An Overview of the Scriptural teaching on Elders in Baptist Churches

This is the outline of a study for the church where I serve. I realize that in many traditions this is old hat but in some Baptist circles the question of whether a church should have elders is disputed. As I mention below, however, most Baptist churches function this way already, they simply call them “deacons.”

This is an outline. Feel free to email me for elaboration or clarification (or just questions) about this.

An excellent recent book (and the one I found most helpful) is 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons by Benjamin L. Merkle. I acknowledge here that it influenced this study greatly.

Should Churches Have Multiple Elders?

Below is a chart listing each mention of church elders in the NT. The columns on the right indicate whether or not the church mentioned in Scripture had “an elder” (one) or “elders” (a plurality).




Antioch (Acts 11:30)



Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe (Acts 14:23)



Jerusalem (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 2, 23; 16:4)



Ephesus (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Timothy 5:17)



The Churches of Crete (Titus 1:5)



Philippi (Phil. 1:1)



The Churches “scattered abroad” (James 5:15)



The Churches of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, Bithynia (1 Pet. 5:1)



Churches of the Hebrews (Heb. 13:7, 17, 24; cf. 1 Thess. 5:12-13)



The few places where the word “elder” is used in the singular it is used (1) in the generic sense (e.g., 1 Tim. 3:2; cf. Titus 1:7); (2) self-referentially (e.g., 2 John 1; 3 John 1); or (3) to men who are older (Acts 2:17; 1 Tim. 5:1).

In short, there is no evidence that the churches of the New Testament had only one elder.

Daniel Wallace writes: “The argument from scripture is in fact so strong that most commentators today assume it.”

The preponderance of evidence from the NT supports the idea that churches of the Apostolic era had a plurality of elders.

It is true that nowhere does the New Testament command that churches have a plurality of elders, but shouldn’t we strive to be as close as possible to the example recorded in Scripture?

Elders in Baptist History

Historical accounts of Baptist Churches and Historic Baptist Confessions make clear that the earliest Baptist churches had a plurality of elders. They gradually disappeared in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Baptist churches who do not have elders often operate this way by default when the deacons fulfill the roles traditionally filled by elders.

Baptist Churches have traditionally valued congregational government in conjunction with leadership provided by a plurality of elders. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Benefits of Multiple Elders

A plurality of elders prevents the dictatorial rule of the solo or senior pastor seen in many Baptist churches.

A plurality of elders helps prevent moral or ethical failures at the top level of leadership.

A plurality of elders is consistent with the examples set by Jesus (who sent his disciples out two-by-two) and Paul who never served by himself and even included his companion’s names in the greetings of his epistles.

A plurality of elders enables the church to function in true community.

Qualifications and Responsibilities of Elders

The qualifications for elders are spelled out in the NT (1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9) and set standards for their character, commitment, capability and maturity.

The responsibilities of elders are spelled out in the NT and fall into two categories:

(1) The elders are to feed God’s Word and guard the church from error (Acts 20:28-32; Titus 1:10-11) by refuting error and silencing rebels.

(2) The elders are to provide leadership for (“rule over” – 1 Tim. 3:1; 5:17; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:2) God’s congregation but not by compulsion, not for personal gain but instead with enthusiasm, and not by lording their authority over the congregation but by example (1 Peter 5:2-3).

Honor for the Elders

Elders who serve well are to receive honor from the congregation (1 Tim. 5:17). They are to be obeyed (Heb. 13:17). They are to be protected form frivolous accusations (1 Tim, 5:19).

Elders who serve well receive honor from the Lord (1 Peter 5:4).

About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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