Studies in Free Will Baptist Theology: Elders

By Ben Campbell


What is a biblical elder? Could you answer that question for yourself without your Bible in hand? Until a few years ago, I’m not sure I could have. I would have needed my Bible and probably a Greek lexicon to define what elders are and how they function. In fact, lexicons are a very helpful tool regardless of your knowledge of eldership and elders. Sometimes the Bible is adamantly clear about issues – such as salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone and Jesus as 100% truly God and 100% truly man. However, there are other times where the Bible is not as explicit with doctrinal issues – the Trinity being one example.[1] In my opinion, the role of eldership falls more toward the side of explicit clarity within the Scriptures, but not 100% clarity. If this doctrine was fully spelled out in Scripture, there would, otherwise, be no disagreement between orthodox, evangelical Christians on the issue.

So, I am writing this post to explain the Free Will Baptist approach to biblical eldership, but also because I believe it is important to research and articulate our own views for the purpose of theological dialogue and discourse. I am not writing this essay to be ecumenical, nor am I writing to force someone to take on my point of view. This post will simply be to clarify and put forward the viewpoints of Free Will Baptist doctrine for the glory of God and the edification of the Church.

Defining Eldership

So, let’s start with what is a biblical elder. Well, this really is a loaded issue, because there are so many differing views on this issue of biblical eldership. Historically, Free Will Baptists have believed and explained that the words elder (presbuteros), bishop (episkopos), and shepherd (poimēn) all are used synonymously in the New Testament. In 1679, the General Baptists affirmed this reality in The Orthhodox Creed: “…the Elder so ordained, is to watch over that particular Church.”[2] Picirilli affirms this:

The titles alone impress on us the importance of the role of pastor. He is a respected elder with maturity and experience. He is a shepherd, a person who exercises oversight and watch-care over a church as the flock of God. This includes, especially, his responsibility to teach them the Word of God. There is no greater honor and no weightier responsibility than this.[3]

When Paul and Peter use these words, they are always referring to the same office of what we now call the office of pastor. According to the Free Will Baptist Treatise, it is the “Pastor, who preaches the Word of God, ministers to the needs of the members, and exercises general leadership within the congregation. It is expected that he will unite with the local church if he is not a member when called. The church should not call a man who is not at least licensed to preach within the denomination.”[4]

So, when the Treatise – and, quite frankly, Christianity in general – uses the word “pastor,” I believe it is referring to the term(s) elder, bishop, and shepherd. It is not referring to the office of pastor as another office or term altogether but is rather conveying a catchall word for the three terms used by Paul and Peter in the New Testament. Yet, all denominations and/or Christians do not agree with the Free Will Baptist point of view.

Contrasting Views

What are some of the other views of the eldership of the Church? Really, this is a great question! Part of being a theologian – part of research and debate – is interacting with the views with which you disagree. Good, reputable scholarship not only affirms what they believe, but refutes what they do not – in a Christlike manner, of course.

In his book, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons,[5] Ben Merkle presents the different views of church government that employ the office of elders (and deacons). This book would be a helpful resource for those aiming to understand the different interpretations of church government from the leadership’s perspective.

Merkle records four differing views: Episcopal – the bishops (episkopos) are successors of the Apostles in the NT and, therefore, ordain all other church leaders because of their authority over the church; Presbyterian – there are two types of elders (presbuteros), teaching and ruling elders; Congregational – churches are not governed by bishops or elders, but by the congregation, and this congregation ordains and elects pastors and deacons to serve them; Nongovernmental – while there are elders and pastors, the pulpit is not limited to these persons.

Within these four views, there is room for a complementarian approach and an egalitarian approach to men and women in the church. However, as everyone should affirm, there is only one ultimately correct position – both sides cannot be right.

Free Will Baptist View

According to the historical view of Free Will Baptist eldership, these terms can be synonymous with the same office. Let me clarify – as Thomas Grantham writes, “Some have laboured to make a difference between the Office of Bishops and Elders; but with the Holy Scripture makes them rather one Office than two.”[6] So, in this case, then, we find the forefront theologian, Thomas Grantham, defining Bishops and Elders as one and the same. The same is true in the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible; it defines a bishop as “’elder,’ ‘overseer,’ ‘shepherd,’ or ‘guardian,’ corresponding closely to the current term ‘pastor.’ Jesus is called ‘the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.’”[7]

Thomas Helwys, another General Baptist[8] frontrunner, writes that the only two offices of the Church are “Elders, who by their office do especially feed the flock concerning their souls, Acts 20.28, 1 Peter 5.2,3. or Deacons, Men and Women, who by their office relieve the necessities of the poor and impotent brethren concerning their bodies, Acts 6.1-4.”[9]

Even from a more modern perspective, Robert Picirilli echoes Helwys and Grantham on the issue of eldership. Picirilli presents the notion that our modern term “pastor” is a 3-function office. More plainly put, pastors do the work of an elder, bishop, and shepherd.[10] In this office of the pastor, the man who is ordained to gospel ministry must be qualified to do such a task. And this qualification comes in the form of these New Testament descriptors – elder, bishop, shepherd.

As you can see, historically, Free Will Baptists have believed there are two offices and only two offices in the Church: elders and deacons. Now, whether Deacons can be men AND women is a completely different discussion (or post). Yet, the terms elder/pastor/bishop/shepherd can be used for the same office – they are multiple functions of the same office. Even the General Baptist document, The Standard Confession of 1660 affirms this truth “…[T]he Elders or Pastors which God hath appointed to oversee, and feed his Church.”[11] Pastors are elders and elders are pastors.


So, let’s ask the real question: why does this even matter? Ultimately, this matters because we want to be as true to the biblical text as we can when it comes to matters of faith and practice. I can think of no better way to please the Lord than to govern His Church in the ways He has set forth in His Word. If we truly want to please Him, we will do that which He commands. So, if we truly believe that pastors must be qualified by the standard of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, then let’s aim to seek out men who exemplify these qualities instead of placing almost qualified men in positions of authority over the Church of Jesus Christ. Part of our obedience is ordaining the men who meet the qualifications, not men who claim they are “called.” The “called” always meet the qualifications – every time.

If the church is to get back to biblical Christianity, it must return to ordaining biblical elders/bishops/shepherd – pastors. Biblical pastors are those who desire to feed, care for, and protect the flock of God. May God raise up men to do just this for His glory and our good!

[1] For clarity, I am affirming a historical view of the Trinity that is One God in three Persons – Father, Son, and Spirit. I am simply explaining that not all doctrines of orthodox Christianity are explicitly laid out in Scripture, but must be implicitly interpreted by students of the Word.

[2] An Orthodox Creed, London: 1679, article xxxi.

[3] Robert E. Picirilli. Teacher, Leader, Shepherd: The New Testament Pastor (Nashville: Randall House, 2007), 12.

[4] Free Will Baptist Treatise, section IV, Letter A.

[5] Benjamin L. Merkle. 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2008), 26-30.

[6] Thomas Grantham. Christianismus Primitivus, Book II, Chapter 9 (London: Sign of the Elephant and Castle, 1678), 121.

[7] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Bishop,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 360.

[8] Though we refer to Helwys as “Classical Arminian,” it would be notable to remind our readers that Helwys was from the General Baptist movement of the 17th century.

[9] Joe E. Early, Jr. The Life and Writings of Thomas Helwys (Macon, GA.: Mercer University Press, 2009), 72.

[10] Picirilli, Teacher, Leader, Shepherd, 10.

[11] Standard Confession of 1660, chapter XV.


3 responses to “Studies in Free Will Baptist Theology: Elders”

  1. […] expressed it this way in his post on elders. He said, “I can think of no better way to please the Lord than to govern His Church in the […]

  2. […] this post, I would like to follow-up on the elders post by considering one question a reader posed early on. The reader asked, “What about the issue of […]

  3. […] Studies in Free Will Baptist Theology: Elders […]

%d bloggers like this: