I grew up in a Southern Baptist context, and I’m very much grateful for that. I learned Scripture from godly men, I went to a wonderful seminary, and I saw a denomination at work caring for the needy and taking the good news to the nations. So, when I say that there is something biblical that I seldom saw in my SBC time, please understand that I say that from a position of love and not of sniping.
What I never saw in SBC churches growing up was a church operating under the leadership of a plurality of elders. Every church I grew up in had a solo pastor, perhaps associates under him, and a board of deacons. But none of them did what we see Paul say that he instructed Titus to do.
Titus 1:5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—
Titus was to appoint elders (plural) in every town. That means that every individual church on that island was to have more than one elder in leadership. And if you follow that command with the remaining verses, you see that the call for elder leadership is the call for pastoral qualifications and the pastoral role in more than one man.
Why would God design the church so that a plurality of elders lead? The Scripture does not tell us, but it makes sense. No one man has the wisdom and perspective to faithfully shepherd an entire congregation. WE all have weaknesses. We all need others who can see our situation differently than we do. We all have emotions, and we need others to let us know if our reactions are too driven by self than by the truth. We need the strength that comes from working on a team instead of being the Lone Ranger.
The beautiful thing is, a plurality of elders actually allows the church to have deacons who do what deacons are called to do—serve. The word deacon means servant. The first deacons in the church were men appointed to care for physical needs in the church so that the leadership could devote themselves to prayer and ministry of the word. It would have been inconceivable to the first century church to have a solo pastor and a board of deacons serving as an oversight committee.
In the churches where I grew up, the role of deacon had become a sort of hybrid role combining the spiritual oversight work of elder minus the teaching role with the task of serving in some areas of the body. Looking back, I see that this mixture actually prevented qualified men from serving as deacons and prevented qualified men from becoming elders. Many men have the character and heart to serve as deacons, but do not want the burden of spiritually overseeing the church. They will not become deacons in the hybrid model. At the same time, there are men who are appointed as deacons whose qualifications better fit that of elder. They are better teachers and overseers, but they are burdened with types of service that do not fit their gifting.
The church functions best when it is shaped as the Scripture lays it out. We need more than one man serving in the elder role. These need to be godly men, able to teach, living lives of character, and praying and ministering the word in the body. We need godly men to serve as deacons, men of character who meet the physical needs in the body without exercising oversight of the spiritual life of the congregation. When we separate those roles correctly, we are more biblical and we are far more efficient.
If any of my SBC friends read this and wonder if this is not consistent with Baptist doctrine, understand that it perfectly fits the model in the Baptist Faith and Message. Elder leadership, even a plurality of elders, does not in any way require a surrendering of congregationalism. In truth, no church that is larger than a handful of people is totally congregational in every decision. WE trust leaders to make day-to-day decisions, and we then affirm those decisions in our congregational meetings. We discuss major issues in the meetings under the guidance of leaders. And a plurality of elders, rightly functioning, can work through elder-led congregationalism. So, there is nothing at all unBaptist about a plurality of elders. But there is something less than biblical and less than helpful about only having a single elder and a hybrid model of deacon.
The most biblical way to structure a church is to have a plurality of elders and a plurality of deacons. Other things may be debated here, but this is what we see clearly in Scripture. I love that we have this happening in our church. I would love to have even more deacons and more elders in our congregation to share the responsibilities of ministry. This has been good, and it honors the Lord we represent.