A few years ago a friend of mine mistakenly affirmed that I believed in the absolute parity of the eldership. I informed him, and let me now inform all of my readers, that I emphatically do not believe in such a view of parity. I believe, in fact, in three different kinds of diversity within the elders of the church. I will argue that there is diversity of spiritual gift, financial support, and actual influence. I believe that these three areas of diversity are much more than theoretical in their significance. They have important practical applications with regard to how the eldership and the church does its holy business.
The diversity of elders is clearly taught in the Scriptures. It is not, as we have seen, a diversity with regard to office, authority, or title. But in what, then, does this diversity in the eldership consist? It consists, as I said, in a diversity of spiritual gift, financial support, and actual influence.
Consider, first, the diversity of spiritual gift.
Both the Bible and experience show that elders may have greatly varying gifts. To think through this matter systematically, let me ask you to consider several things. First, the New Testament emphasizes the sovereignty of God in imparting those gifts. 1 Corinthians 12:11 affirms: “But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.”
Second, the New Testament also emphasizes (and in the same passage) the variety of spiritual gifts which the Spirit in His sovereignty imparts, and the variation given to different members of the body of Christ. 1 Corinthians 12:4-7 says: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” This same emphasis is found in Romans 12:3-7 and 1 Pet. 4:10-11. What is true of the gifts of the Spirit to the church in general is, of course, true for the elders of the church as well. Here too there is variety of gift according to the sovereignty of the Spirit.
Third, there are several different gifts that are important specifically for the eldership. Romans 12:7-8 names the gifts of teaching, exhorting, and leading. 1 Corinthians 12:28 mentions the gifts of teaching and administration. 1 Peter 4:11 mentions the gift of speaking. But once more we must remember that God gives these spiritual gifts in varying degrees. The parable of Jesus emphasizes this in Matthew 25:14-15. The varying degrees of gift given to Christians and especially to ministers is also taught in Ephesians 4:7-11. What these passages clearly teach, church history and our own experience confirm. Great diversity exists in the mix and measure of spiritual gifts given to pastor-teachers.
Now this reality has very important practical implications. For one thing, this means that the qualifications for the eldership should not be measured in terms of the gifts of the outstanding preacher-pastor that we admire so much. There may be lesser degrees of gift which still qualify a man for the eldership. Similarly, we must also not limit the exercise of the highly gifted pastor by insisting on an artificial equality in the public ministry of the Word in the church. Equality of office does not mean equality in opportunities for public ministry in the church. This should make us accept men of more slender gifts as true elders, but also makes us feel that no artificial equality needs to be implemented in the public ministry of the church.
Dr. Sam Waldron is the Academic Dean of CBTS and professor of Systematic Theology. He is also one of the pastors of Grace Reformed Baptist Church in Owensboro, KY. Dr. Waldron received a B.A. from Cornerstone University, an M.Div. from Trinity Ministerial Academy, a Th.M. from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. From 1977 to 2001 he was a pastor of the Reformed Baptist Church of Grand Rapids, MI. Dr. Waldron is the author of numerous books including A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, The End Times Made Simple, Baptist Roots in America, To Be Continued?, and MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto: A Friendly Response.