Roger Williams arrives in Massachusetts Bay
NOTE TO READER: This blog entry has a focus on events at Ridgecrest Baptist Church, where I attend. If you find internal church politics boring…well…you don’t know what you’re missing.
My church family is scheduled to vote on whether or not to amend our constitution for the purpose of creating the office of elder. This vote will occur on September 20 during our business meeting.
I joined Ridgecrest six years ago by letter when I moved back to town. Although I had been active in an independent church with an elder structure before leaving the Metroplex, I joined the Southern Baptist tradition in 2000 by baptism at First Baptist Church of Alexandria, Virginia. Prior to this, I had always been involved in a church with elders, principally in the Presbyterian tradition.
So, by way of full disclosure, I wholeheartedly endorse the amendment to Ridgecrest’s constitution. Not only do I believe it will bring our church family into fuller obedience to God’s word – an exposition of which our pastor, Matt Beasley has carefully laid out -- but such a change in structure has many practical benefits that will make our local body of Christ healthier. True, all elders are human, but any possible negative consequences are outweighed by the positive. The Ridgecrest amendment, in particular, is a biblical complement to the great Baptist traditions of congregationalism. This is because the amendment assigns elders specific roles independent of the deacons, term limits them, and still requires the church membership to approve motions.
Having said this, I realize the e-word puts a bad taste in the mouths of many of my brothers and sisters. There are basically two camps of opposition: those who are opposed because elders are not historically a part of the Baptist tradition; and those who sympathize with this group. The basic argument of this last group is itself sympathetic and understandable: why alienate anyone, especially our truly elderly members who have been faithful for so long, and cut a rift in the unity of the body? Believe me, I get this.
My purpose in writing is to respectfully ask my brothers and sisters to reconsider their position if in fact they are in one of these camps. I also want to try and move the rest of us up out of a touch of apathy that seems to surround the topic.
I will attempt to do this, of course, by giving a history lesson.
Why do Baptists not have elders, given the overall unwavering commitment of the tradition to the teachings of Scripture? Further, why do many of us harbor a quiet disdain toward the very idea of elders? The answer, as is often the case, lies in the denomination’s founding.
The founder of the Baptist church as we know it in America today was the Puritan preacher Roger Williams (1603-1683). He is a compelling figure from any part of American history, let alone the Colonial period. He was exceptionally articulate even in an age of gifted preachers. He was passionate and persuasive, kind and charismatic.
But he was also contrarian and often obnoxiously self-righteous. In a time and place when Christian teaching emphasized the attributes of God and how they manifested themselves in the pious life, Williams’ sermons regularly mixed in social, political and anti-royal rhetoric rooted in opposition to most forms of man-made authority. He believed intensely that God was the only real authority, and human beings accountable only to the Lord through their own consciences. Williams’ sermons demanded this extreme, direct repentance, action and justice in the face of illegitimate authority. Although certainly devout and committed to Christ, Williams seemed to elevate the right of an individual to his conscience over pursuing Christ-likeness among brothers (James 5).
A key reason for this was the unique status of the church shortly after the first New England colonies were founded. Rarely in Christian history has Bible-based church governance been so closely intertwined with a civil structure than it was in Puritan New England. Ironically, the Puritans had left England, where religious dissent was often met with being burnt at the stake, also with the hopes of finding “the pure church” and establishing their famous “City on a Hill” (Matthew 5:14).
But their priorities were religious freedom over individual conscience. This religious freedom was upheld by a community of believers while conscience was called upon to be administered in accordance with Paul’s teachings on Christian liberty (Romans 14). True, the Puritans got a little crazy on a few things, but this basic idea of what a Christian community should be was at the heart of their faith.
In a handful of separate colonies across Massachusetts, the Puritans had moved away from the bishop-vestry style of their own Anglican tradition and used the New Testament Elder-Deacon model to govern both church and village. Religious authority and civil government were one and the same in 17th Century Massachusetts under the Puritan elders. You could be punished if your neighbor overheard you speaking abusively toward your spouse within the confines of your own home. You could be put in stocks for leaving the church service early…and they lasted three hours on a narrow wooden bench! One Puritan man was even brought before the church to be disciplined for “not fulfilling his husbandly duty.” His wife brought the charge.
Relative to the Puritan leadership in Massachusetts, Williams would have been considered religiously “libertarian,” or even liberal by today’s standards. Williams’ contrarian nature and his never-satisfied pursuit of what he called “the pure church” put him at odds almost immediately upon arriving in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631. A group of men governing not just doctrine but also the religious correctness and everyday affairs of a community offended Williams’ radical views on the Lordship of Christ. He was the first American to introduce and wrestle with the idea of separating church and state and what that looks like.
Making things worse for the Puritan elders was how Williams chose to approach the Indians of New England. He did so with an open mind, unlike most of the pastors of the region. Williams, along with more enlightened missionaries like John Eliot and the Mayhew family, felt that the more effective means of evangelization of Native Americans was to understand them culturally. Today, modern missionaries would refer to these missionaries’ efforts as early forms of contextualization.
At the time, the prevailing view of most Christians was that the only sincere faith was one that at once rejected an individual’s pagan ways and immediately embraced not just the Lord Jesus as Savior but also European culture. This view was upheld, often in courts or court-like settings, by the Puritan elders.
Understandably, Williams and others became indignant when many elders began to put up roadblocks to church membership against the very Indians they had converted. And it’s true that the things these Puritan elders did were petty and reproachful to some of Scripture’s most basic teachings, such as the doctrine of equality in Christ found in Galatians 3:28. In the case of some of John Eliot’s converts, the Indian men went all the way in wearing English clothing and cutting their hair, only to be told by the elders that they could not worship in the same building as the white people.
Moreover, when many of these Indians began to have land disputes with the ever-migrating colonists, things wouldn’t go their way in the church/colonial courts. Often their lands got appropriated without clear title or just compensation. Williams began to speak out against the elders in these cases, and he began to lump the Bible’s teaching about elders in with ideas about the establishment and corruption.
Williams’ agitation resulted in his expulsion from the colony by the Massachusetts leaders. Unlike people like Eliot, Williams chose to antagonize those in authority instead of work with them. He struggled with New Testament passages like Romans 13 and 2 Peter 2. By the time Williams found safe haven among the Narragansett Indians in what would become Rhode Island, the minister and his followers had decided that anything resembling a church hierarchy was detrimental to God’s people.
Williams and others in the region, notably Anne Hutchison in Connecticut (who had also been banned for crossing the elders) hence promoted congregationalism as the purer model of church governance. And because they also rejected the infant baptism practiced by the Anglicans (Church of England) – they thought it was too much like Roman Catholicism, which they truly HATED – the more open, loosely structured tradition of the Baptist faith rooted in believer’s baptism was born.
Over time, the self-governing sensibilities and capabilities of Americans generally seemed to bless the Baptist church structure. To this very day, many Baptists seem to struggle in separating Pauls’ teaching on church governance from our own sacrosanct views about democracy and self-governance.
All of this is to say that we might resist the idea of elders in a Baptist church for some very understandable cultural reasons. But Roger Williams should have been careful not to throw the baby out…well…with the holy water.
I hope my dear brothers and sisters at Ridgecrest who I love with all my heart will consider my opinion as to what might be animating any opposition to our upcoming amendment. I have a dream that this blog post will set off a vigorous and loving debate prior to the vote. In a time when God’s people are under withering attacks corporately, when ministries within a church can become personal carve-outs and when often the most basic tenets of God’s truth go unfollowed, I believe an amendment like ours is that much more important to strengthen us against the wolves.
Thanks for reading.