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: “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.