Why do so few churches today have a truly biblical eldership?

Businessman Looking to SunsetThroughout the New Testament, we find a clear and consistent model of each church being pastored by a team of elders, with never so much as a mention of a senior or lead pastor. (If this is new to you, you might want to read Why we don’t have a senior pastor.) I recently reviewed a very helpful book by Benjamin Merkle, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons. Merkle notes that while most evangelical scholars and pastors agree on what the New Testament teaches about elders/overseers, these biblical teachings are too rarely applied today in local churches. He writes, “The organizational structure of many churches today bears almost no resemblance to the pattern found among the New Testament churches.” We could probably strengthen this statement to refer to most churches today. Someone commenting on my review asked a very important question:

Why is this such a foreign concept in the church today, when it seems so clear . . . ?

Now I should point out that it’s not all bad news today. We do see more churches being planted with a biblical leadership structure, established churches transitioning into elder-leadership, and a growing number of books propounding a scriptural form of eldership. This is all encouraging but, when we look at the vast number of churches, the relative few who have a genuinely biblical eldership still constitute a tiny minority. This naturally triggers the question: Why? I don’t have all the answers, of course, but here are some factors that tend to bind us to the status quo:

A separation of theology and ministry
For too many Christians, theology has become something utilized only when discussing doctrines such as the nature of God or views on predestination. Even far too many church leaders give little thought to the biblical reasons why we do what we do as the church. Why do we worship the way we do? Why do we structure our services the way we do? Many people just follow what was modeled for them by others without any real theological reflection.

A preference for the familiar
When most of us move to another town, what kind of church do we look for? We usually try to find the kind of church we’re already accustomed to, don’t we? We’re usually seeking similar music and teaching styles and ways of doing things. It’s all comfortably familiar with no challenging learning curve. For many evangelical Christians, a church led by a team of elders with no designated senior or lead pastor would just be odd. Whenever church leaders discuss the idea of transitioning to a biblical eldership, there are inevitably those who resist—not because they think it’s not biblical, but because they think it’s too different. They’ve never done it this way before, they haven’t seen any one else do it this way before, so they don’t like it.

A priority for the pragmatic
Even those who spend a lot of time reading, thinking and talking about how to do church often focus less on what’s scriptural and more on what “works”: what’s working in a particular context or demographic, what’s working in other churches, what’s working now as opposed to 5 or 10 years ago, etc. Now, I’m not suggesting we ignore practical realities, and these can be valid questions to consider. But wise, practical application must always come after we clearly understand the relevant biblical principles. If we neglect scriptural teaching on the church for the sake of what we think “works,” we’ve just become another kind of Pharisee nullifying the Word of God for the sake of our tradition (cf. Matthew 15:6). To rely on our pragmatism rather than the biblical pattern is an incredibly dangerous precedent.

A self-perpetuating problem
Not only is the status quo a familiar, comfortable norm, but it’s become ingrained in churches in ways we might not have anticipated. First, we’ve given the senior pastor an elevated role, with a certain power and prestige, and then traditionally described (and even taught about) this unique role as a sacred duty to which a man is specially called by God. Who is going to voluntarily walk away from that?

dff77e1e-af83-4a53-b44b-db8d2da6a18a.imgAnd even if one is willing to step back from this unbiblically elevated role, who is he going to find to shepherd alongside him? Year after year we’ve implicitly taught the men in our congregations that pastoral ministry is done by the professionals. There’s rarely any encouragement and challenge for ordinary Christian men to grow and mature to the point they can share in the pastoral leadership of the church body. And then we wonder why we have passive men in our churches! We worry they don’t lead their families spiritually. Well, why should they? That’s the pastors’ job. Certainly none of these “laymen” are expected to be pastors! And so the status quo creates spiritually passive men in the church . . . which perpetuates the status quo.

Elders who don’t pastor
There’s an expectation in many churches that only “the pastor” can do certain things. No one can do ‘this’ or do ‘that’ the way he does. It’s so easy for a pastor to take on all the pastoral ministry for the church, convinced that only he can do it. And it’s so easy for other leaders to sit back and let him. This again becomes a vicious cycle. People don’t see the elders as pastors because they don’t do anything pastoral. An elder who doesn’t pastor should be an oxymoron. This doesn’t mean the elders must all serve in identical ways with no variations in the way they minister. But a man who doesn’t actively share in the shepherding leadership of the church should not be an elder. You might have to start with a smaller team of elders, but if all your elders function in truly pastoral ways, over time this will change the perception of the people and they’ll recognize multiple pastors for the church.

Churches with a pseudo-eldership
Some of you reading this post might be thinking, “What’s the problem? I know of a lot of elder-led churches.” It’s become very common for churches to describe themselves as “elder-led,” this is true. But a considerable majority of these churches distinguish one man from the elders and designate him as the senior or lead pastor of the church. He’s the one responsible for leading the elders and the staff, and for “casting vision” for the church. These church leaders confusingly use the terminology of “biblical eldership” and “plural leadership” while perpetuating a church polity that undermines and ultimately destroys real plurality in leadership. Ironically, they often recommend and refer to works by people such as Alexander Strauch and Benjamin Merkle, even though these authors strongly warn against the very leadership model these churches are following!

Historically, these churches are following a monoepiscopal model. This is virtually indistinguishable from a polity that became common in the churches by the late 2nd century, with a bishop over each church in distinction from the church presbyters (elders). This pastor + elders model is very old, but this was a polity that developed over time and one that was quite different from the leadership structure of the 1st century churches. More importantly, a great many of us would question where this distinct senior/lead pastor role is taught in Scripture. We would caution our sister churches that an eldership that adds a wholly extra-biblical church leadership role should not be described as “biblical eldership.” I respectfully challenge my brothers that an eldership plus a senior/lead pastor is a model that is not consistently scriptural. (I would also ask for a robust biblical defense of the senior pastor role, based on a clear, unambiguous scriptural model. This is something I haven’t been able to find, even from those who were supposed to be defending this practice.)

When we try to discuss the elder-leadership of churches, these pseudo-elderships muddy the water. Many of those boldly claiming we must have elders—because of the New Testament pattern—go on to add a distinct leadership role that can’t be found in the New Testament! But because they so emphasize the scriptural need for elders, they create a perception they’re following a genuinely biblical church polity. Their people don’t have to be discomfited or challenged by talk of biblical eldership because they think they already have one.

This can be discouraging to those seeking to live out the New Testament model of plural, shared pastoral leadership. Most scholars (and to a lesser degree pastors) agree that the earliest churches were led collegially by councils of elders with no designated senior leader—but disappointingly few seem motivated to act on their apparent convictions. We’re surrounded by churches who claim to be “elder-led”—while they tack on a leadership role that is entirely missing from, and incongruous with, the New Testament model. It’s easy to see how proponents of biblical eldership could become weary, wondering why they should continue to be the odd man out in current evangelical church culture.

So what should we do?

1. Don’t despair. Remember it’s Christ’s church. We should be willing to pour out our lives for Christ and for his body, to do everything we can to contribute to the well-being of the church. But it’s not our responsibility or prerogative to “fix” everyone else in the church. We remember that God is sovereign, and we trust the big picture to him.

2. Don’t become condemning or divisive. None of us are perfectly balanced in all our theological views. We all have our blind spots. We should continue to discuss these issues, respectfully challenging our fellow leaders, but we should also continue to intentionally stand with them as Christian brothers. Just because they see things differently than we do doesn’t mean they are rejecting Scripture or willfully ignoring God’s instructions.

3. Don’t give up your convictions for what seems easy now. It’s hard to go against the flow—especially when we have to (gently) resist sincere, committed fellow believers. But if we’re convinced this is the normative biblical model for church leadership, we can’t compromise or water down these New Testament teachings on the church just because they aren’t popular right now.

4. Talk—respectfully—with your pastor about your convictions. You’d be surprised how many senior/lead pastors believe there really shouldn’t be any senior/lead pastors! Some have even tried to initiate change only to be resisted by the very people they lead. If you speak with your pastor, it could be encouraging to both of you, and might even facilitate change. At the very least, you’ll be open and honest with the pastor who is leading your church. But never be accusing, disrespectful or argumentative. This doesn’t help anyone!

5. If necessary, prayerfully seek another church. If we believe the leadership structure of our church is unbiblical, there may come a point when it’s time to leave. It’s doubtful we’ll ever agree with every little thing our church does, but it is difficult to become deeply involved with a church when we can’t sincerely defend its theology of ministry. I think most pastors would agree with this and understand the need to find a better fit. The good news is there are more churches out there with biblical forms of eldership than most people realize.

who-me6. Prayerfully consider whether you should be part of planting a new church. If God has gifted you for a shepherding and teaching ministry, maybe you should be part of providing your area with a biblically-led church. This isn’t a decision to make hastily, and I encourage much prayer and the seeking of wise counsel and input from other mature, experienced leaders. But often a new work begins with a divinely-encouraged dissatisfaction with the status quo.

7. If you’re stuck, seek to be a faithful part of a local church despite the different views, as you’re able. I know of people who have attended churches whose views they can’t entirely endorse. As people of conscience, this limits their ability to be involved in the church. But they strive to be as faithful and involved as they can be without violating their convictions or causing friction in the church. (Of course, I’m speaking of churches that are solidly grounded in the biblical gospel.) This isn’t an ideal situation, and it’s not an easy one, but I respect those who make this kind of sacrifice when necessary.

If this is where you are right now, keep trusting God! Both your individual life and the life of the church are in his hands. And he knows what he’s doing. We need to be faithful with the gifting, resources and opportunities God gives us, and leave the rest up to him.

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Review: “40 Questions About Elders and Deacons” by Benjamin Merkle

0004464_40_questions_about_elders_and_deaconsThis book is a helpful resource and a welcome volume on the pastoral leadership of the church. Tom Schreiner wrote the foreword, and he doesn’t mince words when it comes to explaining the importance of this subject:

“The church is not a human institution or idea. The ordering of the church is not a matter of our wisdom or preference. The church is not a business where the brightest executives brainstorm on how it should be organized. Too many conceive of the church as a human organism where we innovatively map out its structure. God has not left us to our own devices. He has given us instructions on the nature and design of the church in His inspired and authoritative Word. To jettison what God says about the church and supplant it with our own ideas is nothing less than astonishing arrogance.”

Merkle doesn’t shy from emphasizing this significance either. He cautions that unbiblical models of church leadership can lead to unbiblical church leaders, and describes how this affects the nature of pastoral ministry and also the life and health of the church body. He effectively shows from Scripture that God intends for the local church to be pastored by a council of elders and why the common practice of distinguishing a senior or lead pastor from the elders is not biblical.

As you might have guessed from the title, this book is divided into 40 questions, each of them addressing a specific question regarding elders and deacons. (Technically, there are 39 questions since the author devotes two chapters to one of the questions.) This book is well-written, and I don’t see any reason why most people won’t read it from cover to cover. But the way it’s organized makes it especially helpful for those who need to quickly locate an answer to a particular question.

It’s difficult to think of a pertinent question the author doesn’t cover. The first few chapters explore church polity in general. He explains how the New Testament terms “elder” and “overseer” (or “bishop”) refer to the same church office. Merkle notes that while most evangelical pastors and scholars would agree with this conclusion, it’s all too rarely applied today in the local church. He does a great job of describing the different forms of church leadership in their historical contexts, and showing scripturally why Acts 15 doesn’t support the episcopal or presbyterian models. I deeply appreciate the strong stand he takes against making a distinction between the elders and a pastor or senior pastor.

The next chapters focus on the role of the elder. This is excellent material, and the author makes it accessible and understandable. He devotes one chapter to Timothy and Titus, nicely clarifying the apostolic nature of their ministries. In the following section of the book, Merkle examines the qualifications for elders. I thought his treatment demonstrated extensive knowledge of the material, spiritual wisdom and balanced application. He capably handles questions regarding the “husband of one wife,” whether an elder must be married and whether his children must be believers. To require that an elder—even one who serves as a primary teacher/preacher—have a seminary degree is to go beyond God’s standards for elders and to artificially add our own. The author explains this. He spends three chapters discussing whether women can be elders, and his handling of the key biblical passages is superb, particularly his distinguishing between cultural applications and transcultural principles. I also appreciated his explanation of the difference between prophecy and preaching. Some have mistakenly assumed that prophecy is preaching, and this has led to ministry practices that are confusing and unhealthy.

With questions 21-28 Merkle moves to the plurality of the church elders. He points out that the ‘one elder per house church’ idea is purely conjectural, not found in Scripture, and that we shouldn’t base our polity on such speculative ideas. He shows the clear, consistent biblical model of a plurality of pastoral elders in each church, and also the complete lack of scriptural examples or precedent for a sole or senior pastor. He discusses practical issues such as whether there should be a fixed number of elders and if the elders should require unanimous consensus when making decisions, giving pros and cons for each practice. The author describes real advantages to plural pastoral ministry, reasons why more churches aren’t structured this way, and gives some helpful thoughts on transitioning to this kind of leadership model. He warns against using terms such as “lay elder” or “lay pastor,” and also cautions about having too little overlap between the church elders and the staff, essentially creating a third church office. (I think many large churches with an eldership structure need to seriously consider this last point.) In this section, Merkle makes a statement I find to be true and a cause for concern:

“The organizational structure of many churches today bears almost no resemblance to the pattern found among the New Testament churches.”

That should give us all pause.

Questions 29-33 cover more practical issues concerning elders such as: How should elders be selected? How long should they serve? Should they be ordained? etc. In chapters 34-40, Merkle examines the role of the deacon. And I suppose this is as good a place as any to note a few of the author’s minor points with which I would disagree. Scripture never defines the exact role of the deacon, and I see great wisdom in this. Ministry needs arise that are important and that must be addressed, but which would draw the elders from their specific, God-given role. In such cases, it’s wise to appoint other church leaders to oversee these areas of responsibility. Because this will vary greatly from church to church, it makes perfect sense to me that the New Testament doesn’t give us a normative description of the ministry role of the deacon.

But Merkle disappointingly assumes that all deacons were focused on the physical needs of the people. He bases this (as others have) on the account in Acts 6:1-6. I don’t think anyone would disagree that caring for the physical needs of the people fits within the scope of ministry for deacons. But should the entire range of appropriate ministry options for deacons be defined and limited by this one, solitary example in a narrative account? Is it only the elders who can provide teaching and leadership to youth, children, women’s ministries(!), men’s ministries, etc.? Can only elders lead in counseling ministries or working with people with addictions? If these are legitimate ministry needs—with a need for leadership that often goes beyond the scope of those who pastor the whole church—and if these ministries somehow can’t fit within the role of the deacon, aren’t we back to a nebulous third church office that we wanted to avoid? If these people who are serving in some leadership capacity aren’t elders and they aren’t deacons, what exactly are they? How many categories of church leaders are there? I just don’t see how we can extrapolate a comprehensive pattern for ministry from one narrative detail that may very well have been occasional in nature. This is why many of us feel that all church leadership responsibilities beyond the specific role of the elders fall into the intentionally undefined role of the deacons, under the oversight of the elders of course. (I also find the author’s arguments against female deacons unconvincing.)

In a few places, Merkle expresses concern about an overly democratic model of congregationalism, and shows the benefits of reaching genuine consensus as opposed to congregational voting. He also repeatedly brings out the necessity of not just an informed congregation, but one involved with the actual process of reaching consensus. This all resonates with me, and is reassuring to many who have been turned off by the democratic model of church votes. But then, in other places, he seems to drag out the old, highly conjectural arguments that are usually used to support the democratic model. Some of these arguments represent the exegetical over-reaching that caused many of us to reject congregationalism in the first place. (I should clarify that I’ve returned to a modified, consensus-based form of congregationalism.) Not only are these arguments not necessary for his main conclusions, I don’t think they’re borne out by the texts. I found all of this confusing, even placing a few of his descriptions of the role of the church body in conflict with his described role for the church elders.

My final quibble involves two interrelated issues. Merkle feels that, since only elders are specifically tasked with teaching, the role of deacons therefore cannot include regular teaching as a specific matter of responsibility. He quotes D.A. Carson to support this even though Carson is not making the same point Merkle is. Carson rightly points out that deacons enjoy no “church-recognized teaching authority akin to that of the elders.” This is an important point, especially in churches that have elevated the role of deacons to essentially that of the church elders. But just because the elders authoritatively teach the church, why does this mean there can be no other leaders who teach regularly as part of their specific ministry?

In a similar way, Merkle cautions against using the term “pastor” to refer to any leaders in the church other than the elders. So, for instance, we shouldn’t designate a non-elder as a youth pastor or women’s pastor. But why not? All the elders are pastors, this is very true. But are only elders pastors? Is there to be no one else in the church with a shepherding gift and role? Is the youth pastor not pastoring the youth? Or the women’s pastor the women? the children’s pastor the children? If these people are serving in an authentically shepherding role, why not acknowledge this in our terminology? How is this out of harmony with the New Testament model? Again, yes, God designates the elders as those who pastor and teach the whole church. But where stands it written that they are therefore the only shepherds and teachers within the church? Why can’t the non-elder members of the church leadership team or staff—whether paid or voluntary—correspond to the biblical role of the church deacons? (Whether we call them deacons, pastors, ministers or something else would be a secondary issue.)

Despite these disagreements, which are relatively minor, I find this book to be extremely beneficial and useful to anyone wanting to better understand the biblical teachings on the pastoral leadership of the church. Highly recommended.

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Can something come from nothing?: The Cosmological Argument

Here’s an excellent presentation of the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God from William Lane Craig and Reasonable Faith:

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EFCA Gateway

gateway_cmyk-1Some of you know that I’m passionate about church-based theological education. While I’m extremely thankful for sound evangelical scholarship and appreciate seminary professors as vital resources for the church, I’ve long been a proponent of training pastors in a local church context. There’s much to commend such an approach both biblically and historically (and economically).

So you can understand my excitement at learning more about EFCA Gateway. This EFCA ministry is designed for leaders who need theological and pastoral training, but lack the time and resources to access traditional seminary education. I hope to become very involved with EFCA Gateway and will be writing much more about it in the future. But probably the best introduction is this video:

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Why the EFCA?

efca-logo-jpg-color-notag-webEarlier this year, our church affiliated with the EFCA. In a previous post, I wrote about why we (a nondenominational church) decided to join an association of churches. But—once we had decided to become part of a larger group of churches—why did we choose the Evangelical Free Church of America? Here are some of the factors that led us to this choice:

Theologically robust
I’ve been an interested observer of the EFCA for years. One of the things I’ve long appreciated was the theological depth I saw from their pastors and leaders. I’d expect this from people in the movement such as seminary professors (and the EFCA has its share of renowned scholars), but it was encouraging to see this level of knowledge and theological maturity in discussions at the pastoral level.

Pastorally motivated
It’s easy to get so caught up in the minutiae of sterile, ivory tower kinds of theological discussions we lose our moorings in an actual church context with real, everyday ministry concerns. I haven’t seen this kind of imbalance with the EFCA. As a movement, they’re passionate about helping their churches be truly healthy, transforming churches who can multiply transforming, multiplying churches. Their intellectual richness serves and supports the EFCA mission.

Doctrinally balanced
The pastors and leaders of the EFCA are uncompromising in their stand on the gospel of Jesus Christ and the essential truths of evangelical Christianity. But from the beginning they’ve intentionally resisted making official pronouncements concerning secondary issues. The movement includes both Calvinists and Arminians. They have no official view on spiritual gifts, infant baptism or the timing of the rapture. At the EFCA One conference in New Orleans, I saw this diversity manifested in other ways as well. There were many different races represented, different styles of clothing, a wide range of ages. I saw young leaders respected and listened to, and also much older leaders equally respected, serving actively and vibrantly (sometimes even assuming new and challenging roles). One could say their unity in the gospel is what makes possible their genuine freedom in nonessential issues.

Missionally driven
This is a movement that takes seriously their mission statement: We exist to glorify God by multiplying transformational churches among all people. Over and over again at the conference I witnessed the consistent, ongoing commitment to this mission. This statement isn’t just a formality for them, something to have somewhere on a website. These churches, pastors and leaders really are all about multiplying transformational churches among all people. They are focused on their own churches being transformational and multiplying, and in doing everything they can to help others grow in doing this as well.

I should also mention that the Free church people we’ve met have been some of the nicest, most gracious people you can imagine. They’ve made us feel right at home in the EFCA. In some ways we don’t have to change anything about who we are as a church. But I also feel encouraged and challenged to keep growing, seeking God’s continued transforming work, in my life as an elder and pastor, in the life of our church and beyond. We are excited to share in the life and mission of the EFCA. We too long to glorify God by multiplying transformational churches among all people.

(Another EFCA ministry I’m thrilled about is EFCA Gateway—but it deserves it’s own post! Stay tuned.)

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Why affiliate?

headerEarlier this year, our church joined the Evangelical Free Church of America. (The EFCA is an association of over 1,500 autonomous churches.) Earlier this month, I spent a few days in New Orleans for EFCA One, the national conference of the EFCA movement. This was an incredible time of being renewed spiritually and being inspired and motivated for continued ministry. Experiencing this conference also confirmed to me that the EFCA family is the right fit for us. I’m going to write another post about why we feel strongly the EFCA is the right home for our church, but first I want to look at the question: “Why affiliate at all?”

Until this year, I’d spent my entire pastoral ministry and much of my Christian life in a nondenominational context. The church I serve as an elder and teaching pastor was planted (and replanted) as a nondenominational, unaffiliated congregation. So what led us to contemplate affiliation with a larger group? Here, in bullet point form, are the factors we considered regarding affiliation:

What are the benefits of being nondenominational?

  • We’re not controlled by any outside organization. No denomination owns our church property or dictates to us who will serve as our pastoral leaders. We see this as a positive factor, and one that fits the life of the early church. (I’m going to write soon about the relevant early church history.)
  • We’re not tied to one narrow denominational tradition such as Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc.
  • We’re free to follow the Bible and not have unscriptural policies imposed on us.
  • We don’t alienate people from differing traditions. We can be more inclusive of all evangelical Christians.

What are the problems of being independent?

  • We’re isolated geographically, culturally and theologically. This point is specifically pertinent to our English-speaking church here in Puerto Rico.
  • We don’t regularly cooperate with other churches for the sake of our common Christian mission.
  • We don’t confer with other churches regarding biblical teaching and church practices.
  • We have no real connection with anything larger than our own independent congregation.
  • We’re in danger of being a “lone ranger” church.

So here’s the question we asked ourselves:

Can we keep the benefits of being nondenominational
and address the problems of being independent?

The answer for us was “Yes.” By affiliating with the EFCA, we kept all the benefits of being nondenominational while addressing all the problems of being independent. I’ll be writing more soon about why we’re excited to be partnering with the EFCA.

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Been a long time

I know it’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything here. Well I’m back, and I’ll be blogging more regularly again. I’ll finish up my series on the historical Jesus (two final posts planned for that), I have some new series ready to start, and I’m going to be adding some shorter posts here and there. Thanks for checking back to see if anything’s finally going on here!

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