The factors contributing to the recent "sudden surge of interest" in the office of elder cited by Dever accurately reflect my own experiences, though my background is GARBC and FBFI, not SBC:
The first reason that I would suggest is that the idea of elders in local churches has prominent advocates and proponents from outside our Southern Baptist constituency. John MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, has for many years practiced and advocated having a plurality of elders lead his congregation. He is himself one of those elders. He has published a variety of things that touch on this, but perhaps most widely used is his little 1984 32-page booklet Answering The Key Questions about Elders. In 1991, John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, a Baptist General Conference church in Minneapolis, Minnesota also led his church to adopt a plural elder model of leadership, and has also written a 63-page booklet on this, Biblical Eldership (1999).
Even more broadly, Wayne Grudem’s popular 1994 Systematic Theology used in many of our seminaries states clearly that “there is quite a consistent pattern of plural elders as the main governing group in the New Testament churches.” His conclusions are that “First, no passage suggests that any church, no matter how small, had only one elder. The consistent New Testament pattern is a plurality of elders ‘in every church’ (Acts 14:23) . . . . Second, we do not see a diversity of forms of government in the New Testament church, but a unified and consistent pattern in which every church had elders governing it and keeping watch over it (Acts 20:28; Heb. 13:17; I Peter 5:2-3).” I should just add that when Grudem wrote this he was a member of a Southern Baptist church in Chicago with elders. Since its completion in 1985, Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology has been perhaps the most widely used textbook in Southern Baptist seminaries, and in many other evangelical schools. At its publication in the mid-1980’s, there had been few systematic theologies that gained wide usage published since Louis Berkhof’s Dutch Reformed work in the 1930’s. In Erickson’s section on the church, he carefully lays out Episcopalian, Presbyterian and Congregational polities, showing strengths and weaknesses. He gingerly advocates Congregationalism, though not with the vigor of such defenses by earlier divine-right Congregationalists like John Owen and Thomas Goodwin, nor even of the milder variety which inhabited the south in the 19th century—like W. B. Johnson and J. L. Reynolds. He also makes two qualifying statements that a more Presbyterian form of government will probably be needed either where the congregation becomes very large, or is filled with those who are more immature as Christians.
The second reason that I would suggest is more internal and pragmatic. There is and has been for some time, I think, a frustration with current structures in our congregations. Many of our churches have the sense that things are simply not working. Some churches led by a single pastor suffer under an authoritarian rule that is too much like the Gentile leadership Jesus forbade among us in Mark 10:42. Other times, young pastors have gone into churches and found them ossified, effectively ruled by either deacons, a nominating committee, a personnel committee, or some other group which has no Biblical standard of maturity in understanding and teaching the Scriptures. And for those churches where our congregational heritage is still valued, it is valued too often as an expression of a wrong, anti-Christian individualism, rather than as part of the corporate responsibility we will bear before the Lord. Furthermore, where baptismal and membership ages plunge lower than driver’s licenses, middle school or even pre-school, and where church membership (even of adults) requires nothing other than a one-time decision—no regular attendance, nor even communication—it cannot be surprising that meetings of members for church business become more and more ineffective. As I hope we will hear John Hammett explain tomorrow morning, “many Baptist churches have strayed so far from regenerate membership that they are incapable of responsible church government at the present time.” Congregationalism fades as membership expectations evaporate.
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