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.

The NIV controversy, part 2

It sometimes comes as a surprise to students when I quote approvingly from different Bible translations. They seem to think that, since our church uses the NLT, this must be the authoritative text for us. There are definitely churches that follow such a rigid adherence to one Bible version, whether it’s the KJV or ESV. But an obsessive insistence on one translation is actually a strong indicator a pastor or teacher doesn’t really know much about the translation of Scripture. The truth is there is no perfect translation. No matter how much you may love a particular Bible version, if you continue studying, you’re bound to run across places where you prefer a different reading.

Though I now teach from the NLT, I still love the NIV’s rendering of “God-breathed” in 2 Timothy 3:16. (I think the rest of the verse is even more clear in the NLT though.) In my opinion, the NET communicates the clear meaning of John 3:16 when it begins the verse: “For this is the way God loved the world . . .” rather than the traditional “For God so loved the world . . .” (The HCSB and God’s Word Translation have similar readings.) I appreciate the way the TNIV and the updated NIV clarify Philippians 4:13: “For I can do all this through Christ who gives me strength [emphasis added].”

So we shouldn’t seek the one Bible translation that has no issues and gets every reading perfectly; this is simply not a realistic expectation. And we need to understand that if we put any Bible version through an in-depth examination, we’re going to find readings on which scholars disagree and which we may not prefer. Most of us aren’t accustomed to such meticulous analysis of a popular translation. Before we begin, we need to remind ourselves that, though the wording may differ, the various translations of Scripture all communicate the same gospel and faith in Jesus Christ. So just what are the differences in the 2011 NIV?

Updated language
The NIV was last revised in 1984, and some of the wording sounds dated or has different connotations now. For instance, the word “alien” today tends to conjure up visions of beings from outer space, so the 2011 NIV now uses the word “foreigner.”  We normally don’t refer to a woman as being “with child,” so the NIV now describes expectant mothers as “pregnant.” Because of increased knowledge of Greek, we can now specify when Jesus faced opposition from the “Jewish leaders” rather than implying that all of “the Jews” resisted him. These kinds of improvement haven’t provoked much criticism.

More formal readings
One of the criticisms of the more functional translations (including the NIV) is that they are sometimes specific when the original language is not. [For an explanation of what we mean by formal and functional translations, see Which Bible version should I use?] Some feel translations should leave the wording more ambiguous and allow the reader to decide how to interpret the word or phrase. In the 2011 NIV, the translators more frequently opted for such formal readings. For instance, Romans 1:17 no longer tells us that in the gospel “a righteousness from God is revealed,” but that “the righteousness of God is revealed.” In many of the places where the 1984 NIV spoke of the “sinful nature,” the 2011 NIV relies on the more ambiguous, traditional reading of the “flesh.” While some applaud this change, others feel this is actually a step backward in clearly communicating the meaning of the text. Regardless, these kinds of changes have not been controversial. The lightning rod for critics of the 2011 NIV (and the previous TNIV) has been the changes regarding gender—how we refer to men and women. Let’s take a closer look at this issue.

Changes in gender references
Language is constantly changing. This is the very reason why new versions of the Bible are sometimes needed. Remember the purpose of a Bible translation is to accurately communicate the Word of God in the common language used by the people so they can readily understand it. Whether we like it or not, the way we use words related to gender has changed. One can still find old books that refer to Queen Elizabeth as a “man of distinction.” * This sounds silly to us now. If I were to stand up in church and ask, “Will all the men please stand,” how many women do you think would rise? None, of course. Why is that? Because most of us no longer hear the word “men” as including both men and women, but as being exclusively male.

The current translators of the NIV are not advancing these changes, but they must take them into consideration in order to provide the most accurate translation possible. Indeed, some have suggested it is irresponsible not to. If a large percentage of readers think masculine terms such as “men” or “brothers” specify males only, then these words no longer accurately convey the meaning of Scriptures where both men and women are intended. No one is claiming these language changes are universal; one can still find examples of the term “man” being used for people in general. But it’s hard to deny that such usage is becoming continually more rare, particularly among the younger generations and in more urban areas.

Should we adapt to these kinds of changes in language? Some would say no, that we should withstand cultural influences on our language. But then, how many of us would stubbornly insist on describing ourselves as “gay” when we’re feeling happy and lighthearted? By not using this word to describe ourselves are we advancing an ideological agenda? Or are we merely seeking to communicate clearly and unambiguously? Like it or not, language does change, and for a variety of reasons. We must communicate to people in the language they actually speak and understand. Let’s look at some examples:

men and women

The Greek words traditionally translated as “man” or “men” can mean either male persons or people in general. The meaning is determined by the context:

Matthew 16:26

1984 NIV
What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?

2011 NIV
What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

1 Timothy 2:3-4

1984 NIV
This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

2011 NIV
This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

brothers and sisters

If I were to announce Sunday, “Would all the brothers meet at the front of the church building after the service,” how many women do you think would show up? We commonly use the word “brothers” to indicate men today, rather than all of the people. We understand though the Greek word adelphoi often refers to both men and women.

Romans 12:1

1984 NIV
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.

2011 NIV
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

Colossians 1:2

1984 NIV
To the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colosse: Grace and peace to you from God our Father.

2011 NIV
To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ: Grace and peace to you from God our Father.

sons and daughters

The Greek word huioi can mean either sons or children, depending on the context.

John 12:35-36 (Jesus speaking to the crowd)

1984 NIV
The man who walks in the dark does not know where he is going.  Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light.

2011 NIV
Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going. Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.

Romans 8:14

1984 NIV
because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

2011 NIV
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.

Out of all of these examples, which ones communicate most clearly that both men and women are intended? Remember, the goal is to accurately convey the meaning of the text. At this point, many of you are probably thinking, “So what’s the big controversy?” Let’s see what the critics are saying:

Common criticisms

“They’re changing the Word of God!”

It’s not uncommon, unfortunately, to hear this charge, accompanied by ominous warnings to those who would alter Scripture (e.g. Revelation 22:18-19). Surprisingly this accusation isn’t being made only by ordinary Christians who lack knowledge, but by those who should know better. Of course, unless we’re all going to read the Bible only in the original Hebrew and Greek, Scripture must be “changed” from the original languages into the languages that people now speak—for us, English. Does this mean we’re altering God’s Word? Not if we faithfully convey the original meaning. As we’ve seen in a previous post, woodenly formal translations often obscure the original sense of a passage. If the text conveyed the meaning of “men and women” to the original readers, then to use wording that doesn’t convey that meaning today—when we can easily communicate the actual meaning—is an approach that is more vulnerable to the charge of altering the Word of God. If the original reading meant “brothers and sisters” in their context, then to render this as “brothers” is to translate Scripture in a less accurate manner.

“They’re obscuring how Scripture applies to individuals.”

Finish this question: “Everyone likes pizza, ________?” * If you said “don’t they,” you would be using normal, everyday English. You also might be considered grammatically incorrect, at least by a small, diminishing number of English teachers. At one time, the proper way to say this would have been, “Everyone loves pizza, doesn’t he?” But no one speaks this way anymore—not even English teachers! It just sounds odd to the current English speaker. Virtually all of us use what scholars call the ‘singular they.’ This isn’t a new innovation (even Shakespeare used it), but it’s become universal in everyday speech and is being utilized even in formal English. When the context shows the text is not specifying males, the NIV translators frequently used a singular they rather than an exclusive “he,” “she,” or the ever-awkard “he or she.”

Matthew 18:15

1984 NIV
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.

2011 NIV
If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.

Now, the truth is most people use “they” in precisely the same manner the current NIV does in this verse and similar passages. Its critics, however, claim this reading obscures the fact that a sinning individual is being confronted. They say this now implies a group is involved. (This despite the fact the verse speaks of a “brother or sister”—singular—who sins, and specifies that one should point out their fault “just between the two of you”!)

If I told a class, “If anyone doesn’t have a book, they can see me after class,” would anyone infer I was referring only to groups of students who didn’t have a book? * God told Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse” (Genesis 12:3 1984 NIV). Would anyone read this and assume it applies only to groups of people blessing and cursing, not individuals? In the English Standard Version, Jesus is quoted in Matthew 5:6 as saying: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Because he used plural pronouns, does this mean we must hunger and thirst for righteousness only as a group, and can be satisfied only as a group? Did Christ himself remove any individual nature to this promise? Of course not. And neither do similar passages in the updated NIV.

“They’re obscuring references to Christ.”

This is a serious charge, and perhaps I should devote a follow-up post to examining the passages in question. (This post is getting too long already.) In each case, what is being emphasized is not the masculinity of Jesus, but his humanity. These references are included in a widely publicized list of thousands of supposed “inaccurate translations” in the 2011 NIV. What these critics fail to mention is that each of these “inaccurate” translations are supported by a broad range of conservative evangelical scholars—often by a majority of scholars! The detractors actually represent a tiny fraction of qualified biblical translators.

“This translation includes feminist readings.”

This small, but very vocal, group of critics are part of an association focused on issues regarding distinguished gender roles in the home and church. What you may not get from their flood of articles and blog posts is that many, if not most, of the NIV translators and supporters agree with them concerning these gender roles! Yet these critics insist on decrying the translation of certain passages as “feminist.” Here’s one example:

1 Timothy 2:11-12

1984 NIV
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.

2011 NIV
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.

This is the only place in Scripture where the Greek word authentein is used, and the meaning is hotly contested. Some say it means to have any authority and others claim that it means to usurp authority. So the NIV translators sought a neutral term that didn’t strongly imply either meaning. The critics, though, believe they’ve given away the farm with this choice. They say “assume authority” is a feminist reading, insisting that it puts the nature of the authority in a negative light. I would challenge these detractors to Google the words ‘assume’ and ‘presidency.’ Are all of these references using the word “assume” in a negative connotation of inappropriately grasping power? When we’re told that “Ronald Reagan was the oldest man to assume the presidency,” does it mean this was a “self-initiated action” as is claimed about ‘assume’ in the current NIV reading? Can these critics see why others are perceiving them as hysterical and strident? While complaining that the 2011 NIV is ideologically-driven, it becomes clear they do want the NIV to be driven by ideology—as long as it’s theirs!

I don’t have space to go over each of the other complaints in detail. They are appalled that Romans 16:7 now identifies Junia (feminine) instead of Junias (male) and that 1 Corinthians 14:33-34 changes the referent for “as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people,” despite the fact that a large number of complementarian commentators have supported these conclusions for years! Even though they admit women can teach children and other women, the critics are incensed that 2 Timothy 2:2 now instructs Timothy to entrust what Paul had taught to “reliable people” instead of only men. Apparently, for Timothy (and us) to teach women the actual content of what they were to teach others was beyond the pale. (Of course, there is nothing explicitly male in the original Greek.) As an unabashed complementarian, I would have no problem teaching from the 2011 NIV translation of these passages.

Unlike some liberal translations that have been motivated by ideological agendas, the NIV translators sought only to accurately translate the meaning of the text. Contrary to the terminology of their critics, the desire was not to produce a “gender-neutral” translation, but a gender-accurate one. Where men are intended in the biblical text, the masculine forms are retained. God is never referred to as “she” or “Mother,” and Christ remains the “Son.” The improvements made in the 2011 NIV do not alter in any way how we view God, and they do not endanger the scriptural views of the roles of men and women in the home or church. But when the Scriptures include both men and women, the translators sought to do the same.

As I expressed in my previous post, a disheartening aspect of this controversy has been the methods employed by many of the opponents of the TNIV and 2011 NIV. While it is very appropriate to publicly discuss and debate new Bible translations, this opposition has focused on highly questionable and misleading claims, and has often included prejudicial comments regarding the motivations of the translators. Not only have these detractors been wrong in their accusations, they have done real harm to the body of Christ.

While I personally use a different translation, I think the 2011 NIV is a fine Bible for personal study, public worship and teaching. It enjoys strong support from a broad range of well-known, conservative evangelical scholars who have great expertise in translating Scripture. I pray that this excellent translation will be widely used by the evangelical Christian community for the glory of God, the benefit of his people, and as a witness to the world.

* I’ve taken some illustrations from Mark Strauss (see below).

For an excellent, and far more detailed, review of the 2011 NIV, see Rod Decker’s review in Themelios.

Another insightful, revealing source is a debate between Wayne Grudem and Mark Strauss.

Related posts:

The NIV controversy, part 1

Which Bible version should I use?