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

wrote-book-revelation_e5084222746a34b7A few years ago, I wrote: Why we don’t have a senior pastor. In this post I explained why many Christians are committed to a leadership model of plural eldership. I showed how there is a consistent pattern throughout the New Testament of churches being pastored by a council of elders, with no elder distinguished from the rest as a “senior” or “lead” pastor/elder. I followed up this article with a series of posts addressing various challenges to this leadership model. A few days ago, a reader emailed me asking about the angels in Revelation 2-3. This question warrants being included in this series, so let’s take a look.

In Revelation chapters 2-3, John is instructed to write seven letters to seven specific churches. Each letter is entrusted to the “angel” of the intended church. Some see these angels as indicating the senior pastor of each church. Does this work?

We should make a couple of observations right at the outset. The commentaries are all over the place on who these angels are. Some don’t address the question at all; most others describe various possible interpretations, while maybe leaning toward one. The only consensus seems to be that there is insufficient basis here for being dogmatic about the identity of these angels.

I would also note this claim (that these angels = senior pastors) is very rarely used by scholars and pastors arguing for a normative senior pastor type role. In fact, many of those who support a senior pastor role have specifically rejected this interpretation of Revelation. Let’s see why.

First, let’s remember the first three rules of biblical interpretation: context, context, context. Where are these references? In the book of Revelation. What do we know about Revelation? Revelation is a kind of writing know as apocalyptic. Apocalyptic literature was always highly figurative, utilizing elaborate symbolism. Readers were to assume that elements were symbolic unless there was a clear reason to take them literally.

Do we see this in Revelation? Absolutely. Right from the first chapter, we have lampstands that aren’t literal lampstands, stars that aren’t literal stars, and a two-edged sword that isn’t a literal sword. Often the text doesn’t tell us what the various symbols symbolize, and so we discuss and debate what they mean. (What exactly do the two witnesses, the mark of the beast, the great prostitute, etc., represent?) Fortunately, we’re sometimes given the meaning of the symbols. So, for instance, we’re told that the seven lampstands represent seven churches, and the seven stars represent the angels (or messengers) of these seven churches.

While Revelation is filled with symbols that represent something real, what we don’t see are symbols of symbols. If the great dragon represents Satan, then that’s it. We don’t have to debate what Satan then represents. The Lamb who was slain is a symbol for Jesus, but Jesus is not a symbol for anything else. So the seven lampstands symbolize seven churches, which do not then symbolize anything else. And the seven stars represent the aggelos of each of these churches. We don’t have to figure out what these aggeloi (the plural form of aggelos) symbolize; we just need to make sure we understand what the word means.

blog11Each letter to one of the seven churches begins the same way: “Write this letter to the aggelos of the church in ____________ .” This Greek word is found over 170 times in the New Testament. It’s almost always translated “angel.” A few times it indicates a human “messenger.” So this now shows us the key interpretive question for these references: Are these aggeloi angels or human messengers? And this is where the scholars disagree.

Notice that—either way—the letters are not written to a single leader or messenger, but to the entire church of Ephesus, Smyrna, etc. (“Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches.”) Each church is either commended or confronted, not a sole leader. The “you” being addressed in the letters is plural. But to whom are these letters entrusted: angels or human messengers?

Could these be literal angels? This isn’t as odd as it sounds, and many scholars think this natural reading is the best one. Remember our context is within the book of Revelation. And Revelation states at the very beginning:

“He [Jesus Christ] sent an angel to present this revelation to his servant John”

If an angel was part of Christ conveying this revelation to John, why would it be odd for angels to be part of conveying the letters to the seven churches (which are included in the revelation)? The word aggelos is used over 60 times in the book of Revelation; every time (besides these chapters) it means “angel.” We also have the intriguing references in Daniel 10 that seem to indicate there are angels assigned to certain nations. Some also point to passages such as Matthew 18:10 and Acts 12:15 that hint at the idea of a guardian angel for each person. Is it such a stretch to think that each church would enjoy the protection and service of a specific angel?

But how would angels be involved with the delivery of these letters? Well, remember that Revelation is written in a highly stylized, dramatic form. It also depicts a heavenly, spiritual perspective of these events, not a primarily human one. Unless we want to assume that angels have no real part in human events, we shouldn’t too quickly reject the idea of angelic involvement in the revelation of these letters to these seven, specific churches.

Ok, but could these be human messengers? That’s certainly a plausible interpretation of these passages. Let’s assume these passages are, in fact, speaking of human messengers. What could these chapters tell us about these human messengers? Well, they would tell us there was one messenger designated for each church, and that each letter was written to the whole church but entrusted to a messenger. That’s it. There is nothing in these chapters indicating a leadership or pastoral role for these angels or messengers. Because there is one angel/messenger designated for each church, some have read back into this passage our traditional practice of having one main pastor for each church. But nothing in the text indicates such a role.

Are there any reasons we should not see these messengers as senior pastors? Well, first we observe that the word aggelos is never used anywhere else in the New Testament to indicate a church leadership role. Next, as we saw above, there is nothing in the context that would clearly and directly indicate a senior pastor role. (Actually, in the context of the New Testament church, if these were human messengers, they would more likely be exercising a prophetic role than a pastoral one. They may have simply been the people responsible for physically carrying the letters to the churches.) And this interpretation would be introducing a senior pastor role that isn’t even mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament, and one that would conflict with the consistent pattern we see throughout the New Testament of churches being pastored by groups of elders with no designated senior leader. (Notice that none of the New Testament epistles [letters to the churches] are addressed to the “pastor” of the church of Corinth or Philippi, etc.)

bible-magnifying-glassThere’s a principle of biblical interpretation that says: ‘Clear passages in Scripture help us understand the passages that aren’t so clear.’ It makes sense to take the clear and consistent pattern we see throughout the New Testament as the model we’re to follow. But it makes poor sense to take an ambiguous passage in a highly symbolic book, form a conclusion—not from the reading of the text, but based on pure speculation—then use this questionable assertion to challenge the clear, consistent pattern found elsewhere in Scripture. This would be circular reasoning—assuming the senior pastor role when interpreting the passage, and then using the passage to establish the senior pastor role!

Regardless of whether we understand the aggeloi in Revelation 1-3 as angels or human messengers, there is nothing in these passages that point to a senior pastor role in the churches.

Core commitment 3: Team-led and team taught

imagesWe must have a plurality of pastoral leaders and teachers:

  • The New Testament model of church leadership is one of local churches being led by teams of pastoral elders (with no mention of a senior or lead pastor). These elders serve in differing capacities depending on their gifting and available time, but they all share in the shepherding of the church.
  • While accepting that some elders/pastors may seem more prominent because of their gifting, we must guard against the unhealthy perception that any particular elder is the pastor of the church.
  • We will only appoint as elders/pastors men who are ministering pastorally by leading, teaching or tending. The elders must be the pastors of the church, not just in name but in actual ministry.
  • The New Testament doesn’t show the church to be a dictatorship of the elders or a democracy of the people. The elders must truly lead—gently, humbly and in a Christ-like way—but at times they must lead the people in reaching true, biblically-informed, spiritually-mature consensus on major issues.
  • We must strive to apply this New Testament principle of plural leadership consistently throughout the church. The plurality of the elders in pastoring the whole church should be an example to the teams of leaders overseeing all other ministries within the church.

Church replanting: Core commitments

Our church has been going through a “chrysalis” process of replanting and revitalization. As part of this process, we just finished an intensive 12-week study of biblical principles concerning the church: what the church is, what the church is to do, and how we’re to do it. I’ve condensed these principles into four core commitments. I’ll post an updated version of each commitment with fuller descriptions, but here are the basic principles to which we commit ourselves as a church:

  • We will remain graciously and uncompromisingly evangelical.
  • We will intentionally emphasize, as a key priority, New Testament principles of what we are as the church, what we do as the church, and how.
  • We will have a plurality of pastoral leaders and teachers.
  • We will remain focused on our mission of helping people become and continually grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.

A biblical case for senior pastors?: Two questions

Most evangelical churches today have a senior or lead pastor. Can we make a solid, biblical case to establish this practice? For those who are part of a church that has both elders and a senior/lead pastor, here are two questions I invite you to answer:

Why do you have elders?

In my experience, many respond to this question with a robust, thoroughly biblical explanation of the role of elders in the local church. Our churches must have elders because of the clear teaching of Scripture, they insist. They frequently describe the normative need for elders in each church, the plurality of elders, the pastoral nature of the ministry of elders, etc.—drawing directly from clear New Testament passages—in ways that might cheer the hearts of the strongest proponents of biblical eldership. But then we ask the follow-up question:

Why do you have a senior/lead pastor?

scratching-head. . . ummm . . . . . . There can be a long pause at this point. We sense the need for a similarly robust, equally biblical explanation for this (presumably) key role . . . but it seems surprisingly difficult to find. One can rely on a pragmatic response: ‘There has to be one key leader, you know.’ Or we could resort to conjecture or speculation: ‘Well, the New Testament church had strong, prominent leaders, so . . .’  Or we can just blindly follow tradition. But I can’t seem to find anyone presenting a strong, clear, biblical case for the normative senior/lead pastor. Any takers?

Follow-up to “Why do so few churches today have a truly biblical eldership?”

This post has generated some interesting discussions. One person asked me if churches that have a genuine, biblical eldership ever drift back into a senior pastor structure and, if they do, why? The answer to the first question is unfortunately, yes, they sometimes do return to a senior pastor model.

I recently added a page to the blog with links to elder-led churches. This isn’t a comprehensive list, just churches I’ve run across from time to time. When I happen upon a church that’s elder-led, I add it to a folder of bookmarks for elder-led churches. But I occasionally have to move a church out of my “elder-led churches” folder because I find they’ve designated one elder as a senior or lead pastor. Why?

I think we need to recognize that this kind of biblical team leadership isn’t natural to us. It goes against our instincts. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it doesn’t work—that is, it doesn’t work unless the Holy Spirit is actively working in the hearts and minds of the elders. Now, I have to clarify, I’m not saying the Holy Spirit isn’t at work in those who are senior pastors! What I am saying is that, just as water follows the path of least resistance, so we naturally tend to slip back into one-man leadership. It’s not as foreign. It’s what we’re accustomed to. And it’s just easier to get things done much of the time with a primary 3078761_f248leader. The problem is that it’s not biblical. And when we follow what’s comfortable to us rather than the model God has given us in his Word, there will always be unforeseen consequences.

It can be a real struggle at times to maintain a truly biblical leadership structure, and we need to acknowledge that. It can only be done through dependence on the Spirit of God and diligence on our part. It’s vitally important that those of us who serve as elders never forget this. If we coast, we will always coast away from plural leadership. We need to be very intentional about continually pursuing a consistently biblical church leadership model.

Why do so few churches today have a truly biblical eldership?

Businessman Looking to SunsetThroughout the New Testament, we find a clear and consistent model of each church being pastored by a team of elders, with never so much as a mention of a senior or lead pastor. (If this is new to you, you might want to read Why we don’t have a senior pastor.) I recently reviewed a very helpful book by Benjamin Merkle, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons. Merkle notes that while most evangelical scholars and pastors agree on what the New Testament teaches about elders/overseers, these biblical teachings are too rarely applied today in local churches. He writes, “The organizational structure of many churches today bears almost no resemblance to the pattern found among the New Testament churches.” We could probably strengthen this statement to refer to most churches today. Someone commenting on my review asked a very important question:

Why is this such a foreign concept in the church today, when it seems so clear . . . ?

Now I should point out that it’s not all bad news today. We do see more churches being planted with a biblical leadership structure, established churches transitioning into elder-leadership, and a growing number of books propounding a scriptural form of eldership. This is all encouraging but, when we look at the vast number of churches, the relative few who have a genuinely biblical eldership still constitute a tiny minority. This naturally triggers the question: Why? I don’t have all the answers, of course, but here are some factors that tend to bind us to the status quo:

A separation of theology and ministry
For too many Christians, theology has become something utilized only when discussing doctrines such as the nature of God or views on predestination. Even far too many church leaders give little thought to the biblical reasons why we do what we do as the church. Why do we worship the way we do? Why do we structure our services the way we do? Many people just follow what was modeled for them by others without any real theological reflection.

A preference for the familiar
When most of us move to another town, what kind of church do we look for? We usually try to find the kind of church we’re already accustomed to, don’t we? We’re usually seeking similar music and teaching styles and ways of doing things. It’s all comfortably familiar with no challenging learning curve. For many evangelical Christians, a church led by a team of elders with no designated senior or lead pastor would just be odd. Whenever church leaders discuss the idea of transitioning to a biblical eldership, there are inevitably those who resist—not because they think it’s not biblical, but because they think it’s too different. They’ve never done it this way before, they haven’t seen any one else do it this way before, so they don’t like it.

A priority for the pragmatic
Even those who spend a lot of time reading, thinking and talking about how to do church often focus less on what’s scriptural and more on what “works”: what’s working in a particular context or demographic, what’s working in other churches, what’s working now as opposed to 5 or 10 years ago, etc. Now, I’m not suggesting we ignore practical realities, and these can be valid questions to consider. But wise, practical application must always come after we clearly understand the relevant biblical principles. If we neglect scriptural teaching on the church for the sake of what we think “works,” we’ve just become another kind of Pharisee nullifying the Word of God for the sake of our tradition (cf. Matthew 15:6). To rely on our pragmatism rather than the biblical pattern is an incredibly dangerous precedent.

A self-perpetuating problem
Not only is the status quo a familiar, comfortable norm, but it’s become ingrained in churches in ways we might not have anticipated. First, we’ve given the senior pastor an elevated role, with a certain power and prestige, and then traditionally described (and even taught about) this unique role as a sacred duty to which a man is specially called by God. Who is going to voluntarily walk away from that?

dff77e1e-af83-4a53-b44b-db8d2da6a18a.imgAnd even if one is willing to step back from this unbiblically elevated role, who is he going to find to shepherd alongside him? Year after year we’ve implicitly taught the men in our congregations that pastoral ministry is done by the professionals. There’s rarely any encouragement and challenge for ordinary Christian men to grow and mature to the point they can share in the pastoral leadership of the church body. And then we wonder why we have passive men in our churches! We worry they don’t lead their families spiritually. Well, why should they? That’s the pastors’ job. Certainly none of these “laymen” are expected to be pastors! And so the status quo creates spiritually passive men in the church . . . which perpetuates the status quo.

Elders who don’t pastor
There’s an expectation in many churches that only “the pastor” can do certain things. No one can do ‘this’ or do ‘that’ the way he does. It’s so easy for a pastor to take on all the pastoral ministry for the church, convinced that only he can do it. And it’s so easy for other leaders to sit back and let him. This again becomes a vicious cycle. People don’t see the elders as pastors because they don’t do anything pastoral. An elder who doesn’t pastor should be an oxymoron. This doesn’t mean the elders must all serve in identical ways with no variations in the way they minister. But a man who doesn’t actively share in the shepherding leadership of the church should not be an elder. You might have to start with a smaller team of elders, but if all your elders function in truly pastoral ways, over time this will change the perception of the people and they’ll recognize multiple pastors for the church.

Churches with a pseudo-eldership
Some of you reading this post might be thinking, “What’s the problem? I know of a lot of elder-led churches.” It’s become very common for churches to describe themselves as “elder-led,” this is true. But a considerable majority of these churches distinguish one man from the elders and designate him as the senior or lead pastor of the church. He’s the one responsible for leading the elders and the staff, and for “casting vision” for the church. These church leaders confusingly use the terminology of “biblical eldership” and “plural leadership” while perpetuating a church polity that undermines and ultimately destroys real plurality in leadership. Ironically, they often recommend and refer to works by people such as Alexander Strauch and Benjamin Merkle, even though these authors strongly warn against the very leadership model these churches are following!

Historically, these churches are following a monoepiscopal model. This is virtually indistinguishable from a polity that became common in the churches by the late 2nd century, with a bishop over each church in distinction from the church presbyters (elders). This pastor + elders model is very old, but this was a polity that developed over time and one that was quite different from the leadership structure of the 1st century churches. More importantly, a great many of us would question where this distinct senior/lead pastor role is taught in Scripture. We would caution our sister churches that an eldership that adds a wholly extra-biblical church leadership role should not be described as “biblical eldership.” I respectfully challenge my brothers that an eldership plus a senior/lead pastor is a model that is not consistently scriptural. (I would also ask for a robust biblical defense of the senior pastor role, based on a clear, unambiguous scriptural model. This is something I haven’t been able to find, even from those who were supposed to be defending this practice.)

When we try to discuss the elder-leadership of churches, these pseudo-elderships muddy the water. Many of those boldly claiming we must have elders—because of the New Testament pattern—go on to add a distinct leadership role that can’t be found in the New Testament! But because they so emphasize the scriptural need for elders, they create a perception they’re following a genuinely biblical church polity. Their people don’t have to be discomfited or challenged by talk of biblical eldership because they think they already have one.

This can be discouraging to those seeking to live out the New Testament model of plural, shared pastoral leadership. Most scholars (and to a lesser degree pastors) agree that the earliest churches were led collegially by councils of elders with no designated senior leader—but disappointingly few seem motivated to act on their apparent convictions. We’re surrounded by churches who claim to be “elder-led”—while they tack on a leadership role that is entirely missing from, and incongruous with, the New Testament model. It’s easy to see how proponents of biblical eldership could become weary, wondering why they should continue to be the odd man out in current evangelical church culture.

So what should we do?

1. Don’t despair. Remember it’s Christ’s church. We should be willing to pour out our lives for Christ and for his body, to do everything we can to contribute to the well-being of the church. But it’s not our responsibility or prerogative to “fix” everyone else in the church. We remember that God is sovereign, and we trust the big picture to him.

2. Don’t become condemning or divisive. None of us are perfectly balanced in all our theological views. We all have our blind spots. We should continue to discuss these issues, respectfully challenging our fellow leaders, but we should also continue to intentionally stand with them as Christian brothers. Just because they see things differently than we do doesn’t mean they are rejecting Scripture or willfully ignoring God’s instructions.

3. Don’t give up your convictions for what seems easy now. It’s hard to go against the flow—especially when we have to (gently) resist sincere, committed fellow believers. But if we’re convinced this is the normative biblical model for church leadership, we can’t compromise or water down these New Testament teachings on the church just because they aren’t popular right now.

4. Talk—respectfully—with your pastor about your convictions. You’d be surprised how many senior/lead pastors believe there really shouldn’t be any senior/lead pastors! Some have even tried to initiate change only to be resisted by the very people they lead. If you speak with your pastor, it could be encouraging to both of you, and might even facilitate change. At the very least, you’ll be open and honest with the pastor who is leading your church. But never be accusing, disrespectful or argumentative. This doesn’t help anyone!

5. If necessary, prayerfully seek another church. If we believe the leadership structure of our church is unbiblical, there may come a point when it’s time to leave. It’s doubtful we’ll ever agree with every little thing our church does, but it is difficult to become deeply involved with a church when we can’t sincerely defend its theology of ministry. I think most pastors would agree with this and understand the need to find a better fit. The good news is there are more churches out there with biblical forms of eldership than most people realize.

who-me6. Prayerfully consider whether you should be part of planting a new church. If God has gifted you for a shepherding and teaching ministry, maybe you should be part of providing your area with a biblically-led church. This isn’t a decision to make hastily, and I encourage much prayer and the seeking of wise counsel and input from other mature, experienced leaders. But often a new work begins with a divinely-encouraged dissatisfaction with the status quo.

7. If you’re stuck, seek to be a faithful part of a local church despite the different views, as you’re able. I know of people who have attended churches whose views they can’t entirely endorse. As people of conscience, this limits their ability to be involved in the church. But they strive to be as faithful and involved as they can be without violating their convictions or causing friction in the church. (Of course, I’m speaking of churches that are solidly grounded in the biblical gospel.) This isn’t an ideal situation, and it’s not an easy one, but I respect those who make this kind of sacrifice when necessary.

If this is where you are right now, keep trusting God! Both your individual life and the life of the church are in his hands. And he knows what he’s doing. We need to be faithful with the gifting, resources and opportunities God gives us, and leave the rest up to him.

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.

Review: “Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership” by Phil Newton

This book on church eldership is fairly brief (154 pages), but contains quite a few helpful insights. It will be particularly beneficial to anyone from a Baptist church tradition. The author effectively demonstrates that not only is church leadership by a plurality of elders compatible with Baptist beliefs and church practices, but it’s a significant component of Baptist history and heritage. He also describes the sometimes fierce resistance to this form of church leadership in Baptist churches, with some people being more concerned with remaining “Baptist” than being biblical.

Along the way, he ably explains much of the New Testament role of the church elders. He shares some of his own story and how he came to change his viewpoint on these issues. He makes some very good points in his presentation. I especially appreciated his observation that, in Acts, Luke assumed—but didn’t command—the planting of churches; in a similar way, he assumed—but didn’t command—the appointment of elders. The author rightly warns against simply reading back into Scripture our current church practices.

There are a few things in this book with which I would disagree. Newton assumes a distinct role for a senior pastor, but doesn’t establish (biblically or otherwise) why this should be so. In his defense, he does show the senior pastor to be in submission to the elders, and his description of the ministry of church elders does show them to be active, pastoral leaders. And he’s clear about the consequences and unfairness of expecting one pastor to wear every hat in the ministry of the church. Still, in my opinion retaining a distinct (and biblically unwarranted) role of senior pastor will serve to undermine a truly biblical church eldership. I also believe the author misconstrues the ministry role that Timothy filled while in Ephesus.

The author’s discussion of congregationalism is intriguing. As is true now of many pastors and leaders from congregational traditions, Newton doesn’t support a purely democratic form of congregationalism. Instead he advocates a modified congregationalism. Many who are wary of traditional congregationalism will welcome statements such as (page 142): “Shepherds do not normally offer suggestions to sheep!” He brings out the real need for leaders to lead and for congregations to follow. On the other hand, he sees the congregation as being not only involved in reaching consensus, but as of having a final authority. And, while he’s not dogmatic about this, he still tries to find in Scripture a possible election of elders by the congregation (unsuccessfully, in my opinion).

As I said, this book will be most helpful for those currently in a Baptist church context, and especially for Baptist churches contemplating a transition to an elder-led church model. If you’re thinking of making such a move, this book contains invaluable wisdom, and I would strongly encourage you to read it carefully. Of course, as the author points out, the place to begin is not with any supplemental book or study guide, but with Scripture itself. A real strength of this book is that it continually directs the reader’s attention back to the pertinent biblical passages. I hope this book is widely read, and that it spurs readers to study these scriptural principles for themselves.

Review: “Eldership in Action: Through Biblical Governance of the Church” by Richard Swartley

This book is an extremely valuable addition to the study of pastoral leadership of the church. Where a book such as Strauch’s Biblical Eldership provides the necessary doctrinal foundation of church leadership, Swartley builds on that foundation and gives us incredibly helpful insights regarding the nuts and bolts of ‘eldering.’ We get to benefit from this author’s experience and wisdom.

He covers all of the topics one would expect in this kind of book, such as the processes for selecting and appointing elders, the make-up of the elder council, interaction with the rest of the congregation, the necessity of prayer, effective council meetings, church discipline, confidentiality, etc. Along the way, he also discusses some key issues that church elders will appreciate. For instance, he clarifies the relationship between the terms elder and pastor, reminding us that all elders are pastors, but not all pastors are elders. This is helpful because we can begin to equate the two. He also—more than once—gives strong warning concerning the danger of distinguishing one elder as ‘the pastor,’ showing how this undermines a truly biblical eldership, and has no scriptural basis.

I appreciated Swartley’s wisdom on the benefits of team teaching/preaching. This model perfectly fits the concept of the church being pastored by a team of elders, and I’m pleased to see significant attention paid to it. He criticizes the use of Robert’s Rules of Orders, and shows a much healthier way of elders interacting that fosters consensus rather than politicking. Swartley advocates a middle ground between the rule of the majority and absolute unanimity. He values consensus, but warns against the possibility of decisions being determined, in a sense, by the lone holdout. His thinking has merit, but is challenging to those of us trained to hold unanimous consensus as almost sacred in elder deliberations. He also cautions against potential groupthink, where harmonizing with one’s fellow elders can become more important than what is actually right (and wrong).

Swarley presents an intriguing proposal concerning a designated leadership team drawn from an eldership council that has grown too large to effectively lead as a whole. As with any book that includes practical insights and suggestions, readers may not agree with every idea but will benefit from thinking through and responding to them. He also includes a lot of helpful, practical thinking on the need for elder councils to be proactive rather than simply reactionary, to intentionally provide opportunities for fellowship among elders, how to delegate effectively, the process of making proposals, etc.

Leaders of larger churches with paid staffs (or churches who hope to grow to that point) will want to carefully read Swartley’s thoughts on the subtle danger of dividing the staff from both the elders and the church’s volunteers. The staff can too easily become the actual, active leadership of the church, with the elders serving merely as a type of trustee board. Elders must be actual pastors and leaders, and the author emphasizes this repeatedly.

This is an excellent resource. I think any church seeking to wisely implement a truly biblical eldership will find this book both challenging and edifying. I highly recommend it!

Review: “Who Runs the Church?: Four Views on Church Government” edited by Steven Cowan

This is a key book for anyone seeking to understand the different views regarding church government. Following the classic Counterpoints style, advocates for each of the four positions state their case, and then the other three critique each presentation. This book is very similar to Perspectives on Church Government, which I also recently reviewed. The editors of this book include a “Closing Remarks” section that provides a final opportunity for each contributor to respond to their critics. Both of these books allow the reader to examine the varying church government models as explained and defended by people who actually hold the respective views, and to listen in as these scholars interact with and challenge each other. This has proven to be an enlightening approach in the past, and no less so with this book.

The book begins with a readable introduction to our topic by editor Steven Cowan. This section is thorough, but concise, getting right to the point. The introduction was a pleasure to read, and serves to draw the reader into the discussion.

Episcopalianism
Fairly quickly, we get an idea of the dividing line between the various views. Peter Toon (presenting Episcopalianism) doesn’t spend much time defending his view scripturally. He feels the Bible doesn’t give us a definitive model of church government. He also believes the early history of the church was providentially guided by the Holy Spirit, and is thus an authoritative guide for later generations. All of the other participants criticize the lack of biblical support for Toon’s position—especially noting that it contradicts the New Testament’s equating of the terms elder (presbyteros) with bishop/overseer (episkopos) as referring to the same church office. This is an important issue because the other three all claim that Scripture does, in fact, teach a definite model of church polity. All three of Toon’s fellow contributors question the acceptance of church history as authoritative, and some wonder why Toon stops at the first five centuries. They also challenge Toon with the historical fact of unorthodox beliefs and practices that crept into the early church. Why accept some historical developments as divinely guided and authoritative, but not all? Toon places a lot of weight on the church’s supposed determination of the canon of Scripture. However, he mischaracterizes both the nature of canon and the process of recognizing and affirming the biblical canon.

Presbyterianism
Next, L. Roy Taylor defends Presbyterianism. It was interesting to see how much of his view was colored by, possibly even dependent on, his covenantal theology. During the course of his chapter, he gives a fairly extensive overview of church history—managing to sneak in a little support for his eschatological views and stacking the deck against his opponents. A primary distinction between Taylor and the two Congregationalists (Patterson and Waldron) is the extent to which the early church’s congregations were connected with each other. Taylor claims to find biblical principles requiring organization, authority and accountability beyond the local church. In contrast, Patterson and Waldron see the New Testament churches as autonomous but voluntarily interdependent—connected in spirit, but not in any official capacity. The only text to which Taylor can point for definitive support of this extra-congregational system of church courts is Acts 15. Waldron protests that this declaration was authoritative to other churches specifically because of its apostolic nature, a setting which is unique and historically unrepeatable after the late first century. Patterson questions where these courts of Presbyterianism are clearly taught or described in Scripture.

Single-Elder Congregationalism
Paige Patterson’s chapter is titled “Single-Elder Congregationalism,” but could be more accurately described as “Primary-Elder Congregationalism” (as Waldron notes in his response). This is very similar to the monoepiscopacy (plural elders plus single bishop leading each church) that led to a full-fledged episcopal model in the late second century. Patterson doesn’t have a problem with a church having multiple elders as long as there is one primary pastor. I was surprised by the lack of a robust case from Patterson. While he claimed to be establishing the New Testament pattern, there seemed to be a tremendous amount of appeal to history and tradition. He allows for the possibility of churches adding multiple elders, but assumes that each New Testament church began with only one elder and then added others only when necessary. He also seems to conclude that some of the churches in the New Testament never needed these additional elders and continued with only one elder/pastor. This is a highly questionable claim since there is no biblical passage that suggests any of this. Waldron considers Patterson to be merely defending the status quo, and this seems to be accurate, at least regarding the distinctive role of the pastor.

Plural-Elder Congregationalism
Samuel Waldron presents “Plural-Elder Congregationalism.” The difference between the two Congregationalists involves the plurality of elders, the parity between the elders, and the appropriateness of distinguishing a pastor from the other elders. Waldron convincingly (to me) establishes a consistent biblical pattern of each church being led by a plurality of elders. This is such a strong pattern, supported by many related passages, that Waldron feels that, while not sinful, it is abnormal and unhealthy for a church to be led by a single elder and that this is a situation that would need to be rectified. He also argues exegetically against the Presbyterian distinction between teaching elders and ruling elders. While he allows for diversity of gifting, influence, and extent of ministry among the elders—even to the point of a de facto first among equals—he points out that there is no biblical support for setting apart one elder and giving him an office (e.g. senior pastor) in distinction to the other elders. He challenges both Taylor and Patterson that if they are willing to distinguish between elders and a pastor despite both of them teaching that Scripture equates the two, how can they criticize Episcopalians for distinguishing between elders and a bishop in the same manner?

Waldron begins his chapter with a very helpful explanation of the two aspects of Congregationalism: the autonomous nature of churches; and the democratic involvement of the congregation in making decisions. I appreciate this because there seems to be a lot of confusion today regarding the precise nature of Congregationalism. Waldron frequently uses the word democratic to describe congregational involvement, and this will be off-putting to some (as it was to me). However, he clarifies that he is using the word hesitantly, and both he and Patterson warn against the extremely democratic form of Congregationalism with which many readers will be most familiar. Waldron also repeatedly refers to the consent of the congregation, and this wording will be much more palatable to some. What he and Patterson seem to be advocating in their Congregationalism is a process where the elders lead the church in arriving at a consensus regarding the will of Christ for his church. I think this could be a healthy corrective for churches who practice an overly democratic model, and a healthy challenge to those, like myself, who have avoided what we though of as Congregationalism because of the abuses and weakness of the extremely democratic model. This aspect of the discussion in this book was thought-provoking to me in a way that I hadn’t expected.

As I mentioned before, the contributors are given a final closing to respond to their fellow writers and to make their case one last time. This gave a nice sense of completion to the book, but it didn’t really add any new insights.

This book is a wonderful resource, and I highly recommend it. We’ve made this work a part of the curriculum for our Didasko School of Pastoral Ministry, our in-house pastoral training program.