OSWEGO, Ill.—On March 2 and 3, approximately 60 ministers assembled at Harvest New Beginnings for the 2015 Regional Worship and Growth Connection conference. An informal, intimate event, the conference aptly bills itself as “a gathering of regional GARBC ministry teams and pastors connecting together for worship and growth.” During these two days, that’s exactly what transpired in Oswego: an abundance of worship and growth.
The conference was sponsored by four GARBC churches (CrossRoad Baptist, Ames, Iowa; Calvary Baptist, Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin; Willow Creek Baptist, West Des Moines, Iowa; and Calvary Baptist, Rochester, Minnesota) and hosted by Harvest New Beginnings. The keynote speaker was Rich Van Heukelum, pastor of Shawnee Baptist Church, Shamong, New Jersey, and member of the GARBC Council of Eighteen. Van Heukelum spoke on the subject “Do Baptist Churches Have Elders?”
“Elders—do Baptist churches have them? The answer is yes,” Van Heukelum said at the beginning of the final plenary session. “Is it Baptistic? Yes. Is it beneficial? Yes. Do we have it all worked out? No.”
The roots of this discussion are deeply embedded in an ongoing debate over church polity. Historically, Baptist churches have operated under congregational rule while emphasizing two ecclesiastical offices: pastor and deacon. Presbyterians, on the other hand, operate under an “elder rule” model, according to which power is concentrated in the hands of a few appointed ecclesiastical leaders.
In recent years, however, Baptist churches have begun to discuss the proper place for the Biblical office of elder in their churches. Prominent Christian leaders have exerted a strong influence over this discussion. Some Baptists have found themselves attracted to the “elder rule” paradigm modeled by John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church. James MacDonald wrote a controversial article bearing the incendiary title “Congregational Government Is from Satan.” These and other factors have served to enliven the debate and enhance interest in the question, Just where do elders fit into the Biblical pattern for church government?
Van Heukelum didn’t claim to have all the answers; in fact, he candidly admitted, “You’re going to have more questions when you leave than you have answers.” Nevertheless, in his plenary sessions he clearly articulated a solid foundation, built on careful Biblical exposition, that clarified terms like elder, pastor, and deacon, and furnished a case for why plural eldership is compatible with Baptistic congregational polity. He further anticipated and answered various objections that Baptists are likely to raise against this concept, and offered helpful suggestions for how best to go about implementing such a model.
In addition to the plenary sessions, the conference featured four workshops led by GARBC pastors. Two of these related directly to the conference theme (“How to Do Congregationalism with Elected Deacons” led by Will Hatfield, pastor of CrossRoad Baptist Church, Ames, Iowa; and “How to Do Congregationalism with Elected Unpaid Pastors and Deacons,” led by Van Heukelum), while the other two related to more general ministerial concerns (“Balancing Family and Ministry,” led by John Greening, national representative of the GARBC, and “How to Approach Change,” led by Ken Floyd, executive director of the Michigan Association of Regular Baptist Churches and chairman of the GARBC’s Council of Eighteen). These workshops involved a high level of interaction between attendees and generated a great deal of discussion.
It is doubtful that any definitive resolution to the issues raised and addressed at this conference will emerge in the near future; they are inextricably linked with complex theological, historical, denominational, and exegetical concerns for which trite platitudes will never suffice. Nonetheless, the messages delivered and interactions held this year in Oswego will go a long way toward clarifying the germane issues and stimulating healthy, Biblical, God-honoring thinking in the minds of many GARBC pastors.
- View photos of the conference.