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.

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

  1. Good review Curt. I always appreciate your insights. I may order the book. Regarding your last point of disagreement about the use of the term “pastor” for non-elders. Would your argument to call non-elders by the term “pastor” also apply to non-staff such as Sunday school teachers or small group leaders who also do a lot of pastoring? I think it would be a good idea to loosen up the way we use the term “pastor”. The term was never used to describe an office in the Bible and as far as I know was only once used to describe a person (the pastor-teacher of Eph 4). The term is more used as a function, and specifically the function of an elder. My problem is that in most churches (like mine), we use the term for non-elders (staff) and NOT for elders. This communicates an expectation that the staff (with the title pastor) do the shepherding and the elders go to meetings and set policy. What if we started communicating the message that the elders are the pastors of this flock? Other people in the body also pastor, but the responsibility of pastoring was given to the elders – so let’s call them pastors. I think it is confusing when the staff are all called pastors and the elders are not.

  2. Great thoughts, Larry. We have a problem right away when there’s little or no overlap between the elders and the staff. Merkle goes into this in his book, as does Swartley in Eldership in Action, and I agree with their concerns (and yours). It’s easy for the staff to be seen as the pastoral leaders of the church and for the elders to become mere trustees. I think we need to be intentional about letting the church body see the ongoing pastoral role of the elders (and for the elders to be genuinely serving in a pastoral way). When the elders or the other people hear the term “elder,” they need to associate it with the overall pastoral ministry of the church.

    I also agree we should use the term “pastor” whenever appropriate. I don’t know if I would use it for a Sunday school teacher unless they’re truly teaching and leading in a pastoral way. I don’t think all teachers are necessarily pastors. But, as an example, we emphasize the pastoral nature of leading our disciple groups (our small groups), so we refer to these men as “disciple group pastors.” This also helps us avoid a focus on one guy as “the pastor.” When asked who’s the pastor, we can respond that we have all kinds of pastors! But there’s a needed balance here. If we call people pastors, they should be serving in a truly pastoral capacity and should be appropriately trained. If we’re too indiscriminate in calling people pastors, it will water down the term until it means nothing, or people will consider some to be the “real pastors.”

  3. Great post. I have often found this subject very confusing. I’ve actually never been to a church that I can think of that did not have a senior (lead) pastor, then associate or executive pastor, and so on. I’ve also never been a part of a church where the elders were not separate. I have searched the scriptures and am convinced the early churches were led by a plurality of qualified elders whose role was to shepard the flock. I see no distinction between an office of pastor and elder; in fact I think pastoring is simply a function of an elder. Why is this such a foreign concept in the church today, when it seems so clear from the next testament? Lastly, what advice would you have for those of us that feel strongly about this, yet this structure is clearly absent in the churches within our community? Thanks!

  4. These are great questions—so good, in fact, that I think they deserve an entire post. I hope to have one up later today addressing your questions (which I’m sure a great many other people share). When I was first discovering the scriptural teaching on church elders, it was incredibly encouraging to find Alexander Strauch’s book Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership. If you haven’t read this yet, I strongly encourage you to. And the book above (40 Questions About Elders and Deacons) also provides some much-needed moral support. But I think we need to explore your questions more deeply, and hopefully my next post will be helpful to you.

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