Around the UK and in many parts of the world there are generally three ways of understanding the relationship between ministers and elders in Free Churches.
1. The minister is the elder and the other local church officers are deacons. Many Baptist and Congregational churches use this pattern.
2. The minister has other elders working alongside him. He is an elder also, but has the gift and calling to be a pastor/minister which the others do not have. This difference is sometimes described as the minister is a teaching and ruling elder, while the others are ruling elders only.
3. Complete parity. In this pattern the minister and elders are seen to be completely equal and interchangeable. Often the very terms ‘pastor’ or ‘minister’ are avoided. This view is very similar to the Plymouth Brethren position.
The first two of these patterns have worked well and efficiently for centuries, and still do work well today in thousands of churches worldwide.
The third system can work well provided that it is understood and operated properly. Of course in those situations one man usually emerges as the ‘chairman’ or ‘lead elder’. What do I mean by “understood and operated properly”? I mean that all the elders should be truly equivalent in commitment, ability and labour. This means that the man who would normally be considered to be the pastor should not be ‘demoted’ to the level of the other elders, but rather they should be raised up to the ‘pastor’s’ level. In other words, they should be willing to undertake some training, be as diligent in prayer and study, and be as committed to attendance, punctuality and zeal, and be as willing to sacrifice as the ‘full-time’ man. Are they willing to visit not only the sick but also the membership on a regular basis? Allowing for some variation in gifting, are they as able in preaching, teaching and leading meetings? It is recognized that there may be men among the eldership, or among the church members who are more intelligent, better educated and more experienced than the minister. But that is not the issue. The issue is gifting, calling, office and diligence in the labour of the ministry. Where elders cling on to the notion of total parity in theory, but are not as committed or diligent as the trained minister in practice, it is a farce. Some men expect to be regarded as equal in office and authority while they earn a good salary in a secular job but are nowhere near as committed, trained, or diligent in the eldership. This is surely not right. Many ministers have sacrificed good jobs in order to answer Christ’s call, and have often sacrificed in order to train. Are these parity elders willing to sacrifice?
One highly regarded Baptist minister of a large and influential evangelical congregation has stated that, however spiritual, gifted and able a man may be, if his job or his family commitments prevent him from being present on a regular basis at the main church meetings he should not be in office. A shepherd must be able to attend to the flock.
For example, a minister with a young family cannot take it in turns with his wife in baby-sitting and attending services. He has to be present at all major meetings of the church. Total parity requires that the same should apply to all the other elders. If, however, they pay a man to do all the hard work of preaching, teaching, leading, visiting, etc, while they take it easy but cling to the title, position and authority implied in parity, that is a disgrace. It is not real parity at all.
Let me give an example. Some time ago I was asked to preach at an independant evangelical church. I was told that the morning service, which began at 11.0 am, normally finished at 12.10 or 12.15 pm. One of the two elders would lead the service and I was asked to choose two hymns, one for before and one after the sermon. As the service progressed I became more and more concerned. Apart from the fact that there were two Scripture readings, two prayer times, two sets of notices and one collection, each item was interspersed with inconsequential chit-chat. But that is not all. The elder leading chose no less than six – yes I said six – hymns and songs for the first part of the service, before announcing my pre-sermon hymn. The result was I did not get up to preach until 12.0 noon. Needless to say the service did not end at 12.15pm! This man had no idea how to lead worship. He obviously needed some instruction. Yet they insist on total parity, and have turned good men down who could not accept total parity. They were looking for a pastor/elder then. They are still looking.