Southern Baptists and Elders

Morris Chapman wrote an interesting piece in the Baptist Press last week about the confessional status of the SBC’s doctrinal statement, “The Baptist Faith and Message 2000” (BF&M). His article comes on the heels of the annual meeting of the SBC in San Antonio where Southern Baptists voted to reaffirm the BF&M as a sufficient guide for SBC leaders when they make convention-wide policies (read story). Because Chapman is president of the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), his reflections carry a lot of weight with many Southern Baptists.

I’m not going to interact with Chapman’s entire essay, but I do want to comment on a small piece of it that has to do with leadership in the church. Chapman writes:

“The matter of elders leading the church as officers is often discussed in association with Calvinism. The Baptist Faith and Message in Section VI. The Church, states, ‘Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons.’ Are they or are they not?”

I’m not exactly sure what Chapman means to say in this statement. Is he suggesting that the BF&M sanctions only two offices in SBC churches, “pastors and deacons” and that the BF&M does not, therefore, give a place of leadership to “elders” within the polity of Christ’s church?

In any case, there is a lot of confusion among Southern Baptists on this point. Many Southern Baptists would indeed argue that the BF&M does not sanction “elder” leadership within the churches. But I think this view is an unfortunate and common misunderstanding both of the BF&M and of the scriptures. First, a word about the BF&M. Southern Baptists have affirmed three editions of the BF&M, one in 1925, another in 1963, and another in 2000. A comparison of the three editions on this point is very illuminating:

BF&M 1925 BF&M 1963 BF&M 2000
“Its Scriptural officers are bishops, or elders, and deacons.” “Its Scriptural officers are pastors and deacons.” “Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons.”

The 1963 and 2000 versions are identical. The revision of language happens in the 1963 statement which substitutes the word “pastors” for the words “bishops or elders.” Why did Southern Baptists change the wording in 1963? Were they adopting a church leadership structure that differed radically from that reflected in the 1925 statement? The answer to the latter questions is clearly no, if we understand what the scriptures teach about pastors, bishops, and elders.

And that brings me to my second point. In the New Testament, the terms translated as “pastor,” “elder,” and “bishop” are but three ways of referring to the same office of leadership. The apostle Paul equates elders with overseers/bishops in Titus 1:5 and 7 by using the term overseer/bishop (episcopos) interchangeably with the term elder (presbuteros). In 1 Peter 5:1-2, the apostle Peter commands the elders (presbuteros) to pastor/shepherd (poimainō) and to exercise oversight (episcopeō). The book of Acts records the apostle Paul as he refers to the elders (presbuteros) as overseers (episcopos) and as he commands them to pastor/shepherd (poimainō) the flock of God.

What all of this means is that a pastor is an elder and a bishop. These three terms are but three ways of referring to one office. So the change in wording in the BF&M 1963 does not reflect a change in leadership structures of Southern Baptist churches. It merely reflects a different (and equally biblical) way of referring to the same office of leadership. There is no change in theology at all.

So the answer to Chapman’s question is “yes.” The scriptural officers of the church are “pastors and deacons.” Nevertheless, the Bible teaches us that those “pastors” are also “elders.” To say that a “pastor” is an “elder” is not a Calvinist distinctive. It’s a biblical one.


  • Mike Bird

    I’ve never understood the Single Pastor + Multiple Deacon model for church government. From memory, I think Grudem has a good critique of it.

  • Kevin Hash

    What about all the other offices in the church? Moderator, Trustees, Committees, Youth Minister, etc.

    It’s funny how people can get their drawers in a wad over a word like elder that is mentioned 20+ times in the new testament alone, but are ok with all kinds of structure that has no root in scripture.


  • Juan Sanchez


    It was a great pleasure to meet you and Jim Hamilton at the SBC in San Antonio. I also appreciate your blog and try to read it daily.

    Dr. Chapman’s comments seem ambiguous to me. Could it be that he is actually saying that there should be no controversy regarding elder leadership? I realize that this is a generous reading of his comments and that I do not know his personal position, but it seems to me that he is suggesting that we resolve this matter biblically, which actually encourages the term elder and that the BF&M in its language allows for it. Perhaps this is why he refers to the 1925 BF&M?

    Again, I admit his comment is ambiguous. I also want to say that you are right on in your post!

    Grace and peace,

    Acts 20:24

  • Grosey

    aaaahhhh have you considered the extra meetings each week when you have elders who want to be deacons and deacons who want to be elders?
    In one church I pastored the Elders met 6 times per month and the deacons twice per month and in terms of practical ministry, none of them did a blessed thing!!! except tell the apstor what to do!!!
    Think carefully about having 2 competing boards!

  • Alex Chediak


    Good post, thanks.



    I wonder if in the situation you describe both the “elders” and “deacons” failed to meet their respective Scriptural qualifications (if indeed “none of them did a blessed thing”). If so, such conditions ought not to be the norm, and do not represent what a plurality of qualified elders together with qualified deacons can bring to a church. If you are curious, I have a paper on my blog where I give a three-page biblical defense of a plurality of elders….the url is below:

  • Matthew


    I have seen pastors abuse their authority and do great damage. In fact, I have a seminary prof who claims that he has seen as much damage done by pastors who abuse their authority as by those who fall into immorality.

    I wonder, did you effectively lead those men, or did you sit back and mock them and resent their many meetings with you? If they were useless shepherds, did you lead the congregation to install real shepherds? If there weren’t any, why not? Could it be that none were being raised up by the ahem, pastor? one more – how in the world did you end up with “competing boards?” They have two different jobs.

    I apologize in advance for my somewhat caustic tone. It kind of hit my buttons to see you mock your elder board while arguing against having such a board at all.

  • Grosey

    Thank you Alex for taking the time to inform us of your experience in pastoral leadership in this matter.

    But I would have you note that if you will read my comment more carefully I was not attacking a plurality of elders, I was merely warning of running two separate boards (as many others have in various places).

    In fact Alex, the book by Strauch, Biblical Eldership, was required reading by all elders and deacons at that church. I guess I was fairly new at pastoring at the time having only planted three churches, (oh Dr. Mike Bird [comment number 1] was converted during the third church plant), and pastored 2 others. I never had the wisdom of your paper on your blog, but I have made up for that now. You are right to say ” .. such conditions ought not to be the norm…” But sadly in these days of spiritual decline in both your country and mine, I guess none of my deacons or elders had arrived at sinless perfection at that time, but some of them have now (they are dead). I have attended your current church some time ago, and know that there have been struggles there too with those that have not attained to your spiritual maturity. I believe there were struggles in this same way in the New Testament churches (hence Titus 1:10 For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision: 11 Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre’s sake.)

    But thank you again for taking the time to show me my folly.
    Sincerely yours,

  • Grosey

    Why Howdy Matthew…
    (yes I did check your blog site)
    Thank you for your instructions to me and the devastating criticism of my ministry. As “The ahem pastor” I guess you have concluded that I am apostate, or unqualified or unfit for ministry. Are you directing me to resign immediately?
    Please remember how important your direction to me will be, for you are speaking now as the oracle of God.
    A simple yes or no will suffice.

  • Matthew


    Is it possible the men were too scared of you to take initiative, or else to attempt constructive criticism of your ministry or methods?

    BTW, I need to apologize for not wording my first paragraph better. In that paragraph, I intended only to offer anecdotal evidence of abusive pastors as a counterpoint to your anecdotal evidence of ineffective elders and deacons. I have re-read it and see how it could look like a personal accusation against you, which it was most certainly not inteded to be.

  • Kelly Randolph

    I agree with your assessment of eldership in Baptist churches. I don’t the BFM precludes it. I serve as Senior Pastor in an elder led but congregationally governed church. I have found plural eldership to be a great blessing and protection for both myself and the church family. Phil Newton has written a helpful little book on this issue called “Elders in Congregational Life.”

  • Grosey

    Thankyou Matthew for your ineffective apology. I see that you have moved on from denigrating my ministry to now denigrating my character.
    What would you suggest I do, not just cease my minbistry but cease my life?
    I await your instruction on which method of suicide you consider most appropriate for me.

  • Jay

    Dear Steve

    I’ve always marveled at how, when writing someone via e-mail and the such that it is quite easy to become caustic. In fact I try to refrain from responding to a perceived attack in kind because I know how easy it is to say things that I would not normally say in person, especially when saying it somewhat anonymously. May I suggest that the tit for tat conersation you seem to be having with the others DOES NOT bring any glory to Christ, it’s merely an excersize of the flesh not wanting to be put down. Shouldn’t we pursue holiness, shouldn’t we be slow to speak, slow to anger? shouldn’t we count it all joy when we encounter insults? Should we accept an ineffective apology if that what we feel it to be then pray for them and our outbursts.

    I am praying that you will receive this in the spirit in which I pen it, so to speak.


  • Grosey

    Thank you Jay for your welcome response.
    I have returned the comments back to these young men solely because they are young men in training to become pastors.
    If they were to speak to the folks they will one day shepherd in their congregations in the same vein that they have spoken to me, they would soon be guilty of the very thing that they have accused me of
    “I have seen pastors abuse their authority and do great damage. In fact, I have a seminary prof who claims that he has seen as much damage done by pastors who abuse their authority as by those who fall into immorality.”
    These gentlemen would have done well to have emailed me privately to discover why difficulties arise in pastoral ministry, rather than to have blasted away proudly never having ever pastored a church, and never having ever practically and over many many years worked through the pastoral issues surrounding eldership.
    Please don’t think I was serious in my retorts. I wished to demonstrate to these guys that they are accountable for how they handle pastoral problems. And that their words unles carefully thought through can have disasterous consequences

  • Jay

    Maybe I am young and naive. This was my first time to look at this blog, maybe you are familiar with the gentlemen whom you have responded “in the same way they have spoken to you”, but if it is true that they are young men in training to be pastors wouldn’t it be of greater value to point them to Christ in the way you (or any of us for that matter)respond? It would seem as if you have had experience in the matter being discussed and that because of your experience it seems as there may be a little frustration in this area. I can only say that I have had experience in a church that was basically pastor led with a cursury “trustee” board and I am now in a church that is led with a plurality elders. I really don’t think I would ever go anywhere else. But that is really beside the point, as a brother in Christ or more importantly a pastor shouldn’t we (you) spur one another on towards love and good deeds, isn’t love the fullfillment of the law? That is not to say that we should not confront, maybe even strongly, things like sin and heresy, but isn’t there a way to do just that while calling attention to Christ and His cause, His glory, His grace? All the while not trying to justify our poor reactions to a perceived threat or condemnation?
    Look I am just a man trying to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus, and I happen upon this discussion. I am saddened by what I hear, What about an unbeliever, what insight will he take away from this discouse?

    May Grace follow, even pursue you, all the days of your life, my brother.

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