Will the Amended Baptist Faith & Message Cause Some Churches To Reconsider Eldership?

As I mentioned in my previous article summarizing the 2023 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, messengers in New Orleans voted to amend Article VI of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 in order to clarify the interchangeable nature of the terms pastor, elder, and overseer. The BFM2000 now reads:

Its two scriptural offices are that of pastor/elder/overseer and deacon. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor/elder/overseer is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.

The point of the amendment is clear – if you are a pastor, then you are an elder. If you are an elder, then you are an overseer. The terms do not represent three different offices in the church, but all refer to the same office of pastor/elder. Although it is not the point of this article to defend that position, a variety of biblical passages can be used to demonstrate the interchangeable nature of the terms. This is what Baptists have always believed, dating back to the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message where pastors are referred to as both “elders” and “bishops.”

In light of the BFM2000 amendment, I am interested to see how SBC churches that have men who carry the title “pastor” but are not listed as an “elder” respond to the changes. Let me clarify…

I’m going to describe a particular approach by several SBC churches. Some churches have a group of men who serve as pastors that represent the salaried pastoral staff. If you visit the website of these churches and click on “Pastors” you will find a group of men listed with the title “pastor” (lead pastor, pastor for worship, pastor for young adults, etc). This is normal and to be expected. However, these same churches also have a board of elders. And if you look carefully, you will notice that some of the men who are listed as pastors for the church are not listed on the board of elders. So, you might see “John Smith – Pastor for Young Adults” on the pastor page, but John Smith is not listed on the elders page.

What does this mean? It means that some of those SBC churches believe that a man can carry the title of “pastor” for the church but not be an “elder” of the church. Why would they do such a thing? I suppose different churches would have different reasons. Here are two that I think are prominent:

  1. Some churches might believe that a younger, inexperienced pastor is not yet ready for the full role of an elder who is called to “exercise oversight” for the entire congregation. Thus, they believe it is wise to give a more inexperienced pastor the opportunity to serve and grow in their position before placing them on the elder board where the weightiest matters of the church will be discussed and decided. So, Jim Smith might be doing great with the college-age group as their pastor, but isn’t yet prepared for the full responsibilities of an elder.
  2. Other churches might embrace the position recently put forth by Rick Warren and Saddleback Church. They believe a person can have the spiritual gift of pastoring without carrying the office of pastor (primarily based on Ephesians 4). So, a person might be referred to as a pastor but doesn’t hold the office.

The first option above seems to make practical sense. The problem is that the NT doesn’t provide room for this as a possibility. There are no examples of pastors who haven’t yet made it as an elder. If you give someone the title of “pastor” then you need to be comfortable with them having fulfilled the qualifications for pastor/elder and be willing for them to serve in the full capacity of that role. If you are not convinced they fulfill the qualifications for full pastoral/eldership responsibilities, then don’t give them the title of pastor. Instead, give them the title of “minister” or “team lead.” The word “pastor” is a very specific word that carries a very specific meaning.

Some argue that this is semantics. Hardly. The Bible uses words to convey specific, spiritual, eternal truths. The word “pastor” or “elder” is one of the most important words in the Bible. It is accompanied by a host of duties and responsibilities that the person who is blessed to carry that title should be fulfilling. If they are not yet equipped to fulfill those duties, then the person should not be called a pastor. I believe it is confusing to the church and a distortion of the Scriptures to create a division between pastors and elders.

The second option above is, in my opinion, simply poor exegesis. If you want to dive into the specifics, then I recommend this article by Denny Burk.

It is possible that some churches will have separate lists for “pastors” and “elders” simply as a way to designate who is on paid staff for the church and who is a “lay elder.” That is understandable, but still confusing, especially to those not familiar with the terms.

I do not expect the change to the BFM2000 to have much impact on these churches that have pastors who do not serve as elders. I say that because these churches have known about the interchangeable nature of the terms long before this amendment came about. However, it is possible that the BFM2000 amendment might cause leadership to revisit the issue if they haven’t in a while. I think that could be a very good thing. I would love for our beloved SBC to be as consistent on this issue as possible, for the good of the church and for the glory of God.