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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proposed principle to consider:

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

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

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

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

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

Proposed principle to consider:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s crucial that we notice something else about these incidents of different, key groups receiving the Holy Spirit. Each one was historically unique and unrepeatable. The church will never again receive God’s Spirit for the first time. The church will never again expand to include, for the first time, a competing half-race to the Jews, or the first Gentile believers in Christ. There are no longer surviving people who experienced only partially the 1st century events recorded in the Gospels (and so might pass on a truncated faith). The descriptions in Acts of people receiving the Spirit are tied specifically to the context of the original expansion of the church, from an exclusively Jewish church to a universal one. Not only should we not try to find a normative description here for how believers receive the Holy Spirit today, there’s no way for us to base such a principle on these historically unique and unrepeatable events. [For a more detailed examination of these texts, see Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 by DA Carson.]

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

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

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we? Getting a feel for the bigger story

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

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

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

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

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

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

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

Revelation: The story comes full circle

Review: “Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity” edited by Chad Owen Brand and R. Stanton Norman

If you want to have a deeper understanding of the different views on church leadership, this book will be very useful. Each chapter is written by an author who holds a distinctive view, and then his presentation is critiqued by the other four contributors. We get to listen in on the discussion and hear some of the strengths and weaknesses of each viewpoint. If each author had been given the opportunity to respond to his critics the book might have been even more effective, but it includes insightful interaction as it stands. The editors also provide a solid introduction to the issues with an excellent historical survey. (I did think the lack of biographical material for each contributor was a curious oversight.)

Some may question why there are three chapters presenting varieties of congregationalism. I think this reflects recent debate over the nature of congregationalism. What exactly is it? Does it simply refer to autonomous churches who answer to no formal authority beyond the local church? Or does it necessarily include the idea of democratic involvement by the whole congregation? And how much involvement is required to be truly congregational? Meeting monthly to vote on everything? An annual affirmation of the church leadership? People who identify themselves as congregationalists strongly disagree on these issues, and some would not view all three of the “congregational” chapters as authentically congregational. The editors seem to have taken a broad view of ‘congregational’ in their descriptions of these viewpoints.

The single-elder-led church
Daniel Akin is first up, supposedly presenting the view that the church is led by a single elder. Akin doesn’t seem at all committed to this view, and doesn’t spend much time defending it. He prefers a plural-elder-plus-senior-pastor model. He devotes most of his chapter to defending his view of congregationalism. Arriving at his conclusions requires a considerable stretch for each passage he uses. I remain unconvinced that the New Testament clearly teaches the traditional, Baptist form of congregationalism. Akin writes in a very affable style. He doesn’t view the New Testament as being definitive regarding a specific model of pastoral leadership, which allows him to show appreciation for varying polities. He approvingly quotes Adrian Rogers’ claim that, “Anything without a head is dead; anything with several heads is a freak.” But just who is supposed to be the head of the body of Christ? Shouldn’t that be . . . Christ? Interestingly, his fellow congregationalist, James Garrett, criticizes Akin’s reliance on the possible existence of multiple house churches per city in the early church and his finding of senior pastors in Ephesians 4:11. Akin bases much of his view on the priesthood of all believers and seems disappointed that others do not tie their polities to this concept as well.

The presbytery-led church
Next, Robert Reymond presents the Presbyterian model of church government. This chapter is direct and well-presented. But, when it comes to the distinctive aspects of the Presbyterian system, Reymond has to stretch even farther than Akin in trying to find his view unambiguously taught in Scripture. In his response, James White rightly criticizes Reymond for basing his exegetical arguments on inference and supposition. Akin notes, “one searches the New Testament in vain for the ‘graded courts’ of local ‘session,’ regional ‘presbytery,’ and ‘general assembly’ Dr. Reymond so confidently asserts is there.”

The congregation-led church
James Leo Garrett Jr presents the Democratic Congregational model, or the congregation-led church. Garrett is even more focused on congregationalism than Akin, and displays the same exegetical over-reaching. His chapter is exhaustively foot-noted, and probably the least enjoyable to read. In Akin’s response to his fellow Southern Baptist, he describes many of the serious weaknesses inherent in a democratic approach. White questions the view that the elders derive their authority from the congregation. He sees this authority as being delegated by Christ, not the congregation.

The bishop-led church
Paul Zahl explores the Episcopal model of church government. Zahl is a delightful writer, and this chapter is a pleasure to read. Unfortunately, he includes no scriptural defense of his chosen leadership model. Zahl feels that Scripture does not give us a definitive, normative model of church government, and he seems to be happy with any and all views. This attitude is also reflected in his responses, where he approves of Akin’s acceptance of multiple approaches as valid, but strongly opposes Reymond and White who argue that the Bible has given us a clear, unambiguous church leadership model we must follow. In his response, White effectively demonstrates that the synonymous nature of episkopos (bishop/overseer) and presbyteros (elder) in the New Testament makes the Episcopal model biblically untenable.

The plural-elder-led church
Lastly, James White presents the plural-elder congregational model. He begins with some grand, overarching themes that may be off-putting to some. But his intent is to build a solid case, from the foundation up, that Christ has provided everything for his church, including ordering how it is to be led. He gives a clear explanation of the autonomous nature of the church, and what this does—and  doesn’t—mean. His chapter includes a good biblical defense of the independence of congregations and a sound presentation of scriptural teaching regarding church elders. White also explores some issues related to applying these biblical principles, and gives us some helpful insights. Unfortunately, he seems to accept using a title of “pastor” for one primary teaching elder in distinction to the other elders (although he makes clear this is not a separate role or office). Akin takes advantage of White’s apparent fudging on this, and notes this doesn’t sound that different from his senior pastor model. (Akin also wrongly accuses White of holding the teaching elder/ruling elder differentiation.) In his response, Garrett finds it too difficult to believe that four centuries of Baptists could be wrong in their views of church leadership.

I thought the chapters written by Paul Zahl and Daniel Akin were the most enjoyable to read, yet also the most disappointing because neither really tried to biblically defend their view. I was surprised by the amount of inference and conjecture relied upon to somehow find a clear Presbyterian or congregational (i.e. democratic) model in Scripture passages that simply do not clearly teach such. In my opinion, White’s chapter and responses contained the most sound exegesis and thus were the most convincing and compelling. Overall, the book was incredibly helpful. It left me wanting to hear much more of this discussion, which I think is an indication of a well-executed book.

Review: “Who Rules the Church?: Examining Congregational Leadership and Church Government” by Gerald Cowen

The foreword of this book, written by well-known Southern Baptist pastor Jerry Vines, builds our anticipation of a “thorough study of the whole pastor-elder issue,” one that is “thoroughly researched and well done” and that utilizes “extensive knowledge of and skill in the Greek language.” Unfortunately, the book that follows this foreword doesn’t quite measure up to the anticipation.

Cowen does a fairly solid, if unremarkable, job at explaining the Greek words used for church leaders. What you’ll read here is essentially indistinguishable from what you can find in myriad books and articles on elders, and doesn’t go into the detail that many other authors do. This author spends most of his first chapter describing these words and how they’re related, and presents a faithful explanation of the New Testament role of elders/overseers/pastors. But, sadly, in the last two paragraphs of this opening chapter he undoes most of this good by interjecting a sole leader or pastor of each congregation (in distinction to the other elders/pastors).

He bases this assertion on an incredibly brief and unsupported reference to James being the primary leader of the conference described in Acts 15. This claim is disputed even by some who share the author’s views on church polity, and it wouldn’t establish his idea of a sole pastoral leader for each congregation anyway. But Cowen somehow takes this single, ambiguous reference and extrapolates a biblical “model” (!) of each house congregation having only one leader. He defends this view by assuming that the angels or messengers to the churches in Revelation 2-3 are sole pastors—despite admitting there are widely varying opinions on the meaning of these angeloi, and that “a firm conclusion cannot be reached.” To establish such a normative model of church government requires much more than these two perfunctory—and contested—examples. At the very best, these two references are ambiguous in their support of the author’s claim. After the end of this first chapter, Cowen drops all discussion of pastor-elders working in plurality or as a team. Throughout the remainder of the book, he focuses on “the pastor.”

He devotes his second chapter to defending the traditional view of the pastor’s call to ministry. To serve in pastoral ministry, a man must receive a special calling from God. He seems to base this almost entirely on the special calling received by Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles. However, he never discusses the fact that a special, direct calling and commissioning by God is one of the very things that distinguishes the prophets and apostles from other servants of God (such as pastor-elders). He tries valiantly to establish this traditional special calling as a model for pastors, but I remain unconvinced.

In chapter 3, the author takes exception to Marvin Mayer’s observation that Timothy and Titus were “not elder-overseers but apostolic delegates.” His attempts to counter this interpretation didn’t make much sense to me. Even if all his claims are accurate (and I don’t believe they are), they still don’t add up to the conclusion these men were pastors. He uses surprisingly faulty reasoning. Ironically, he draws from 1 Timothy 5:17 and James 5:14 in exploring the role of the pastor, but never acknowledges the clearly plural nature of pastoral ministry described in each passage.

Potential readers should be aware this book is written from a congregationalist perspective. I confess that I’m puzzled by the author’s model of “Pastoral Leadership-Congregational Rule.” (Shouldn’t the church be ruled by Christ? Are the sheep really supposed to rule the flock?) Regardless, people from similar church traditions might have benefited from this book. But because of the prevalence of the author’s faulty exegesis and reasoning, leading to erroneous conclusions, I would advise looking elsewhere.

I’ve written in greater depth on some of these claims:

Challenge 1: Wasn’t each house church led by one elder?

Challenge 2: What about Peter and James?

Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus?

Review: “Elders and Leaders: God’s Plan for Leading the Church” by Gene Getz

I have great respect for Gene Getz. He’s been a faithful pastor, church-planter and educator, and has written other books of value to the body of Christ. But one cannot allow respect for an author to prevent a frank and honest evaluation of his work, and I’m sure Gene Getz would agree.

As with similar books that include practical observations, readers will agree with some applications and question others. The author provides solid insights and biblical principles of church leadership. If not for serious flaws, this book would have been a valuable addition to the existing books on pastoral leadership. Unfortunately, one begins to notice far too many biblical interpretations based on conjecture rather than clear exegesis. For example, here are some claims Getz makes in this book:

  • There were no elders of the church in Antioch in Acts 13.
    This may be true; it may not. It seems apparent the prophets and teachers who were gathered to fast and worship the Lord together—and whom the Holy Spirit directed to dedicate Barnabas and Saul for the work to which he had called them—exercised some form of leadership. Many scholars feel these were the elders of the Antioch church. But Scripture doesn’t clearly tell us either way. Getz’ claim is simply an assumption, and a curious one considering the gathering of these leaders, the instructions to them by the Spirit, and their subsequent decisive action.
  • Barnabas “voluntarily became second in command” to Paul.
    Where exactly are we told this? Where is the relationship between the two so clarified? If this is true, why did Barnabas later counter Paul regarding taking Mark as part of their team? Was he defying Paul’s primary leadership?
  • In Luke 22:32, Jesus not only instructs Peter to strengthen his brothers, but to shepherd them and lead them—and to do this in a manner unique from the shepherding and leading of the other apostles, serving as a primary leader to them.
    Of course, Scripture doesn’t actually tell us any of this.
  • Peter wasn’t just prominent in proclaiming the gospel in Acts 2, he was exercising primary leadership of the other apostles, which they obediently followed.
  • At the conference reported in Acts 15, Peter represented the apostles, and James represented the elders.
  • The apostle John served as Peter’s “assistant.”

These assertions may be plausible. We may even be sympathetic to some. But they go beyond the clear teaching of Scripture. And, alarmingly, they occur in the exegetical section of the book. These claims are examples of reading into the text one’s own conclusions.

Of course, the elephant in the room for many readers of this book will be Getz’ idea that a primary leader must be distinguished from the other elders. He feels this is normal and necessary. In Part Three of the book, his Observation 11 states: “The New Testament definitely teaches and illustrates that when there is a plurality of leadership, someone needs to function as the primary leader of the team.” He insists that God didn’t plan for the church to have co-leaders. He then surprisingly (and somewhat self-contradictorily) admits that “the biblical story of local church leadership offers little data to make the specific observation that someone must function as the primary leader.” In his opinion, the overall context of Scripture and the roles of Peter and James are enough to establish this primary leadership position.

But Getz doesn’t adequately cover (or usually even discuss) examples from Scripture that would tend to challenge his interpretation. What of Barnabas and Saul together teaching the congregation in Antioch? Why does Paul refer to three pillars of the Jerusalem church in Galatians 2, rather than to one primary leader? If James was an apostle of Christ, as Scripture seems to indicate and many scholars believe, wouldn’t that provide a different rationale for distinguishing him from the elders?

Getz refers to the apostles sending Peter and John to Samaria (Acts 8:14) as a demonstration that Peter “did not act unilaterally without seeking advice and counsel and affirmation.” But there is not one hint in this passage of Peter providing primary leadership in this venture while seeking advice, counsel and affirmation from the other apostles. Instead we see the apostles leading as a team and directing the ministry of Peter and John.  Getz reads into this passage his own assumptions, and arrives at an interpretation not borne out by the actual text. Actually, this passage is very supportive of the viewpoint Getz dismisses (co-equal leadership with no distinguished primary leader).

The Bible gives us many accounts of teams of elders being appointed to lead individual churches, qualifications for church elders, and instructions given directly to these elders. But we don’t have a single clear reference to even the existence of a designated primary leader of a New Testament church (not even of Peter or James filling this role), much less any reference to qualifications for such a primary leader, the appointment of any primary leader, or any instructions given to a primary leader. Just where exactly does the New Testament “definitely teach” this necessary primary leader? We’re not told. All we have are the examples of Peter and James, which do not establish the normative role that Getz describes.

Even if everything he claims about their ministry function is true, all this would show is that one of the elders may tend to exercise a prominent leadership. Of course, no one denies this. But anything beyond this is pure conjecture. And prominence in leadership does not equate a formally distinct role, no matter how much one may assume so. [For a more detailed examination of the ministry roles of Peter and James, see here.] The only place where the Bible refers to anyone providing ongoing primary leadership to the elders/shepherds is the archepoimēn (Chief Shepherd/Pastor) in 1 Peter 5:4, and this is, of course, speaking of Jesus. The body has only one head; the kingdom has only one King. Each team of church elders do require a primary leader, but that primary leader should be Jesus Christ, their Chief Shepherd/Senior Pastor.

I am one elder/pastor who, regrettably, cannot recommend this book. I would suggest instead Alexander Strauch’s book Biblical Eldership. Strauch is sound in his exegesis, careful in his conclusions, and presents a balanced approach that has proven to be instrumental for a broad range of evangelical churches, from small house-churches to congregations with large staffs and attendances in the thousands. In Elders and Leaders (p. 302), Gene Getz tells of a time earlier in his ministry when he became more pragmatic than biblical. With no disrespect or animosity intended, I would suggest this is true of much of his writing in this book as well.

Related posts:

Challenge 2: What about Peter and James?

Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus?

Review: “Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership” by Alexander Strauch

This book has become the standard for works on eldership, and deservedly so. If you’re only going to read one book on church leadership (other than the Bible), this is the book to read. If you plan to study pastoral leadership extensively, this is still the perfect place to begin. Strauch is thorough, he covers all of the relevant passages, and his exegesis is consistently sound and balanced. His writing is clear and easy to follow. The book is not only enjoyable to read, I find it spiritually edifying as well.

The first five chapters examine core principles of biblical eldership: pastoral leadership, shared leadership, male leadership, qualified leadership, and servant leadership. In chapter six, Strauch gives an extensive biblical defense of a plurality of pastoral leaders for each congregation (without a senior pastor). The following chapters provide exposition of all the relevant passages. There is occasionally some overlap, but this actually fits the layout of the book and proves to be quite helpful, especially considering how entrenched most of us are in traditional leadership models that lack any biblical support.

His exegesis is outstanding, and the presentation is excellent throughout. When you’ve finished reading this book, you should have a good handle on this view of church government—whether you agree with it or not. (Although I haven’t found any substantive critiques of Strauch’s work. In my opinion, his interpretation of Scripture is so sound and well-reasoned that it’s hard to refute.) Along the way, he responds to common challenges to a plurality of pastoral elders and shows how they are fallacious.

Strauch wrote this book to “clarify the biblical doctrine of eldership,” so it is “primarily doctrinal and exegetical in nature.” There are other books that help with practically applying these principles. I would particularly recommend Christ in Church Leadership by Paul Winslow and Dorman Followwill and Eldership in Action by Richard Swartley. These are great supplements for Strauch’s work, but I recommend that you start right here. This book provides a solid, biblical foundation for further application.

Some have thought that the lack of examples and specific applications is a weakness of the book, but I actually consider it a strength. Strauch does offer some very practical insights, but he sticks to the biblical principles and avoids giving us a handbook on distinctive leadership practices from his particular church background. His balanced, focused approach has allowed this book to be utilized by churches from very different traditions, and widely varying sizes, to great benefit.

This book is helpful at putting to rest many common misperceptions about biblical eldership. It is not leadership “by committee;” it doesn’t demand that all elders serve in exactly the same way and in the same capacity; it does allow for dynamic teachers or leaders to fully use their gifts; etc. The biblical model provides us a well-defined framework for church leadership, but also great freedom in how we apply the scriptural principles. Strauch clearly shows that many churches that include elders in their leadership structure do not actually have a biblical form of eldership. He also carefully explains that many churches that seem to have all the expected terminology of a ‘biblical eldership’ actually have a senior pastor model in everything but name.

This is an excellent resource and still the best book available on biblical eldership. I can’t recommend it more highly.

Review: “The Team Concept: Paul’s Church Leadership Patterns or Ours?” by Bruce Stabbert

From time to time, I’m going to post reviews of books related to elders and pastoral leadership. I’ll try to add these books in somewhat chronological order, first reviewing the earliest books. Hopefully these reviews will be helpful to those seeking more knowledge and wisdom on this important topic.

To my knowledge, before Alexander Strauch’s book was published (Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership), this would have been the only full-length treatment of church elders not written from a specifically Presbyterian point of view. Although Stabbert’s book has been eclipsed by Strauch’s, this is still an excellent book on biblical church leadership.

Stabbert devotes the first three chapters primarily to biblical exegesis of the relevant passages showing a plurality of pastoral leaders in the New Testament churches. He then follows with some helpful discussion of various aspects of biblical eldership. Here are some of his points that I especially appreciated:

Chapter 1: What’s in a Name?
In this opening chapter, the author examines each of the words used to describe church leaders, and shows how such terms as elder, overseer, bishop, pastor, etc. refer to the same leaders. He also very quickly and effectively shows that a distinction of one pastor from the rest of the elders is contrary to Scripture.

Chapter 2: One or Many?
This chapter traces the consistent, biblical pattern of plurality among the pastoral leaders of each individual church. Some have speculated that each city included many house churches, and have used this conjecture to challenge the concept of plural pastoral leaders for each church. Stabbert does an excellent job of showing the fallacies of such a challenge.

Chapter 3: A Verdict That Demands an Evidence
He does a good job handling those biblical leaders that some claim are exceptions to a pattern of plural pastoral leaders (Timothy, James, etc.). I wish he had gone into a little more detail regarding James, particularly the amount of baggage placed on one word in the Greek (krino), which can simply mean to offer one’s opinion or perspective.

Chapter 4: If the Shoe Fits
Stabbert lists ten benefits of adopting this biblical model of church leadership. Very helpful insights.

Chapter 5: We’ve Never Done It That Way Before
Ably handles common objections to this leadership model. I particularly appreciated his discussion of pastoral training, seminary education, and the overemphasis of a unique “call” to pastoral ministry.

Chapter 6: How Now?
Good thoughts on how to make sure a process of change in a church is a healthy one.

Chapter 7: The Inside Story
Solid section on the qualifications for elders. Helpful discussion on the desired age of elders. (Can a 24-year old seminary graduate be considered an “elder”?) Excellent description of the “Indigenous Principle,” i.e. raising up and using pastoral leaders from within the congregation rather than routinely hiring from outside.

Chapter 8: Player-Coaches
Insightful description of what the biblical duties of elders really are.

This is still a very helpful book. For anyone serving or preparing to serve as an elder, or for a church considering a transition to leadership by a council of co-equal elders, I think this book would prove to be beneficial and edifying.

A few remaining challenges

This post is the last of a series of challenges commonly made against shared, plural pastoral leadership. It’s a follow-up to my post Why we don’t have a senior pastor.

I’m going to wrap up this series by discussing the remaining common challenges to the idea of each church being led by a team of elders.

The New Testament doesn’t give us a clear model. We have freedom to structure our church leadership in a way that works best for us.

Some people claim that the Bible is so ambiguous or inconsistent about leadership structures that we can simply use whatever works for our particular situation. It’s true that the New Testament doesn’t provide us with elaborate instructions on the minute details of church leadership. And this does give us great flexibility in applying scriptural principles to different cultures and contexts. But there is actually amazing consistency in how the New Testament describes the pastoral leadership of the original churches. James, Paul, Peter and Luke all describe the churches as being led by a plurality of elders.

James’ letter is most likely the earliest letter included in the New Testament, dating from the early to mid 40s AD. He refers to church leadership by elders in James 5:14. On the other hand, Peter’s teaching on elders comes late in his life (1 Peter 5:1-4). In the book of Acts, Luke recounts how Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in each church during their very first missionary trip (Acts 14:23). Years later, Paul is still following the same pattern, directing Titus to appoint elders in each town in Crete, and writing fairly detailed instructions to Timothy regarding the appointment and ministry of the elders of the church. We see this leadership structure for the churches consistently utilized and taught throughout Paul’s apostolic ministry.

As I noted in a previous post, we have accounts of elders being appointed, qualifications listed for elders, and instructions addressed directly to the elders of a church (with no mention anywhere of a sole, primary or senior pastor). Not only do we see this impressive consistency regarding the pastoral leadership of the churches throughout the New Testament, we have much more biblical teaching regarding church elders than we do for such important practices as baptism and communion. We can’t simply pretend that God hasn’t provided this pattern for us. And we shouldn’t introduce another form of church leadership unless it has clear biblical precedent.

The church can’t be led by a committee, it needs a primary leader.

It’s unfortunate that this challenge is heard as often as it is, because it’s really kind of a cheap shot. This is what, in logic, is called a “straw man argument.” It’s trying to cause your point to seem stronger by making your opponent’s view sound silly and easily torn apart (hence “straw man”). Why would I describe this challenge as a straw man argument? Because no pastor or Bible scholar who teaches about the church being led by a plurality of pastoral elders ever advocates for the church being led by a “committee.” They may use terms such as ‘council of elders’ or ‘pastoral team,’ but they don’t refer to committees. Committees don’t have a very good connotation for many of us, so using this kind of pejorative term is a way of stacking the deck against one’s opponent. We should never use a description for our opponents’ viewpoint that they wouldn’t use themselves.

Of course, the real problem with this challenge is that it’s not accurate. The implication here is that no one elder can ever exercise significant leadership beyond that of the other elders. They all have to be equally involved in every decision or ministry. But this just isn’t the way biblical elderships operate. For example, if the church is beginning a construction project, and one of the elders has considerable expertise in construction, then his leadership will be respected and probably followed (as the other elders consider and approve his ideas). If an elder has vast experience and wisdom in financial matters, then his voice will carry much greater weight when approaching fiscal decisions, and the other elders will respect his leadership.

Leadership by a council of co-equal elders doesn’t prevent God from using one man in a special, dynamic way. If one of the elders has a tremendous teaching or evangelistic gift, then the other elders will strive to give him ample opportunity to fulfill this ministry. What this model does resist is trying to see one elder as the primary leader in each and every situation, and formalizing this primary leadership into a ‘senior pastor’ role that is absent from the New Testament. In many churches, the plural leadership model serves to free a gifted pastor/teacher to pursue the ministry that best suits his gifting without the need for him to try to be all things to all people.

The famous Southern Baptist pastor Adrian Rogers was reputed to have argued: “Anything without a head is dead; anything with several heads is a freak.” I would agree. But just who is the head of the body of Christ? Isn’t that Christ himself? If the church has a primary or senior pastor who is viewed as the head of the church (as Rogers was advocating), doesn’t Rogers’ axiom actually argue against such a senior pastor model? Wouldn’t this constitute two heads of the body—Christ and the senior pastor? According to Rogers’ own argument, shouldn’t we view such a leadership structure as a freakish anomaly? The elders are not the heads of the body; they lead the body in seeking the will and direction of our Head. And they resist the temptation to assign that primary role to one of their own.

But we’ve never done it that way before! And what about all the churches that have senior pastors? Are they all wrong?

In many discussions about church eldership, it eventually becomes obvious that this is the underlying objection. Most of us prefer the familiar. We don’t like change, especially when it seems to go against the norm. Of course, whether a practice is familiar or not is ultimately irrelevant. The real question  for us must be: What does the Bible teach? And we can see in our history, and in Scripture itself, that the majority can be very wrong. Even if churches follow an unscriptural model of ministry for 1000 years, it doesn’t somehow sanctify it and make it healthy.

When Martin Luther opposed unbiblical practices in the church of his day, he was faced with these same kinds of challenges. How could he think he was right and everyone else wrong? (Although many others had opposed the same unbiblical practices.) How could he have the audacity to oppose the established tradition of the church? His response was simple; it was bold, yet humble. If anyone could show him in Scripture where he was in error, he would repent. But if they could not, he could do nothing else but accept the witness of God’s Word over accepted, traditional practice, no matter how well established. Those of us who are proponents of what we see as a biblical form of eldership—the pastoring of the church by a group of co-equal elders with no elder elevated above the rest—would invite the same correction and take the same stand.

Encouragingly, there have been many throughout the history of the church who have called us back to this scriptural model. Today, there are more churches who follow such a biblical structure than most people realize. And more and more churches are returning to these New Testament principles of pastoral leadership. It can be helpful to learn about real churches who follow such a model. If you’d like to check out some examples, just email me [see here].

Many wonderful people of God are serving as senior pastors, or serving in churches that have senior pastors. We would never want to dismiss them or ignore the good that God is doing through them. Still, we must continue to strive to be as biblical in our church practices as we can be, and to lovingly challenge our brothers and sisters where we feel they are diverting from what is scripturally normative. The more we follow God’s plan for the church, the more our churches will be healthy and thriving, the more of a vibrant witness we’ll be to the world around us, and the more we will glorify and honor the One whose church it actually is anyway.

Elders and pastoral leadership series:

Why we don’t have a senior pastor

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 [see above]

So what exactly do elders do?

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

Challenge 4: What about the “Moses Model”?

This post is part of a series of challenges commonly made against shared, plural pastoral leadership. It’s a follow-up to my post Why we don’t have a senior pastor.

If you’ve ever served in leadership in a Calvary Chapel or Vineyard Christian Fellowship, chances are you’re familiar with the term “Moses Model” or at least the idea behind it. This teaching isn’t new; we see it much earlier in church history. It’s essentially a mono-episcopal model, with one bishop/pastor overseeing each church. This particular version of the model was most clearly articulated by Chuck Smith, longtime senior pastor of the original Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, CA.

“Pastor Chuck,” as he’s affectionately known throughout the Calvary Chapel movement, first showed that the leadership structure for the people of Israel could be charted as a pyramid, with the people on the bottom, the priests and judges above them, Moses at the top, with God over all. Then he taught that we should follow this pattern in the church and pictured it with the people on the bottom, the elders/deacons/assistant pastors above them, the pastor on the top by himself, and Jesus over the pastor. (You can find this teaching and the diagram below presented in The Philosophy of Ministry of Calvary Chapel by Chuck Smith.)

There are many serious problems with this approach. To begin with, Moses led the entire people of God (probably more than two million people), not just a local gathering of Israelites. If we consistently apply this model to the church, it would lead us to something closer to a Pope than a local pastor. Thankfully, we know that Moses’ role was a unique one, and that he didn’t foreshadow the New Testament local pastor, but the New Testament Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ (John 1:17; Acts 3:22-23; Hebrews 3:1-6). Moses was the mediator who went between God and the people. Today, the pastor doesn’t fill that priestly role—Jesus does (1 Timothy 2:5).

While many insist that the pyramid is actually turned upside down, with the pastor serving the entire body, it still leaves a diagram showing not “one mediator between God and man,” but two—Jesus and the pastor. This is revealed to be more than just a diagram fluke by a pattern of unhealthy authoritarianism. I should hasten to say that many Calvary Chapels and Vineyards are pastored by loving, humble men who seek to do the best for the flock. But the leadership model itself opens the door for serious abuses of authority.

Most of the people in the churches don’t see any of this. But when you become a leader, you’re taught not to question the leadership or views of the senior pastor (publicly or privately). To challenge him is seen as a sin just as Aaron and Miriam sinned by challenging Moses. To even ask questions is often seen as being divisive, and if those questions involve the senior pastor, you’ll be told to “touch not God’s anointed” (misusing Psalm 105:15, and also 1 Samuel 24:6 and 26:9-11). You’re taught that if you can’t agree or follow the senior pastor, then you should quietly leave the church and go someplace else.

Chuck Smith illustrates this extreme view of authority in a story he tells in The Philosophy of Ministry of Calvary Chapel. The church in Costa Mesa had started a local Korean fellowship, which was pastored by a medical doctor. After some time, the new fellowship appointed a board of elders. The Korean congregation had grown quite large, and the elders began urging the pastor to give up his medical practice and serve the church in full-time pastoral ministry. The pastor disagreed, and went to Chuck Smith for advice on how to handle these conflicting viewpoints as to how the church should proceed. Pastor Chuck’s solution? Fire the elders! Apparently, when there’s a difference of opinion between the pastor and the elders, the way to handle this is to get rid of the elders! It’s shocking to me that Smith has not only written a public account of this story, but he actually uses it to teach leadership principles to Calvary pastors.

(It’s unfortunate that this kind of authoritarianism has led to abuses of power in many of these churches. In fact, there are people who meet online as a kind of support group who tell how they’ve experienced abuses of authority by Calvary pastors.)

In The Philosophy of Ministry of Calvary Chapel, Smith gives us a little more insight into how he sees the role of the elders in church ministry. Apparently, they are there to shield the pastor from flak due to unpopular decisions. Even though the pastor concurs with the direction taken (actually being the one who approves every decision), he need not face the criticism of those in the church who may disagree. When people complain, the pastor can point to the elders and say, “The board made their decision.” The elders then become the lightning rod for any criticism, and the pastor preserves the favorable impression the people have of him personally. It’s difficult to find the pastoral ministry of New Testament elders in any of this.

Another concern with this model of church leadership is that it leaves the pastor without any real accountability. He answers to no one but God. This is a dangerous place to be. It’s nice to be put on a pedestal, but it’s painful to slip off! Tragically, there have been many instances of moral failure that have devastated families, whole churches, and the pastors themselves. It’s not a loving thing to put a pastor in such a vulnerable position without having a secure system of accountability to fellow pastors who love him and who will tell him the truth, even if it hurts.

There are many wonderful, admirable qualities of the Calvary Chapel and Vineyard movements, and we can learn a lot from them. Unfortunately, their leadership structure has too often been their Achilles’ heal. Seeking to avoid being a ‘hireling’ (John 10:12-13), these men make themselves the Shepherd of the church. We see this honor as reserved for Christ alone. He is our Chief Shepherd, or Senior Pastor (1 Peter 5:4). He graciously calls the elders of the church to assist him in shepherding our brother and sister believers, and we want to faithfully fulfill this pastoral ministry. But we see no place in Scripture where anyone other than Jesus follows the model of Moses and serves as the pastor of the church.

Elders and pastoral leadership series:

Why we don’t have a senior pastor

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”? [see above]

A few remaining challenges

So what exactly do elders do?

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