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 congregationalist, 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.

A few remaining challenges

This post is the last of a series of challenges commonly made against shared, plural pastoral leadership. It’s a follow-up to my post Why we don’t have a senior pastor.

I’m going to wrap up this series by discussing the remaining common challenges to the idea of each church being led by a team of elders.

The New Testament doesn’t give us a clear model. We have freedom to structure our church leadership in a way that works best for us.

Some people claim that the Bible is so ambiguous or inconsistent about leadership structures that we can simply use whatever works for our particular situation. It’s true that the New Testament doesn’t provide us with elaborate instructions on the minute details of church leadership. And this does give us great flexibility in applying scriptural principles to different cultures and contexts. But there is actually amazing consistency in how the New Testament describes the pastoral leadership of the original churches. James, Paul, Peter and Luke all describe the churches as being led by a plurality of elders.

James’ letter is most likely the earliest letter included in the New Testament, dating from the early to mid 40s AD. He refers to church leadership by elders in James 5:14. On the other hand, Peter’s teaching on elders comes late in his life (1 Peter 5:1-4). In the book of Acts, Luke recounts how Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in each church during their very first missionary trip (Acts 14:23). Years later, Paul is still following the same pattern, directing Titus to appoint elders in each town in Crete, and writing fairly detailed instructions to Timothy regarding the appointment and ministry of the elders of the church. We see this leadership structure for the churches consistently utilized and taught throughout Paul’s apostolic ministry.

As I noted in a previous post, we have accounts of elders being appointed, qualifications listed for elders, and instructions addressed directly to the elders of a church (with no mention anywhere of a sole, primary or senior pastor). Not only do we see this impressive consistency regarding the pastoral leadership of the churches throughout the New Testament, we have much more biblical teaching regarding church elders than we do for such important practices as baptism and communion. We can’t simply pretend that God hasn’t provided this pattern for us. And we shouldn’t introduce another form of church leadership unless it has clear biblical precedent.

The church can’t be led by a committee, it needs a primary leader.

It’s unfortunate that this challenge is heard as often as it is, because it’s really kind of a cheap shot. This is what, in logic, is called a “straw man argument.” It’s trying to cause your point to seem stronger by making your opponent’s view sound silly and easily torn apart (hence “straw man”). Why would I describe this challenge as a straw man argument? Because no pastor or Bible scholar who teaches about the church being led by a plurality of pastoral elders ever advocates for the church being led by a “committee.” They may use terms such as ‘council of elders’ or ‘pastoral team,’ but they don’t refer to committees. Committees don’t have a very good connotation for many of us, so using this kind of pejorative term is a way of stacking the deck against one’s opponent. We should never use a description for our opponents’ viewpoint that they wouldn’t use themselves.

Of course, the real problem with this challenge is that it’s not accurate. The implication here is that no one elder can ever exercise significant leadership beyond that of the other elders. They all have to be equally involved in every decision or ministry. But this just isn’t the way biblical elderships operate. For example, if the church is beginning a construction project, and one of the elders has considerable expertise in construction, then his leadership will be respected and probably followed (as the other elders consider and approve his ideas). If an elder has vast experience and wisdom in financial matters, then his voice will carry much greater weight when approaching fiscal decisions, and the other elders will respect his leadership.

Leadership by a council of co-equal elders doesn’t prevent God from using one man in a special, dynamic way. If one of the elders has a tremendous teaching or evangelistic gift, then the other elders will strive to give him ample opportunity to fulfill this ministry. What this model does resist is trying to see one elder as the primary leader in each and every situation, and formalizing this primary leadership into a ‘senior pastor’ role that is absent from the New Testament. In many churches, the plural leadership model serves to free a gifted pastor/teacher to pursue the ministry that best suits his gifting without the need for him to try to be all things to all people.

The famous Southern Baptist pastor Adrian Rogers was reputed to have argued: “Anything without a head is dead; anything with several heads is a freak.” I would agree. But just who is the head of the body of Christ? Isn’t that Christ himself? If the church has a primary or senior pastor who is viewed as the head of the church (as Rogers was advocating), doesn’t Rogers’ axiom actually argue against such a senior pastor model? Wouldn’t this constitute two heads of the body—Christ and the senior pastor? According to Rogers’ own argument, shouldn’t we view such a leadership structure as a freakish anomaly? The elders are not the heads of the body; they lead the body in seeking the will and direction of our Head. And they resist the temptation to assign that primary role to one of their own.

But we’ve never done it that way before! And what about all the churches that have senior pastors? Are they all wrong?

In many discussions about church eldership, it eventually becomes obvious that this is the underlying objection. Most of us prefer the familiar. We don’t like change, especially when it seems to go against the norm. Of course, whether a practice is familiar or not is ultimately irrelevant. The real question  for us must be: What does the Bible teach? And we can see in our history, and in Scripture itself, that the majority can be very wrong. Even if churches follow an unscriptural model of ministry for 1000 years, it doesn’t somehow sanctify it and make it healthy.

When Martin Luther opposed unbiblical practices in the church of his day, he was faced with these same kinds of challenges. How could he think he was right and everyone else wrong? (Although many others had opposed the same unbiblical practices.) How could he have the audacity to oppose the established tradition of the church? His response was simple; it was bold, yet humble. If anyone could show him in Scripture where he was in error, he would repent. But if they could not, he could do nothing else but accept the witness of God’s Word over accepted, traditional practice, no matter how well established. Those of us who are proponents of what we see as a biblical form of eldership—the pastoring of the church by a group of co-equal elders with no elder elevated above the rest—would invite the same correction and take the same stand.

Encouragingly, there have been many throughout the history of the church who have called us back to this scriptural model. Today, there are more churches who follow such a biblical structure than most people realize. And more and more churches are returning to these New Testament principles of pastoral leadership. It can be helpful to learn about real churches who follow such a model. If you’d like to check out some examples, just email me [see here].

Many wonderful people of God are serving as senior pastors, or serving in churches that have senior pastors. We would never want to dismiss them or ignore the good that God is doing through them. Still, we must continue to strive to be as biblical in our church practices as we can be, and to lovingly challenge our brothers and sisters where we feel they are diverting from what is scripturally normative. The more we follow God’s plan for the church, the more our churches will be healthy and thriving, the more of a vibrant witness we’ll be to the world around us, and the more we will glorify and honor the One whose church it actually is anyway.

Elders and pastoral leadership series:

Why we don’t have a senior pastor

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?

Challenge 4: What about the “Moses Model”?

A few remaining challenges [see above]

So what exactly do elders do?

Challenge 5: What about the angels of the seven churches in Revelation?