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.

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

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

I think the more we learn how to study the Bible, the more we see that doing this well depends largely on common sense. For instance, a few weeks ago, I wrote about how to read the stories in the Old Testament. One of the guidelines for understanding these accounts is to remember that they’re stories. Yes, they are real, historical events in the history of Israel. But we shouldn’t assume just because an event is recorded in Scripture that God is teaching us to do what the characters did. When Zimri took over as king of Israel, he killed the entire royal family of his predecessor (1 Kings 16:9-11). This doesn’t mean we should emulate him when assuming a position of leadership!

This is easier to remember when we’re reading Old Testament stories. They feel removed from us, to some extent, because they’re all about the people of Israel and the Old Mosaic Covenant. But when we come to the stories in the book of Acts, it can be a little more challenging. Suddenly the stories are all about the church. That’s us! It’s easy to slip into thinking that everything we read about the birth of the church will be true of us today as well.

I love creative, thought-provoking book titles, and one of my favorites is from Dan Schaeffer’s book The Bush Won’t Burn, and I’m All Out of Matches. He explains that we have a tendency to assume God will act exactly as he has in the past. God spoke to Moses through a burning bush—and we want the same kind of interaction. We’re even willing to set a few bushes on fire ourselves to get the conversation started. But when we look through all of Scripture, how many times did God speak to someone through a burning bush? Just once. Should we expect God to speak to us through a burning bush? Of course not. We’d never make the mistake of thinking this way . . . would we?

The great prophet of God, Elijah, fell into this error. After he had stood courageously against virtually the entire kingdom—and God had faithfully answered with fire from heaven before everyone—Elijah hears a threat from Queen Jezebel and he turns tail and runs. Where to? Where better but Mt Sinai, where God had dramatically manifested his presence in the sight of all the people. And do you remember what God asked Elijah when he got there? “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And Elijah went into his list of reasons for feeling sorry for himself. So the Lord gave Elijah the signs and wonders he thought he needed. He sent a mighty windstorm, an earthquake and a fire. But it says that God was not in any of them (1 Kings 19). Then he asked Elijah again, with the sound of a gentle whisper, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

When reading the exciting stories in the book of Acts, it’s natural for us to desire the same signs and wonders in our lives today. But then we begin to look at Acts in its larger context. We realize that when we look at the entire biblical story, the great, awe-inspiring miracles are actually few and far between. This can be surprising because we tend to assume there were miracles occurring left-and-right on a daily basis. But we find long periods of time in Scripture without any overt signs or prophecies from God. And when God did act in a dramatic way, it was almost always at a highly strategic moment in the history of God’s interaction with his people. So, it makes no more sense for us to demand today the same signs and wonders we see at the birth of the church than it did for Elijah to expect the same manifestations of God’s presence at Mt Sinai. When we start assuming that to do what God calls us to do today we need all the signs and wonders God performed in the book of Acts, he may just quietly say to us, “What are you doing here?”

So what can we learn from the book of Acts? Well, first we need to take the time to see what’s in the book—and what’s not.

A slice of history
A common first reaction to the book of Acts is, “This is the history of the early church.” But is this correct? Acts does contain history. But how broad a picture does it give us of the early church? What do we learn from Acts about the spread of the Christian faith into North Africa? This happened fairly early in the history of the church, but interestingly the book of Acts tells us nothing of it. What of the expansion of the church to the east of the Mediterranean region? We aren’t told of this either.

The more we carefully read the book, the more we see that its “lens” is zoomed in, and that the scene changes during the book. The early chapters of the book are focused on Jerusalem and its environs; the later part of the book is all about Antioch and the churches planted by people going out from there. At first the book is in a distinctly Jewish setting, but then we see more and more Gentiles incorporated into the church. A key figure in the beginning of the book is Peter, and in the rest of the book it’s Paul.

So it seems that Luke (the author of the book) wasn’t intending to give us a detailed history of the early church and its development. Instead, he provides for us a representative sample of what was going on in many other places at the same time. He appears to be focused on showing how the church expanded rapidly, both geographically and ethnically—from being exclusively Jewish to being open to Samaritans and eventually to any Gentiles without distinction.

Once we understand some of Luke’s purpose in writing the book of Acts, we’ll be able to distinguish between questions the book is intended to answer and those it is not. While Luke tells us a great deal about the establishment and expansion of the church, he doesn’t seem that interested in giving us many of the nitty-gritty details we so want to learn. After the churches were initially planted, how did they appoint new elders? We don’t know. How exactly did the early church observe communion? We’re not told. Just what did their regular, weekly meeting look like anyway? Luke didn’t see fit to give us a description.

Does this mean we can’t learn anything from the book of Acts that applies to us today? Not at all! But we need to be able to tell what applies to us, what was unique to them, and why. This is what we’ll explore next week.

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 [see above]

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

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

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

Every time it happens I get a little frustrated. You’ve probably seen this too. Someone on a TV talk show is trying to discredit a biblical teaching. So they say something like, ‘Yeah, well, David not only committed adultery but he murdered the woman’s husband to cover it up, Lot did shameful things with his own daughters, and many of the men in the Bible had slaves and multiple wives! Do you really want to live by the Bible?!’ And so they make a classic mistake that sometimes Christian believers make as well. When we begin reading the stories in the Bible we need to remember an important principle:

1. Just because somebody in the Bible does something doesn’t mean the Bible is teaching us to do the same thing.

Now this is just common sense, especially when we’re talking about biblical characters who murder and sleep around. Of course we’re not supposed to follow their example! (Actually, the fact the Bible shows its “heroes” as they really were—the good, the bad, and the ugly—is strong testimony to its truthfulness. It would have been easy to whitewash the stories of the patriarchs,  but the biblical writers didn’t do that.) But when people in the Bible do things that aren’t blatantly wrong, we sometimes fall into using them as a model.

Have you ever heard someone say they were going to ‘put a fleece before the Lord’? Do you know what this means? It means asking God to give you a sign indicating what decision you should make. ‘Lord, if you want me to take this job, then make the third car I pass be a yellow Porsche Boxter S.’ Why is this called putting a ‘fleece’ before the Lord? Because of the story of Gideon in the 6th chapter of Judges. But if you read carefully, Gideon’s ‘fleece-putting’ wasn’t to determine God’s will; it was to ask God to prove to Gideon that God would really do what he had already said he was going to do! Gideon’s behavior wasn’t a sign of faith, but of unbelief. Clearly, this is an example we don’t want to follow!

2. The main thing the biblical stories do is tell us a story.

In the letters to the churches, we found direct commands and instructions. Biblical stories don’t work this way. The story of David and Bathsheba never directly tells us that adultery and murder are sinful. But it very clearly illustrates how low even a godly man can fall into sin, and the consequences of sinning in this way and then trying to hide it from God. While the stories may illustrate important truths (and even, in a sense, teach us insights), we need to be careful to not base any specific teaching on a biblical story. The teachings we follow—and teach others to follow—should be clearly taught somewhere else in Scripture, such as in the letters to the churches.

We also need to avoid reading the stories in the Old Testament as if they’re some kind of fable with a moral at the end of each story. Now, it’s not that Old Testament stories don’t vividly illustrate important lessons for us—many do. But not all of them. And if we insist on finding a nice, neat lesson to every biblical story, we’ll end up over-simplifying what we’re reading in Scripture. In the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38, is the main point really about honesty and fairness? Is this the most significant thing going on in this story?

3. The stories in the Old Testament are part of a bigger story.

Hopefully, you’re still thinking about the importance of context. What is the context of the Old Testament stories? We’ve discussed this briefly before. Genesis begins with creation, quickly moves to Noah and the flood, and then narrows the story to Abraham and his family, particularly his grandson Jacob (renamed Israel) and Jacob’s sons. The books of Exodus through Joshua tell of God delivering his people from slavery in Egypt, establishing his covenant with them, and eventually bringing them into the land he had promised them. Judges through 2 Samuel take us from the early history of the tribes of Israel, when they were led by judges, to Samuel the last judge of Israel and Saul the first king of Israel, and finally to David the prototypical Israelite king. 1 Kings through 2 Chronicles tell of how the nation was divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, and how each nation fell into idolatry, eventually being conquered by an outside force and taken into captivity. Ezra and Nehemiah describe the people being allowed to go back to the land, and rebuild the temple and the city of Jerusalem. Esther tells of events that occur among the Jewish community who didn’t return to the land.

A good study Bible will give you more background on each of the books. But the point is that when you read the stories in the Old Testament, you need to be aware of where the story fits into the bigger story of what God is doing with his people. And, of course, the stories in the Old Testament ultimately lead to Jesus in the New Testament. When we look back at the Old Testament stories, we see them through the lens of Jesus. We recognize how Jesus puts these stories into proper perspective and often makes seemingly inconsequential accounts jump out at us. So when you read stories in the Old Testament, be aware of where you are in the bigger story of the Old Testament, and where you are in the even bigger story of God’s grand plan as recorded in Scripture.

4. Don’t try to find secret or hidden meanings in the biblical stories.

Some of you may remember the controversy over supposed Satanic backward messages in rock music. Eventually most Christians realized it was much better to pay attention to what the songs were unambiguously saying when you played them forward! (The Christian rock band Petra recorded a backward message that said: “Why are you looking for the devil when you should be looking for the Lord?!”) In a similar way, the important things that Scripture has to tell us are found in the clear biblical writings and stories. In the story of Abraham seeking a wife for his son, Isaac (Genesis 24), Abraham does not equal God, Isaac does not equal Jesus, and Rebekah does not equal the church. The story is about precisely what it seems to be about—Abraham seeking a wife for his son Isaac. Don’t turn historical accounts into some secret allegory. When we try to find these kinds of hidden meanings, we invariably lose the real significance of the story.

5. Don’t just see the story, observe how the story is told.

After you read a few stories in the Bible, you may notice they’re not much like modern novels. We aren’t given elaborate descriptions of people or scenery. This isn’t the way stories are told in Scripture. So when you do see details, pay attention. They are there for a reason. Have you ever watched a movie, and a character lays an envelope on the desk, then the camera lingers on the envelope lying there? You know it’s going to be important later, don’t you? It’s the same idea with these details in the biblical accounts. When Judges 3:15 notes that Ehud was left-handed, it’s going to be important to the story. When the birth of Jacob and Esau is described, along with the physical characteristics of each infant, we can know this is significant.

Notice how the dialogue in a story develops. Much of the stories in the Old Testament are told through the dialogue. And be on the lookout for repeated themes. If you’re watching an old black and white movie on TV, and two men wearing hats, boots and gun belts walk out into the middle of a dirt street with old wooden buildings on each side,  people scrambling to get out the way, and a blinding sun glaring overhead—what’s about to happen? An Old Western gunfight, right? Watch for these kinds of motifs in the biblical stories. For instance, notice how many stories in the Old Testament have to do with barren women who eventually have children. Notice how many older brothers are passed over while the younger is chosen. These patterns give us insights into what God is doing with his people. And, as with the letters to the churches, be watchful for repeated words and phrases. These can often open up deeper layers to the story.

There are amazing, captivating accounts recorded in the Old Testament. It’s okay to get swept up in the story. They’re good stories! Just remember these stories aren’t there just to provide entertaining reading. They communicate something important to us about how God interacts with his people, and how the smaller stories fit into a much larger plan. And don’t forget the most important principle for reading Old Testament stories:

In every biblical story, the hero is always God.

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 [see above]

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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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