[Please see the updated version of this post here.]
[Please see the updated version of this post here.]
As many of you know, my wife, Kelley, and I moved back to California earlier this year, returning from over 13 years of ministering in Puerto Rico. Looking strictly at circumstances, it would seem the economic situation in Puerto Rico forced this move. But we believe God is sovereign over circumstances, and that the timing of this change was—and is—in his hands. The church there has transitioned from being overly dependent on one paid elder/pastor to being served by three unpaid, bi-vocational elder/pastors (along with others stepping up to do their part in ministry). They are now realizing the level of team leadership and teaching to which we always aspired. Although it was sad for us to leave, this is a good and healthy change.
As for us, we’re now in Placerville, CA (between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe). The transition for us hasn’t been as smooth as we had hoped. Over the past few months, we’ve had trouble finding good jobs, finding a place to live, and dealing with ministry opportunities that didn’t pan out. But we still trust God’s timing and believe that he has been working through these circumstances. We’re praying for wisdom and the sensitivity to be aware of any guidance God is giving us.
We’re prayerfully considering planting a church in the Placerville area. Some have asked me what a new church would look like (whether here or somewhere else). So I’ve written out four core commitments I see as essential for a new church. I’ll post them here one at a time. I’m not implying that these commitments would be unique to us. Some could prove to distinguish us from other churches, but this isn’t really the intent. The idea is that these four core commitments, together, would constitute the DNA of a new church. All other distinctive strategies and methods we might develop would be built on the foundation of these core commitments.
You may notice these posts don’t include a detailed description or vision for this new church. This is intentional. As you read through these commitments (or if you’ve read many of my posts on church leadership), you’ll see why for me to plan out in detail my vision for a church plant—and then look for people who will support my unique vision—would be contradictory. It’s not that I don’t have a vision or a lot of ideas for a new church! But the plan is to first establish a consistently biblical vision for a church plant. Then, as a team, we can brainstorm how to best apply these biblical principles to our specific context. The comment threads of these posts are a great place for this kind of discussion!
Another excellent video from Reasonable Faith:
These are some of the same observations I had when becoming personally familiar with the EFCA:
This post has generated some interesting discussions. One person asked me if churches that have a genuine, biblical eldership ever drift back into a senior pastor structure and, if they do, why? The answer to the first question is unfortunately, yes, they sometimes do return to a senior pastor model.
I recently added a page to the blog with links to elder-led churches. This isn’t a comprehensive list, just churches I’ve run across from time to time. When I happen upon a church that’s elder-led, I add it to a folder of bookmarks for elder-led churches. But I occasionally have to move a church out of my “elder-led churches” folder because I find they’ve designated one elder as a senior or lead pastor. Why?
I think we need to recognize that this kind of biblical team leadership isn’t natural to us. It goes against our instincts. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it doesn’t work—that is, it doesn’t work unless the Holy Spirit is actively working in the hearts and minds of the elders. Now, I have to clarify, I’m not saying the Holy Spirit isn’t at work in those who are senior pastors! What I am saying is that, just as water follows the path of least resistance, so we naturally tend to slip back into one-man leadership. It’s not as foreign. It’s what we’re accustomed to. And it’s just easier to get things done much of the time with a primary leader. The problem is that it’s not biblical. And when we follow what’s comfortable to us rather than the model God has given us in his Word, there will always be unforeseen consequences.
It can be a real struggle at times to maintain a truly biblical leadership structure, and we need to acknowledge that. It can only be done through dependence on the Spirit of God and diligence on our part. It’s vitally important that those of us who serve as elders never forget this. If we coast, we will always coast away from plural leadership. We need to be very intentional about continually pursuing a consistently biblical church leadership model.
Is the Bible completely without error, or is it sometimes mistaken about historical or cosmological details? And just how significant is this question? If you do much reading or discussing with other Christians, you’ve probably encountered the growing controversy regarding the nature of Scripture. Part of the divide between evangelical Christians and liberal Protestants in the early 20th century involved their respective views of Scripture. Increasingly today, though, this is a debate taking place between evangelicals.
The primary views have coalesced around two identifying terms: inerrancy and infallibility. The way these words are used can be confusing to those new to this debate because they’re usually defined as synonyms. But among evangelicals the words have taken on differing nuances. The traditional (many would say historical) view is that Scripture is both infallible and inerrant—meaning that it is both trustworthy in accomplishing God’s purpose and also completely free from error in everything it affirms, including details of history and science. Most who hold this view believe it follows naturally and necessarily from the divine inspiration of the Bible; if all Scripture is God-breathed it must be both infallibly trustworthy and free from error.
The differing view is that the Bible is completely trustworthy and infallible as far as its theological message is concerned, but that it was never intended to be free from incidental and mistaken details of history or science (and that it does indeed include such errors). Some label this view as “partial inerrancy,” the difference being how much of Scripture is error-free, and from what kinds of error the Bible was preserved.
The purpose of this post is not to argue for or against inerrancy (so please resist doing so in the comments). Discussions about the infallibility view tend to become focused entirely on disproving or defending inerrancy. But my interest here is to explore the question (regardless of whether the Bible actually contains error): Is the infallibility view even a plausible option? Here are a few reasons why I haven’t found this view to be credible:
You’ve heard the old saying: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” It means the rules for you should be the same as the rules for me. If I’m allowed a certain leeway, so should you be. To apply a different set of rules for me than is generally applied for everyone else is called “special pleading.” The proponents of the infallibility view are asking for a level of trustful acceptance I don’t think they would ordinarily accord other religions. Let’s be clear, we’re being asked to accept writings that allegedly contain blatant factual errors as divinely-inspired and infallible Scripture. But would any of us so easily dismiss errors in the Book of Mormon, or inconsistencies in the Qur’an?
Imagine a group of people claiming that Gandhi was God incarnate, that he rose from the dead and that all people must be saved through faith in him. They further claim that his closest followers wrote accounts of his death and resurrection, and these accounts tell of his teachings, of the nature of salvation, and give instructions regarding how his followers should corporately live out this faith. But—they say—these aren’t just the fallible, human writings of these people, they constitute the divinely-inspired Scriptures that infallibly explain and define spiritual truth and that authoritatively determine the community life of Gandhi’s followers. So you check out these writings, but you begin to notice far too many blatant mistakes and contradictions regarding pertinent historical details and matters of science. Now, you might still consider these accounts as historically significant, and you may even regard them as containing spiritual insights—but would you accept them as the infallible words of God himself? I think that’s doubtful. If you truly believe these writings contain errors, it’s unlikely you’ll accept them as completely divine. (Witness both the challenges to the Book of Mormon and its defense.)
Not long ago a prominent scholar was asked why he believes in an infallible, but not inerrant, Bible. He answered that he believes this about Scripture because of the internal witness he’s received from the Spirit. Others challenged him that this sounds disturbingly similar to the Mormon “burning in the bosom” (which is supposed to confirm to skeptics that Mormonism is true). They asked how the two are different. His response? “One is from God and the other isn’t[!]” This puts us in the untenable position of telling the Mormon ‘my subjective inner feeling is valid but yours is not.’ And what of those who have an inner testimony from the Spirit that the Scriptures are inerrant? This is special pleading, applying different standards to one’s own view. To use a different old expression, it’s “trying to have one’s cake and eat it too.” In my days as a skeptic, I would never have accepted this idea of a factually errant but divinely infallible Scripture, from either a Latter-day Saint or an evangelical Christian. I would not have found either remotely credible.
A “lesser to greater” problem
When Jesus was taking with Nicodemus, he asked him (in John 3:12):
If you don’t believe me when I tell you about earthly things,
how can you possibly believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
That’s a good question. Some protest that we trust textbooks and the constitution without them necessarily being 100% error-free. But these people are missing the point. No one accepts our constitution or a textbook as divinely inspired Scripture. We don’t grant them the same kind of authority in our lives as the Bible. If a textbook is wrong, we correct it. If the constitution is inadequate, we amend it. It’s not the origin of these documents that gives them even their limited authority—it’s our acceptance and affirmation of them as a society. Unless we’re to accept the Bible as merely a majority-ratified authority that can be amended and modified when we feel the need, the comparison is not valid. And this leaves us with a similar question to the one above:
If the Bible can’t be trusted to tell us about earthly things without error,
how can we possibly trust it to tell us about heavenly things without error?
Can I get a witness?
As I mentioned above, the case for infallibility seems to be all about the case against inerrancy. Every time I’ve asked why someone holds this view I get an earful about why inerrancy is all wrong. Maybe they’re right. Maybe the Bible contains undeniable error. The problem is that disproving inerrancy does absolutely nothing to establish infallibility. Yet these discussions inexorably lead to attacking inerrancy (often using very poor reasoning, but that’s another post).
The only reason I’ve heard for accepting this view is the claim of some subjective inner feeling (as I mentioned above), or the indignant reminder that the Bible is both divine and human. I guess this is meant to prove that Scripture necessarily contains error because of its human aspect. But Jesus was both divine and human, yet he never sinned. Why is this not similar with the written Word of God? Why can Scripture not be both divine and human, yet without error? We still await a case to be made, and simply saying that Scripture is also human doesn’t establish anything. Why would God supernaturally preserve the human writing of Scripture from any theological error but not bother to preserve it from factual error (especially when factual error would call into question the veracity of the theological content)? Assuming, for the sake of discussion, that the Bible does contain these historical and/or cosmological errors—we still need answers to these questions:
Why should we accept factually erroneous writing as divinely inspired and infallible Scripture?
How can you have God-breathed error?
I’m still waiting for a positive case for this idea.
May be arguing too much
If the inerrancy of Scripture follows naturally from divinely inspired Scripture, and if there’s no plausible reason to accept erroneous writings as divinely inspired and infallible Scripture, then errantists may be unintentionally undermining the foundation of their own beliefs. They may be trying to saw off the branch on which we both sit. That would be ironic and sad.
Where do you draw the line?
To what extent is a factually erroneous Bible authoritative? Who decides what is sufficiently theological and therefore infallible? It’s interesting that some (please note the “some”) egalitarians have concluded that Paul was simply wrong about his views on gender-distinctive roles. I assume Peter was wrong too. They were apparently basing their teachings on their cultural understandings rather than divine inspiration. Of course, this isn’t just historical minutiae we’re talking about now, but the life of the church. Given Paul’s theological defense of these distinctive roles, do we now have theological error in the Bible? And if they were wrong about this, why not homosexuality? If we aren’t tied to the explicit content of the written text, who determines just how far some “progressive” trajectory flows beyond it? If the apostles could be bound to their cultural understandings of these issues, why not the concept of hell, or the exclusivity of Christ, or penal substitutionary atonement, or justification by faith? If we know the Bible affirms things as true that are not, then how do we determine what is true and what is not? Where do you draw the line, and on what basis do you draw it there?
I’m not saying that anyone who denies inerrancy cannot be a sincere evangelical Christian. I’m also not saying there’s an unavoidable slippery slope from a rejection of inerrancy into liberalism. There are many wonderful Christians who do not accept the idea of inerrancy. Thankfully, many of these brothers and sisters continue to view the Bible as the authoritative Word of God, and they seek to draw their theology and practices from Scripture. I appreciate their dependence on Scripture, but I believe it to be inconsistent with their rejection of inerrancy. I think to the extent they are thinking and living biblically it is despite their rejection of inerrancy. Actually, many of these believers live as functional inerrantists even though they dismiss inerrancy. They enjoy the residual security of the very doctrine they deny.
Sadly though, we have example after example of individuals, schools and denominations that began by questioning the inerrancy of Scripture and eventually came to question the very tenants of the faith. This slip may not be inevitable, but I don’t think any can deny it has happened, and happened far too many times. You may be able to reject the idea of an inerrant Bible and remain orthodox in your beliefs, but what of those who follow you and adopt your views of Scripture? What if they reject more than you do? What if they “correct” more of Scripture than you do? Within the parameters of your view, how can you defend against a slip into liberalism? (And who’s to say you even should?)
Please don’t misunderstand the last paragraph. I’m not arguing that because of some danger to our precious evangelicalism we must circle the wagons and defend inerrancy to the death. What I am saying is that we need to be completely honest about the options available to us. If the Bible is errant, then we need to be forthright about the consequences. Consider these propositions:
1. Because the Bible is divinely inspired it is infallible and inerrant Scripture.
2. Because the Bible is divinely inspired it is infallible Scripture even though it contains undeniable error.
3. The Bible contains undeniable error and so is not divinely inspired Scripture (although it may still be of historical and spiritual value).
Scripture that is divinely inspired, and therefore infallible and inerrant, makes perfect sense. This view is consistent and logical. On the other hand, a Bible that is simply the writings of well-intentioned followers of Jesus could also make sense. These writings could still be of great historical value and they could contain profound spiritual insights—but they would be no more “inspired” than the writings of AW Tozer or DA Carson. They wouldn’t be factually inerrant or theologically infallible. They would only be authoritative to the extent we accept them as authoritative.
I don’t believe the third option, but it’s consistent and plausible. Either option 1 or 3 would make sense depending on the actual errancy or inerrancy of the Bible. But a claim that factually erroneous writing can somehow be God-breathed and theologically infallible seems irrational. This is the completely subjective blind leap, plugging our ears and closing our eyes against the evidence and yelling, ‘But it’s still infallible.’ I don’t reject the second proposition simply because I don’t like it or don’t believe it, but because it’s incredible (i.e. unbelievable). If you truly believe the Bible to contain factual error, then I challenge you to have the intellectual consistency and courage to follow your belief to its logical conclusion.
Notice again that disproving inerrancy doesn’t establish the second option over the third. Those who hold to the second proposition are alone in denying any connection between inerrancy and divine inspiration. Everyone else would see this as special pleading and irrational. Merely scoffing at the idea of such a connection is inadequate. If you hold this view you need to present a positive case why any one should accept it. I invite you to answer this simple question:
Why should we accept factually erroneous writing as divinely inspired and infallible Scripture?
Throughout 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?
And 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.
6. 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.
This 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.
Here’s an excellent presentation of the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God from William Lane Craig and Reasonable Faith: