plurality

A number of weeks ago, I preached a sermon at Wilkesboro Baptist Church regarding biblical polity. In that sermon, I argued that the biblical evidence for a church’s polity and structure is a plurality of elders/pastors. Each of the last two weeks, I’ve continued that theme through a post on what the Bible says about a plurality of elders and how Wilkesboro Baptist Church can be healthier with a model that is more biblical.

In today’s post, I’m going to reflect on the weight of shepherding a congregation and why that weight is best shared with a plurality of elders.

For me the process of discerning biblical polity has been a long one. I’ve read about biblical ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) for more than a decade. I understand the practices and polity of baptist churches as a member, staff member, and as a senior pastor. And during the pandemic, pastoral leadership and ministry changed in dramatic ways leading me to reconsider our church’s polity. This process of change in my own understanding of the church has had many factors (as you have read and are reading).

But the single most important verse that has impacted my view on this subject comes from the book of Hebrews.

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Hebrews 13:17

Here is what struck me. I will give an account for those who are under my ministry and leadership at Wilkesboro Baptist Church. As overseer, I am responsible to “watch over the souls” of those in our congregation.

Practically, here are some of the member care (soul care) situations I have been responsible for in the last month or so:

  • Spending time with a teenager helping him understand the gospel and salvation.
  • Visiting with someone who has a terminal illness.
  • Counseling a spouse whose partner committed adultery.
  • Interviewing a number of prospective members to hear their conversion stories and answering questions about Wilkesboro Baptist Church.
  • Visiting with a family who has been dealing chronic health challenges.
  • Calling and praying with numerous members regarding health challenges, surgeries, and grief.
  • Helping a friend navigate addiction and how to overcome it.
  • Meeting with deacons and church members to better care for the isolated and shut ins in our church.
  • Visiting a member in the hospital who had a health emergency.
  • Talking with teenagers and adults about baptism and following Jesus.
  • Meeting with church leaders about leadership and polity issues.

The above list just represents a number of appointments on my calendar. Appointments like these require discernment, prayer, focus, and dependence on the Lord.

Each week I consider the folks connected to Wilkesboro Baptist from a variety of perspectives.

I’m grateful for the new people God has sent our way, and I’m trying to make time to get to know them. Nearly a 1/4 of our attenders have begun worshiping with us since the pandemic.

I’m burdened for the folks who have disconnected from the church over the past couple of years, wondering about them and praying for them.

I’m concerned for the folks who have become permanently shut-in during the pandemic.

I’m frustrated at the number of children and grandchildren of church members who have fallen away from the faith.

I’m blessed by the number of church attenders and leaders who are engaging in worship and leadership in the life of our church.

I’m excited for the number of children, teenagers, and adults who are meeting and following Christ and becoming engaged in the life of our church.

Each of these categories (new people, disconnected people, shut ins, those who have fallen away, those who remain engaged, those who are near following Christ) represent persons who need time, conversation, prayer, and relationship from the church and its leaders.

These concerns are weekly weights because as an overseer I am responsible to “watch over these souls.” I realize that the salvation of these folks is not up to me. It is between them and the Lord. But I’m responsible to preach clearly, articulate the gospel regularly, and know the members of our congregation well enough to affirm their faith in Jesus Christ.

Unlike any of the other posts on this topic, this post has the potential to come across as a complaint. I don’t mean it that way at all. God called me to be a pastor and to oversee the souls at Wilkesboro Baptist Church. As best as I can, I embrace this responsibility. In fact, I enjoy in many ways all the weights of responsibilities mentioned above. But it is a weight that I believe God intended the church to share among overseers.

What a plurality of elders/pastors would mean for Wilkesboro Baptist is sharing the weight of the care for the congregation. Having more elders/pastors who know and care for congregation members means that our congregation will get better soul care and pastoral care.

There is also the weight of congregational oversight. In our current structure, deacons have functioned as the business managers for the church with relationship to various committees (finance, personnel, properties, membership, spiritual emphasis, and missions). This structure is not altogether inconsistent with the role of deacon as described in Scripture (see Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 3). The lean in our deacons meetings has been toward business: budgets and buildings. And while the business of the church is vital, it is not primary. The church (those called out from the world) is primarily a spiritual organization of Jesus followers.

During the pandemic, many decisions had to be made quickly. Our congregation trusted our pastoral staff as well as our deacons and followed the direction of the church’s leaders. But the types of decisions were unique for our leaders (shutting down and restarting, cleaning, spreading out, having multiple services, adjusting musical worship, online worship, etc.). The deacons and staff at Wilkesboro Baptist have been immeasurably helpful during this time. We would not be healthy and growing were it not for their service and involvement. Yet there have been decisions that have finally rested with me over and over again. And I’m realistic enough to admit that I made decisions about the church and its ministries related to health, pandemic response, and reopening that I was not trained for. At times, I felt like I was on a bit of an island. I’m not alone in this sense. Several other pastor friends of mine expressed similar experiences during the past several years.

What a plurality of elders would mean with regard to congregational oversight would be sharing the weight of decisions that affect the church body.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll continue this polity series by writing on two more reasons for a plurality of elders: accountability and mission.

Let me leave my Wilkesboro Baptist Church readers with two reminders. First, I believe that the final decisions of our church rest with our congregation. A plurality of elders would not change much (if anything at all) about the types of decisions the church congregation would make (budgets, affirmation of pastors/elders and deacons, etc.). Second, a plurality of elders does not automatically mean that we will have to add staff (vocational pastors). Some pastors/elders in the New Testament churches were compensated for their ministry (see 1 Timothy 5:17). But many (if not most) of the elders/pastors in the New Testament churches served the church without being paid vocationally. Our pattern of the office of deacon should inform what we are to think about a non-staff elder. There are some men in the church qualified to serve as an elder that would do so in a non-staff capacity.

Photo by sterlinglanier Lanier on Unsplash

In last week’s post, I shared some of the biblical reasoning for church polity being elder-led congregationalism. Today’s post continues the conversation. I’m going to reference the history of Wilkesboro Baptist Church as well as church health as two important reasons for considering a change in our church structure.

Wilkesboro Baptist Church began in 1880 as a missionary church (church plant) from a sister congregation. The text below is the historical account of our church’s beginning.

On the first Saturday (7th) in August 1880 a presbytery consisting of Elders W.R. Gwaltney, John Adams, James D. Tinsley, and I.T. Prevette met in the Court House in Wilkesboro, N.C. for the purpose of organizing a Missionary Baptist Church. Elder Gwaltney was moderator, and Elder Prevette Clerk, after devotional exercises conducted by the moderator, the presbytery was received by the brethren, The following brethren and sisters presented letters, John Bowlin, Jane E. Bowlin, S.R. Bowlin, B.E. Bowlin, J.R. Bowlin, Ann Eller, W.H. Brown, Mary Brown, Deliah White, G.W. Green and Dora M. Green from Cub Creek Church, E. Staley, Martha Staley, John W. Staley, Nelia Staley from Oak Forest Church, A.M. Church, Susan Church, A.V. Church, L.C. Church and E.S. Church of Mt. Pleasant Church; the clerk read the letters, and the presbytery was satisfied. The New Hampshire Confession of Faith, and Church Covenant were read and adopted by the brethren and sisters. The presbytery then agreed to reorganize these brethren and sisters as the Wilkesboro Baptist Church. A charge was delivered by the moderator and the hand of fellowship given by the presbytery.

Organization for Wilkesboro Baptist Church, Presbytery consisting of W.R. Gwaltney, John Adams, James D. Tinsley, and I.T. Prevette

Presbytery is the theological term for a group of elders. So when a presbytery of elders came together to form Wilkesboro Baptist Church, the church at its founding had a plurality of elders.

Wilkesboro Baptist over the years shifted from a plurality of elders to a pastor-led congregation with strong deacon leadership. While all the reasons for this shift are not clear (not just for WBC but for a great many Baptist churches with similar polity shifts), the most obvious reason is practical. Even with our history of long-tenured pastors, the typical pattern for pastoral ministry at WBC has been for a pastor to come, preach, lead, and then leave for another congregation. In fact, that’s typical of most Baptist churches. So who leads in the transition times? In the case of many churches the deacons, or the second office in the church, were entrusted to make decisions and to lead in the absence of a pastor. Over the years, deacon influence grew and the pastor-deacons-congregation model became more firmly established.

While moving back to a plurality of elders might be a reset to our church history, it also aims at securing a firm grasp on church health.

One might ask, “If our structure wasn’t as biblical as it could be, how has Wilkesboro Baptist experienced stability and health over the past several decades?” That’s a good question.

I would venture this argument. Church health is contingent on at least two factors: godly leadership and biblical structure. Biblical structure is church polity reflected in biblical teaching. Think of these two factors as a spectrum.

When a church has godly leadership (the right people leading, serving, making decisions), it has a great chance of being healthy, being on mission, and experiencing stability. Personally, I believe this is why churches with leadership structures that lack biblical precedent (hierarchical or a CEO model or a board of directors, etc.) can sometimes still experience stability, health, and growth. God works through godly people. I can attest that at Wilkesboro Baptist Church we have godly leadership among deacons, staff, and other church leaders. I believe this has been true of our church for decades.

The question arises, “How do we retain and replicate godly leaders?” This is where biblical structure is vital. It is apparent to me that the Bible warrants a plurality of pastors (elders) leading a church. See polity, pt. 1. If I am correct in affirming the biblical structure of elder-led congregationalism, then a plurality of godly pastors/elders is best suited to make disciples and replicate leaders in the life of a church. (In a future post, I’m going to connect biblical polity directly to our church’s mission).

So in my view, the healthiest church is the one with both godly leaders and biblical structure. It is the church with godly leaders in the right places in ministry, whether that’s in a biblical office (elder or deacon), staff position, or lay leadership in the church.

In last week’s post regarding unhealthy churches I wrote:

Too many churches crumble because of internal wars of preference and power. Too many churches falter because of an unwillingness to hold onto theological fidelity. Too many churches are crushed because of leadership failure rooted in pride, a desire for power, or immorality. A failure in leadership is often preceded by a failure in church polity. I don’t believe a church’s structures can protect against all sin (internal or external), but I have grown to believe that the biblical picture of elder-led congregationalism does offer a healthy and protective framework for pastoral leadership in the life of the church.

Chris Hefner, polity, pt. 1.

At the risk of becoming a discernment blog for a paragraph, let’s observe a few high level illustrations. Consider the sexual abuse scandals and cover-up within the Roman Catholic Church as reported by the Boston Globe. Consider the rise and fall of Mars Hill Church and its leadership failures both in godliness and organization. Consider the all too many Baptist churches that fuss and fight, split and sever over power and control. Consider the theological divisions arising in mainline denominations where biblical fidelity is no longer valued and cultural values are openly embraced (see the United Methodist Church as an example). Consider a Baptist church in our state where the polity was essentially that a single pastor made all the decisions (the church grew under his quality as a speaker, struggled because he did not act above reproach, gave himself a pay raise and almost bankrupted the church).

I could go on, but there is no need. Some of you reading will have your own stories. And while I’m not naive enough to think that godly leadership plus a biblical structure (elder-led congregationalism) will solve all church tensions and end all church divisions, I do believe in the authority of the Bible and the supreme wisdom of the Bible’s Author. The biblical pattern for protecting the church’s spiritual health and mission appears to be a plurality of godly men serving as elders who are above reproach and seek the glory of Christ and the spread of the gospel.

In future posts, we’ll touch on why a plurality of elders is wise relating biblical polity to issues like the weight of pastoral ministry, elder accountability, and the church’s mission.

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash