The Coming Doom of Elder Rule


Weather and history, facilitate two other professions: the “forecaster,” an individual who states with varying degrees of accuracy what the weather will be like tomorrow; and the “futurist,” those who forecast, also with varying degrees of accuracy, future trends in society, business, politics or multiple other arenas. Another occupation, the consultant, also forecasts, but mainly recommends some action to either take advantage of the trends or to mitigate against damage the potential storm may cause. The church consultant, like me, is no different. I try to examine history and the “weather” and then make some educated predictions with a view to helping churches either exploit or expiate their situation.

American society, politics, and cultural norms are changing, perhaps as rapidly than any time since the 1960’s. As the old saying goes, “the train has left the station” and Newtonian physics tells us that trains, once in motion, are exceptionally difficult to stop. Todays church is caught in this transitional era with repercussions likely to be more pronounced in the coming years. Looking at the current trends in American society one trend that seems clear that the modern evangelical concept of “elder rule” is doomed.

Even a cursory glance at church history demonstrates that political structures have influenced, if not dictated, the church’s approach to polity. The early church and later Catholicism resembled the imperial system; Anglicanism, a constitutional monarchy. After the American Revolution, congregational polity became the norm, especially after the populist presidency of Andrew Jackson (whose portrait is apparently a favorite of the current president, Donald Trump). Check this comparison of American church membership in 1776 and 75 years later in 1850.

Congregationalists 20.4% Methodists 34.2%
Presbyterian 19% Baptists 20.5%
Baptists 16.9% Catholic 13.9%
Anglican/Episcopal 15.7% Presbyterian 11.6%
Methodist 2.5% Congregationalists 4.0%
Catholic 1.8% Anglican/Episcopal 3.2%

The trends are rather clear. Societal dynamics (populism, immigration, westward expansion) directly coincided with changes in denominational preferences and approaches to polity.  Methodism, the populist version of Anglicanism, exploded in numbers; there was also a significant increase in Baptist groups; with a concurrent decline of the “traditional” and “elder” structured churches; and immigration brought a huge influx of Catholicism.[1]

In the last 50 years there was a definite shift in evangelical churches from congregationalism, which had largely been the norm since 1850, to some manifestation of elderism. This in itself was part of another cultural shift, but that’s an essay for another time.

Elderism (best I can tell my own term) encompasses a wide spectrum within the presbyterian form of church polity.[2] On one end elderism mirrors a “representative republic.” It is a common-sense understanding that a growing congregation simply cannot vote on every issue that may come up. So, while still retaining the foundational control with both the franchise and the purse, the congregation yields functional control to a group of leaders, elders or deacons (many churches practice elderism even though they use the nomenclature of deacons).

On the other end of the elderism spectrum there is oligarchy, or the rule of the elite. Here the congregation has yielded not only operational control to the elders, but also the franchise—that is the elders themselves select the elders—a self-perpetuating system. At this point the elderism spectrum overlaps with one end of monarchial spectrum depending on the role of the senior pastor. While some may sincerely view themselves as primus inter pares “first among equals,” some senior pastors, like Napoleon, wield monarchial power (even heredity perpetuity) all the while positing fidelity to “biblical” prescripts.

This combination: loss of franchise and no influence into the operation of the church, Christians may well ask the question “why join?” The old answers or vague Biblical references to membership, are less compelling; and as a result the phenomenon of “regular attenders” in churches, virtually unknown 50 years ago, has become increasingly common in evangelicalism.

Another division can form in churches along the lines of the Presbyterian concept of “teaching elders” and “ruling elders.” Sometimes they are called “Staff Elders” and “Lay Elders” to differentiate the paid pastoral staff and the non-paid elders. This type of division is based on an aside by Paul in 1 Tim 5 about elders who labor in the word and doctrine being worthy of double honor. Certainly not a capricious application of the phrase, although I think it requires malista to bear more weight than Paul likely intended. The potential consequence is the risk of an “elite” being formed within the larger oligarchy, an effectual politburo where the lay elders can be marginalized. With this structure the “common folk” the congregation are even further removed from meaningful involvement. Imagine coming to a church consulting job where there is a three way battle between staff elders, lay elders, and an increasingly proactive congregation; all with some weapon to wield, all thinking they are right, and all wanting to win (I’ve done that a few times).

Church ministries, devised, controlled, and directed by the leaders within elderism can become increasingly distant and disconnected from the congregation (I recently heard one pastor/elder actually refer to his congregation as hoi polloi). Of course the problem is the congregation’s offerings finance all the oligarchy’s schemes. If this disconnect becomes too pronounced the congregation, the ones who previously asked, “why join?” may start asking, “why give?” That’s when the trouble gets serious.

Without the ability to have meaningful input into church programs, emphases, and expenditures, the “why give?” question often becomes the only lever church members retain, the indirect control of the purse. Without money, church leaders cannot implement their schemes. While some churches postpone this issue by virtue of significant donors also having a “seat at the table,” if the problem persists eventually there will be conflict.

If the politics of the last decade or so have anything instructive for the church it is simply that people are increasingly dis-satisfied with the status quo and yielding power to the “elite.” As David Brooks noted several years ago, “Americans actually feel less connected to their leadership class now than they did then.” Also people are increasingly questioning the expenditure of funds (taxes or offerings, take your pick) for adventures, which they increasingly don’t see as helpful, locally or personally. This inward perspective is ultimately where populism leads society.

Churches, especially evangelical, seem to lag a decade or so behind society. The populist wave that President Jackson rode from 1829 to 1837 didn’t immediately overtake the church, but by 1850 it had. Evangelical churches will almost certainly see the effects of the current trends sooner rather than later. Elderism, especially the oligarchical end of the spectrum, is almost certain to fall out of favor with Christians as they look at their own options for a home church.

So, what are churches to do? Every church is different but I think there are a few general principles:

  • Regardless of polity, develop a thoroughly participatory leadership/decision-making model. I’ve written before I don’t think one model of polity can be shown to be “biblical” to the exclusion of the other models. Elderism is still a viable model, but if there is too much separation between the elders and meaningful congregational input the question will go from “why join?” to “why give?” to “why be here at all?”
  • In considering your “local church” be certain not to lose focus on “local.” The high-water mark of the mega-church era has probably passed. One analogy seems appropriate. About 25 years ago Borders pretty much killed local independent bookstores, I know several of my favorites disappeared. But Borders, thankfully in my view, died. The result has been in the last few years one of the fastest growing segments of new businesses has been small independent bookstores. The idea of people driving 25+ miles, passing lots of good evangelical churches and causing many to close, to get to the “big church” (which was probably never a good idea) I think is a coming casualty of the populism of this era.
  • Watch your budgets and keep them balanced. Not black and red ink, although that is important; I mean balanced in terms of outlays into ministries that are important to the people locally. There are many directions this could go, but one example will suffice. A few weeks ago I started a project to see how many church conferences there were in America. At over 150 I quit counting. There’s even a web page where you can access “conference consultants” will give you a personalized list of what conferences would be right for you. There are two sides to this coin. Ask yourself as a pastor or church leader: (1) why are we sponsoring this conference? What does it do for our church? And (2) while we want our pastors and leaders to be refreshed and well-informed, do they really need to attend four conferences per year (that’s the national average for pastors right now).

Have you noticed another thread running through this essay that is in keeping with the current political mood? The other key factor expanding in society right now is nationalism. For the church, larger associations, coalitions, togethers, networks and the like are undoubtedly useful, but the populism of the age are likely cause more Christians to ask, “how are they helping our church?” Every church and every pastor will have a different answer for that question, but it’s coming.

While the church is a manifestation of God’s kingdom, what Alva McClain insightfully called, the “mediatorial kingdom,” it is nonetheless part of the earthly society where it is temporally located. One might say what I’ve presented in this essay should be rejected since the church should not be so tainted by the world. That’s a larger discussion for another essay, but the societal train is moving and if you hope to influence its direction it will be more effective to work the controls than to stand on the tracks.




[1] The geographic realities of westward expansion made Presbyterianism or structures with synods and general assemblies, etc., exceptionally impractical. There were also obviously other factors involved, such as the Anglicanism being identified with “royalists.” Although it’s not entirely that simple, since Methodists, simply a sub-division of Anglicanism in 1776, was also largely anti-revolution and pro-crown. Interestingly in the same period, Lutheranism and the Anabaptist groups (neither of which have ever been trend setters in America) remained consistent at about 2%.

[2] Commonly three categories of church polity are recognized: Congregational; Presbyterian or Elder; and Monarchial. Within each of those three there is a spectrum and there tends to be some overlap in styles between the three at the far end of each.