Review: “Church Elders: How to Shepherd God’s People Like Jesus” by Jeramie Rinne

[Updated 4/1/21]

Church_Elders_1024x1024This is a very helpful addition to the (thankfully) growing number of books on church eldership. In now standard works, writers like Alexander Strauch and Benjamin Merkle have established the normative, biblical pattern of the local church being pastored by a team of pastoral elders (with no one designated as a senior or lead pastor). Richard Swartley has added helpful insights regarding the more practical and organizational aspects of elder church leadership. Now in this book (part of 9Marks’ Building Healthy Churches series), Jeramie Rinne describes the heart of the ministry of church elders: What is it that we do?

The author begins with a good foundational understanding of church elders, showing that the elders of a church are the pastors of the church, and giving a fairly standard description of the qualifications for church elders. He then devotes a chapter each to different things elders are to be doing as part of their ministry. He shows the genuinely relational aspect of true shepherding, and that we shouldn’t be satisfied with simply being trustees or board elders. He emphasizes the necessity of real teaching in the church (as does the New Testament, repeatedly), and also stresses the responsibility to be training other teachers and leaders who will continue the ministry after we’re gone. He describes a life of caring for the people in the church, including watching for those who are hurting, beginning to stray, or harming others. Rinne encourages us to be leaders who actually lead—actively and decisively, but without lording it over our brothers and sisters, being humble but not shrinking back. He explores serving together as a team of elders, living as mature examples, and devoting ourselves to praying for the people in the church.

Most of this is solidly covered, but there are a few things on which I would respectfully push back. Rinne assumes a formal model of membership for the local church, and views this as a necessity for faithful elder leadership in the church. Of course, the New Testament never actually teaches a formal church membership, and a great many faithful elder-led churches don’t have such a structure. But his insistence on formal church membership crops up from time to time in this book.

He seems to make a common mistake of attempting to apply the Granville Sharp Rule to Ephesians 4:11. (Rinne doesn’t mention this rule by name, but only refers generically to “the Greek grammar” without specifying exactly to what he’s referring.) If he is, in fact, relying on this familiar rule (as is invariably done by those arguing this point), then he has a problem. This rule just doesn’t work in cases where the nouns are plural (e.g. the Pharisees and Sadducees, the men and women, the apostles and prophets, and, yes, the pastors and teachers), so it’s not accurate to insist on this referring to one role of “pastor/teacher.” This passage isn’t listing church offices, but gifted people whom Christ gives to the church. Does everyone with a gift of shepherding others also have a gift of teaching? Is every gifted teacher also a shepherd/pastor? Such a view seems unnecessarily restrictive, and it’s simply not borne out by the grammar of this verse. Along with this, we find an over-emphasis on elders not only being “able to teach” (or some translations: “an able teacher” [1 Timothy 3:2]), but on each elder being an active teacher, even that each, according to Rinne, “must be known for teaching the Bible well.” He later qualifies this slightly, but it still goes well beyond what we have in the text, especially in light of 1 Timothy 5:17 that distinguishes those who are particularly involved in teaching.

Rinne also seems to approve of a distinction between elders and pastors in a church, and even of some kind of hierarchy of senior pastor and associate pastors. In fact, Rinne himself serves as senior pastor of his church. To many of us committed to a polity of plurality of pastoral elders, this will seem highly incongruous (not to mention without scriptural warrant). This peculiarity isn’t emphasized in his book, but it becomes obvious the way this adaptation can subtly undermine the plural, collegial nature of pastoral eldership with distinctions made between “the elders” and “their pastors.”

But none of these issues are major emphases in the book, and there is still much to commend here. The book is fairly short, so the author doesn’t exhaustively examine any of these aspects of pastoral ministry, but this makes the book accessible for those not looking for long, in-depth treatments. Rinne succinctly covers the essential components of the pastoral role of church elders, so this can be a very useful book for teaching—or reminding—what it looks like to serve as an elder/pastor. While there are some issues you may need to clarify, I think this book can be truly beneficial to elders and potential elders.

2 thoughts on “Review: “Church Elders: How to Shepherd God’s People Like Jesus” by Jeramie Rinne

  1. Overall I appreciated your review and your blog. One thing you should be careful of is assuming what others mean and dismissing their points. You seem to do this from time to time. In this article, for instance, you are assuming that his reason for saying pastors and teachers are one role has to do with the Granville Sharp rule. Where did he say that? I could not find that reference in the book. HWat he says is “The Greek grammar makes clear that “pastor” and “teacher” go together to describe one office or role. So the pastors, or shepherds, of the church are also its teachers. And as we’ve already seen, teaching is at the heart of the office of elder”

    There is no doubt a relationship between the two because kai is missing “tous de” which is not normal greek grammar in lists. They overlap in eldership. That is a fair point from the grammar and it makes sense.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Wyley. I can’t help but notice that in a comment suggesting I’ve assumed an author’s meaning and then dismissed his point, you yourself present a conclusion on the passage in question that differs significantly from the author’s! You write that there is a “relationship” between pastors/shepherds and teachers, and that they “overlap.” But, brother, that is not the same point Jeramie Rinne made in his book. He is quite clearly making a much stronger claim: that these two words “go together to describe one office or role.”

    You’re right, though, that Rinne didn’t specifically reference—by name—the Granville Sharp Rule. He only supports his conclusion by referring generically to “the Greek grammar.” I don’t fault him for this; I can understand not weighing down a succinct, accessible book such as this with technical-sounding references or footnotes. (Of course, the danger in making a vague reference to “the Greek grammar”—for all of us—is that it can be rhetorically effective without actually providing any real basis for our conclusions.)

    But why did I connect his assertion with this particular Greek rule? For a very simple reason. The claim that Rinne makes—that the words pastors/shepherds and teachers refer to a single office or role—is an extremely common one, and those who make it invariably base this idea on the Granville Sharp rule. This is such a common argument and its basis on this rule so ubiquitous that to state this is almost a tautology. To protest this association is a little like protesting the use of the word “transubstantiation” in response to a Roman Catholic writer who didn’t use that word, or “baptismal regeneration” when responding to people of certain traditions who didn’t themselves use that specific phrase. I would say that almost anyone familiar with the literature on this issue would naturally and immediately make this connection, and that Rinne should have known (and, I assume, did know) that most of those reading this would have associated this claim with the virtually universal basis for it. I would go so far as to say that if Rinne was basing his claim on some other, more novel aspect of Greek grammar, he should have given us some hint of this to avoid the otherwise natural assumption.

    Even your own point on this passage relies on the fact that “teachers” is connected by a kai without a corresponding tous de. Of course, this is precisely the point that those mistakenly applying the Granville Sharp rule are making! As I mentioned above, you’re reaching a different conclusion than the one in Rinne’s book to which I was responding, but you’re still referring to the same grammatical data. You do add an intriguing detail to this by noting this particular instance is part of a list (I’ll comment briefly on that below), but it seems this would be a fine-tuning or expansion of Granville Sharp, not something wholly different and distinct.

    You also don’t deal with the logical problems with Rinne’s view. Are all teachers in the church also pastors? Must all pastors be gifted, active teachers? What of the distinction made in passages such as 1 Timothy 5:17? Apostles are also prophets and evangelists, yet these categories of gifted people are incontrovertibly distinguished in this passage, with non-apostolic prophets and evangelists listed. So even if it could be said that pastors are also teachers, this doesn’t mean that non-pastoral teachers aren’t a distinguished category of gifted people whom God provides for the church.

    But this brings us back to your observation that these words are part of a list, and that the absence of tous de in this passage is not normal. Of course, this claim itself would need to substantiated. Is there a well-documented pattern of 1st century Greek lists of sets or categories of people, with tous de corresponding to each plural noun including the final plural noun to such a consistent degree that the lack of any tous de would be conspicuous by its absence? If so, that could certainly have a great impact on the interpretation of this passage. I don’t find this pattern in Scripture, and I don’t recall any commentaries referring to such a pattern, but I would appreciate knowing more about this.

    Finally, you make the observation that from time to time I seem to assume what others mean and then dismiss their points. That’s a serious criticism and one that greatly concerns me. I’m certainly not infallible, but I do strive to make sure I’m being fair and accurate toward anyone I reference. I still feel the connection of Rinne’s point to the Granville Sharp rule is to be expected, and that this assumption is a natural one that is completely warranted. Nevertheless, in the interest of being as fair as possible, I’ve updated the original post to specify that the author didn’t mention that rule. (Ironically, this may make the review sound more critical, which was not my intention.) But I would appreciate you letting me know where else you think I’ve done this “from time to time.” Again, thank you for your comment.

    Blessings,
    Curt

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