I am often asked my opinion concerning the office of the elder as it relates to Baptist churches. First let me say that I have no quarrel with autonomous churches setting up the form of governance that they choose. If I choose not to lead the churches that I have been privileged to pastor to have elders, I assure you it will be for Scriptural reasons and not sentimental ones. The word “elder” in the Greek New Testament is “presbuteros”. It should be obvious that the Presbyterian church chooses to be elder led. The Church of Christ is also elder led due to the fact that the founders of the movement were once Presbyterian. There were those known as elders in Judaism in the New Testament times. However Paul seems to use the terms pastor, elder, and bishop interchangeably. I am of the opinion that the terms can refer to spiritual leaders such as pastors and pastoral staff. I also believe that in congregations there are elders in the sense of mature long standing believers and leaders in the church. What concerns me is turning this into an office for governance of the church. Every church that I have pastored has had those long standing mature believers (elders) whose opinions on church decisions mattered greatly. I usually identified these people soon after my arrival and discussed things with them that I wanted to lead the church to do. I valued their insights and needed their support. That is very different from designating a board of elders. It took Baptist a long time to process that deacons were ministers and not a board of directors. Surely we do not want to start that whole problem over with a board of elders.
So here is the central truth that I want to convey. There are those in any church who function as unofficial elders who are well established, wise, and looked to for leadership. However once you institutionalize that reality with official status, it is my view that you politicize the elder. Now the “office” of elder will be actively sought by those who want control. The true elder leads by his deep character, humility, and service. He does not need to be elected. His very love and service to the Lord gives him authority. An elected elder can occasionally be someone who sought the position over a period of time with an agenda in mind. Baptists for the most part have avoided the office of elder out of a conviction that the pastor is an elder and that he can work with other mature leaders to build a consensus about decisions to be made. Baptists have historically believed strongly in congregational involvement in decision making through committees or ministry teams who report back to the church. Deacons earn the right to have input in leadership through their involvement in ministry. A good pastor wants to know the thoughts of faithful deacons about important decisions that must be made. If a group of official elders takes away or modifies the leadership of the pastor or the input of the congregation, then in my view a church becomes something other that what baptist churches have historically been.
My final answer then is that I do not favor the institution of elders as an office. In fact, when I am asked to lead Crestview to sponsor a new church start, one of the first questions that I ask is about governance. If I am told that the form of governance will be an elder system, then I decline to sponsor the work. I have no quarrel with any church choosing the governance they want, but I reserve the right to favor the historical model that Baptists have followed. I still believe that the pastor needs to work directly with the people. I believe a wise pastor will seek to preserve unity and consult with his leaders. In my own experience, I have noted that with official elders there can be a tendency for the pastor to look to the elders for direction to the exclusion of the church. For me this is not the best model for advancing the Kingdom.