Thursday, March 1, 2012

Dr. Robert Wring on Baptists and Elder Rule

The past few years have seen an upsurge in Elder Rule and Elder Leadership in Baptist churches. Many Southern Baptist churches have been convinced by new pastors (often, but not always Calvinist or Reformed Baptist) to change from being ruled by the congregation, to being ruled by a small group of elders. Often this pastor then proceeds to select a group of his close friends as elders, thus insulating him from congregational vote and authority. 

Southern Baptists have historically believed Scripture teaches the church is to be governed by the congregation. While the pastor is to be the spiritual leader, and the deacons and others have influence, the final decisions are to be made by the congregation, the members of the church. 

“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.” -Baptist Faith & Message, 2000; SBC doctrinal statement.

Following are notable quotes on Elders and Church Governance from Dr. Robert A. Wring of Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. These excerpts are quoted from the Biblical Evangelist, 2012. Footnotes have not been included.

“There are three Greek words, however, that are used interchangeably in several New Testament passages that express the idea of elder leadership which was practiced in the early stages of church development. These are presbuteros, episkopos, and poimen. The English equivalent is elder, bishop, and pastor.” -Dr. Robert A. Wring, Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary.

“The congregational model was widely practiced in the first century New Testament church, apparently by theological design. This was the only form of government practiced among primitive Christians until the second century when changes began to be made in church polity.
The elders and deacons could make their voices heard in any matter pertaining to the church’s welfare, but they did not have exclusive governmental prerogative. Under Christ, the whole congregation was the final court of appeal.” -Dr. Robert A. Wring

“In the Book of Acts, many important decisions were made by individual congregations. It was the entire church that chose the first deacons in Acts 6:5. In Acts 13:1-4, the whole church sent out Barnabas and Saul to do mission work, and in Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council included the messengers from at least one local congregation from Antioch (15:23), as well as the believers in the Jerusalem assembly. Paul instructed the Corinthian church to be responsible believers and take charge of their own affairs.” -Robert A. Wring

“One will search in vain in the annals of early American Baptist church history to find ruling elders operating as a board of administrator/rulers with one preaching elder and the rest laymen who do not minister the Word and preach.” -Robert A Wring

“Since their beginning in 1845, every major Southern Baptist writer, minister and other leaders have consistently argued that a Baptist church has only two biblical church officers. These are pastors and deacons.” -Robert A Wring

“The office of ruling elders is really a recent development in Southern Baptist thinking which has begun to take root and grow at an alarming rate since the early 1990s. The idea of having ruling elders in a Baptist church in modern times is confusing, especially when those favoring having elders in their churches refer to them as elder leadership, rather than elder rulers. Whatever name is given to this group of leaders in a Baptist church, the truth of the matter is, elder rule is not necessary. It does not have biblical support, nor does it have strong historical Baptist precedence.” -Robert A. Wring

“The pastor, deacons, and other leaders work together as a team in helping the congregation in seeking the will of Christ as they meet together in doing the business of the church. Elder rule usurps the priesthood of the believer role because it denies the church members their right and privilege as believers to make decisions affecting the welfare of the church.” -Robert A. Wring 

See the entire article, Elder Rule and Southern Baptist Church Polity at The Biblical Evangelist, or the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry Vol. 3 No. 1 (Spring 2005): 188-212.

-David R. Brumbelow, Gulf Coast Pastor, March 1, AD 2012. 

Other Articles:
Books on Calvinism, Predestination
Brief History of SBC Conservative Resurgence
Acts 29, Alcohol, and the Southern Baptist Convention
Top Three Seminaries
Adrian Rogers on "Wit & Wisdom of Pastor Joe Brumbelow"
Adrian Rogers on Predestination, Calvinism
Paige Patterson on Calvinism
More article in lower right margin.


  1. This was very good, David. Thanks for posting it.

  2. Thanks for the post, and for linking to the entire article at The Biblical Evangelist. I look forward to the finding time to read it.

    Since pastors are elders and are supposed to be leaders in the church, there is a form of elder leadership in the church. But the idea of ruling elders is borrowed from Presbyterianism, and is incompatible with Baptist church polity. I think it is more popular among Calvinistic Baptists because a lot of them look to old Presbyterian writers to study soteriology (not that they don't look other places), and while there pick up other ideas as well -- such as ruling elders.

    As someone who believes the New Testament churches had "plurality of elders", I find this trend particularly troubling. I find it troubling because too many folks think when we talk of "plurality of elders" that we're talking about "ruling elders". "Ruling elders" have authority over the congregation, but biblical elders are preachers who exercise spiritual authority through the Word of God while the congregation has the final say.

    The disciplinary example of Matthew 18:15-17 is one of the most devastating scriptures to any polity of a higher authority than the local congregation. "And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. (v. 17)" Once the appeal has gone to the church -- the church, not the elders -- then the process is completed. There is no higher court of appeal.

  3. Bruce,

    R. L. Vaughn,
    You've made some very good points.
    David R. Brumbelow

  4. Bruce,
    Yes, you're welcome to post a link. Tried to send you a reply but it didn't go through.
    David R. Brumbelow

  5. David, there is an article of my own on my blog spot about this subject. It gives quotes proving the fact that many scholars agree the New Testament teaches that church elders are always pastors, as opposed to the idea that some elders are pastors and some are ruling elders. Here is a link to it:

  6. Bruce,
    Thanks, you give some very good quotes.
    David R. Brumbelow

  7. David,
    There are a number of SBC churches which practice plurality of elders but not elder rule as your article describes it. They hold to plural eldership but congregational governance. Mark Dever and Phil Newton come to mind as two men who have published material along these lines.


    Kelly R. Randolph

  8. With the exception of one...NO Scripture is used in any of the quotes above. Not very convincing or compelling if all a person can do to negate a plurality of elders is to appeal to historic baptist beliefs. From what I have read, people who advocate the plurality of elders use a lot of Scripture. People who advocate AGAINST the plurality of elders use very in this post.

  9. Scott Parkinson,
    When you fairly investigate historic Baptist beliefs, you will usually find strong Scriptural support for them. That does not mean a long list of Bible verses will be given at every quote.

    The first quote in the article on Elders is from the Baptist Faith & Message 2000. Each section of that statement concludes with a rather long list of Scripture references. I did not include them for space considerations, but I imagine you are well aware of them. They can easily be looked up in a complete copy of the Baptist Faith & Message 2000.

    I chose a few quotes on Elder Rule from a rather lengthy article by Dr. Wring. He discusses numerous Scriptures in his article. You are welcome to look it up as well.

    You apparently came to this article from another blog that has an article favorable to Elder Rule, that you compliment. Yet it does not use Scripture at all. Strangely, you find that argument compelling and apparently have no problem with his lack of Scripture.

    In short, your’s is a weak, unfair argument.
    David R. Brumbelow

  10. Good point, David. You are correct that the post i complimented used no Scripture. Thanks for your response.


  11. Scott Parkison,
    Thanks. Have a great day.
    David R. Brumbelow


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