Church polity was a hotly debated issue in the early Baptist church and it is one that continues to rage to this day. “The early Baptist church emerged in seventeenth-century England as autonomous units. Each church had an ordained leader (minister, pastor, or teacher) and deacons elected by the members. Some churches also had elders while others appointed messengers to organize new churches or minister to those churches lacking a leader” (Baptist Life, p. 47). It is best to admit that there were many different forms of church government within the early Baptist movement. In other words, deacon-led, elder-led, and congregation-led churches probably all existed early in Baptist circles.
It appears that many Baptist churches were in fact governed by elders. Former professor of church history at the Master’s Seminary, James Stitzinger, believes that Baptists had multiple elders in their polity up until Hiscox wrote his New Directory (a church polity manual) in the late 1800s. Pastor Mark Dever notes that, “Throughout seventeenth-century England, Baptists affirmed the office of elder. In 1697, Benjamin Keach wrote of ‘bishops, overseers, or elders,’ clearly implying that these New Testament titles refer to one office” (By Whose Authority? Elders in Baptist Life, p. 18). In 1767, one of the great Baptist theologians, John Gill, wrote the massive systematic theology textbook, Body of Divinity. In his book, this English Baptist leader writes, “These pastors and teachers are the same with bishops, or overseers, whose business it is to feed the flock; they have the episcopacy or oversight of, which is the work pastors are to do; which office of a bishop is a good work, and is the only office in the church distinct from that of deacon.—And these bishops are the same with elders …” Later he adds, “These pastors, teachers, bishops, and elders, are called rulers, guides, and governors. A pastor, or shepherd, is the governor and guide of his flock; a teacher and a ruling elder are the same, 1 Tim. 5:17” (Body of Divinity, Vol. II, p. 575). John Gill clearly taught that there are only two offices in the church: elders and deacons. Elders are responsible for teaching, leading, and shepherding the flock of God, while deacons are more accountable for the physical needs of members within the church.
In his book, By Whose Authority, Mark Dever documents a continuity of belief in elder-governed churches from the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention, W.B Johnson, to William Williams (1874), a member of the founding faculty of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, to the renowned Charles Spurgeon (By Whose Authority? pp. 19-21). In 1907, A.H. Strong, author of a popular Reformed Baptist Systematic Theology, summarized his position a little differently: “In certain of the N.T. churches there appears to have been a plurality of elders…There is however, no evidence that the number of elders was uniform, or that the plurality which frequently existed was due to any other cause than the size of the churches for which the elders cared. The N.T. example, while it permits the multiplication of assistant pastors according to need, does not require a plural eldership in every case…There are indications, moreover, that, in certain churches, the pastor was one, while the deacons were more than one, in number” (Systematic Theology, p.916). Suffice it to say, many Baptist preachers and theologians understood that the New Testament model was elder-governed churches. Some differences existed among Baptist theologians as to whether this meant a plurality of elders leading the church (e.g., Benjamin Keach and John Gill) or whether it was acceptable in some instances to have just one (e.g., A.H. Strong).