For the Record (Benjamin L. Merkle): Why Elders? A Biblical and Practical Guide for Church Members

[Editor’s Note: Ben Merkle is Associate Professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern. He is the editor of the 40 Questions (Kregel) series and the author of The Elder and Overseer: One Office in the Early Church (Peter Lang, 2003) and 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons (Kregel, 2008). In light of his expertise in this key area of ecclesiology we asked him a few questions for the record.]

What is the importance of church government for evangelicals in general and pastors or elders in particular?

The form of church government that a local congregation employs is extremely relevant to the life and health of the church. The Church, as the body of Christ, should seek to be pure and spotless. If certain biblical patterns and principles are ignored or abandoned, then the Church will reap negative consequences. Therefore, it is beneficial for the Church to follow the wisdom of God as recorded in Scripture. Church government is important, not primarily because outward structures are important, but because outward structures directly affect who can be a leader in the church, what each leader does, and to whom each leader is accountable. Thus, when we speak of church government or church polity we are really speaking of the roles, duties, and qualifications of those who lead the body of Christ.

Do you think there is a lot of misunderstanding in the church about what elders are and what they do?

There is no doubt that there is a lot of misunderstanding in the church about nature and function of elders. Because most Baptist churches don’t use the title “Elder” for their leaders, many are suspicious of the title. Many assume that only Presbyterian churches have elders and that it is simply not “Baptist” to have elders. This view is wrong for at least two reasons. First, historically Baptist churches used the title “elders.” Second, because New Testament churches had elders, we should not be afraid to embrace the term. The term itself, however, is not the most important aspect. Rather, the qualifications and duties are the more important aspects.

So, why should a church have elders?

This can be answered at a couple different levels. In my book, 40 Questions about Elders of Deacons (Kregel, 2008), I sought to answer the most important and relevant questions regarding the two offices of elders and deacons. This book was written primarily for pastors and church leaders.

My book Why Elders? A Biblical and Practical Guide for Church Members is a summary of that work in a concise and condensed format focusing on why every church should have elders. This book was written primarily for church members. The question, “why elders?” is answered in four main chapters: (1) It is the pattern of the New Testament Church; (2) It provides help and accountability for a pastor; (3) It produces a healthier church; and (4) It promotes the biblical role of deacons. These four reasons are my answers here.

What about deacons? How do their ministries interrelate with that of pastor and elder?

The role of the deacons is not to lead the church but to serve the church. Elders or pastors are the leaders and are given the role of shepherding and teaching or preaching. Deacons, on the other hand, are given the role of taking care of the physical and logistically needs of the church so that the elders can concentrate on their primary calling. In many churches today, deacons function more like elders than deacons. Part of the reason deacons are involved in leading the church is because churches don’t have a plurality of elders. Without a plurality of elders, the church is led by a single pastor. In order to avoid giving this single pastor sole authority over the church, the role of deacons has shifted from the biblical model. But when elders are functioning properly in the church, deacons can likewise effectively serve the church.

Book Notice: “Those Who Must Give an Account” edited by John Hammett & Ben Merkle

You’ve been waiting, but the wait is over. B&H has released its collaborative work on church membership and church discipline. Those Who Must Give an Account: A Study of Church Membership and Church Discipline (B&H, 2012), edited by SEBTS’ own John Hammett and Ben Merkle, is hot off the presses.

As John Hammett notes, “church membership and church discipline have fallen on hard times in the past hundred years, especially in the North American context.” (p. 7) In light of this fact, the editors offer this book in the hopes of renewing and restoring healthy church membership and discipline in contemporary Baptist churches, offering guidance on how they should receive and minister to those for whom they will give an account (Heb. 13:7). The book consistently treats membership and discipline from three angles: biblical, historical, and practical.

Here is the book’s outline, complete with authors:

Introduction: Church Identity

1. “Church Membership, Church Discipline, and the Nature of the Church” (John S. Hammett)

Part 1: Church Membership-The Church as God’s Gathered People

2. The Biblical Basis for Church Membership (Benjamin L. Merkle)

3. A Historical Analysis of Church Membership (Nathan A. Finn)

4. The Practical Issues of Church Membership (Mark E. Dever)

Part 2: Church Discipline-The Church as God’s Holy People

5. The Biblical Basis for Church Discipline (Thomas R. Schreiner)

6. A Historical Analysis of Church Discipline (Gregory A. Wills)

7. The Practical Issues of Church Discipline (Andrew M. Davis)

Conclusion: Church Witness

8. The Missional Implications of Church Membership and Church Discipline (Bruce Riley Ashford and Danny Akin)

9. Those Who Must Give an Account: A Pastoral Reflection (Andrew M. Davis)

The book is well conceived (indicative of good editors) and well-executed. It grounds the practices of church membership and church discipline in the nature of the church, and shows how weak ecclesiology and weak ministry go hand-in-hand. As Hammett argues, “both are inherent in the nature of the church” so they must be understood in this light (p. 28). This book is an excellent one-stop introduction to membership and discipline, and should prove useful for students and pastors.

40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible

During the two years I was a M.Div. student at Southern Seminary, one of my favorite professors was a young New Testament scholar named Rob Plummer. I took a fruitful year of Greek from Rob-I still remember some of the silly songs that he and my now SEBTS colleague Ben Merkle wrote to help us remember Greek paradigms. One of the things I liked best about those Greek classes was the way Rob’s heart for missions came out in almost every lecture (no small feat for a Greek class!).

Because of my great respect for Rob, I was delighted to recently read his new book 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible (Kregel Academic, 2010). This is the latest volume in Kregel’s helpful 40 Questions series, which is edited by (déjà vu) Ben Merkle. In addition to Rob’s new book on biblical interpretation and Ben’s volume on elders and deacons, look for forthcoming 40 Question books devoted to Christians and the Law (Tom Schreiner), creation and evolution (Ken Keathley and Mark Rooker), election and atonement (Bruce Ware), eschatology (Eckhard Schnabel), and worship (David Nelson).

Let me say right off the bat that 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible is the best introductory book I’ve ever read about hermeneutics (the science of biblical interpretation). It is well-researched and covers all the major topics that need to be addressed. But it is also written at a level that can be understood by undergrads, seminarians, pastors and other church staff, and even (praise the Lord!) most “normal” Christians. In other words, this is a book that is not only appropriate for the classroom, but it is appropriate for the church. Rob’s use of humor, illustrations, and practical application, along with the format of the book itself, make 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible a joy to read.

All of the forty questions, around which the chapters are structured, are good ones, ranging from the more basic (Question 7 – What is the Best English Bible Translation) to the more advanced (Question 38 – What is “Speech Act Theory”?). The reflection questions make this book ideal for hermeneutics classes, church small groups, and church staff group study. Pastors and other church leaders who want to educate their congregations on matters related to the basics of text transmission, canonicity, biblical authority, and translations will be hard-pressed to find a handier resource than Part One of Rob’s book. The Select Bibliography is an excellent guide for those who wish to dig a bit deeper into some of the forty questions that are addressed.

I only have one quibble with the book, and it is a relatively minor one. Generally speaking, I am quite optimistic about the usefulness of the Theological Interpretation of Scripture* for orthodox Baptists and other evangelicals, but Rob is a bit less sanguine (see p. 93 and Question 39 – What is the “Theological Interpretation of Scripture”?). Don’t get me wrong-his treatment is not unkind. Rob’s tone is always irenic. I just wish he focused a bit more on the potential good of the movement rather than the possible pitfalls (and I agree there are potential shortcomings). I suspect at least one reason for our different postures toward Theological Interpretation of Scripture are related to his being a biblical scholar and my being a church historian.

This slight criticism aside, 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible is an excellent book and deserves a place in your library. For those looking for a helpful introduction to hermeneutics, this is your book. For busy pastors and other church staff who want a refresher, this is your book. And if you are a professor looking for a great introductory hermeneutics textbook, this is your book. Read it and you’ll be sharpened.

Author: Robert Plummer
Title: 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible
Publisher: Kregel Academic
Pages: 347
Chapters: 40 + introduction and select bibliography
Retail: $17.99
Amazon.com: $12.23 (32% off)

* For those unacquainted with the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, see Daniel J. Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice (Baker Academic, 2008) and the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series.