What is Elder-led Congregationalism?

Elder-led congregationalism is an increasingly common polity (governing structure) among many Evangelical churches. Historically, this form of church polity was far more common, espeically among Baptist churches, but various factors contributed to its waning during the early and mid twentieth-century. Pragmatism (the unpropositional adoption of methods that work) and industry (an emphatic stress on efficiency and measurable success) became the tools of church growth, but many churches are discovering the inevitable down side of embracing such a short-sighted ministry philosophy.

What follows is a summary of what I believe is the biblical structure for leadership and membership among a local church. I believe the Bible speaks to the matter ever so much more than many church leaders and members might think. I also believe that applying biblical principles will always result in the greatest blessing from God – namely, growing Christians and Christ’s growing Kingdom – though God’s blessing may not always appear immediately or obviously in our dark and fallen world.

Defining our terms

Elders are pastors. Elders is the word most often used in the New Testament to refer to those qualified men who lead among a local church.

Congregationalism is the idea that the local church is not subject to outside governance (autonomous). Usually, the congregation bears at least some decision-making responsibility.

A congregation is the visible sum of those Christians who have agreed to unite on the basis of (1) a shared faith in and love for Jesus Christ, (2) a shared commitment to live as disciples or followers of Christ, and (3) a shared love and responsibility for one another.

Responsibility and Authority

As with any organization, the local church must operate on the basis of some understanding responsibility. Furthermore, responsibility necessarily comes with correlating authority – one can only be responsible for that which he or she has the authority or authorization to do.

In an elder-led congregational polity, the question is not which group is over the other, nor is it a matter of greater or lesser authority. In elder-led congregationalism, responsibility and authority are based on complementary biblical assignments summarized by distinct job descriptions.

The question is: Who is responsible for what?

Congregational Responsibilities

There are many tasks a church member might undertake, but these are the responsibilities Scripture lays squarely on the shoulders of every church member.

  • Attend the weekly Lord’s Day gathering (Heb. 10:24-25). Regular attendance is fundamental to church membership; it provides the context for fulfilling all other obligations.
  • Preserve the gospel (Matt. 16:13-19, cf. 18:15-20). Every church member is responsible to know the gospel and to know how what the gospel requires in the life of the church and of the individual Christian.
  • Participate in affirming gospel-believing disciples (Matt. 28:18-20, cf. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 11:17-34). Church members affirm new Christians by giving witness to their public profession of faith (baptism). Church members ongoingly affirm one another by regularly observing the Lord’s Supper together. 
  • Participate in Members’ Meetings (1 Cor. 1:5:4-5, cf. 2 Cor. 2:5-8). Church members decide who is in and who is out of the church by voting during members’ meetings. These decisions cannot be made by proxy, nor can they be made in isolation.
  • Disciple other church members (Matt. 28:18-20; Eph. 4:15-16; Col. 3:12-17). Basic Christianity involves building up other believers. 
  • Share the gospel with non-members (2 Cor. 5:17-21). Because Christians have received and believed the gospel, they are ambassadors for Christ in the world.
  • Follow the recognized leaders of the church (2 Tim. 1:13; Heb. 13:7, 17). Church members benefit from godly leadership and example, but they benefit most when they follow godly leaders and imitate godly examples.

Elder Responsibilities

As is the case with all church members, elders may do all sorts of tasks. But elders also have clear responsibilities spelled out in Scripture.

  • Elders bear all the same responsibilities as other church members (Acts 20:28-29). While elders do have additional responsibilities, elders are church members too.
  • Shepherd church members (Heb. 13:7, 17; 1 Pet. 1:1-4). Good elders guide church members toward developing trust in Christ, toward spiritual health and growth, and toward faithfulness to the end.
  • Model godly character and teach sound doctrine publicly. Elders preach sermons and raise up other men to faithfully preach as well (1 Tim. 3:2, 4:6-11; 2 Tim. 2:2), they model Bible study and teaching through public forums and raise up other godly men to do the same (1 Tim. 3:2, 4:6-11; 2 Tim. 2:2), and they oversee every teaching outlet of the church (Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Tim. 4:16; 1 Pet. 5:1-4; Acts 20:28).
  • Model godly character and teach sound doctrine privately. As noted above, elders are responsible to personally disciple and evangelize, just like other church members (Phil. 4:8-9; Col. 3:12-17). Additionally, elders are responsible to raise up godly men who will also be able to teach, shepherd, and lead among the church (2 Tim. 2:2).
  • Lead the church with care and wisdom. Elders lead with authority in an effort to keep watch over the souls under their shepherding care (Titus 2:15; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:1-4), and they oversee or direct the affairs of the church (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 5:17).

Elder-led Congregationalism: A Description

Elder-led congregationalism best harmonizes the various and distinct responsibilities given to church members and to elders in the New Testament. Church members believe and study the gospel, take responsibility for one another, and share the gospel far and wide. Elders lead, both by instruction and by example, and elders equip church members. 

With Elder-led congregationalism, the whole church is the disciple-making organism Christ commissioned it to be. Moreover, because God has designed it so, we know that ordering ourselves and functioning in this way will lead to spiritual growth and health.

In an elder-led congregational polity, everyone has a job description, and there is no such thing as an “inactive” church member. Everyone bears responsibility for the health and unity of the church, and everyone enjoys the blessings of such things. 

Simultaneously, members’ meetings don’t get bogged down in the minutia of day-to-day administration, nor do church members become enticed toward distraction from their fundamental responsibilities.

A Personal Disclosure

The reader may be interested to know that these ideas have not been formed in isolation or a sterile classroom. I have been the senior pastor of a small and rural Southern Baptist church since August of 2014. I became pastor with most of my ecclesiological convictions already in place, but I have also benefitted greatly from the experiences of applying doctrinal convictions to everyday circumstances.

Additionally, I am thankful for those theologians and pastors who continue to write about ecclesiological issues, providing pastors like me with much food for thought. Jonathan Leeman has been an especially prolific writer on this subject, and my own article reflects the time I’ve spent chewing on his content elsewhere (such as this article on the office of church membership or this article on the benefits of biblical congregationalism).

I highly recommend the books, articles, conferences, and podcasts of 9Marks ministry. I don’t know of any other group that thinks, talks, and writes about ecclesiology with such interest, joy, and biblically-grounded arguments like the folks at 9Marks.org.

What’s the difference between “Pastors” and “Elders”?

Elders are qualified, recognized, and committed men who do the work of shepherding among a particular local church (Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9).

The Short Answer

There’s no biblical difference between pastors and elders. The two terms refer to one and the same New Testament church office.

Anyone who aims to parse out some distinction between pastors and elders is creating a modern invention and placing it on top of the biblical text. There may certainly be good reasons why a local church would use different titles for various church leaders, but the only case for doing so is a pragmatic or prudent one… not a biblical one.

Now, I hope you’ll read the remainder of this article in order to weigh the merit of my rationale for making such a claim.

Defining Our Terms

In the New Testament, the most common title or label for the leading, teaching, and shepherding office of the church is “elder” (πρεσβυτερος), appearing directly at least thirteen times in the New Testament. The word “overseer” (επισκοπος) is the second most common title for the office, and it shows up at least six times.

The label “shepherd” or “pastor” (ποιμην) is used only once as a label for the New Testament teaching and leading office of the local church. Most often (fifteen times), this word appears in the Gospels, and it refers to actual shepherds (tenders of sheep) or to Jesus as the metaphorical shepherd of His people.

Almost every time the label “shepherd” or “pastor” is used in the other New Testament books (besides the Gospels), it shows up in its verbal form (ποιμαινω). In other words, in the Bible, “shepherd” or “pastor” is usually what church leaders do… it’s not what church leaders are.

However, many Evangelicals today are familiar with the term “pastor” as a label for church leaders, because this word has been used by Protestants for hundreds of years. Baptists have been especially fond of the word “pastor” because it distinguishes Baptist church leaders from those of Presbyterian or Anglican churches.

Baptist churches have also often emphasized their understanding of the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer. Because all Christians are in some sense “priests” (1 Peter 2:9), Baptists refuse to acknowledge a special clergy or ministerial class of Christians.

And yet, despite the Baptist allergy to a professionalized pastoral ministry, it is quite common for Evangelicals (including Baptists) to act as though pastors are indeed separated Christian professionals. For example, most Evangelical churches in America have no unpaid pastors. Such a reality betrays the assumption that pastors are professional (or at the very least vocational) Christian teachers and leaders.

Since the Bible most often uses the term “elder” and since many wrongly assume pastors must be paid professionals, I believe it is probably helpful for Evangelicals (especially Baptists) to recover the use of the term “elder” for the pastoral office.

Describing the Officers

The two offices of the New Testament are elders and deacons. The former is an office of servant-leadership and loving instruction, and the latter is an office of selfless service. In the Bible, church leaders are always elders, and deacons always serve both the elders and the church body.

In short, elders are qualified, recognized, and committed men who do the work of shepherding among a particular local church (Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9).

Here are the various ways in which the Bible describes and/or prescribes the function and responsibilities of those who serve in the office of elder.

Elders (πρεσβυτερος) 
  • Acts 11:30 – Elders (πρεσβυτερους) received material gifts from other churches in order to distribute them to the needy among their own congregation.
  • Acts 14:23 – Multiple elders (πρεσβυτερους) were “appointed” by Paul and Barnabas in “every church” in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch.
  • Acts 15:1-29 – Elders (πρεσβυτερους) are listed beside the Apostles as leaders of the church in Jerusalem.
  • Acts 16:4 – Elders (πρεσβυτερων) are listed beside the Apostles as having made an authoritative decision regarding the clarity and extent of the gospel.
  • Acts 20:17-38 – Paul addressed the elders (πρεσβυτερους) in Ephesus, calling them to “overseers” (’επισκοπους) of God’s “church” (’εκκλησιαν).
  • Acts 21:17-26 – “All the elders” (πρεσβυτεροι) were gathered in Jerusalem to listen to Paul’s account of God’s work through his ministry, and Paul submitted to their counsel regarding his actions in their Jewish community.
  • 1 Timothy 4:14 – A “council of elders” (πρεσβυτεριου) commissioned Timothy for the task of ministry.
  • 1 Timothy 5:17 – Elders (πρεσβυτεροι) are those who “rule” or “manage” (προεστωτες [literally ‘stand over’]), and some elders make their living by “preaching and teaching” (λογω [literally ‘word’] and διδασκαλια).
  • 1 Timothy 5:19 – Christians are to be alert to the possibility of slanderous accusations against an elder (πρεσβυτερου).
  • Titus 1:5-6 – Elders (πρεσβυτερους) were appointed to churches in every town, and such appointments were necessary to put things in their appropriate order.
  • James 5:14 – The elders (πρεσβυτερους) of the church (’εκκλησιας) are to pray for ill church members.
  • 1 Peter 5:1-3 – The Apostle Peter wrote to the elders (πρεσβυτερους) among the dispersed Christians as a “fellow elder” (συμπρεσβυτερος), calling them to “exercise oversight” or “oversee” (’επισκοπουντες) the affairs of their respective congregations.
Overseer (’επισκοπος) 
  • Acts 20:17-38 – Paul says that the elders in Ephesus have been made “overseers” (’επισκοπους) in the “church” (’εκκλησιαν) by God Himself.
  • Philippians 1:1 – Paul addressed his letter to the “saints” (‘αγιοις) and the “overseers” (’επισκοποις) and the “deacons” (διακονοις) in Philippi.
  • 1 Timothy 3:1 – Paul labels the teaching and managing office in the church that of an “overseer” (’επισκοπης).
  • 1 Timothy 3:2-7 – Paul describes the qualifications for anyone who aspires to the office of “overseer” (’επισκοπον).
  • Titus 1:17 – Paul again describes the teaching and stewarding office in the church as that of an “overseer” (’επισκοπον).
Pastor (ποιμην) 
  • Ephesians 4:10-14 – Paul says that “shepherds” (ποιμενας) are gifts from Christ to the local church.
  • 1 Peter 5:1-3 – Peter exhorted “elders” (πρεσβυτερους) to “shepherd” (ποιμενατε) the “flock of God among them.”

If one were to simply read the New Testament, without observing the use of various terms among modern Evangelicals, he or she would inevitably conclude that the leading and teaching and shepherding office of a New Testament local church is that of elder. Furthermore, he or she would also conclude that the office must be occupied by faithful and exemplary men, who would voluntarily take on the weighty task of caring for souls among a particular local church.

Marc Minter is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Diana, TX. He and his wife, Cassie, have two sons, Micah and Malachi.

Connect with Marc on Twitter or Facebook.

What is a Pastor supposed to do?

The ministry of the word of God is the sum and substance of the work of every pastor. While many pastors and churches may argue that some other task can (or even should) supersede the pastoral preaching and teaching and modeling of God’s word, none can do so on the basis of Scripture. Therein, it seems to me, lies the problem.

In our day, it appears there are generally three distinct categories on a spectrum of pastoral ministry philosophy.

Pastoral Ministry Philosophy

One idea is that a pastor is much like a self-improvement coach, whose main job is to motivate, inspire, and encourage spiritually-minded underachievers. Pastors who apply this philosophy are usually fond of highlighting personal potential and using the language of pop-psychology, and they are often quite reassuring and positive. These pastors seem to value mutual affirmation and inclusivity.

Another conceptual sketch of the pastoral role is akin to an organizational CEO. In this model of pastoral ministry, the pastor is the visionary leader with an innovative and effective strategy, which can skillfully assimilate attendees through pathways that can be noticeably illustrated on a structural flowchart. These pastors often value pragmatic efficiency and results.

The third general category of pastoral ministry philosophy perceives the ultimate responsibility of the pastor to be centered upon thinking about, teaching, and living according to the Bible. Pastors who understand themselves to be ministers of God’s word are compelled to spend time reading and thinking about the Bible. These pastors also talk about the Bible when they are with others, and they make time to help other people read and think about the Bible.

The three categories I have described here are distinct from one another, but they are not separate. In fact, you’ll probably notice all three (to greater and lesser degrees) in just about any pastor you measure. Pastors should, in a sense, be like a sports coach, urging their hearer on towards personal growth and action. Pastors must also, like a business executive, manage much in a local congregation. However, a pastor’s responsibility to a local church is first-and-foremost the ministry of the word of God.

A Ministry of the Word

In Acts chapter 6, we see this idea emphasized in the division of labor among pastors/elders and deacons (though these office titles are not specifically stated there). There was a dispute about how to best administrate the distribution of resources to needy people among a congregation. The pastors/elders refused to be distracted from their primary responsibility to pray and minister the word of God, so they appointed godly men to serve in the needed administrative task. This shows a division of labor, but it does not sufficiently explain what the pastoral ministry of the word is. For an explanation of such a weighty responsibility, let’s look at a powerful charge from one minister of the word to another.

The Apostle Paul said to his younger disciple and friend,

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:1–2).

I cannot think of a stronger charge. In this sobering and inspiring charge, we can account for the “why” and the “how” of a word-centered pastoral ministry.

How?

Pastors are to be ministers of the word of God by preaching and by readily reproving, rebuking, and exhorting with complete patience and teaching. This is an all-of-life description with emphases on patience and preparedness, and a special attention to preaching. I understand preaching to be a kind of teaching accompanied by a call to repentance, faith, and reformation.

Why?

Pastors are to be ministers of the word of God because Christ is present, Christ is the judge now and forevermore, and Christ is coming with the fullness of His kingdom. It is Christ’s words that judge; His words are the blessing of life and the curse of death (Jn. 5:28-29). Christ is present in His words, and all His judgments are based on His words (Jn. 14:23-24).

In the end, the words of Christ alone will last (1 Pet. 1:22-25), and this compels the minister of God’s word to speak with boldness and confidence (2 Tim. 2:15) as a shepherd of God’s sheep who is destined to meet his glorious King face to face (2 Cor. 4:1-6).

May God raise up many godly men to pastor with such a perspective and conviction.

Who has authority in a Local Church?

Authority is a bad word in American culture, but this merely reflects every sinner’s natural desire to be free from all authoritative bonds. And yet, the practice of good authority seems to remain unwilling to yield to these sinful demands.

Authority is a bad word in American culture, but this merely reflects every sinner’s natural desire to be free from all authoritative bonds. And yet, the practice of good authority seems to remain unwilling to yield to these sinful demands. Just think about parental authority over children.

At the moment, to my knowledge, only exceptionally aloof social academics are arguing for children to be removed from all parental authority. Anyone who has ever tried to enjoy dinner at a restaurant with my family is glad to see me and/or my wife exercising authority over our unruly toddler, who would love nothing more than to wreak havoc in the world.

When parents express godly and righteous authority over their children, they demonstrate the character and nature of God (albeit imperfectly).  This is exactly what is to be done in the context of a local church as well.

If pastors/elders and fellow church members are passive and aloof towards sin in the congregation, then the members will believe God is too.  If pastors/elders and fellow church members are loving disciplinarians, then the members will believe God is too.  If pastors/elders waver or become vague in their description of the actual content and implications of the gospel, then the members will think precision is unachievable and/or unimportant.

There are three ways I would like to emphasize the mutual responsibility of pastors/elders and church members in the exercise of authority in the context of a local church. After these, I would like to articulate a distinct responsibility for those who lead as pastors/elders among a local church.

Delegated Pastoral Authority

First, pastoral authority is a delegated authority, derived from God’s word and the pastor/elder’s fidelity to preaching and teaching Scripture (2 Tim. 4:1-2). The authority any pastor or group of pastors wields does not emanate from the origin of the person or the office. Rather, the authority springs from and is inextricably tethered to God’s word.

It is as though the pastors or elders can give no authoritative command that is not accompanied by a biblical citation. Of course, many pastoral decisions will have to be based on biblical principle and wise prudence, but these should come as recommendations and not commands.

Vital Congregational Authority

Second, the local congregation is responsible to hold pastors/elders accountable in their teaching (2 Tim. 4:3-4). While congregations may be tempted to acquire preachers and leaders who will lead according to the desires of the congregation, the membership of the church is best served by those leaders who lead to please God and not men. Therefore, the congregation has an authoritative responsibility to acquire and encourage godly, faithful, biblically-courageous leadership.

This responsibility towards maintaining suitable leadership stems from the congregational authority to bring members in and put members out of the local church family. Baptism is the communal and public initiation of any person who becomes a disciple of Christ (Matt. 28:19), and this is the ceremony by which a local congregation affirms and covenants to mutual discipleship with an individual believer.

As time goes by, the congregation bears the responsibility of holding one another accountable to Christ’s commands, and even taking disciplinary action against those who refuse to submit to Christ (Matt. 18:15-20). This is not, however, an authority given to any individual member or any group among the membership. Rather, this authority of bringing members in and putting members out of the local church family is to be exercised “when [they] are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:4-5).

Authoritative Leadership

Third, pastors/elders are to shepherd a local church family by providing oversight and leading by example (1 Pet. 5:1-5). Pastoring among a church family is no dictatorship, and neither is it a pure democracy, where leaders simply implement popular opinion.

Pastors/elders are to oversee, which connotes management, administration, and leadership. Pastors/elders are also to exemplify spiritual maturity, which indicates accessibility, familiarity, and personal care. By affectionate oversight and patient modeling, pastors/elders are to authoritatively lead among a local church.

Enjoying Good Authority

Fourth and finally, church members are called to obey their pastors/elders, and these leaders are warned that they will give an account to Christ for how their shepherd those under their care (Heb. 13:17; Acts 20:28). This idea, especially as it is conveyed in Hebrews 13:17, is quite potent for pastors/elders and church members alike. It clearly distinguishes the authoritative responsibility of pastors/elders, and it powerfully encourages church members to enjoy the benefits of godly leadership. Indeed, godly leadership should be enjoyed and appreciated among the church family.

Summarizing Local Church Authority

In summary, I might say that pastors/elders and their respective congregations are mutually responsible to wield delegated authority.

The congregation’s authority seems to primarily focus on the inclusion and exclusion of members (encompassing the inclusion and exclusion of pastors/elders). Interwoven in this congregational authority is the authority to judge not only the “who” of the church family but also the “what” of the confession that binds the church family together. In this way, the local church guards the purity of the content of what is taught and what is believed among the members, fulfilling the New Testament characteristic of being the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

Furthermore, this general “in and out” authority of the congregation is tightly linked to the authority of the pastors/elders, who are responsible to teach and train the congregation according to all of Christ’s commands. The pastoral teaching and training are to be done patiently and in an all-of-life fashion (1 Tim. 4:6-16), but always pointing the hearer back to God’s word as the fountainhead of truth and basis of all good authority.

May God grant that many local churches would experience and embrace this biblical concept of good and right authority.

Do you embrace godly authority?

If anyone aspires to the office of overseer (or ‘pastor’ or ‘elder’), he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1).

Authority is not a particularly good word in our modern western culture. Many people decry the abuses of authority we encounter all around us, and rightfully so. However, the abuse of something good doesn’t make a good thing bad.

The Bible’s entire storyline is centered upon good and right authority. Essentially, when humans embrace God’s authority they flourish; when humans rebel against God and try to establish authority elsewhere they suffer. Adam and Eve exemplify this reality at the very beginning of the Bible, and the rest of the story is a continual picture of God calling humans to submit to His appropriate authority.

In the local church, we discover God’s good authority expressed through mutual submission to the Bible. Furthermore, we also come to understand God’s design for all sorts of authoritative relationships in our lives. This is especially true in the biblical office of pastor or elder. God delegates authority, and God calls all people everywhere to embrace and encourage godly authority.