Book Notice: “Elders in the Life of the Church”

Elders-in-the-Life-of-the-ChurchI am serving advance notice: Elders in the Life of the Church: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership (Kregel, 2014) is well worth the money spent to purchase it and the time spent to read it. Written by Phil Newton (newly minted PhD from SEBTS) and Matt Schmucker, the book provides biblical, historical, and practical reasons for leading the church by a plurality of elders.

The book, and the argument, unfolds in three parts. The three parts serve to address three interrelated questions, as noted by Mark Dever in the foreword: “Is it Baptist? . . . Is it biblical? . . . Is it best?” (pp. 10–11) Part 1 (chapters 1–6) contains discussion of the historical reasons for elders in the church. Newton and Schmucker ask the key question, “Why did Baptists commonly practice elder plurality in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, but moved away from it––at least in the United States––in the 20th century?” (p. 21) Part 2 (chapters 7–14) includes detailed exposition of four biblical texts that address the matter of church leadership, specifically elders. Part 3 (chapters 15–21) concludes the book with practical reasons and implications for a plurality of elders.

Phil Newton in chapter 1 (pp. 27–37) surveys the practice of Baptist churches in England and America, and the statements of historic Baptist confessions (e.g. the London Confession of 1644 and the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message), both of which affirmed the biblical and practical function of elders in the church leadership. Newton concludes that not all Baptists practiced a plurality of elders, but it is historically inaccurate to say that elders are “un-Baptist.” This historical argument is supplemented with a brief but lively testimony from Schmucker on Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s (CHBC) transition to plural eldership (pp. 59–63)––it can be done without blowing up a church! Ultimately, Newton and Schmucker argue, “Plural eldership serves to prevent one man from falling prey to the temptation of dominating a congregation.” (p. 80)

The basis for this very practical and godly rationale is found in Scripture. Newton argues this point in four key chapters (chapters 7, 9, 11, 13) on the four key biblical texts (Acts 20:17–31; 1 Tim. 3:1–7; Heb. 13:17–19; 1 Pet. 5:1–5). Discussing Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders (plural), Newton writes clearly on the mandate from Scripture:

The dangers we face in twenty-first century America are of the same nature as those faced by our first-century counterparts. The same Lord who directed the apostles to appoint spiritual leaders over the early church directs us to do the same in modern churches. When selecting those leaders, popularity must be laid aside and biblical qualifications emphasized instead. (p. 103)

Schmucker then discusses the failing then successful attempts at CHBC to move to a plurality of elders. Read with the previous chapter, this recounting ably illustrates how concern for the integrity and witness of a church’s leadership must stem from the Scriptures.

Such practical reflection is the real strength of the book. Part three contains several chapters from both authors, who discuss the process for transitioning from non-elder leadership to a plurality of elders. Chapter 19, entitled “Putting It All Together,” helps pastors and churches do just that. Newton gives sage advice: “So you are pondering the idea of making a change in your church structure later. If that is you, get started now. Focus on faithfully teaching Scripture to your church . . . The polity will follow in due time, because a congregation that loves the Word of God and desires to follow whatever the Lord has spoken will be open to plural eldership.” (pp. 212–13) This is not a book for those who wish to lord over a church, either for the sake of elders or against them. This is a book for careful reading and humble response.

Newton and Schmucker’s words are full of wisdom gained from Scripture and years of pastoral experience. Indeed, they are examples of what they argue for in this book. This makes them exceedingly qualified to write it. And they have written it very well. Any pastor, deacon, elder, or lay member of a Baptist church will benefit greatly from reading it. Students and pastoral interns will want to pour over it, discuss it, and apply it. Highly recommended.