Review: “Elders and Leaders: God’s Plan for Leading the Church” by Gene Getz

I have great respect for Gene Getz. He’s been a faithful pastor, church-planter and educator, and has written other books of value to the body of Christ. But one cannot allow respect for an author to prevent a frank and honest evaluation of his work, and I’m sure Gene Getz would agree.

As with similar books that include practical observations, readers will agree with some applications and question others. The author provides solid insights and biblical principles of church leadership. If not for serious flaws, this book would have been a valuable addition to the existing books on pastoral leadership. Unfortunately, one begins to notice far too many biblical interpretations based on conjecture rather than clear exegesis. For example, here are some claims Getz makes in this book:

  • There were no elders of the church in Antioch in Acts 13.
    This may be true; it may not. It seems apparent the prophets and teachers who were gathered to fast and worship the Lord together—and whom the Holy Spirit directed to dedicate Barnabas and Saul for the work to which he had called them—exercised some form of leadership. Many scholars feel these were the elders of the Antioch church. But Scripture doesn’t clearly tell us either way. Getz’ claim is simply an assumption, and a curious one considering the gathering of these leaders, the instructions to them by the Spirit, and their subsequent decisive action.
  • Barnabas “voluntarily became second in command” to Paul.
    Where exactly are we told this? Where is the relationship between the two so clarified? If this is true, why did Barnabas later counter Paul regarding taking Mark as part of their team? Was he defying Paul’s primary leadership?
  • In Luke 22:32, Jesus not only instructs Peter to strengthen his brothers, but to shepherd them and lead them—and to do this in a manner unique from the shepherding and leading of the other apostles, serving as a primary leader to them.
    Of course, Scripture doesn’t actually tell us any of this.
  • Peter wasn’t just prominent in proclaiming the gospel in Acts 2, he was exercising primary leadership of the other apostles, which they obediently followed.
  • At the conference reported in Acts 15, Peter represented the apostles, and James represented the elders.
  • The apostle John served as Peter’s “assistant.”

These assertions may be plausible. We may even be sympathetic to some. But they go beyond the clear teaching of Scripture. And, alarmingly, they occur in the exegetical section of the book. These claims are examples of reading into the text one’s own conclusions.

Of course, the elephant in the room for many readers of this book will be Getz’ idea that a primary leader must be distinguished from the other elders. He feels this is normal and necessary. In Part Three of the book, his Observation 11 states: “The New Testament definitely teaches and illustrates that when there is a plurality of leadership, someone needs to function as the primary leader of the team.” He insists that God didn’t plan for the church to have co-leaders. He then surprisingly (and somewhat self-contradictorily) admits that “the biblical story of local church leadership offers little data to make the specific observation that someone must function as the primary leader.” In his opinion, the overall context of Scripture and the roles of Peter and James are enough to establish this primary leadership position.

But Getz doesn’t adequately cover (or usually even discuss) examples from Scripture that would tend to challenge his interpretation. What of Barnabas and Saul together teaching the congregation in Antioch? Why does Paul refer to three pillars of the Jerusalem church in Galatians 2, rather than to one primary leader? If James was an apostle of Christ, as Scripture seems to indicate and many scholars believe, wouldn’t that provide a different rationale for distinguishing him from the elders?

Getz refers to the apostles sending Peter and John to Samaria (Acts 8:14) as a demonstration that Peter “did not act unilaterally without seeking advice and counsel and affirmation.” But there is not one hint in this passage of Peter providing primary leadership in this venture while seeking advice, counsel and affirmation from the other apostles. Instead we see the apostles leading as a team and directing the ministry of Peter and John.  Getz reads into this passage his own assumptions, and arrives at an interpretation not borne out by the actual text. Actually, this passage is very supportive of the viewpoint Getz dismisses (co-equal leadership with no distinguished primary leader).

The Bible gives us many accounts of teams of elders being appointed to lead individual churches, qualifications for church elders, and instructions given directly to these elders. But we don’t have a single clear reference to even the existence of a designated primary leader of a New Testament church (not even of Peter or James filling this role), much less any reference to qualifications for such a primary leader, the appointment of any primary leader, or any instructions given to a primary leader. Just where exactly does the New Testament “definitely teach” this necessary primary leader? We’re not told. All we have are the examples of Peter and James, which do not establish the normative role that Getz describes.

Even if everything he claims about their ministry function is true, all this would show is that one of the elders may tend to exercise a prominent leadership. Of course, no one denies this. But anything beyond this is pure conjecture. And prominence in leadership does not equate a formally distinct role, no matter how much one may assume so. [For a more detailed examination of the ministry roles of Peter and James, see here.] The only place where the Bible refers to anyone providing ongoing primary leadership to the elders/shepherds is the archepoimēn (Chief Shepherd/Pastor) in 1 Peter 5:4, and this is, of course, speaking of Jesus. The body has only one head; the kingdom has only one King. Each team of church elders do require a primary leader, but that primary leader should be Jesus Christ, their Chief Shepherd/Senior Pastor.

I am one elder/pastor who, regrettably, cannot recommend this book. I would suggest instead Alexander Strauch’s book Biblical Eldership. Strauch is sound in his exegesis, careful in his conclusions, and presents a balanced approach that has proven to be instrumental for a broad range of evangelical churches, from small house-churches to congregations with large staffs and attendances in the thousands. In Elders and Leaders (p. 302), Gene Getz tells of a time earlier in his ministry when he became more pragmatic than biblical. With no disrespect or animosity intended, I would suggest this is true of much of his writing in this book as well.

Related posts:

Challenge 2: What about Peter and James?

Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus?

3 thoughts on “Review: “Elders and Leaders: God’s Plan for Leading the Church” by Gene Getz

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