Dr. Morris Chapman, 

I trust this letter finds you doing well.  Let me first begin by expressing my appreciation to you for the warm-hearted outreach you have shown to the younger generation of Southern Baptists.  Your encouragement and interest in the future of the Southern Baptist Convention can clearly be seen in your vision to listen to as well as invest in the next generation of leading Southern Baptists.  With that said, I would like to draw your attention to an interview you recently participated through the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and in particular your comments on biblical eldership

Having served the SBC in various areas of leadership, not the least of which as past president of the SBC (1990-92) and current president of the Executive Committee, it goes without saying that your words receive a wide readership that come with a great deal of respect.  This does not mean, however, that your comments can be unaccountable to Scripture and Baptist history.  I am writing you to express my concern that you have not only misrepresented the evidence of Scripture, but you have also ignored the historical testimony of biblical eldership in the Southern Baptist Convention.  Granted, the matter of church government should be handled with some degree of latitude, but the conclusion you have shown in your comments reveals that biblical eldership is contradictory to the practice found in most Southern Baptist Churches and that such forms of church government can ultimately be “a recipe for disaster both for the pastor and the church.”  I would like to reassess such comments in light of known facts in Southern Baptist life.

For instance, let me begin by considering how some of our Baptist confessions have addressed elders and eldership:

London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689)

A particular church, gathered and completely organized according to the mind of Christ, consists of officers and members; and the officers appointed by Christ to be chosen and set apart by the church (so called and gathered), for the peculiar administration of ordinances, and execution of power or duty, which he intrusts them with, or calls them to, to be continued to the end of the world, are bishops or elders, and deacons.

The way appointed by Christ for the calling of any person, fitted and gifted by the Holy Spirit, unto the office of bishop or elder in a church, is, that he be chosen thereunto by the common suffrage of the church itself; and solemnly set apart by fasting and prayer, with imposition of hands of the eldership of the church, if there be any before constituted therein; and of a deacon that he be chosen by the like suffrage, and set apart by prayer, and the like imposition of hands.

Philadelphia Confession (1742)

A particular church, gathered and completely organized according to the mind of Christ, consists of officers and members; and the officers appointed by Christ to be chosen and set apart by the church, so called and gathered, for the peculiar administration of ordinances, and execution of power or duty, which He entrusts them with, or calls them to, to be continued to the end of the world, are bishops, or elders, and deacons.

The way appointed by Christ for the calling of any person, fitted and gifted by the Holy Spirit, unto the office of bishop, or elder, in a church is, that he be chosen thereunto by the common suffrage of the church itself; and solemnly set apart by fasting and prayer, with imposition of hands of the eldership of the church, if there be any before constituted therein: and of a deacon that he be chosen by the like suffrage, and set apart by prayer, and the like imposition of hands.

The Abstract of Principles (1858)

The Lord Jesus is the Head of the Church, which is composed of all his true disciples, and in Him is invested supremely all power for its government. According to his commandment, Christians are to associate themselves into particular societies or churches; and to each of these churches he hath given needful authority for administering that order, discipline and worship which he hath appointed. The regular officers of a Church are Bishops or Elders, and Deacons.

Baptist Faith & Message (1925)

A church of Christ is a congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the ordinances of Christ, governed by his laws, and exercising the gifts, rights and privileges invested in them by his word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Its Scriptural officers are bishops or elders and deacons.

As one can clearly see through four centuries of confessional history, biblical eldership has been affirmed throughout Baptist history and in particular Southern Baptist life.  In fact, the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention, W. B. Johnson wrote in his book The Gospel Developed that “each [New Testament] church had a plurality of elders” (W. B. Johnson, The Gospel Developed in Mark Dever, Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life, 192).  In 1849, J. L. Reynolds also argued that “the apostolic churches seem, in general, to have had a plurality of elders as well as deacons” (J. L. Reynolds, Church Polity or the Kingdom of Christ in Dever, ibid., 349).  William Williams, one of the founding faculty of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary wrote, “In most, if not all the apostolic churches, there was a plurality of elders” (William Williams, Apostolic Church Polity in Dever, ibid., 531). 

Having provided some historical confessions and leading Southern Baptist professors and theologians during the nineteenth century, one must wonder whether such convincing evidence was considered in your comments regarding biblical eldership.  However, as strong as the evidence from Baptist history shows, we know that Southern Baptists find the Scriptures to be our only source of authority for faith and practice.  Regarding the Scripture, you make the assertion that  

“The concept of elder rule is based upon the interpretation of a single verse in 1 Timothy 5 that is not a clear and compelling interpretation. The mention of ‘elder rule’ is not accompanied by an explanation that compels the church to adopt elder rule.  On the other hand, Baptists have historically interpreted the data of Scripture to view the three terms pastor/elder/bishop as an interchangeable way of expressing three facets of one office, serving under the authority of the local church. Such an argument is biblically compelling.” (emphasis mine)

I am not sure that those who have written books on biblical eldership will find that you contend their position to be “based on the interpretation of a single verse” and moreover that it is “not a clear and compelling interpretation.”  In the New Testament, the term “elder” is taken from the root presbu,t which is used 75 times, twenty such uses specifically to refer to elders in churches (Jerusalem, Lystra, Iconium, Antioch, Ephesus, Crete, and other general uses).  You are correct that the term “elder” is used interchangeably with “bishop,” “pastor,” and “overseer” (which you did not mention).  However, if that is the case, then I cannot understand how biblical eldership does not carry greater weight in Scripture.  To provide an alternate view of biblical support, I have provided an addendum to this letter which provides all the Scripture texts used in support of biblical eldership.  Having spent several hours typing them up, I am led to believe that the position is far more biblically tenable than you have made it appear to be. 

In conclusion, I have provided some of the leading papers, articles, and messages in support of biblical eldership in recent scholarship.  Having become aware of the importance and recent controversy of church government in the SBC over recent years, it is crucial that whether one is for or against a form of church government the biblical and historical data be given due consideration.  Given that you have commented in such a venue as a seminary website entitled as the “Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry,” I fear that your comments have not reflected a well-rounded Baptist perspective nor the theological arguments for biblical eldership (thus, the fallacy of “the excluded middle” applies here).   As Southern Baptists look to address the growing controversies in our churches and Convention at large, it is my prayer that such issues can be addressed with the biblical precision that truth demands and the brotherly love that grace commands.  May God’s richest blessings be yours in Christ.

Sincerely yours,

Timmy Brister
www.timmybrister.com

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Recent Articles, Essays, and Presentations

Mark Dever’s essay, Baptists and Elders
John Piper’s booklet, Biblical Eldership
John MacArthur’s essay, Answering Key Questions about Elders
Shawn Wright’s message, Baptist and a Plurality of Elders–Why or Why Not
D. A. Carson’s message, Defining Elders
John MacArthur’s essay, The Call to Lead the Church–Elders
Jim Hamilton’s post, Elders in Baptist Life
Mark Dever’s article, Should a Church Have Elders?
DG’s staff answers, Do You Believe a Church Should Be Governed by One Elder or Many? 
Mark Dever’s article, What Is the Relationship Between the Elders and the Church?
John MacArthur’s article, What Relationship Do Elders Have with the Congregation?
IX Marks forum A Pastors’ and Theologians’ Forum on Selecting Elders
Dan Wallace’s essay, Who Should Run the Church?: A Case for the Plurality of Elders 
Fred Zaspel’s chapter, Spiritual Leaders in the Local Church
Or How About Any of These Articles provided by Mongerism?

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Scriptures Used in IX Marks Booklet By Whose Authority? Elders in Baptist Life

Ex. 18; Deut. 1; 19:12; 21:1-9, 18-21; Ezra 10:14; Matt. 15:2; 16; 18:15-17; Mark 5:22; 7:3, 5; 10:42-45; Luke 1:18; 7; 15:25; John 8:9; Acts 2:17; 2:42; 6:3, 5; 11:30; 13:15; 14:21, 25; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4; 18:8; 20:17; 20:28; 21:18; Rom. 12:8; 1 Cor. 5; 12:28; 2 Cor. 2: 6-8; Gal. 1; Eph. 4:11; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1; 3:11; 4:4; 4:14; 5:1, 2; 5:17; 5:19; 2 Tim. 4:3; Titus 1:5; 1:7; 2:2, 3; Philemon 9; Heb. 11:2; 13; 13:17; James 3:1; 5:14; 1 Peter 2:25; 5:1; 5:1-2; 5:2-3; 5:5; 2 John; 1; 3 John 1; Rev. 2; 3; 4:4, 10; 5:5, 6, 8, 11, 14; 7:11, 13; 11:16; 14:3; 19:4

Scriptures Used in Alexander Strauch’s Book Biblical Eldership

Gen. 1:27-28; 2:18-25; 2:20-23; 2:20, 22, 23; 3:5, 14, 15; 4:5-8; 28:18, 19a; 31:40; 48:14; Ex. 3:15, 16; 4:29, 31; 12:3, 21, 27; 13:18; 18:13-27; 19:7; 19:7, 8; 28:40-29:41; 29:21; 30:30; 33:11; 36:6; 40:9; 40:14, 15; Lev. 1:4; 4:13-15; 8:12; 10:8, 9; 16:21; 24:14; Num. 2:2; 4:16; 7:2; 8:10, 14; 11: 14, 15; 12:6-8; 22:17, 37; 24:11; 27:17; 27:18-23; 27:22, 23; 31:14; Deut. 2:7; 5:23; 8:3b; 8:15, 16; 12:30; 13:11; 17:6; 19:11, 12; 19:15; 21:1, 2, 6-9; 21:1-8; 21:3-8; 21:18-20; 22:16-19; 25:4; 25:7-9; 27:1-8; 31:9-11; 34:9; 34:10-12; Joshua 20:2-4; Judges 11:11; 21:16; 1 Sam. 8:10-18; 10:1; 16:13; 17:33-37; 24:9; 24:18, 19a; 2 Sam. 5:1, 3; 5:2; 7:8; 9; 12:3; 17:4, 14; 1 Kings 1:39; 4:7; 12:8, 13; 22:17; 2 Kings 9:6; 11:18; 13:16; 1 Chr. 15:25, 28; 26:24; 2 Chr. 16:12; 19:11; 24:12, 17; 26:16; 32:25; 32:33; Ezra 8:21-23; 10:8; Neh. 6:5-9; 6:13; 11:9; Job 1:1; 4:3, 4; 12:12; 12:20; 29:7, 21, 25; 29:14-17; 31:21; 31:21; 31:32; 38:7; Psalms 11:3; 23:1-2; 78:17-22; 78:71, 72; 86:5; 105:22; 119:100; Prov. 3:9; 6:16-19; 11:2; 14:31; 16:5a; 16:18; 17:9; 18:1; 18:8; 20:1; 23:30-35; 25:28; 26:1; 27:18; 27:23; 29:7; 29:22; 29:23; 31:4, 5; Ecc. 4:-12; Isa. 1:6; 5:11, 22; 28:1, 7, 8; 56: 9-12; Jer. 23:2; Lam. 2:10; 5:14; Ezek. 3:18, 19; 7:26; 9:1-6; 28:11-19; 34:2, 8; 34:4; 34:11, 12; Dan. 11:38; Hosea 4:11; 8:4; Amos 5:10; Nahum 3:18; Zec. 10:2; 11:16; 11:17; Matt. 5:9; 5:13, 29, 30, 39-41; 5:21; 6:3, 24, 25; 6:33; 7:15; 8:5-13; 9:18-26; 9:36; 10:1; 10:2-4; 10:10; 11:28; 11:29; 15:3-6; 15:21-28; 16:6, 12; 16:18; 17:14-21; 17:20; 18:15-17; 18:20; 19:12; 19:15; 21:21, 22; 22:16; 21:1-12; 23:5-8; 23:6-8; 23:6-12; 23:11, 12; 24:45-51; 26:38; 27:57; 28:19, 20; 28:20; Mark 2:5; 3:14; 3:16-19; 3:20, 21; 5:12, 13; 6:15; 6:7, 12; 6:13; 7:34; 8:23, 25; 8:31; 9:23; 9:33-35; 9:50; 10:16; 10:35-45; 10:42; 10:42-44; 11:15-17; 11:22-26; 12:40; 14:33; 16:18; Luke 1:3; 2:23; 4:40; 5:4-11; 5:5; 5:31; 6:12; 6:13; 6:14-16; 7:2-5; 8:3; 8:49; 8:51; 9:1, 2; 9:28; 10:2; 10:7; 10:9; 10:17; 10:34; 11:5-13; 12:37; 12:42; 12:48b; 13:13; 13:14; 14:26, 33; 15:13; 15:25; 16:1-8; 16:14; 20:46; 22:24-27; 22:26; 22:32; 22:66; John 1:12, 13; 7:25; 8:17; 8:21-47; 10:11, 14; 10:12b; 10:16; 10:35; 13:3-17; 13:12-14; 13:14, 16; 13:34, 35; 15:7, 16; 15:16; 16:24; 21:15-17; 21:16; 21:17; Acts 1:13; 1:13a, 15b; 1:14; 1:15; 1:17; 1:21; 1:24; 1:26; 2:10; 2:14, 42; 2:44, 45; 2:46; 3:1; 3:11; 4:4; 4:7-10; 4:8; 4:32; 4:33, 35; 4:34-37; 4:35, 37; 5:2; 5:3; 5:11; 5:12; 5:18, 25, 29, 42; 5:14; 5:15, 29; 5:21; 5:42; 6:1-6; 6:1, 7; 6:2; 6:2-4; 6:8-7:60; 7:10; 8:1, 3; 8:4-40; 8:14; 8:14-17; 8:14-24; 8:17, 19; 8:21; 9:12; 9:17; 9:27; 9:32-11:18; 9:39; 10:1-11:18; 10:38b; 10:40-41; 11:19; 11:19-22; 11:22; 11:24; 11:25, 26; 11:29; 11:30; 12:1, 5; 12:3; 12:12; 12:17; 13:1; 13:1-3; 13:3; 13:13; 13:14-14:21; 13:43; 13:46, 48; 13:47; 14:3; 14:4; 14:12; 14:14; 14:22; 14:23; 14:24; 14:26; 14:27; 15:1; 15:2; 15:2-29; 15:3, 12; 15:3, 30; 15:4, 6; 15: 5, 7; 15: 7-11; 15:11, 19, 28, 29; 15:13-21; 15: 22-25, 28; 15:23; 15:24; 15:25; 15:26; 15:35; 15:36-39; 15:40; 16:1-3; 16:6-10; 16:15; 17:1-9; 18:3; 18:8; 18:17; 18:22; 18:25, 26; 19:6; 19:11; 19:22; 20:11; 20:17; 20:17-35; 20:19; 20:20; 20:24; 20:25; 20:26, 27; 20:27-31; 20:28; 20:30; 20:31; 20:32; 20:33-35; 20:34; 20:36-38; 21:8; 21:16; 21:17; 21:18; 21;18-25; 21:20; 21:21; 21:20-26; 22:5; 23:5; 24:25; 26:16-19; 28:8; 28:10; Rom. 1:11; 5:14; 6:19; 7:2, 3; 8:23, 26; 8:29; 12:1-2; 12:6; 21:7b, 8; 12:11; 12:13; 12:20; 12:21; 13:7; 14:15, 21; 14:19; 15:2; 15:25, 27; 15:26; 16:1-15; 16:1, 2, 4, 12; 16:3; 16:5; 16:6; 16:16; 16:19; 16:23; 1 Cor. 1:2; 1:5; 1:7; 3:1-15; 3:5-9; 3:6-7; 3:10; 3:21a; 4:1-5; 4:6, 7; 4:12; 4:14; 4:17; 4:18-21; 4:21; 5:4, 11; 6:8; 6:9, 10; 7:2-5, 7, 8, 15, 32, 36-39; 7:7-9; 7:17; 7:32-35; 7:39; 8:11-13; 9:1-6; 9:4-14; 9:5; 9:6; 9:9; 9: 14; 9:16; 9:25; 10:32; 10:33; 11:2-16; 11:3; 11:7; 11:8, 9; 11:10; 11:20; 11:29-34; 11:30-32; 11:34; 12:18; 12:28; 12:31; 13:1, 2; 13:4, 6; 13:4-7; 14:33, 36; 14:33-38; 13:34-35; 14:40; 15:7; 15:24-28; 15:45, 47; 15:58; 16:1; 16:10, 11; 16:15, 16; 16:16; 16:18; 16:19; 16:20; 2 Cor. 1:9; 1:23, 24; 2:1-11; 2:3, 2:4; 2:6; 2:9; 2:11; 3:5; 4:5; 4:7; 5:9-11; 5:14, 15; 8-9; 8:1-5; 8:4; 8:6, 7; 8:18; 8:19; 8:20; 9:1, 12, 13; 9:5; 9:7; 9:8; 9:10; 10:1; 10:2; 10:1-11; 10:8; 11:3; 11:7; 11:8; 11:9; 11:21; 11:29; 12:1-13; 12:4; 12:7-10; 12:8, 9; 13:7; 13:8-10; 13:11; 13;12; Gal. 1:1; 1:2; 1:7-9; 1:19; 2:1-12; 2:5; 2:7-10; 2:12: 3:28: 3:29; 4:2; 4:12; 4:13, 14; 4:17; 4:20; 5:21; 5:23; 6:1, 2; 6:6; 6:10; 6:15; Eph. 2:13-19; 2:20; 3:5; 3:10; 4:3; 4:5; 4:11; 4:28; 5:18; 5:18-6:9; 5:22; 5:23; 5:24; 5:25; 5:32; 6:2; 6:4; Phil. 1:1; 1:5; 1:7; 2:2-8; 2:5, 7, 8; 2:12; 2:15; 2:19, 20; 2:27; 2:29, 30; 3:14; 3:18; 4:2, 3; 4:5; 4:15, 16; 4:17; 4:18; Col. 1:7; 1:8; 1:18; 3:15; 3:16; 3:18; 3:23, 24; 4:5, 6; 4:12, 13; 4:15; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2:5, 6; 2:9; 3:2; 4:11, 12; 5:11; 5:12; 5:13; 5:15; 5:23; 5:26; 2 Thess. 3:6-15; 3:8, 9; 3:14; 15; 3:16; 1 Tim. 1:3; 1:3-11; 18-20; 1:12; 1:15; 1:18; 1:19; 1:20; 2:1, 2; 2:1-8; 2:1-3:13; 2:7; 2:9; 2:10; 2:9-15; 3:1; 3:1-7; 3:2; 3:4; 3:5; 3:6; 3:7; 3:8; 3:9; 3:8-13; 3:10; 3:11; 3:12; 3:14, 15; 3:16; 3:17; 4:1; 4:1-5; 4:3; 4:6-16; 4:7; 4:9; 4:10; 4:13; 4:14; 5:1; 5:2; 5:3; 5:5; 5:9; 5:10; 5:14; 5:17; 5:17-25; 5:18; 5;19; 5:20; 5:22: 5:23; 5:24; 5:25; 6:1; 6:2; 6:3-5, 20; 6:76; 6:7-9; 6:10; 6:18,19; 2 Tim. 1:6; 1:7, 11; 2:2; 2:11; 2:15; 2:24; 2:25a; 3:3; 3:6; 3:16a, 17; 4:5; 4:7, 8; 4:13; 4:20; Titus 1:1-3; 1:5; 1:5-7; 1:6: 1:7; 1:9;1 1:9-16; 1:10; 1:11; 1:13; 2:1; 2:3; 2:4; 2:5; 2:8; 2:10; 2:15; 3:1, 2; 3:8; 3:9-11; 3:12; 3:13; 3:15c; Philemon 2; 9; 14; 16; 21; 23; Heb. 3:16-4:16; 4:14; 5:1; 5:12; 8:3; 10:28; 10:39; 11:2; 12:1-3; 13:2; 13:5; 13:17, 24; 13:16; 13:17; 13:18-24; 13:20; 13:23; 13:24; James 1:1; 1:5-7; 1:6; 1:7; 1:18; 1:20; 1:22-27; 2:1-13; 2:2; 2:14-26; 2:15, 16; 3:1; 3:14; 3:18; 4:1; 4:3; 4:6; 4:7; 4:11; 5:5; 5:9; 5:12; 5:13-15; 5:14; 5:15; 5:16; 1 Peter 1:1; 1:2, 14; 1:15, 16; 1:22; 1:23; 2:5; 2:5-10; 2:11, 12; 2:13; 2:13-3:12; 2:16; 2:17; 2:21; 2:25; 3:1; 3:1-6; 3:7; 3:8; 3:11; 3:13; 3:15; 3:16; 4:1, 4; 14, 16; 4:3; 4:4; 4:8; 4:9; 4:10; 4:12-19; 4:16, 17; 5:1; 5:2; 5:3; 5:4; 5:1-5; 5:5; 5:8; 5:9; 5:12; 5:14; 2 Peter 2:10; 3:17; 1 John 3:7; 3:8; 3:17; 2 John 11; 3 John 2; 4; 9, 10b; 5-8; Jude 1; 12; Rev. 1:6; 1:12, 16, 20; 1:20; 2:1; 4:4; 7:17; 21:14

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Some Selected Works to Consider:

Alexander Strauch. Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership. Colorado Springs, CO: Lewis & Roth, 1995.

Phil A. Newton. Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model of Church Leadership. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005.  

James R. White. “The Plural-Elder-Led Church: Sufficient as Established–The Plurality of Elders as Christ’s Ordained Means of Church Governance” in Perpsectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity. eds. Chad Owen Brand and R. Stanton Norman, 255-96. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2004.

Samuel E. Waldron. “Plural-Elder Congregationalism” in Who Runs the Church? 4 Views on Church Government. eds. Paul E. Engle and Steven B. Cowan, 185-221. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.

John S. Hammett. Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005.

Mark Dever and Paul Alexander. The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel. Wheaton: Crossway, 2005.

Mark Dever, ed. Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life. Washington D.C.: Nine Marks Ministries, 2001.

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