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

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

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

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

He makes a common mistake of attempting to apply the Granville Sharp Rule to Ephesians 4:11. But this rule just doesn’t work in cases where the nouns are plural (e.g. the Pharisees and Sadducees, the men and women, the apostles and prophets, and, yes, the pastors and teachers), so it’s not accurate to insist on this referring to one role of “pastor/teacher.” This passage isn’t listing church offices, but gifted people whom Christ gives to the church. Does everyone with a gift of shepherding others also have a gift of teaching? Is every gifted teacher also a shepherd/pastor? Such a view seems unnecessarily restrictive, and it’s simply not borne out by the grammar of this verse. Along with this, we find an over-emphasis on elders not only being “able to teach” (or some translations: “an able teacher” [1 Timothy 3:2]), but on each elder being an active teacher, even that each, according to Rinne, “must be known for teaching the Bible well.” He later qualifies this slightly, but it still goes well beyond what we have in the text, especially in light of 1 Timothy 5:17 that distinguishes those who are particularly involved in teaching.

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

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

Review: “The Shepherd Leader” by Timothy Witmer

41BVBHa89VL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_I’m always eager to read insights on pastoral leadership, and especially glad to see another book advocating that the church be pastored by a team of elders. The author of this book is obviously knowledgable and has a heart for the local church. He gives a capable defense of biblical eldership, and also includes a helpful explanation of the historical development of the church. Witmer begins with local churches being pastored by elders (the New Testament model), and shows how this morphed into the Roman Catholic episcopal model. He then describes in great detail the polity changes in Calvin’s church in Geneva and the Presbyterian church in Scotland.

The heart of the book is a section divided into four chapters, each on a different aspect of shepherding the church: knowing the sheep, feeding the sheep, leading the sheep, and protecting the sheep. Along the way, the author includes both biblical principles and practical applications. As with any book that makes practical suggestions, some will resonate and some won’t, but it can be worthwhile to think through (and discuss) any of them.

Potential readers should be aware of the theological context from which this book comes. The author is a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, served as a pastor of a Presbyterian church (PCA) for more than twenty-five years, and writes from a distinctly Presbyterian perspective. I think it’s entirely appropriate for our approaches to ministry and church leadership to be grounded solidly in our theology. But, because of this, it’s helpful to know the theological presuppositions of an author whose book we may read. For instance, one will notice Calvinistic assumptions peppered throughout this book. This doesn’t make the book unusable for non-Calvinists, but it’s helpful to know about this context beforehand.

A more salient concern is the specifically Presbyterian model of eldership put forward in this book. As a Presbyterian, Witmer sees a sharp dichotomy in the church eldership between lay “ruling elders” and professional, seminary-trained “teaching elders” (often referred to as “pastors”). Most non-Presbyterians would view this as based on Presbyterian tradition rather than scriptural exegesis. The only passage that comes anywhere close to this idea is 1 Timothy 5:17. In my view, and the view of a great many others, this text simply does not establish two distinct kinds of elders. All elders lead and are able to teach; some elders lead well (whether because of gifting, devotion, or availability); some of the elders who lead well (“especially those who…”) devote themselves to studying the Word and teaching. To somehow conclude from this the normative need for “ruling elders” who don’t publicly teach and “teaching elders” who don’t rule is to go far beyond the text itself.

And this problematic distinction among the elders leads to other problems. It doesn’t take long to begin seeing in this book an expectation that each church will have one “teaching elder” (despite the fact that 1 Timothy 5:17 refers to plural elders doing this teaching). It also becomes apparent that this teaching elder is often referred to as the pastor, so it’s not a big step to later references in the book to “the pastor” and “his elders.” By introducing a distinct classification of the elders that is not warranted by the text of Scripture, those who hold this model end up militating against the very plural shepherd (i.e. pastor) model they intend to defend and practice. Because of this prominent deviation from what I understand to be biblical eldership, I can’t recommend this book.

Review: “40 Questions About Elders and Deacons” by Benjamin Merkle

0004464_40_questions_about_elders_and_deaconsThis 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.

Review: “Pastoral Ministry according to Paul: A Biblical Vision” by James Thompson

imagesMany will pick up this volume expecting an entirely different book. Despite the title, there is nothing here regarding church elders, the appointment of leaders, church planting strategies, the role of the congregation in making decisions, etc. Any discussion of church polity is noticeably lacking. This is at least in part due to the scope of the author’s study. Whether by conviction or from a desire to secure the widest possible readership, Thompson limits his survey to the letters of Paul accepted by everyone, including the most liberal of scholars. This removes the pastoral epistles and such books as Ephesians and Colossians from consideration (as well as the narrative material in Acts describing Paul’s approach to pastoral ministry).

This truncating of the biblical sources—and of the subject of pastoral ministry—will be understandably off-putting to many evangelical readers. But it would be a mistake to skip this book altogether. The author may not include all of the aspects of ‘pastoral ministry according to Paul’ we would prefer him to, but what he does cover, he does very thoroughly. And the resulting insights he draws from these letters are rich with meaning for everyone involved in pastoral ministry. Thompson doesn’t devote much time to exploring the how of pastoral ministry, but he quite capably brings out the why. As the old saying goes: “If you understand the why, the how comes more naturally.”

Early in the book, we see the problem needing to be addressed. Scholars and church leaders frequently have differing, conflicting visions of what they mean by “pastoral ministry,” and this is even true of leaders within the same church tradition. As the author notes, too many churches today are seeking pastors who are a combination of Jay Leno, Lee Iacocca and Dr. Phil. Contributing to the problem is the unhelpful separation of theory and praxis in theological education. Thompson notes Edward Farley’s observation that all theological study was at one time designated “practical theology.” Now too many of the practical skills that are taught have no solid basis in theology, and too little theological study is applied to real life.

Thompson moves from this problem to a careful, detailed examination of six of Paul’s letters. He shows that, for Paul, “all theology is pastoral.” And throughout these epistles, we see one consistently repeated pastoral ambition: the formation and transformation of the church communities. Everything Paul does is centered on this purpose. His ultimate goal is to present to Christ the fully formed churches that were entrusted to him. This objective defines and determines his ministry. It also makes his ministry focus both corporate and eschatological:

The task of the Christian leader is to work with God in the construction of a building that will be complete only at the end.

This is a good reminder to us that pastoral ministry—the forming and transforming of church communities—is never “finished” in this lifetime. The author also repeatedly emphasizes Paul’s corporate understanding of the Christian faith, as opposed to an overly individualistic one.

The biblical theology (in the Pauline letters studied) is excellent, and the author has provided us with edifying and thought-provoking insights. Paul’s priority of community formation is a crucial one, and a priority we do well to emulate. Had Thompson chosen to include all of Paul’s epistles, he could have used the apostle’s own words in his letter to the Colossians:

So we tell others about Christ, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all the wisdom God has given us. We want to present them to God, perfect in their relationship to Christ. That’s why I work and struggle so hard, depending on Christ’s mighty power that works within me.

Colossians 1:28-29

Review: “Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership” by Phil Newton

This book on church eldership is fairly brief (154 pages), but contains quite a few helpful insights. It will be particularly beneficial to anyone from a Baptist church tradition. The author effectively demonstrates that not only is church leadership by a plurality of elders compatible with Baptist beliefs and church practices, but it’s a significant component of Baptist history and heritage. He also describes the sometimes fierce resistance to this form of church leadership in Baptist churches, with some people being more concerned with remaining “Baptist” than being biblical.

Along the way, he ably explains much of the New Testament role of the church elders. He shares some of his own story and how he came to change his viewpoint on these issues. He makes some very good points in his presentation. I especially appreciated his observation that, in Acts, Luke assumed—but didn’t command—the planting of churches; in a similar way, he assumed—but didn’t command—the appointment of elders. The author rightly warns against simply reading back into Scripture our current church practices.

There are a few things in this book with which I would disagree. Newton assumes a distinct role for a senior pastor, but doesn’t establish (biblically or otherwise) why this should be so. In his defense, he does show the senior pastor to be in submission to the elders, and his description of the ministry of church elders does show them to be active, pastoral leaders. And he’s clear about the consequences and unfairness of expecting one pastor to wear every hat in the ministry of the church. Still, in my opinion retaining a distinct (and biblically unwarranted) role of senior pastor will serve to undermine a truly biblical church eldership. I also believe the author misconstrues the ministry role that Timothy filled while in Ephesus.

The author’s discussion of congregationalism is intriguing. As is true now of many pastors and leaders from congregational traditions, Newton doesn’t support a purely democratic form of congregationalism. Instead he advocates a modified congregationalism. Many who are wary of traditional congregationalism will welcome statements such as (page 142): “Shepherds do not normally offer suggestions to sheep!” He brings out the real need for leaders to lead and for congregations to follow. On the other hand, he sees the congregation as being not only involved in reaching consensus, but as of having a final authority. And, while he’s not dogmatic about this, he still tries to find in Scripture a possible election of elders by the congregation (unsuccessfully, in my opinion).

As I said, this book will be most helpful for those currently in a Baptist church context, and especially for Baptist churches contemplating a transition to an elder-led church model. If you’re thinking of making such a move, this book contains invaluable wisdom, and I would strongly encourage you to read it carefully. Of course, as the author points out, the place to begin is not with any supplemental book or study guide, but with Scripture itself. A real strength of this book is that it continually directs the reader’s attention back to the pertinent biblical passages. I hope this book is widely read, and that it spurs readers to study these scriptural principles for themselves.

Review: “Eldership in Action: Through Biblical Governance of the Church” by Richard Swartley

This book is an extremely valuable addition to the study of pastoral leadership of the church. Where a book such as Strauch’s Biblical Eldership provides the necessary doctrinal foundation of church leadership, Swartley builds on that foundation and gives us incredibly helpful insights regarding the nuts and bolts of ‘eldering.’ We get to benefit from this author’s experience and wisdom.

He covers all of the topics one would expect in this kind of book, such as the processes for selecting and appointing elders, the make-up of the elder council, interaction with the rest of the congregation, the necessity of prayer, effective council meetings, church discipline, confidentiality, etc. Along the way, he also discusses some key issues that church elders will appreciate. For instance, he clarifies the relationship between the terms elder and pastor, reminding us that all elders are pastors, but not all pastors are elders. This is helpful because we can begin to equate the two. He also—more than once—gives strong warning concerning the danger of distinguishing one elder as ‘the pastor,’ showing how this undermines a truly biblical eldership, and has no scriptural basis.

I appreciated Swartley’s wisdom on the benefits of team teaching/preaching. This model perfectly fits the concept of the church being pastored by a team of elders, and I’m pleased to see significant attention paid to it. He criticizes the use of Robert’s Rules of Orders, and shows a much healthier way of elders interacting that fosters consensus rather than politicking. Swartley advocates a middle ground between the rule of the majority and absolute unanimity. He values consensus, but warns against the possibility of decisions being determined, in a sense, by the lone holdout. His thinking has merit, but is challenging to those of us trained to hold unanimous consensus as almost sacred in elder deliberations. He also cautions against potential groupthink, where harmonizing with one’s fellow elders can become more important than what is actually right (and wrong).

Swarley presents an intriguing proposal concerning a designated leadership team drawn from an eldership council that has grown too large to effectively lead as a whole. As with any book that includes practical insights and suggestions, readers may not agree with every idea but will benefit from thinking through and responding to them. He also includes a lot of helpful, practical thinking on the need for elder councils to be proactive rather than simply reactionary, to intentionally provide opportunities for fellowship among elders, how to delegate effectively, the process of making proposals, etc.

Leaders of larger churches with paid staffs (or churches who hope to grow to that point) will want to carefully read Swartley’s thoughts on the subtle danger of dividing the staff from both the elders and the church’s volunteers. The staff can too easily become the actual, active leadership of the church, with the elders serving merely as a type of trustee board. Elders must be actual pastors and leaders, and the author emphasizes this repeatedly.

This is an excellent resource. I think any church seeking to wisely implement a truly biblical eldership will find this book both challenging and edifying. I highly recommend it!

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.

Episcopalianism
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.

Presbyterianism
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.

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.

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?