Review: “Elders and Leaders: God’s Plan for Leading the Church” by Gene Getz

I have great respect for Gene Getz. He’s been a faithful pastor, church-planter and educator, and has written other books of value to the body of Christ. But one cannot allow respect for an author to prevent a frank and honest evaluation of his work, and I’m sure Gene Getz would agree.

As with similar books that include practical observations, readers will agree with some applications and question others. The author provides solid insights and biblical principles of church leadership. If not for serious flaws, this book would have been a valuable addition to the existing books on pastoral leadership. Unfortunately, one begins to notice far too many biblical interpretations based on conjecture rather than clear exegesis. For example, here are some claims Getz makes in this book:

  • There were no elders of the church in Antioch in Acts 13.
    This may be true; it may not. It seems apparent the prophets and teachers who were gathered to fast and worship the Lord together—and whom the Holy Spirit directed to dedicate Barnabas and Saul for the work to which he had called them—exercised some form of leadership. Many scholars feel these were the elders of the Antioch church. But Scripture doesn’t clearly tell us either way. Getz’ claim is simply an assumption, and a curious one considering the gathering of these leaders, the instructions to them by the Spirit, and their subsequent decisive action.
  • Barnabas “voluntarily became second in command” to Paul.
    Where exactly are we told this? Where is the relationship between the two so clarified? If this is true, why did Barnabas later counter Paul regarding taking Mark as part of their team? Was he defying Paul’s primary leadership?
  • In Luke 22:32, Jesus not only instructs Peter to strengthen his brothers, but to shepherd them and lead them—and to do this in a manner unique from the shepherding and leading of the other apostles, serving as a primary leader to them.
    Of course, Scripture doesn’t actually tell us any of this.
  • Peter wasn’t just prominent in proclaiming the gospel in Acts 2, he was exercising primary leadership of the other apostles, which they obediently followed.
  • At the conference reported in Acts 15, Peter represented the apostles, and James represented the elders.
  • The apostle John served as Peter’s “assistant.”

These assertions may be plausible. We may even be sympathetic to some. But they go beyond the clear teaching of Scripture. And, alarmingly, they occur in the exegetical section of the book. These claims are examples of reading into the text one’s own conclusions.

Of course, the elephant in the room for many readers of this book will be Getz’ idea that a primary leader must be distinguished from the other elders. He feels this is normal and necessary. In Part Three of the book, his Observation 11 states: “The New Testament definitely teaches and illustrates that when there is a plurality of leadership, someone needs to function as the primary leader of the team.” He insists that God didn’t plan for the church to have co-leaders. He then surprisingly (and somewhat self-contradictorily) admits that “the biblical story of local church leadership offers little data to make the specific observation that someone must function as the primary leader.” In his opinion, the overall context of Scripture and the roles of Peter and James are enough to establish this primary leadership position.

But Getz doesn’t adequately cover (or usually even discuss) examples from Scripture that would tend to challenge his interpretation. What of Barnabas and Saul together teaching the congregation in Antioch? Why does Paul refer to three pillars of the Jerusalem church in Galatians 2, rather than to one primary leader? If James was an apostle of Christ, as Scripture seems to indicate and many scholars believe, wouldn’t that provide a different rationale for distinguishing him from the elders?

Getz refers to the apostles sending Peter and John to Samaria (Acts 8:14) as a demonstration that Peter “did not act unilaterally without seeking advice and counsel and affirmation.” But there is not one hint in this passage of Peter providing primary leadership in this venture while seeking advice, counsel and affirmation from the other apostles. Instead we see the apostles leading as a team and directing the ministry of Peter and John.  Getz reads into this passage his own assumptions, and arrives at an interpretation not borne out by the actual text. Actually, this passage is very supportive of the viewpoint Getz dismisses (co-equal leadership with no distinguished primary leader).

The Bible gives us many accounts of teams of elders being appointed to lead individual churches, qualifications for church elders, and instructions given directly to these elders. But we don’t have a single clear reference to even the existence of a designated primary leader of a New Testament church (not even of Peter or James filling this role), much less any reference to qualifications for such a primary leader, the appointment of any primary leader, or any instructions given to a primary leader. Just where exactly does the New Testament “definitely teach” this necessary primary leader? We’re not told. All we have are the examples of Peter and James, which do not establish the normative role that Getz describes.

Even if everything he claims about their ministry function is true, all this would show is that one of the elders may tend to exercise a prominent leadership. Of course, no one denies this. But anything beyond this is pure conjecture. And prominence in leadership does not equate a formally distinct role, no matter how much one may assume so. [For a more detailed examination of the ministry roles of Peter and James, see here.] The only place where the Bible refers to anyone providing ongoing primary leadership to the elders/shepherds is the archepoimēn (Chief Shepherd/Pastor) in 1 Peter 5:4, and this is, of course, speaking of Jesus. The body has only one head; the kingdom has only one King. Each team of church elders do require a primary leader, but that primary leader should be Jesus Christ, their Chief Shepherd/Senior Pastor.

I am one elder/pastor who, regrettably, cannot recommend this book. I would suggest instead Alexander Strauch’s book Biblical Eldership. Strauch is sound in his exegesis, careful in his conclusions, and presents a balanced approach that has proven to be instrumental for a broad range of evangelical churches, from small house-churches to congregations with large staffs and attendances in the thousands. In Elders and Leaders (p. 302), Gene Getz tells of a time earlier in his ministry when he became more pragmatic than biblical. With no disrespect or animosity intended, I would suggest this is true of much of his writing in this book as well.

Related posts:

Challenge 2: What about Peter and James?

Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: “Shepherds & Sheep: A Biblical View of Leading & Following” by Jerram Barrs

This book is pleasantly concise (98 pages including endnotes), but ably provides a solid overview of biblical church leadership. The book was written in 1983, and Barrs seems to be especially responding to ministries that stress a controlling “shepherding” or “covering,” and also churches that overemphasize a directing type of prophecy with no checks or safeguards—both of which were prevalent at the time. He also shows the danger of a licentious, anything-goes kind of approach, but doesn’t spend as much time exploring this side of the imbalance. Along the way, Barrs reveals some of the unhealthy extremes in the teachings of Watchman Nee, as well as troubling practices in Witness Lee’s Local Church movement.

But the relevance of this book isn’t limited to specific church movements. Both a libertarian lack of control and a legalistic authoritarianism are both potential dangers for churches at all times. The author focuses on the biblical principles of church leadership and shows how a consistently scriptural leadership model will protect us from falling into either extreme. When we neglect scriptural principles or enforce our own extra-biblical standards, we fall out of the balance described in the New Testament. I particularly appreciated Barrs’ insightful comments about the ‘upside down pyramid’ approach, having been part of a church that followed this kind of structure.

Some readers may quibble with details of the author’s views on apostles, elders, prophecy, etc. But even if you disagree with certain aspects of Barrs’ positions on these issues, you can still benefit from the main points on which he focuses attention. For instance, along with Howard Snyder (in the book’s foreword) I would disagree with Barrs’ assertion that the office of Apostle of Christ was limited to the 11 plus Paul. But his warning about leaders today claiming to be Apostles, with no or inadequate clarification of what they mean by the term, is spot on and necessary. His understanding of prophecy generally compares well with those of Wayne Grudem (Prophecy in the New Testament and Today) and DA Carson (Showing the Spirit). One may not agree with every nuance, but still appreciate the way he seeks to guard against the abuse of supposed prophetic utterances used to control others and direct their lives in very detailed ways. He brings out the biblical principles of a plurality of pastoral leaders in each church and the ministry of each part of the body, but in a book of this brevity it’s understandable if he doesn’t explore the application of these principles in greater depth.

This is a brief, but very helpful, book on a healthy, biblically balanced model of church leadership that leads to liberty in the life and ministry of churches, and on the necessity of guarding against the extremes of both license and legalism.

Review: “The Team Concept: Paul’s Church Leadership Patterns or Ours?” by Bruce Stabbert

From time to time, I’m going to post reviews of books related to elders and pastoral leadership. I’ll try to add these books in somewhat chronological order, first reviewing the earliest books. Hopefully these reviews will be helpful to those seeking more knowledge and wisdom on this important topic.

To my knowledge, before Alexander Strauch’s book was published (Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership), this would have been the only full-length treatment of church elders not written from a specifically Presbyterian point of view. Although Stabbert’s book has been eclipsed by Strauch’s, this is still an excellent book on biblical church leadership.

Stabbert devotes the first three chapters primarily to biblical exegesis of the relevant passages showing a plurality of pastoral leaders in the New Testament churches. He then follows with some helpful discussion of various aspects of biblical eldership. Here are some of his points that I especially appreciated:

Chapter 1: What’s in a Name?
In this opening chapter, the author examines each of the words used to describe church leaders, and shows how such terms as elder, overseer, bishop, pastor, etc. refer to the same leaders. He also very quickly and effectively shows that a distinction of one pastor from the rest of the elders is contrary to Scripture.

Chapter 2: One or Many?
This chapter traces the consistent, biblical pattern of plurality among the pastoral leaders of each individual church. Some have speculated that each city included many house churches, and have used this conjecture to challenge the concept of plural pastoral leaders for each church. Stabbert does an excellent job of showing the fallacies of such a challenge.

Chapter 3: A Verdict That Demands an Evidence
He does a good job handling those biblical leaders that some claim are exceptions to a pattern of plural pastoral leaders (Timothy, James, etc.). I wish he had gone into a little more detail regarding James, particularly the amount of baggage placed on one word in the Greek (krino), which can simply mean to offer one’s opinion or perspective.

Chapter 4: If the Shoe Fits
Stabbert lists ten benefits of adopting this biblical model of church leadership. Very helpful insights.

Chapter 5: We’ve Never Done It That Way Before
Ably handles common objections to this leadership model. I particularly appreciated his discussion of pastoral training, seminary education, and the overemphasis of a unique “call” to pastoral ministry.

Chapter 6: How Now?
Good thoughts on how to make sure a process of change in a church is a healthy one.

Chapter 7: The Inside Story
Solid section on the qualifications for elders. Helpful discussion on the desired age of elders. (Can a 24-year old seminary graduate be considered an “elder”?) Excellent description of the “Indigenous Principle,” i.e. raising up and using pastoral leaders from within the congregation rather than routinely hiring from outside.

Chapter 8: Player-Coaches
Insightful description of what the biblical duties of elders really are.

This is still a very helpful book. For anyone serving or preparing to serve as an elder, or for a church considering a transition to leadership by a council of co-equal elders, I think this book would prove to be beneficial and edifying.

Review: The Shack

This may seem like yesterday’s news to some, but I still receive questions about The Shack. (Someone asked me about this just yesterday.) So, I thought a review of some key issues might be helpful. Shortly after this book began gaining a lot of attention, a good friend gave me a copy and asked for my thoughts. The review below is based on that response.

The Shack is a novel by William Paul Young that seemed to suddenly explode onto the public scene. Young writes about deep issues of loss, anger, life and death. Along the way, he has quite a bit to say about theological aspects of these issues such as the nature of God and God’s interaction with humanity. Quite a few people have shared a common experience with this book. At first they found it refreshing and comforting, a breath of fresh air. But then, when they started to really think through what the author was saying, they became confused.

The book begins strong. Right away, I felt that I knew the characters and cared about what happened to them. The author does a good job of drawing us into the story. The dialogue and the people we meet along the way are all realistic. Even though I had a good idea what was going to happen, the camping scenes and the search for Missy were riveting, horrifying and utterly believable. He had me hooked until the encounter at the shack. The part of the book that most intrigued many readers was the part that I found hardest to get through. But not just for the reasons you might think.

Let me begin by saying that I have no problem with a fictional or allegorical portrayal of God, of spiritual issues or of the Christian life. C.S. Lewis does this especially well. I’m also sympathetic to much of what (I think) the author was trying to accomplish. But I did have problems with this book. There are a number of things I could discuss, but I’ll try to focus on the most significant issues.

The question of gender in the author’s depiction of God seems to have been the main lightning rod for controversy. So, I’ll address this first and then move on to what I see as more important issues. Yes, I understand Mack’s problems with his father and, by extension, The Father. And, yes, I understand the point that God transcends gender and that both male and female are created in God’s image. And, yes, it is a biblical concept that God comes to us where we are, and even became human to do it.

Still—the Bible never shows God coming in different guises or forms. Each part of the Godhead is consistent in his role and form. God doesn’t appear to one as a young boy and to another as an old woman. And, yes, God consistently presents himself as male. He is never manifested in Scripture in female form or language. (Even the angels are consistently male.) So, in an age when some are attempting to emasculate the God of the Bible and present God as Father/Mother or remove gender distinctions for God altogether, if an author presents 2/3 of the Trinity as feminine throughout most of a book, he shouldn’t be surprised when he gets raised eyebrows in response.

Even if Young doesn’t support the extremes I’m describing, making these kinds of choices in his depiction of God is at the very least naive and irresponsible. I got the impression, though, that he does have some kind of axe to grind regarding gender roles. But this whole gender issue isn’t the most important concern for me.

In his book, Young portrays the Trinity in three bodily forms. This kind of portrayal is seriously questionable, and doesn’t fit the Bible’s descriptions of God at all. God has one bodily form—Christ. He is the visible image of the invisible God. Jesus is the physical, bodily manifestation of God. Even if these characterizations are useful as a story-telling apparatus, they do damage to the biblical understanding of the Trinity.

I can almost hear people say how ‘this book helped me understand the Trinity.’ But if they understand the Trinity in the way this author has described, their understanding is actually more confused than it was before. Maybe Young could have written a similar story using only Jesus as a divine character, maybe not. Regardless, this depiction of the three persons of the Trinity in bodily form is unscriptural. This wouldn’t even work well as allegory. I’m sure the author didn’t intend to obscure the biblical truth of the nature of God. But this is what he has done, and it’s a serious issue.

Any time an author writes a fictional portrayal of God, they’re edging out over thin ice. There are bound to be critics who just don’t like the way you’ve described God. And, of course, the subject himself may take issue with the way he’s depicted! The safest course for an author is to stay as close as possible to what God has actually said in Scripture. This is exactly what most Christian authors do. This is decidedly not what this author has done.

To be fair to Young, he does bring out some wonderful insights in his book, and I’m sure these truths will be helpful to many people. He presents a great number of other ideas, though, that are highly questionable and some that are downright silly. This wouldn’t be quite as serious a problem if Young was describing what were clearly his own ideas and views, and claiming—or having his character claim—that he thinks this is what God is like or what God might say. But I take great offense at him taking his own pet viewpoints and portraying them as coming from the mouth of God. In my opinion, this approaches blasphemy. If you’re going to portray, even fictionally, God as saying ‘thus and so,’ you had better be very certain that God would actually say ‘thus and so.’ If not, you are using God to advance your own agenda, not his, and dangerously misleading people.

Remember, idolatry is not just worshiping another god, it also worshiping a false illusion of the true God. I’m not talking about the plot points (whether God would offer scones), but the intentional teachings about God, humanity, life, death, etc. Much of this dialogue is more reminiscent of a guest on Oprah than the God of the Bible. Most of it sounds like a Christian, self-help, radio call-in program. Very little of it reminds me of the God I see in his self-revelation. The dialogue of “God” in this book tells me a great deal about the author; it tells me little about God.

And this brings me to my final, most subjective, concern. Even accepting the author’s characterizations of Papa, Jesus and Sarayu, I just don’t find any of them believable as God. His Jesus doesn’t ring true as the Jesus of the Gospels (for me). These characters are just too cutesy and frivolous. I personally know mature believers who manifest greater spiritual depth and significance than this “God”—not in a heavy-handed, religious way, but in a way that reminds me of . . . hmm, Jesus.

Consider Aslan from the Narnia books. Now I can buy this lion as a type of Christ. He’s not a tame lion. He’s not safe, but he’s good. This author’s portrayals of God are just too tame. In theological terms, this “God” is far too immanent and not nearly enough transcendent. (Actually, the depiction of wisdom at least started off better in this regard.) This strikes me as a typically shallow, 21st century depiction of God.

I guess a basic question for me is: Is the God of the Bible enough for us? Of course, we must actually live out and experience our relationship with God. And I have no problem with seeking to be creative in how we explain God to others and communicate his truth. But are we striving to effectively explain God as he has revealed himself, and communicate the same truth that he communicated through his Word? Or are we attempting to improve on his revelation and go beyond it?

As I wrote about in my last post, I want to make sure that I’m worshiping—and communicating—God as he truly is, not some figment of my own imagination. My own imagined god may seem more palatable to me and appealing to others. He may feel a lot more tame and safe. But an illusionary god can’t save anyone. He can’t bring to life what was dead. He can’t restore justice, peace and wholeness. I’m not satisfied with William Paul Young’s imagined “God.” I want the real thing.

If you’re intrigued by this kind of fictionalized account of a conversation with God, you might try David Gregory’s Dinner with a Perfect Stranger. The story isn’t as dramatic, but his Jesus is down-to-earth, and the author seems to do a much better job of writing a biblically-informed depiction of Christ and articulation of spiritual truth.