Review: “Who Runs the Church?: Four Views on Church Government” edited by Steven Cowan

This is a key book for anyone seeking to understand the different views regarding church government. Following the classic Counterpoints style, advocates for each of the four positions state their case, and then the other three critique each presentation. This book is very similar to Perspectives on Church Government, which I also recently reviewed. The editors of this book include a “Closing Remarks” section that provides a final opportunity for each contributor to respond to their critics. Both of these books allow the reader to examine the varying church government models as explained and defended by people who actually hold the respective views, and to listen in as these scholars interact with and challenge each other. This has proven to be an enlightening approach in the past, and no less so with this book.

The book begins with a readable introduction to our topic by editor Steven Cowan. This section is thorough, but concise, getting right to the point. The introduction was a pleasure to read, and serves to draw the reader into the discussion.

Fairly quickly, we get an idea of the dividing line between the various views. Peter Toon (presenting Episcopalianism) doesn’t spend much time defending his view scripturally. He feels the Bible doesn’t give us a definitive model of church government. He also believes the early history of the church was providentially guided by the Holy Spirit, and is thus an authoritative guide for later generations. All of the other participants criticize the lack of biblical support for Toon’s position—especially noting that it contradicts the New Testament’s equating of the terms elder (presbyteros) with bishop/overseer (episkopos) as referring to the same church office. This is an important issue because the other three all claim that Scripture does, in fact, teach a definite model of church polity. All three of Toon’s fellow contributors question the acceptance of church history as authoritative, and some wonder why Toon stops at the first five centuries. They also challenge Toon with the historical fact of unorthodox beliefs and practices that crept into the early church. Why accept some historical developments as divinely guided and authoritative, but not all? Toon places a lot of weight on the church’s supposed determination of the canon of Scripture. However, he mischaracterizes both the nature of canon and the process of recognizing and affirming the biblical canon.

Next, L. Roy Taylor defends Presbyterianism. It was interesting to see how much of his view was colored by, possibly even dependent on, his covenantal theology. During the course of his chapter, he gives a fairly extensive overview of church history—managing to sneak in a little support for his eschatological views and stacking the deck against his opponents. A primary distinction between Taylor and the two Congregationalists (Patterson and Waldron) is the extent to which the early church’s congregations were connected with each other. Taylor claims to find biblical principles requiring organization, authority and accountability beyond the local church. In contrast, Patterson and Waldron see the New Testament churches as autonomous but voluntarily interdependent—connected in spirit, but not in any official capacity. The only text to which Taylor can point for definitive support of this extra-congregational system of church courts is Acts 15. Waldron protests that this declaration was authoritative to other churches specifically because of its apostolic nature, a setting which is unique and historically unrepeatable after the late first century. Patterson questions where these courts of Presbyterianism are clearly taught or described in Scripture.

Single-Elder Congregationalism
Paige Patterson’s chapter is titled “Single-Elder Congregationalism,” but could be more accurately described as “Primary-Elder Congregationalism” (as Waldron notes in his response). This is very similar to the monoepiscopacy (plural elders plus single bishop leading each church) that led to a full-fledged episcopal model in the late second century. Patterson doesn’t have a problem with a church having multiple elders as long as there is one primary pastor. I was surprised by the lack of a robust case from Patterson. While he claimed to be establishing the New Testament pattern, there seemed to be a tremendous amount of appeal to history and tradition. He allows for the possibility of churches adding multiple elders, but assumes that each New Testament church began with only one elder and then added others only when necessary. He also seems to conclude that some of the churches in the New Testament never needed these additional elders and continued with only one elder/pastor. This is a highly questionable claim since there is no biblical passage that suggests any of this. Waldron considers Patterson to be merely defending the status quo, and this seems to be accurate, at least regarding the distinctive role of the pastor.

Plural-Elder Congregationalism
Samuel Waldron presents “Plural-Elder Congregationalism.” The difference between the two Congregationalists involves the plurality of elders, the parity between the elders, and the appropriateness of distinguishing a pastor from the other elders. Waldron convincingly (to me) establishes a consistent biblical pattern of each church being led by a plurality of elders. This is such a strong pattern, supported by many related passages, that Waldron feels that, while not sinful, it is abnormal and unhealthy for a church to be led by a single elder and that this is a situation that would need to be rectified. He also argues exegetically against the Presbyterian distinction between teaching elders and ruling elders. While he allows for diversity of gifting, influence, and extent of ministry among the elders—even to the point of a de facto first among equals—he points out that there is no biblical support for setting apart one elder and giving him an office (e.g. senior pastor) in distinction to the other elders. He challenges both Taylor and Patterson that if they are willing to distinguish between elders and a pastor despite both of them teaching that Scripture equates the two, how can they criticize Episcopalians for distinguishing between elders and a bishop in the same manner?

Waldron begins his chapter with a very helpful explanation of the two aspects of Congregationalism: the autonomous nature of churches; and the democratic involvement of the congregation in making decisions. I appreciate this because there seems to be a lot of confusion today regarding the precise nature of Congregationalism. Waldron frequently uses the word democratic to describe congregational involvement, and this will be off-putting to some (as it was to me). However, he clarifies that he is using the word hesitantly, and both he and Patterson warn against the extremely democratic form of Congregationalism with which many readers will be most familiar. Waldron also repeatedly refers to the consent of the congregation, and this wording will be much more palatable to some. What he and Patterson seem to be advocating in their Congregationalism is a process where the elders lead the church in arriving at a consensus regarding the will of Christ for his church. I think this could be a healthy corrective for churches who practice an overly democratic model, and a healthy challenge to those, like myself, who have avoided what we though of as Congregationalism because of the abuses and weakness of the extremely democratic model. This aspect of the discussion in this book was thought-provoking to me in a way that I hadn’t expected.

As I mentioned before, the contributors are given a final closing to respond to their fellow writers and to make their case one last time. This gave a nice sense of completion to the book, but it didn’t really add any new insights.

This book is a wonderful resource, and I highly recommend it. We’ve made this work a part of the curriculum for our Didasko School of Pastoral Ministry, our in-house pastoral training program. [Note: We’ve recently replaced this training program with EFCA Gateway.]

Review: “Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity” edited by Chad Owen Brand and R. Stanton Norman

If you want to have a deeper understanding of the different views on church leadership, this book will be very useful. Each chapter is written by an author who holds a distinctive view, and then his presentation is critiqued by the other four contributors. We get to listen in on the discussion and hear some of the strengths and weaknesses of each viewpoint. If each author had been given the opportunity to respond to his critics the book might have been even more effective, but it includes insightful interaction as it stands. The editors also provide a solid introduction to the issues with an excellent historical survey. (I did think the lack of biographical material for each contributor was a curious oversight.)

Some may question why there are three chapters presenting varieties of congregationalism. I think this reflects recent debate over the nature of congregationalism. What exactly is it? Does it simply refer to autonomous churches who answer to no formal authority beyond the local church? Or does it necessarily include the idea of democratic involvement by the whole congregation? And how much involvement is required to be truly congregational? Meeting monthly to vote on everything? An annual affirmation of the church leadership? People who identify themselves as congregationalists strongly disagree on these issues, and some would not view all three of the “congregational” chapters as authentically congregational. The editors seem to have taken a broad view of ‘congregational’ in their descriptions of these viewpoints.

The single-elder-led church
Daniel Akin is first up, supposedly presenting the view that the church is led by a single elder. Akin doesn’t seem at all committed to this view, and doesn’t spend much time defending it. He prefers a plural-elder-plus-senior-pastor model. He devotes most of his chapter to defending his view of congregationalism. Arriving at his conclusions requires a considerable stretch for each passage he uses. I remain unconvinced that the New Testament clearly teaches the traditional, Baptist form of congregationalism. Akin writes in a very affable style. He doesn’t view the New Testament as being definitive regarding a specific model of pastoral leadership, which allows him to show appreciation for varying polities. He approvingly quotes Adrian Rogers’ claim that, “Anything without a head is dead; anything with several heads is a freak.” But just who is supposed to be the head of the body of Christ? Shouldn’t that be . . . Christ? Interestingly, his fellow congregation-alist, James Garrett, criticizes Akin’s reliance on the possible existence of multiple house churches per city in the early church and his finding of senior pastors in Ephesians 4:11. Akin bases much of his view on the priesthood of all believers and seems disappointed that others do not tie their polities to this concept as well.

The presbytery-led church
Next, Robert Reymond presents the Presbyterian model of church government. This chapter is direct and well-presented. But, when it comes to the distinctive aspects of the Presbyterian system, Reymond has to stretch even farther than Akin in trying to find his view unambiguously taught in Scripture. In his response, James White rightly criticizes Reymond for basing his exegetical arguments on inference and supposition. Akin notes, “one searches the New Testament in vain for the ‘graded courts’ of local ‘session,’ regional ‘presbytery,’ and ‘general assembly’ Dr. Reymond so confidently asserts is there.”

The congregation-led church
James Leo Garrett Jr presents the Democratic Congregational model, or the congregation-led church. Garrett is even more focused on congregationalism than Akin, and displays the same exegetical over-reaching. His chapter is exhaustively foot-noted, and probably the least enjoyable to read. In Akin’s response to his fellow Southern Baptist, he describes many of the serious weaknesses inherent in a democratic approach. White questions the view that the elders derive their authority from the congregation. He sees this authority as being delegated by Christ, not the congregation.

The bishop-led church
Paul Zahl explores the Episcopal model of church government. Zahl is a delightful writer, and this chapter is a pleasure to read. Unfortunately, he includes no scriptural defense of his chosen leadership model. Zahl feels that Scripture does not give us a definitive, normative model of church government, and he seems to be happy with any and all views. This attitude is also reflected in his responses, where he approves of Akin’s acceptance of multiple approaches as valid, but strongly opposes Reymond and White who argue that the Bible has given us a clear, unambiguous church leadership model we must follow. In his response, White effectively demonstrates that the synonymous nature of episkopos (bishop/overseer) and presbyteros (elder) in the New Testament makes the Episcopal model biblically untenable.

The plural-elder-led church
Lastly, James White presents the plural-elder congregational model. He begins with some grand, overarching themes that may be off-putting to some. But his intent is to build a solid case, from the foundation up, that Christ has provided everything for his church, including ordering how it is to be led. He gives a clear explanation of the autonomous nature of the church, and what this does—and  doesn’t—mean. His chapter includes a good biblical defense of the independence of congregations and a sound presentation of scriptural teaching regarding church elders. White also explores some issues related to applying these biblical principles, and gives us some helpful insights. Unfortunately, he seems to accept using a title of “pastor” for one primary teaching elder in distinction to the other elders (although he makes clear this is not a separate role or office). Akin takes advantage of White’s apparent fudging on this, and notes this doesn’t sound that different from his senior pastor model. (Akin also wrongly accuses White of holding the teaching elder/ruling elder differentiation.) In his response, Garrett finds it too difficult to believe that four centuries of Baptists could be wrong in their views of church leadership.

I thought the chapters written by Paul Zahl and Daniel Akin were the most enjoyable to read, yet also the most disappointing because neither really tried to biblically defend their view. I was surprised by the amount of inference and conjecture relied upon to somehow find a clear Presbyterian or congregational (i.e. democratic) model in Scripture passages that simply do not clearly teach such. In my opinion, White’s chapter and responses contained the most sound exegesis and thus were the most convincing and compelling. Overall, the book was incredibly helpful. It left me wanting to hear much more of this discussion, which I think is an indication of a well-executed book.

Review: “Who Rules the Church?: Examining Congregational Leadership and Church Government” by Gerald Cowen

The foreword of this book, written by well-known Southern Baptist pastor Jerry Vines, builds our anticipation of a “thorough study of the whole pastor-elder issue,” one that is “thoroughly researched and well done” and that utilizes “extensive knowledge of and skill in the Greek language.” Unfortunately, the book that follows this foreword doesn’t quite measure up to the anticipation.

Cowen does a fairly solid, if unremarkable, job at explaining the Greek words used for church leaders. What you’ll read here is essentially indistinguishable from what you can find in myriad books and articles on elders, and doesn’t go into the detail that many other authors do. This author spends most of his first chapter describing these words and how they’re related, and presents a faithful explanation of the New Testament role of elders/overseers/pastors. But, sadly, in the last two paragraphs of this opening chapter he undoes most of this good by interjecting a sole leader or pastor of each congregation (in distinction to the other elders/pastors).

He bases this assertion on an incredibly brief and unsupported reference to James being the primary leader of the conference described in Acts 15. This claim is disputed even by some who share the author’s views on church polity, and it wouldn’t establish his idea of a sole pastoral leader for each congregation anyway. But Cowen somehow takes this single, ambiguous reference and extrapolates a biblical “model” (!) of each house congregation having only one leader. He defends this view by assuming that the angels or messengers to the churches in Revelation 2-3 are sole pastors—despite admitting there are widely varying opinions on the meaning of these angeloi, and that “a firm conclusion cannot be reached.” To establish such a normative model of church government requires much more than these two perfunctory—and contested—examples. At the very best, these two references are ambiguous in their support of the author’s claim. After the end of this first chapter, Cowen drops all discussion of pastor-elders working in plurality or as a team. Throughout the remainder of the book, he focuses on “the pastor.”

He devotes his second chapter to defending the traditional view of the pastor’s call to ministry. To serve in pastoral ministry, a man must receive a special calling from God. He seems to base this almost entirely on the special calling received by Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles. However, he never discusses the fact that a special, direct calling and commissioning by God is one of the very things that distinguishes the prophets and apostles from other servants of God (such as pastor-elders). He tries valiantly to establish this traditional special calling as a model for pastors, but I remain unconvinced.

In chapter 3, the author takes exception to Marvin Mayer’s observation that Timothy and Titus were “not elder-overseers but apostolic delegates.” His attempts to counter this interpretation didn’t make much sense to me. Even if all his claims are accurate (and I don’t believe they are), they still don’t add up to the conclusion these men were pastors. He uses surprisingly faulty reasoning. Ironically, he draws from 1 Timothy 5:17 and James 5:14 in exploring the role of the pastor, but never acknowledges the clearly plural nature of pastoral ministry described in each passage.

Potential readers should be aware this book is written from a congregationalist perspective. I confess that I’m puzzled by the author’s model of “Pastoral Leadership-Congregational Rule.” (Shouldn’t the church be ruled by Christ? Are the sheep really supposed to rule the flock?) Regardless, people from similar church traditions might have benefited from this book. But because of the prevalence of the author’s faulty exegesis and reasoning, leading to erroneous conclusions, I would advise looking elsewhere.

I’ve written in greater depth on some of these claims:

Challenge 1: Wasn’t each house church led by one elder?

Challenge 2: What about Peter and James?

Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus?

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?

Review: “The Biblical Role of Elders for Today’s Church” by Larry Kreider, Ron Myer, Steve Prokopchak, and Brian Sauder

This book was written by leaders of a specific church movement: Dove Christian Fellowship International. They write from a somewhat Pentecostal/Charismatic viewpoint (expecting elders to have experienced a distinct baptism of the Holy Spirit subsequent to salvation, etc.), although this perspective doesn’t overwhelm the book. They caution against the abuse of prophetic utterances, and these warnings could be helpful for some churches. They have quite a bit to say about “five-fold ministry.” And they include their insights on current apostolic ministry, but without clarifying how, or if, apostles today are to be distinguished from 1st century Apostles of Jesus Christ. This could easily become problematic.

The bulk of their work, however, is devoted to the ministry of church elders. The authors provide insights that can be helpful for many readers. Very quickly, they establish their position as that of a plurality of elders for each church. (Curiously, this view contradicts that of C. Peter Wagner, who they approvingly quote in the same chapter.) They discuss the co-equality of these elders. They explain how they prefer to use terminology that will accurately describe biblical church leadership.

But then, in the first few pages, the authors interject the role of “senior elder”—a role not taught or even mentioned in Scripture. And, unfortunately, this principle is foundational to much of the rest of their leadership model, and referred to throughout the book. It would have been helpful for them to have provided us with the exegetical reasoning that led them to such a conclusion. Instead we’re given a few brief examples such as leadership within the Godhead, and King David in the Old Testament. Other than this, their assertion is supported only by conjecture—and not much of that.

We’re told that: “There is no such thing as a leaderless group. On a team, there must be one who leads; otherwise chaos occurs.” I would readily agree. But who should be this one who leads the elders? Should this primary leadership come from a solitary elder in distinction to his fellow elders, or from Christ? It’s compelling to me that the only place where the Bible uses the Greek word for a senior pastor/shepherd (archepoimēn) it is referring specifically to Christ (1 Peter 5:4). As far as I can see, the body has only one Head, and the kingdom has only one King. Just who should be the “primary leader” of the church? Are the elders to be led by Christ himself, or some intermediating “senior elder?”

The Scriptures give us a rich number of references describing the appointment and ministry of elders, qualifications of elders, and instructions given directly to elders—but not one mention of the role of a “senior elder.” It’s one thing to respect the ministry of one or more elders who are noted expositors, or leaders, or shepherds, etc. Because elders are not uniform, but uniquely gifted, there will be ‘first ones among equals’ in different areas of ministry. But to formalize this, focusing on only one specific leader in each congregation, and then to teach this as normative for the church, is to go far beyond the clear teaching of Scripture. If someone is going to teach the normative nature of such a distinct role, the burden of biblical evidence is on them to establish that such a distinction is scripturally warranted. I fail to see where the authors have made their case.

The pervasive assumption, unsupported by Scripture, of the distinct role of a “senior elder” makes this book unreliable for churches seeking to follow a biblical pattern of church leadership.

Mini-Review: “Meetings that Work: A Guide to Effective Elders’ Meetings” by Alexander Strauch

This isn’t the must read the author’s Biblical Eldership is, but it’s helpful in its own right. The concise nature of this book will be welcome to many busy elders. The reader may not find much that is brand new revelation concerning the ministry of elders, but he will benefit from the wise insights Strauch shares. This is much more than a sanctified version of Robert’s Rules of Order. The author explores the necessity of elders being spiritually qualified, why active participation of each elder is crucial, the right (and wrong) ways to interact with one another, confidentiality, how to make meetings effective and efficient, how to make sure you stay on track and end on time, the setting and frequency of meetings, how to prioritize and handle surprise issues, how to incorporate and train new elders in your meetings, and other similar challenges. He provides sample meeting agendas and prayer guides that can be used as templates. As with any book covering practical eldership issues, you may not agree with each principle or insight, but you can use this little book to trigger your own thinking and to help you fine-tune your elders’ meetings. Recommended.

Review: “Christ in Church Leadership: A Handbook for Elders and Pastors” by Dorman Followwill and Paul Winslow

This work is a valuable addition to the growing list of books on eldership. The authors explain the basic scriptural teaching regarding churches being led by a team of elders, but the book doesn’t provide an in-depth examination of the biblical doctrine of church eldership. I don’t think this was the intention of the authors. (For such an examination, I recommend Alexander Strauch’s Biblical Eldership.) Instead, this book gives us an overview of many of the issues involved in the real-life ministry of a church elder.

Along the way, they share a number of excellent illustrations and examples from their own experiences in church leadership. These accounts alone are worth the price of the book. It’s almost as if we become a fly on the wall, watching godly pastoral leaders strive to serve faithfully and wisely. There are many wonderful, memorable, insightful anecdotes, and also sobering cautionary tales of what can happen when we’re not committed to leading God’s people God’s way.

The authors cover most of the key areas related to the ministry of church elders: elder qualifications, selecting and appointing elders, the process for making sound decisions, delegating to other leaders, handling church finances, evaluating elders, interacting with the rest of the church body, disciplining church members, etc. There are many nuggets of wisdom on these pages from which elders (and potential elders) will benefit. One that particularly stands out for me is the balance of “hard minds and soft hearts” they explore in chapter three. A great principle, very well explained. Of course, when authors give their views on the intricacies of church leadership, there are bound to be details with which some will take exception (as did I). But even if we don’t completely agree with a certain application, the principles they are presenting can spur our own reflection and growth.

I am somewhat confused regarding the apparent distinction between elders and pastors. The subtitle of the book is A Handbook for Elders and Pastors, but they never seem to clearly define what they mean by pastor. In some places they stress a two-office New Testament church with elders and deacons, making it clear that the elders are responsible for shepherding or pastoring the whole church. But at other times they seem to assume a distinction between “the pastor” and the elders (or even “his elders”), and assume that ‘the pastor’ is the one primarily doing the preaching. It would have been helpful for the authors to have explained how they’re using the term. Is the pastor simply a vocational, financially-supported elder? Is a pastor anyone in the congregation with a shepherding ministry? Or does ‘the pastor’ constitute a specific church leadership function in distinction to that of the elders? I’m not necessarily disagreeing with their approach, but it needs to be clarified. If elder-led churches utilize this book for the purpose of training leaders, this is one significant area where they will need to add additional explanation for their people.

The authors seem to equate a unanimity among the elders—one that is properly arrived at—with the mind of Christ on any particular issue. While I am also a proponent of decision-making by unanimous consensus of the elders, I’m hesitant to state this principle as strongly as these authors do in this book. I was challenged by Howard Snyder’s foreword of Jerram Barr’s book Shepherds and Sheep, where he writes, “no way of grouping fallible leaders together ever makes them infallible!” Richard Swartley also questions this idea in his book Eldership in  Action. I think there is a lot of room for caution here.

Finally though, this is an incredibly helpful book for showing wise examples of experienced elders, bringing out the key issues concerning church leadership, and triggering deeper thought and discussion. I highly recommend it.

Review: “They Smell Like Sheep: Spiritual Leadership for the 21st Century” by Lynn Anderson

This book is an easy read, but there are profound insights to be found here. I don’t think the author intended to give us an exhaustive analysis of biblical church government. (For this, Strauch’s Biblical Eldership is the standard.) In fact, when Anderson strays too far into exegetical territory he begins to get into trouble. But where this book really shines is when he’s showing us the heart of what it means to shepherd God’s people. The wonderful nuggets of wisdom throughout the book are not only worth the purchase price, but worthy of repeated reading. Even for those of us who may be very familiar with these principles, this is a healthy, refreshing reminder of what this leadership thing is really all about.

Anderson divides the book into two parts. In the first part, he presents three interrelated models of spiritual leadership (especially true of church elders). These models are shepherding, mentoring and equipping. This is definitely not a book on theory. He writes with the pressures of the real world in mind, to elders who have families and demanding careers to maintain. Anderson gives us vivid pictures of the three models, and makes clear the necessity of each. Again, many elders may already be aware of these principles, but it’s so easy for us to begin to lose our priorities. This book helps us bring our ministries back into proper focus.

The second part of the book describes elders and what kind of people they are to be: men of experience, men of character, and men of vision. As I noted before, his exegetical work is the weak point of the book, but thankfully it’s not his main focus. He rightly brings out the plurality of pastors (elders) in each church, but many of his illustrations seem to show a distinction between himself and the elders. Since this book isn’t primarily about the doctrinal aspects of eldership, this lack of precision may actually make the book more accessible to people with different understandings of eldership. But if you use this book in a church that has a biblical form of eldership, you’ll need to add some clarification to certain parts of the book.

I thought the stories Anderson sprinkled through the book were a valuable addition rather than a distraction, effectively illustrating the relevant principles. I found many anecdotes sticking with me even after I was finished with the book, such as the man who resigned as elder so he would have time for shepherding(!), or the stories showing the problem of ineffective assimilation (ouch). His accounts of the wonderful men who had mentored him reminded me of the godly men who modeled Christian leadership and shepherding for me, and also that I need to be doing the same for others.

As I already mentioned, Strauch’s book is best for examining the biblical teaching on church elders. And for nuts-and-bolts books on ‘eldering,’ I’d recommend Christ in Church Leadership by Paul Winslow and Dorman Followwill or Eldership in Action by Richard Swartley. But for a book on the heart of shepherding, with many gems of wisdom and practical insight, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better book than this one.

Review: “The New Testament Deacon: The Church’s Minister of Mercy” by Alexander Strauch

I have great respect for Alexander Strauch. His book Biblical Eldership has not only been tremendously influential in my own life and ministry, it has helped to bring solid, healthy, biblical leadership structure to churches all over the world. I believe Biblical Eldership has had—and is still having—an historically significant impact on the evangelical church. (I recently reviewed it here.) I expect it to be remembered as a classic work of pastoral theology.

But that’s Biblical Eldership; I’m now reviewing The New Testament Deacon. And, I have to admit, despite my admiration for Alexander Strauch as a leader and a biblical exegete, I’m somewhat disappointed with this book.

Now, there is much of value included here. Strauch rightly counters the idea that deacons are ruling executives or building and property managers. He stresses the need for pastoral elders to devote themselves to the priorities of their ministry without being drawn into needs that are real but distracting. He notes the need for effective organization in the church.

He also gives us much helpful background information specifically regarding deacons. Discussions of the Greek wording, how deacons relate to overseers/elders, the scriptural qualifications for deacons, etc. are all illuminating (though many will disagree with his views concerning female deacons). Most of his exegesis of Acts 6 is sound, although he interjects a distinction between ministry of “word” and “deed” that isn’t really borne out by Scripture even considering the references he gives—certainly not enough to extrapolate the nature of church offices.

Practically everyone will agree that the office of deacon is normative for the church today. The problem is that Strauch goes to great length to define the specific, unvarying nature of this church office when Scripture decidedly does not. He does this on the basis of a single example from Acts 6. Is this conclusion warranted?

I agree with Strauch that this passage is likely showing the prototype for deacons. But we must tread carefully here because the text does not identify them as such. While we may agree that this passage shows an early example of deacons, some scholars do not, and there simply isn’t enough in the text here to allow us to be dogmatic in our insistence that these men are deacons.

But even assuming we could unquestionably establish these leaders in Acts 6 as deacons, does this one example define the nature of their ministry? Ironically, on page 43 Strauch cautions us that we are not to take this passage as a strict blueprint to be followed in every detail. He continues, “Thus a local church today has flexibility in how its deacons are chosen, how many are selected, and what they are specifically to do.” I completely agree. But then he later notes, “. . . as long as the deacons minister to the congregation’s welfare needs, they are doing their job.” So apparently we’re careful not to take Acts 6 as a strict blueprint—except for the fact that (in this lone example) these leaders saw to the distribution of food.

It’s clear from the rest of the book that Strauch sees this not as just one possible example of ‘deaconing,’ but as the primary, scriptural duty of all deacons. Unfortunately, in many key places in his argument he relies on conjecture. Perhaps his conjecture is correct, but it is conjecture nonetheless, and not supported through clear exegesis of the text. Many other scholars have concluded that the biblical principle illustrated in Acts 6 is simply that whenever a ministry need would take the elders away from their pastoral duties, then it is appropriate and healthy to appoint other leaders to meet this ministry need. This view seems to be much more careful with the text, and doesn’t go beyond what the Bible clearly teaches. This lack of definition need not be burdensome or confusing to deacons (or their elders); it actually frees churches to fill whatever non-elder ministry roles they have in their specific contexts. This will often include the care of the physical needs of the people, but also provides a model for the leadership of any church ministry that would tend to distract the elders from their primary pastoral ministry.

To so truncate the church office of deacon, based solely on a single example from a narrative passage of Scripture, does not seem to be the soundest of hermeneutics. It’s unfortunate that much of the content in the book rests on this conjecture and goes beyond what Scripture clearly teaches about deacons. While this book includes much of value and was written by an elder/pastor whom I highly respect, sadly, I cannot recommend it.

Review: “Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership” by Alexander Strauch

This book has become the standard for works on eldership, and deservedly so. If you’re only going to read one book on church leadership (other than the Bible), this is the book to read. If you plan to study pastoral leadership extensively, this is still the perfect place to begin. Strauch is thorough, he covers all of the relevant passages, and his exegesis is consistently sound and balanced. His writing is clear and easy to follow. The book is not only enjoyable to read, I find it spiritually edifying as well.

The first five chapters examine core principles of biblical eldership: pastoral leadership, shared leadership, male leadership, qualified leadership, and servant leadership. In chapter six, Strauch gives an extensive biblical defense of a plurality of pastoral leaders for each congregation (without a senior pastor). The following chapters provide exposition of all the relevant passages. There is occasionally some overlap, but this actually fits the layout of the book and proves to be quite helpful, especially considering how entrenched most of us are in traditional leadership models that lack any biblical support.

His exegesis is outstanding, and the presentation is excellent throughout. When you’ve finished reading this book, you should have a good handle on this view of church government—whether you agree with it or not. (Although I haven’t found any substantive critiques of Strauch’s work. In my opinion, his interpretation of Scripture is so sound and well-reasoned that it’s hard to refute.) Along the way, he responds to common challenges to a plurality of pastoral elders and shows how they are fallacious.

Strauch wrote this book to “clarify the biblical doctrine of eldership,” so it is “primarily doctrinal and exegetical in nature.” There are other books that help with practically applying these principles. I would particularly recommend Christ in Church Leadership by Paul Winslow and Dorman Followwill and Eldership in Action by Richard Swartley. These are great supplements for Strauch’s work, but I recommend that you start right here. This book provides a solid, biblical foundation for further application.

Some have thought that the lack of examples and specific applications is a weakness of the book, but I actually consider it a strength. Strauch does offer some very practical insights, but he sticks to the biblical principles and avoids giving us a handbook on distinctive leadership practices from his particular church background. His balanced, focused approach has allowed this book to be utilized by churches from very different traditions, and widely varying sizes, to great benefit.

This book is helpful at putting to rest many common misperceptions about biblical eldership. It is not leadership “by committee;” it doesn’t demand that all elders serve in exactly the same way and in the same capacity; it does allow for dynamic teachers or leaders to fully use their gifts; etc. The biblical model provides us a well-defined framework for church leadership, but also great freedom in how we apply the scriptural principles. Strauch clearly shows that many churches that include elders in their leadership structure do not actually have a biblical form of eldership. He also carefully explains that many churches that seem to have all the expected terminology of a ‘biblical eldership’ actually have a senior pastor model in everything but name.

This is an excellent resource and still the best book available on biblical eldership. I can’t recommend it more highly.