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.

Briefly Noted: Reimagine (And, a Half Dozen Other Recent Publications by SEBTS Students)

reimagineCvr-_LoRes-198x300SEBTS students’ publications are selling very nicely and getting good reviews. “Which publications and which authors?” you ask. For starters, Brent Crowe (PhD candidate; VP of Student Leadership University) recently published with NavPress (2013) a new book, Reimagine, that compels Christians to take Jesus at his word and thus (re)imagine what God desires in their worlds. Part 1 is devoted to discovering a “redemptive imagination” and part 2 to “redemptive imagination at work.” Part 2 includes numerous short stories to illustrate the definition and concept of redemptive imagination offered in part 1.

In addition to Reimagine, here are six more books written recently by SEBTS students. The list is not exhaustive; more book notices are on the way.

Phil Newton, Senior Pastor of South Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, TN, is the author of Conduct Gospel-centered Funerals: Applying the gospel at the unique challenges of death (Day One Publications, 2011), which explores the challenges of ministry in a funeral. The book’s aim is not simply to discuss the important logistics, challenges, and practicalities that often accompany a funeral, but to instruct ministers in how to apply the power of the gospel in the midst of those unique challenges. His previous work, Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership (Kregel, 2005) examines the biblical model of leadership by explaining the necessity of elder plurality and how it functions in a congregational setting. Newton attends to the historical evidence for plurality of elders in congregational life and treats the data of the New Testament.

Trevin Wax, editor of The Gospel Project (LifeWay Christian Resources), recently published two books. The first, Holy Subversion: Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals (Crossway, 2010), challenges Christians in the 21st century to examine the “Caesars” in their lives–whether sex, money, power, leisure, etc.–and chose to serve Jesus Christ as Lord instead. Most recently, he authored Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope (Moody, 2011), which explores the gospel by way of a three-legged stool metaphor: there is the gospel story (creation, fall, redemption, restoration), gospel announcement of the life and work of Jesus Christ, and gospel community–the church–that lives out the gospel. This gospel then exposes the counterfeit gospels in our culture that derail genuine faith. Trevin has written two further books, forthcoming in Fall 2013, and available for pre-order: Clear Winter Nights: A Journey into Truth, Doubt, and What Comes After (Multnomah,  2013) and Gospel-Centered Teaching: Showing Christ in All the Scripture (B&H, 2013).

Doug Coleman, PhD in Applied Theology from SEBTS, published his dissertation: A Theological Analysis of the Insider Movement Paradigm from Four Perspectives: Theology of Religions, Revelation, Soteriology and Ecclesiology. EMS Dissertation Series(WICU Press, 2011). His work evaluates the Insider Movement Paradigm (IMP)–a proposal that faith in Jesus does not require severing ties with one’s pre-faith religious community–from four perspectives: the theology of religions, the doctrine of revelation, soteriology, and ecclesiology. Coleman’s work is a significant contribution especially for theologians and missionaries ministering to Muslims. Coleman has served in overseas missions for 14 years, primarily among Central Asian Muslims with the IMB. Coleman is also author of “The Agents of Mission: Humanity,” in Theology and Practice of Missions: God, the Church, and the Nations edited by your scribe.

Jackson Wu, PhD in Applied Theology from SEBTS, recently published his dissertation: Saving God’s Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame, in the EMS Dissertation Series WICU Press, 2013). Wu’s book is written at the intersection of Chinese culture, contextualization theory, and debates about the New Perspective on Paul. Wu leverages a dialogical theory of contextualization in order to show how honor-shame concepts in Chinese culture can help Christians understand the “glory” and “honor” images found in the Bible. By reading the Bible with Chinese eyes, a Christian can understand these images in ways that are underemphasized in traditional western theologies. Along the way, Wu manages to draw upon a diverse array of thinkers including Enoch Wan, John Piper, and N. T. Wright.

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On Plural-Elder-Led Congregationalism

For nearly a decade, I’ve been convinced that the most faithful contemporary adaptation of New Testament polity is a plural-elder-led congregationalism. Since January 2012, I have been a part of the elder team at my local church, First Baptist Church of Durham.  I’m thrilled to be able to serve the Lord and His church as a full-time seminary professor and a voluntary pastor.

I’m convinced that plural-elder-led congregationalism is a healthier alternative to four polities that are very common among Free Church evangelicals, including Southern Baptists. Option 1 is pure democracy. In this polity, the whole congregation votes on nearly every decision. The pastors and church staff are often treated as mere employees of the church who direct various ministries, but who have no real authority in the church. All of the authority rests in the whole congregation assembled in a church conference or members meeting (often called a “business meeting”).

Option 2 is committee-led congregationalism. In this polity, the church uses democratic processes to make key decisions, but the real authority rests with certain key committees or similar small groups that are compromised of influential church members. In many Southern Baptist churches, the committee that runs the church is the so-called church council. In others, it might be the personnel committee, since these are the folks who keep tabs on the staff. A very common variation of this polity is deacon-led congregationalism, where the deacons function as the chief committee in the church’s hierarchy.

Option 3 is single-pastor-ruled benevolent autocracy. In this polity, the solo or senior pastor is called by the church, but after that, he wields most of the authority. In a larger church, he typically hires and fires all ministry staff, including other pastors. The lead pastor is as much a CEO as he is a shepherd. Members meetings are kept to a minimum; in some churches, only once a year. The pastor is the leader and the people follow his lead.

Option 4 is plural-elder-ruled benevolent oligarchy. In this polity, which is not as common as the others, a plurality of elders rules the church in much the same way as the single-pastor-ruled option. The difference is that the authority is vested in a small group rather than a single individual. In many ways, this polity could be called “poor man’s presbyterianism.” The church is ruled by her elders, but there is no presbytery or classis beyond the local congregation. This polity also frequently makes a presbyterian-like distinction between teaching elders and ruling elders; only the former are considered pastors.

No doubt these are simplistic summaries of the various polities found in our circles, but I doubt they are overly simplistic. I’m personally acquainted with many (sometimes tons) of SBC churches that hold to each of these polities pretty much exactly as I’ve described them. Options 1 and 2 are very common among traditional-minded, small and medium-sized churches in small towns and rural areas. Options 3 and 4 are more common in contemporary-minded, larger churches in suburban areas, as well as newer church plants.

Plural-elder-led congregationalism differs from each of these polities in various ways. Unlike Options 1–3, there is a plurality of pastors. Unlike option 4, all of the pastors are elders, and vice verse; the terms are synonymous. All may be paid staff, or some may be paid and some may be voluntary. Unlike Option 1, the elders/pastors have the freedom to exercise biblical pastoral authority over the congregation in matters of teaching and shepherding. Unlike Option 2, no committees or deacon “boards” are elevated to an unbiblical level of authority in the church. Unlike Option 3, all pastors are equals, even if, based upon prudence and giftedness, different pastors have different roles within the leadership team. Unlike Option 4, the final earthly authority still rests with the whole congregation as it corporately seeks God’s will under the lordship of Christ as it is revealed in the Scriptures.

If you are interested in reading more about the ins and outs of plural-elder-led congregationalism, including the biblical justification for the view, I would recommend the following books.

Thabiti Anyabwile, Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons (Crossway, 2012).

Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, 2nd ed. (Crossway, 2004), especially chapter 9.

John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Kregel Academic, 2005), especially chapter 7.

Benjamin Merkle, 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons (Kregel Academic, 2007).

Benjamin Merkle, Why Elders? A Biblical and Practical Guide for Church Members (Kregel Academic, 2009).

Phil Newton, Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model of Church Leadership (Kregel Academic, 2005).