple that always recruited pastors that went to the same school.

The megachurch was built around a single personality (Jerry Falwell) and is still sort of finding its way since his death. They’ve joined the SBC; I really have no feel for how that new relationship is going.

I loved my Calvary Chapel, but it more or less crumpled under the weight of pastoral misbehavior. Calvary pretty much has a “Moses model” of leadership and any accountability between churches was during my time there limited to a single sanction: “Big Calvary” could disaffiliate a local church, but that was about it. There were representations of other affiliations, but in a crisis they turned out to be over-represented.

Each of these churches had a way of explaining how their take on church governance lined up with the New Testament passages describing pastors, apostles, elders, and deacons. There was also in each case a kind of “folk theology” that was assumed but not stated that the pastor filled some sort of apostle/elder role, and our deacons or elders filled some sort of elder/deacon role.

We always understood that apostles were more than missionaries; their “apo-” prefix meant they were sent by someone, and we took that to mean God, rather than just sent by a church or group of churches. We knew at one level that all the real Apostles were dead, but we tended to give our local pastor a break when he sat in Paul’s seat, so to speak. This made me uncomfortable, and still does.

We also understood from the Scriptures that the original elders were appointed by the Apostles or their delegates (Timothy; Titus) but we sort of glossed over this because the Apostles weren’t available, and being Baptists we had soft spot for voting. We voted on our deacons and they served as elders. Because our churches were relatively small this worked reasonably well. We occasionally ran into problems because deacons had limited terms and pastors were in principle serving for life.

Every model is imperfect, and every model is liable to some kind of excess. I think lately we’ve seen more trouble from megachurches with superstar pastors who are not accountable, and it’s this situation that is causing some churches to move to elder-led structures. I have lately been listening to a 22-part podcast from an Albuquerque church that has elder leadership as described by Alexander Strauch [PDF, link].

This church has a formal group of elders, some paid, some not, and follows Strauch’s interpretation of various New Testament passages. This is the first time I’ve found a church (apart from the Brethren fellowship I mentioned in another post) that attempts to constitute their leadership according to all the various verses that talk about elders.

I’m about halfway through the series, and I’m putting off any analysis until I get through it. So far I’d call it fascinating. I was surprised to discover that they constitute themselves as an independent church and take a dim view of both head pastors and seminaries, but they have a single paid elder who does the bulk of the pulpit preaching. Twenty-three hours of anything is a lot to digest. More later.


  1. November 2, 2011 at 6:15 am

    The NT and the church fathers are all over the place on polity. Show me a bishop/pastor/elder/ deacon configuration and I’ll show you some analog from before 300. To me, the important thing is not so much the configuration as it is the ecclesiology which lies behind it. Yes Baptists love to vote, but they also value their autonomy about as much as they do their salvation, yet they fail to grasp that their extreme valorization of autonomy goes hand in hand with the rise of the Enlightenment’s liberalism that they love to bash so much. The theology of the connectional church which is accountable not just inside the congregation to one another but also outside the congregation to the rest of the larger church has been suppressed in favor of secular notions of “freedom” and “liberty” that scarcely varies from the account given in civil society. This comparatively recent understanding is then projected back onto ancient Christianity as if the apostles et al were Jeffersonian liberals, so as to justify not having to account for one’s faith and practice to any other than one’s own congregational board, which has often been selected by the pastor anyway, and which thus has about as much credibility as the North Korean parliament.

    • November 2, 2011 at 9:56 am

      Tim —

      Your point about certain aspects of Baptist culture, including church governance, being a byproduct of the period of time when the Baptists formed as a movement and then a denomination, is well-taken. I might gently suggest that they are not unique in being a product of their time.

      I would be interested to hear any example of Congregational church polity in Scripture. I’ve been saving the one example I have found in my reading for a separate post.

      One of the two or three things that gives me pause as I listen to the podcast I linked to above is their claim that the autonomy of the local church is Scriptural. I haven’t heard the whole thing, so I want to reserve judgment, but it is my understanding that local first-century churches were accountable to the apostles in some sense.

      I think if I had to boil down my post above into two points it would be this: where the independent fundamentalist churches I attended in the Seventies were primarily a reaction to a liberal drift in the Southern Baptist Church, the current crop of elder-led churches are a reaction to excesses in the current unitary-pastor megachurch trend. We had our intrinsic problems then; they will probably need to confront their own intrinsic problems too.

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