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.

EFCA Gateway

gateway_cmyk-1Some of you know that I’m passionate about church-based theological education. While I’m extremely thankful for sound evangelical scholarship and appreciate seminary professors as vital resources for the church, I’ve long been a proponent of training pastors in a local church context. There’s much to commend such an approach both biblically and historically (and economically).

So you can understand my excitement at learning more about EFCA Gateway. This EFCA ministry is designed for leaders who need theological and pastoral training, but lack the time and resources to access traditional seminary education. I hope to become very involved with EFCA Gateway and will be writing much more about it in the future. But probably the best introduction is this video:

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.

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Last week, we talked about how to read the book of Acts. [Following the story: God and his people, part 2.] We saw that we’re not supposed to model our behavior after everything some biblical character does. We’re careful to remember that stories are stories; they’re narrative in nature, not didactic (i.e. intending to directly instruct). This is especially necessary when reading the book of Acts because it portrays the early church rather than the Old Testament people of God. The inclination is going to be much stronger to pattern ourselves after what we see in Acts.

We looked at an important example of this last week. It’s no more appropriate for us to expect, in our everyday Christian lives today, the same signs and wonders we see in Acts as it was for Elijah to expect the same manifestations of God’s presence experienced at Mt Sinai. God never changes, but the way he works in and through his people does. God’s character and faithfulness are rock solid, never moving, never wavering. But his methods are often unpredictable. Rather than following the same formula every time, he seems to delight in surprising us!

So does this mean we can’t learn anything from Acts? Not at all. Just as with the Old Testament stories, the accounts of the early church tell of a unique period in history. God was doing something completely new and unprecedented in the lives of his people, and it’s important for us to understand this. When we read of the birth of the church in Acts 2, we see God inhabiting his people in a way that had never been true before. Through the Holy Spirit, we now experience an intimacy with God that transcends anything the Old Testament saints knew. This changes everything, and the letters to the churches explore this new relationship we now have with God.

But is this it? Is Acts only useful as history of what God was doing then? Can’t the stories of the early church teach us anything about how we should live as the church? Yes, they can. But we have to be careful. We need to know what applies to us, what does not, and why. To determine whether something in Acts applies to us today, we need to ask two essential questions:

1. Is this principle taught elsewhere, especially in the letters to the churches?

2. Is this a one-time occurrence, or do we see this principle consistently described through the book of Acts?

Let’s try these criteria on a couple of issues that are important for us today.

Proposed principle to consider:

The church is to be led by a group of co-equal pastoral leaders
with no one taking a distinguished senior role.

Can we use the accounts in Acts to teach this? Well, let’s look at our first question. Do we see the principle of shared pastoral leadership taught in the letters to the churches? There is no explicit command that the churches are to be led this way. But we do find an impressive number of references to teams of elders/overseers (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 4:14, 5:17-19; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1-5). Many of these passages describe aspects of their pastoral ministry, or give instructions regarding the appointment and pay of elders. 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 provide the qualifications for elders.

Contrasted with these references, we find no mention of a sole church pastor or a designated senior leader in distinction to the elders, no appointment of such a leader, and no qualifications given for one. This overwhelming consistency over a broad range of New Testament authors and letters is hard to dispute. So we do find this principle implicitly taught in the letters to the churches.

What of our second criterion? Is there only an isolated example of this principle, or do we see it consistently described through the book of Acts? We find references to church elders in Acts 11:30, 14:23, 15:2-23, 16:4, 20:17-38, and 21:18. These references are all to groups of elders (plural), and again we see no reference to a sole or senior pastor/elder/overseer (even when we might expect such a reference). We observe Paul and Barnabas appointing elders in each of the churches they planted (14:23). We see elders deliberating with the apostles concerning requirements for Gentile believers (Acts 15). And we read instructions given directly to a team of elders (20:17-38), including the commands to pastor and keep watch over the church. Supporting this principle, in the early chapters of Acts we even see the apostles leading the church in Jerusalem as a group, with no designated “chief apostle.”

So this principle of shared pastoral leadership, with no senior elder/pastor, passes our test. There is no great cultural difference in the way we carry out this principle, so our churches today should be led in the same way. And it is entirely appropriate for us to use the stories in Acts in studying or teaching on this biblical principle. Do you see how we arrived at this conclusion? Let’s look at another test case:

Proposed principle to consider:

Baptism in the Holy Spirit occurs after salvation
and is always accompanied by speaking in tongues.

Many Christians use the book of Acts to teach this principle. But when answering our first question, we begin to run into problems. Do we find the principle that baptism in the Holy Spirit normally occurs after salvation in the letters to the churches? Actually, we see just the opposite. There is no reference at all in the epistles (i.e. the letters to the churches) to believers receiving the Spirit subsequent to salvation, and passages such as Romans 8:9, 1 Corinthians 12:13 and Ephesians 1:13-14 indicate that the receiving of the Holy Spirit is an integral aspect of our initial salvation.

What of the claim that every Christian should speak in tongues when they receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit? Here again, no passage outside of Acts suggests such an idea, and Paul pointedly opposes it in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. So not only is this principle not taught in the letters to the churches, the clear teaching we see in these letters contradicts this idea.

Then why is this teaching so prevalent? Those who support this principle do so by relying on the stories in the book of Acts. So let’s test this claim with our second question. When we look at the accounts in Acts of believers receiving the Holy Spirit, do we see consistency? There are four descriptions of the baptism of the Holy Spirit in Acts: Acts 2:1-41, 8:4-25, 10:1-48 and 19:1-7. How consistent were these experiences? Let’s compare them:

Intentionally waiting for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on them:
Chapter 2 account: yes
Chapter 8 account: no
Chapter 10 account: no
Chapter 19 account: no

A sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm:
Chapter 2: yes
Chapter 8: no
Chapter 10: no
Chapter 19: no

What looked like flames or tongues of fire appearing and settling on each of them:
Chapter 2: yes
Chapter 8: no
Chapter 10: no
Chapter 19: no

Hands laid on those receiving the Spirit:
Chapter 2: no
Chapter 8: yes
Chapter 10: no
Chapter 19: yes

Receiving the Spirit after they were saved:
Chapter 2: yes
Chapter 8: yes
Chapter 10: no
Chapter 19: no (I’ll discuss this in greater detail below.)

Speaking in tongues described as part of experience:
Chapter 2: yes
Chapter 8: no
Chapter 10: yes
Chapter 19: yes

Prophesying described as part of experience:
Chapter 2: yes
Chapter 8: no
Chapter 10: no
Chapter 19: yes

How consistent are these descriptions? Not very. With this lack of clear consistency, along with contradictory teaching from the letters to the churches, it’s difficult to biblically assert this claim. “Still,” some might suggest, “something happened in each description that was dramatic enough to be noticed by everyone around. Maybe the principle is just that the receiving of the Holy Spirit will be dramatic and noticeable.” This does seem to be a consistent pattern in these accounts in Acts. Can we draw from this pattern to give us a normative teaching for us today? Or was there something unique happening here in the history of the early church? Let’s see what else we can observe about these stories.

Do we notice anything these accounts have in common? Well, each story is about a group of people receiving the Spirit. Of course, I’m not suggesting we can only receive the Holy Spirit in groups and that an individual is just out of luck! But there seems to be something significant to Luke (the author of Acts) about these groups receiving the Spirit of God. We have no description in Acts of an individual believer being baptized in the Holy Spirit.

Do we see anything interesting about these groups? Actually, we do:

Chapter 2 account: original church (exclusively Jewish)
Chapter 8 account: Samaritans
Chapter 10 account: Gentiles
Chapter 19 account: followers of John the Baptist who lacked adequate knowledge of Jesus

Does this remind you of what we saw last week regarding Luke’s focus in writing Acts? Remember he didn’t give us an in-depth history of the early church, but instead a representative sample that showed the church expanding both geographically and ethnically—from Jews to Samaritans to Gentiles. Do we see this same focus in his descriptions of the receiving of the Holy Spirit? Absolutely. The book has more to tell us about the rapid expansion of the church than about historical peculiarities of the early church. In the same way, Luke seems to emphasize that this expansion was a work of the Spirit rather than giving us a definitive, normative description of how all believers receive the Holy Spirit.

When you think about it, there are very good reasons for these receptions of the Holy Spirit to be so dramatic and noticeable. As I already mentioned, God was doing something completely new in pouring out his Spirit on his people. It makes sense for this initial outpouring to be overt in its power and glory, just as God’s interaction with the Old Covenant people of God at Mt Sinai was overt in its power and glory. The Hebrew prophets spoke of a time when God would pour out his Spirit on all his people. Now this was finally happening, during the Jewish festival of Pentecost, right in the heart of Jerusalem . . . to the followers of Jesus. It was important that the Jewish people there saw what God was doing, and so this initial baptism of Christ’s church into his Holy Spirit was obvious and undeniable to all who witnessed it.

Who were the next people to receive the Spirit? The Samaritan believers. What do we know about them? Well, they were of a mixed race, partly Israelite and partly a combination of all the surrounding peoples. And they also had a competing religion they claimed was the true, original faith, with a competing temple and priesthood. The Jews and Samaritans hated each other and were suspicious of anything having to do with the other.

What would likely be the natural outcome if Samaritans accepted Jesus as their Messiah? Can you see how easy it would have been to have two competing Christianities right at the beginning—one Jewish and one Samaritan? So God didn’t immediately pour out his Spirit on these new believers. He waited until the (Jewish) apostles had come and laid hands on them. By laying hands on these Samaritans, the apostles were accepting them as brother and sister believers. And by the Holy Spirit coming to them through the apostles, the Samaritans realized they were under the leadership of the Jewish apostles and could no longer go their own way. But for this connection to be effective, the reception of the Spirit by the Samaritans (through the apostles) had to be undeniably obvious to both.

In the following chapters in Acts, as well as Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we see how difficult it was for the Jewish Christians to accept that Gentiles could become followers of Jesus without first becoming Jews. They wrestled with this for a long time. So we see the great wisdom of God in interrupting Peter’s speech to the Gentiles in Acts 10, and obviously and undeniably pouring out the Spirit on these Gentiles as they placed their faith in the Christ whom Peter was preaching. God’s method accomplished its purpose: Peter couldn’t help but notice these people experiencing the outpouring of God’s Spirit, and had to acknowledge them as genuine children of God and his brothers and sisters in Christ.

Jews from all over the world traveled to Jerusalem during the Jewish festivals. Many of them had been there for bits and pieces of the events we read in the Gospels, but they went home before taking in the whole gospel story. They enthusiastically shared what they had found with others, but their knowledge was incomplete. Apollos (Acts 18:24-28) was one of these Jews, and the people Paul spoke with in Acts 19 had this same limited understanding. Again, there was a danger of a competing, incomplete Christianity forming from these zealous, but unknowledgeable, followers. The receiving of the Spirit, through the laying on of Paul’s hands, showed that these people were now truly part of the body of Christ.

It’s crucial that we notice something else about these incidents of different, key groups receiving the Holy Spirit. Each one was historically unique and unrepeatable. The church will never again receive God’s Spirit for the first time. The church will never again expand to include, for the first time, a competing half-race to the Jews, or the first Gentile believers in Christ. There are no longer surviving people who experienced only partially the 1st century events recorded in the Gospels (and so might pass on a truncated faith). The descriptions in Acts of people receiving the Spirit are tied specifically to the context of the original expansion of the church, from an exclusively Jewish church to a universal one. Not only should we not try to find a normative description here for how believers receive the Holy Spirit today, there’s no way for us to base such a principle on these historically unique and unrepeatable events.

So the letters to the churches teach us that we receive the Spirit of God when we place our faith in Christ and become his. And we also learn that some will speak in tongues, and some will not. [Whether speaking in tongues is a valid gift for today is a question we’ll have to explore in another post!] Should this receiving of the Spirit be an overtly dramatic, sensational experience obvious to those around us? No more than we should expect God to speak to us from a burning bush. This is not to say we won’t experience God’s presence in powerful, explosive ways. We may, and we may not. We can’t dictate to God how he will move in our lives. If we insist on the safe and sedate—he may just shake us up! But if we demand “the stuff” we see in Acts, he may answer us with the sound of a gentle whisper. Never forget who’s God . . . and that he doesn’t seem all that interested in fitting into our boxes.

I know this post was a long one. Thanks for sticking with me to the end. I hope this will be helpful to you as you not only read and study the Bible, but seek to live out its truth in your daily lives.

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we? Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today? [see above]

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

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?