Reformed vs Southern Baptist: Elders & Congregational Polity

[This is the fifth article interacting with a series by Les Puryear — www.lesliepuryear.blogspot.com — regarding whether Southern Baptists can be Reformed]

On this point, the criticism of Reformed Baptists is that they prefer an elder-led polity to one traditionally characterized as “congregational.” At least on this point the criticism correctly cites the predominant fact: Reformed Baptists do favor an elder-led structure.

Yet clarification — as seems to be the consistent need — is in order.

Reformed Baptists do not favor single-elder, autocratic rule that overrides the will and voice of the congregation. In fact, this type of wayward leadership is more possible in “congregational” churches than in the elder-led form favored by Reformed Baptists. The Reformed concept of spiritual leadership is that each church be led by a team of elders, consisting of both staff and lay elders. In this structure, the preacher becomes the “teaching elder” and member of the elder team. Although he is the point man, no one elder overrides or vetoes the others. And the congregation remains the final authority, approving significant elder action, and approving or removing elders as appropriate.

Furthermore, elder-led and “congregational” are not mutually exclusive. An “elder-led, congregational” form is, after all, the example found in Scripture. Elders tend to the ministry of the word and prayer, deacons handle service matters, and the congregation remains the final authority in issues related to affirming elders’ handling of doctrinal disputes and the discipline or expulsion of members.

The conflict between and elder-led structure and “congregational” form comes when the church is informed by U.S. style political notions of one-man-one-vote (pure democracy), rather than being conformed to the teaching of Scripture.

Additionally, the “priesthood of the believer” does not mean that every member has an equally valid opinion on every subject. If it did, teachers and preachers would be superfluous, and spiritual leaders an oxymoron. Scripture plainly teaches that there are differing roles for believers in each local body; to suggest that every member is equally able to lead ignores this truth.

Finally, it is unfortunately true that many Southern Baptist churches are neutralized by the presence of unbelievers with voting privileges. There are, as it were, tares among the wheat. To ignore this is naive. Our membership practices encourage little discernment in this regard, and granting a vote to every ‘member’ and granting members votes on every issue is inviting spiritual disaster, or at least virtual inaction. While an elder-led congregational polity does not completely eliminate this problem, it does a much better job at reducing the potential for having the foxes guard the henhouse.

There is no example in Scripture for a “congregational” form in which votes on every issue are put to the membership in monthly business meetings. God could certainly, if he desired, sanctify such a method, but the teaching of Scripture and the observation of experience suggest that he has not.

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