As I was teaching the two Deacon Ministry seminars this past Saturday, I was stunned at the response of the groups when I mentioned the word “elder” or biblical “eldership.” I asked the groups to raise their hands if they had ever heard a sermon on eldership or even knew what a biblical elder was, I think I got two hands out of 50 attenders.
So where did the elders go in Baptist life? I have been asking that question for several years now. We had them in nearly all Baptist churches for hundreds of years (see Leon McBeth’s Baptist Heritage for proof), but then they disappear.
I don’t have a verified answer to my question. I am not a Baptist historian. But the last place I find the term “elder” in Baptist church history and polity is in the early 1900’s. My hypothesis (and it may be totally off) is that when thousands of men went to war in WW1 and WW2, there was an immediate lack of male leadership in the church. The congregational response was to take the role of deacon and elder and combine them into one to make up for the shortfall. So now in the modern Baptist church, we have deacons acting as both deacons(table servants) and elders (overseers).
To read more on each biblical office of the church, I have prepared this little outline of key passages describing each. You can get that here.