A simple Google search will yield discussions concerning Southern Baptists and the subject of having a plurality of elders/pastors in place in the local church. It is understandable that there are biblical interpretive disagreements on how a church ought to fill its offices, on congregational involvement, etc. Hopefully, all local congregations seek to be biblical in setting up a church government. Various denominations have various guidelines stemming from their theological convictions.
What about Southern Baptists?
The official website of the Southern Baptist Convention has some faqs under the ‘About Us’ section. Question 14 asks,” What is the SBC’s stance on a church having elders?”
The Southern Baptist Convention has not taken an official stance on these matters. Because each church is autonomous, each issue is addressed and determined by the local church.
The issue of ordination may also be brought up since Baptist churches that utilize a plurality of pastors/elders often install “laity” from the congregation. Question 2 asks, “What is the procedure for ordination in the SBC?” And answers:
Actually, there is no standard process or policy concerning ordination in the SBC. In fact, the SBC cannot ordain anyone. The matter of ordination is addressed strictly on a local church level. Every Southern Baptist church is autonomous and decides individually whether or not to ordain, or whether to require ordination of its pastor. When a church senses that God has led a person into pastoral ministry, it is a common practice to have a council (usually of pastors) review his testimony of salvation, his pastoral calling from the Lord, and his qualifications (including theological preparation and scriptural qualifications according to 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:7-9) for pastoral ministry. Based upon that interview the church typically decides whether or not ordination would be appropriate.
Some SBC churches require seminary training from an SBC seminary, while others may not, such a requirement is entirely up to the church.
Of course, every SBC church is free to approach ordination in the manner it deems best.
The SBC itself has no ordination requirements. Besides, when a “lay” person is selected by the congregation to fill the office of elder, answers the call and is ordained it would seem that they are no longer “laity.”
Southern Baptist also hold to the Priesthood of All Believers.
We affirm the priesthood of all believers. Laypersons have the same right as ordained ministers to communicate with God, interpret Scripture, and minister in Christ’s name. That is why the Convention requires strong lay involvement on its boards.
This doctrine is first and foremost a matter of responsibility and servanthood, not privilege and license.
It is of course, a perversion of this doctrine to say that all views are equally valid, that you can believe anything and still be a Baptist or that the pastor has no unique leadership role.
While pastors have a unique leadership role the laity are no less important. Churches with pastor-elders chosen from the laity have a strong involvement from laypeople with biblical qualifications in place. This type of lay involvement from such churches seems to fall in-line with the Convention itself which “requires strong lay involvement on its boards.”
Furthermore, the Baptist Faith and Message states:
Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.
The democratic process can take place whether there are a plurality of pastors/elders or not. Someone, somewhere in some office will have to make decisions given the scope of their capacity as it relates to their position and to the congregation. As far as I am aware, every item is not brought before the congregation for a vote in most churches. Many churches set-up committees or boards of some kind to handle certain issues. Yet, the only two offices listed in the BFM are that of deacons and pastors (same office as an elder). These offices are Scriptural which means we have inspired guidelines for selecting those are are to serve in those two offices. Neither does the BFM define how many deacons or pastors a church should have.
But what about churches that have other offices? For example, here are a list of offices that an SBC church may have.
Senior Pastor, Associate Pastor, Minister of Music, Minister of Education, Minister of Senior Adults, Director of Adult Singles, Director of Children, Director of Preschool, Director of Recreation, Pastor’s Secretary, Financial Secretary, Education Secretary, Music Secretary, Youth Secretary, Youth Assistant, Media Center Director, etc.
Those offices are not listed in Scripture nor in the BFM. So what are the guidelines for selecting those to fill these offices based upon? How can so many offices in one church be expected to operate within a congregational setting? I suppose a congregational church can democratically determine any number of offices for herself to utilize and still be congregational as long as the congregation always has the power to change those offices. So who makes all the decisions then, the people filling those extra-biblical roles listed or the congregation?
Of course, those offices can operate within a congregational setting just as a church having a plurality of pastors-elders can also operate within a congregational setting. And that is the point.
In considering what is acceptable as local church government in Southern Baptist churches it may be helpful to consider the ecclessiology of the current SBC President, Bryan Wright. Wright understands the importance of local church autonomy on issues such as church government. While some want to argue against elders in Southern Baptist churches and may even question the Baptist identity of such church government the SBC President does not seem to fall into that camp. I’ll just point out a couple of examples from Wright’s church Johnson Ferry Baptist which is a neighboring church of mine and highly thought of in the community as far as I know.
Johnson Ferry’s website under Church Leadership states (emphasis mine):
God calls individuals, whose lives best exemplify the Biblical qualifications of the position of pastor, overseer/elder, ministerial staff and deacon, to lead the local body. They are selected and affirmed by the local body after prayerful consideration. Leaders are called by God to uphold church doctrine and to live lives worthy of respect. The local church is called to submit to their authority.
This list of offices seems to go beyond the offices of pastor and deacon as listed in the BFM which is a point that has been argued. Also, this quote uses the language of submitting to authority which some may argue is not a Baptist position.
Also, under The Autonomy of the Local Church it is stated (emphasis mine):
Baptists believe that each congregation is to determine it’s own doctrine and government according to the leading of the Holy Spirit in a way that is consistent with Scripture. Most, but not all, are congregational in government.At Johnson Ferry, we have an elder form of government that is also congregational on certain major decisions.
They are have an elder government, but it is unclear whether or not it is elder-led or elder-ruled. The congregation only seems to vote on particular decisions. Even Prebyterian congregations vote on certain decisions.
Do these positions invalidate Pastor Wright and Johnson Ferry from being real or majoritarian Southern Baptists? Do they disqualify Wright from being the SBC President? Or maybe we all just need to cool off with the rhetoric.