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.

Why we don’t have a senior pastor

From time to time people ask why we don’t have a senior or lead pastor as many other churches do. After my recent post Just call me Curt, I received quite a few questions regarding the nature of our church leadership, and why we’ve structured it this way. This is an important issue, and so we’re going to devote some attention to it. In this post, I’m going to give a basic overview of our leadership structure and the biblical reasons for it. In subsequent posts, I’ll tackle some of the most common objections to our type of church leadership.

While there are specific biblical reasons for our approach—and we’ll examine them—it might be helpful for me to share my experience in discovering these scriptural principles. My story is by no means unique. I’ve heard similar accounts from many others.

In the early 90s, I was part of a church in the Calvary Chapel movement. Calvary Chapels typically put great emphasis on being biblical in their approach to Christian teaching and ministry. Most of them show a healthy balance between heart-felt, passionate worship and solid, expositional teaching of the Word. I eventually was invited to become part of a small group of leaders being trained to become pastors. I felt God’s leading into a ministry of pastoring and teaching, which, as I understood it, meant serving under the leadership of a senior pastor or, quite possibly, as a senior pastor myself. Because I desired to do everything in a biblical manner, I sought to be a good student of the Word and see just what the Bible had to say to me as a future pastor.

You can imagine my surprise when I could find no mention of senior pastors in the Bible, and only one place where the English word “pastor” was used at all! That was it. There were no passages describing the “pastor” of a church, or directly addressing pastors. It was confusing, to say the least.

But I wasn’t satisfied with this, and resolved to dig more deeply into the original languages. The Greek word translated ‘pastor’ in that single reference (Ephesians 4:11) is poimēn. Unlike the English word ‘pastor,’ poimēn is used 18 times in the New Testament. It’s translated ‘pastor’ only once; the other 17 times, it’s rendered ‘shepherd.’ This made sense to me. I knew the English word pastor means shepherd. This connection is even more clear in Spanish, where there is only one word used. For example, El Buen Pastor is often used as a church name: The Good Shepherd.

So now I could search out what the Bible had to say concerning those who shepherded or pastored the churches. Again, I was surprised. According to Scripture, the people responsible for the shepherding/pastoring of the church are the elders or overseers of the church.

From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. When they arrived, he said to them, “. . . Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”

Acts 20:17-18, 28

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder . . . : Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.

1 Peter 5:1-3

As I studied these, and other, passages, it also became clear that the apostles were using the terms ‘elder’ and ‘overseer’ interchangeably. The Acts passage above demonstrates this well. Paul is speaking to the elders of the church, refers to them as overseers (or bishops in some older translations), and then tells them they are to be shepherds/pastors of the church of God. In 1 Peter 5, he describes one of the duties of these elders as “watching over” the flock, which more literally means ‘overseeing’ them, again using the terms synonymously. And, again, these elders are to be shepherds/pastors of God’s flock. Paul’s instructions to Titus provide us another example of the interchangeable nature of the terms elder and overseer:

The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. An elder must be blameless . . . since an overseer manages God’s household.

Titus 1:5-7

Also, according to 1 Timothy 5:17, the elders of the church are the ones doing the preaching and teaching, not the “senior pastor.” I was finding that the biblical model of pastoral leadership seemed surprisingly different from what I had seen in church ministry.

The Bible never specifically addresses ‘pastors’ because it usually refers to the pastoral leaders of the church as ‘elders.’ The elders were the pastors of the New Testament church. There is no biblical distinction between an elder, an overseer/bishop, and a pastor of a church. Elder and overseer are different terms for the same church office, and pastor describes the function of these leaders (what they do, i.e. they shepherd the church).

Not only do we not find any churches in the Bible led by a senior pastor, we don’t find any examples of one man serving as the sole elder or pastor of a church either. But while the traditional office of pastor is strangely missing from Scripture, there is a clear pattern of each church being led by a group of godly elders/pastors. The first Christian church was led by a group of 12 apostles, with no one taking a separate office of “senior apostle.” This model is consistently followed and taught throughout the New Testament:

Paul and Barnabas appointed elders [plural] for them in each church [singular] and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.

Acts 14:23

. . . Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church.

Acts 20:17

. . . To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.

Philippians 1:1

The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.

1 Timothy 5:17

The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.

Titus 1:5

Is any one of you sick? Call the elders of the church to pray over you . . .

James 5:14

The Bible definitely shows a strong pattern of each individual church being led by a group of leaders. And, again, it never shows one man taking a senior pastor role. We are given accounts in Scripture of elders being appointed, qualifications for elders, and instructions given directly to elders. But with all of the issues the churches were facing, and all of the letters being sent to the churches, we don’t have even a single letter sent to “the pastor” of the church in Corinth, or Ephesus, etc. From our modern perspective, that’s a pretty shocking absence. We have no account of the appointment of a senior or sole pastor, no qualifications for a senior or sole pastor, and nowhere is “the pastor” of a church directly addressed.

If we are going to designate one leader as the pastor of a church, in distinction from the other elders, the burden is on us to show how this is scriptural. As Alexander Strauch has pointed out, the Bible gives us far more information concerning the plural leadership of the church than it does many other important teachings, such as baptism and communion. Can we ignore it?

By using different terms interchangeably for the same church office, Scripture demonstrates it isn’t the name of the leadership position that’s important but the nature of the leadership role. Whether we call these leaders elders, overseers, bishops, ministers, or pastors, the important thing is we’re following the biblical model of church leadership by a council of leaders with no leader promoted to authority over the rest.

The purpose of this post is to explain the reasons for our church leadership structure, not to attack any other churches. It was encouraging to me to find I wasn’t alone in seeing these discrepancies between common traditional models and the scriptural pattern, that pastors and scholars have been discussing these issues throughout much of the history of the church. The consensus among an overwhelming majority of biblical scholars is that the first century church was led as I’ve described above. And more churches every day are committing themselves to applying these New Testament principles of church leadership.

One last point: I find it very compelling that the only use in Scripture of the Greek word for a chief or head pastor (archepoimēn) is used specifically of Christ in 1 Peter 5:4. We need to be wary of encroaching on the authority of our Lord. The body has only one Head; the kingdom has only one King. The elders/pastors of a church are merely under-shepherds who look to the Chief Shepherd of the flock for his will concerning his sheep. Like good sheepdogs, we don’t draw the sheep after us; we direct their attention continually to the Shepherd. My prayer is we would be very sensitive to the leading and guiding of our ‘Senior Pastor,’ and that we would be faithful to fulfill his will, for his glory and the benefit of his people.

If you’re interested in studying more on this topic, I would recommend Alexander Strauch’s excellent book Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership. This book has become the standard work on church elders and pastoral leadership. (We have a copy in the church library.)

As I mentioned, I’ll be covering some of the most common challenges to this view in upcoming posts. If you’d like to submit a challenge of your own, let me know!

Elders and pastoral leadership series:

Why we don’t have a senior pastor [see above]

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?

Challenge 4: What about the “Moses Model”?

A few remaining challenges

So what exactly do elders do?

Challenge 5: What about the angels of the seven churches in Revelation?