Considering Dever's Elder Model in _By Whose Authority?_

Mark Dever's ministry has been a blessing to the church at large.  With books like Nine Marks of a Healthy Church and the resulting 9Marks ministry, he has helped many Evangelicals better understand biblical ecclesiology. 

His booklet entitled By Whose Authority? Elders in Baptist Life is also useful; it rightly argues for the importance of elders.  For many in Southern Baptist circles, this will be a difficult sale, as self-identifying “traditionalist” congregations (those ironically not following the traditional ecclesiological beliefs of the founders of the SBC) are typically deacon-run, even if they have multiple pastors.  It is, however, the more biblical model, and this book is worth the read simply for that.

Another reason it's a difficult sale is the concern that church members will lose their say.  Interestingly, Dever doesn't counter here with what Scripture says about the authority of elders.  Instead, he argues that the congregation can remain as the final authority (33–34), not the elders. 

He refers to the system in which elders have final say “elder-rule,” a term which can certainly sound ominously like an autocratic body.  His argument is instead for an elder-led environment.  The elders advise the congregation, but the whole church votes to approve measures, keeping the process democratic.

He seems to understand the difficultly of biblically arguing the case.  He writes, “I confess that the evidence is slight and the specifics nearly non-existent, but the picture is consistent and the implications important” (33).  Here are a summary of his arguments in favor of maintaining an elder-led congregationalism.

  • The congregation handles disputes.  In Matthew 18:15, 17, Jesus doesn’t direct us to “tell it to the elders,” but to “tell it to the ekklesia [church].”  In Acts 6, the apostles direct the church to choose deacons (v. 3), which “pleased the whole group” (v. 7).
  • The congregation handles doctrine.  In Galatians 1, Paul places the burden of accepting correct gospel teaching and rejecting false teaching at the feet of the whole congregation.  (On page 35, Dever also highlights that in 2 Timothy 4, Paul doesn’t just blame the elders but all who gather false teachers to themselves [v. 3].)
  • The congregation handles discipline.  In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul calls on the whole congregation to participate in the discipline of the erring member.
  • The congregation handles membership.  In 2 Corinthians 2, he calls on the whole congregation to accept back the brother who had asked for forgiveness. 
In a footnote on page 35, Dever further explains the importance of congregational responsibility.  “The point here is not the distinction between the use of the phrase ‘elder led’ as opposed to ‘elder ruled,’ but the distinction between those congregations that do and do not recognize their biblical responsibility not only to obey (as in Heb. 13), but also on occasion to disobey (as in Gal. 1) their leaders.”

Whether Mark Dever considered it a strong argument or not, we could add one more passage to this list: 1 Peter 2:9–10.  Since all Christians are brought into the priesthood of believers, then it follows that all Christians should have an equal vote.  The elders may lead with their teaching, but in the end, it’s up to the whole congregation to believe and follow it.

Dever admits that he doesn’t give a strong case for elder-led congregationalism.  While these passages make his position plausible, they don’t teach or command it, nor do they argue against the an elder-rule church polity.  Let’s consider them in context:
  • Matthew 18:15–18 calls Christians to take responsibility for erring brothers, a responsibility potentially involving the whole church.  Of course, for the discipline to be effective, the whole church must affirm the dis-fellowshipping of the former member.  Even so, Jesus says nothing of congregational votes—He says to “tell it to the church” (v. 17), and that the apostles have the authority to bind or loose a person (v. 18).
  • Acts 6:1–6 records the apostles selecting the first deacons.  They only assign the congregation the task of nominating deacons, as the apostles say that “we will appoint [them] to this duty” (v. 3).  The congregation had been divided between the Hellenists and the Hebrews (v. 1), but this “pleased the whole gathering” (v. 5).  The apostles, then, model a delegation of authority, retaining final approval on the matter.
  • Galatians 1 calls Christians to rightly judge doctrine.  The entire church of Galatia needed to repent from believing the false gospel of the Judaizers, from the elders to the rest of the congregation.  However, there’s not even a hint here to disobey elders, but rather an admonition for all to believe in the biblical gospel.
  • 1 Corinthians 5:1–13, like Matthew 18, emphasizes the entire church’s unified role in church discipline.  Instead of following Jesus’s words, the Corinthian church (including its elders) was boasting in their ability to overlook wrongdoing.  Every Christian has the responsibility to call others to repentance, and they were all willfully sinning by not confronting sin.
  • 1 Peter 2:9–10 only teaches that Christians are together a new creation built on Christ for His purposes.  Indeed, if we are a priesthood, then we expect there to be a hierarchy of priests with different duties and responsibilities, meaning that we are not egalitarian.  According to this passage, we are also a holy nation, and nations have leaders and governments.  
None of these passages speak directly to church polity.  That's not a point to pass over lightly.  There are passages in Scripture that speak directly to the role of elders and congregation's responsibility in light of that leadership.  That none of these evidences come from those passages is a serious flaw.

Moreover, passages highlighting the responsibility of individual Christians don’t speak against elder-rule, as all Christians need to obey Christ in either form of government.  All of these passages fit perfectly in the biblical model of eldership, which places the weight and burden of final authority on the shoulders of elders. (But that is the topic of another blog post.)

We may be more used to democratic governments in our churches (and in Western society, for good reason).  Even so, as difficult as it is to hear from our American perspective, God’s people in the past covenant, the current era, and the coming age operate as theocracies, not democracies.  God’s servants should lead according to His Word and carry out His commands, and He's revealed an authority structure that starts with Scripture and applied through a biblically-qualified board of elders, with all Christians bearing responsibility for their belief and conduct within the church.

With all of that said, this is a small disagreement overall with a brother we love and respect.  It is far healthier spiritually to be in an elder-led congregation like Dever proposes than to be in a "traditionalist" SBC church.  As this isn't a gospel issue, no one should break fellowship strictly over this one issue (we've been in our share of various church models).  We love Dever and his ministry, and wish him the best.

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