By Casey Tygrett
When I was asked to write this article, I had to admit I had not read extensively in the area of eldership for some time. It isn’t exactly vacation reading for beside the pool! Especially after reading through Alexander Strauch’s classic Biblical Eldership, I had not explored other resources on the subject because I felt he had said it all in his detailed book. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the three books featured below, because they present challenges and ideas that can only serve to strengthen the leadership and character of elders in the local church.
Phil Newton, Elders In Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2005, 154 pages).
Phil Newton is a longtime pastor in the Baptist church, and his writing is filled with citations from Baptist scholars such as Mark Dever. This book could be seen as a proposal written to a denominational headquarters that basically says: “The churches in the Bible were led by a plural group of elders. We should probably do that too!”
Newton’s biblical and practical points are filled with persuasive language and seem to beg for change within his Baptist heritage. One of the book’s great strengths is that Newton provides precedent from both Scripture and the history of the Baptist denomination for the church being led by a plurality of elders. Though he places the chapter on Baptist history before the chapters on biblical texts, you can see Newton laying the groundwork for convincing other churches loyal to the same Baptist tradition that the movement to a plural eldership is not totally alien to the Baptist church.
The most evident weakness of Newton’s book is its assumption that readers need a convincing argument for plural eldership. Reading this book from a Christian church perspective, perhaps this argument seems unnecessary. However, this weakness can also serve as a strength by refocusing local church elders on what the absence of eldership looks like and how it affects the church’s ministry and effectiveness.
The final chapters of this book are quite useful as Newton proposes how to move from a single-elder system (led by a senior pastor and board of deacons) to a plural elder leadership. The details of these chapters could lead elders in the Christian church to ask: “Are we failing to live by any of these biblical standards and qualities?” Or, “Would the purpose and role of eldership in our congregation look the same if we started over completely using the Scriptures?”
Paul E. Engle and Steven B. Cowan, eds., Who Runs the Church? Four Views on Church Government (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004, 310 pages).
This book is a part of the “Counterpoints” series, which has given readers great opportunities to discuss critical church issues from a variety of viewpoints. The same is true with this book.
It examines church government from the perspectives of Peter Toon (Anglican), L. Roy Taylor (Presbyterian), Paige Patterson (single-elder congregationalism), and Samuel E. Waldron (plural-elder congregationalism). The book gives each person the opportunity to state his position on church government and then allows the other three authors to respond. It finishes with each author responding to questions and objections raised by the opposing viewpoints, a closing summary by Steven Cowan, and helpful discussion questions.
The strength and weakness of this book lie mainly in its design. The greatest strength is that each position’s support raises tremendous questions that elders and churches can benefit from as a source of accountability from the outside.
For example, at what point in history does the precedent for church government begin and end? The writers debate the role of first- and second-century church fathers in establishing the form of government for the church and come to varying conclusions. The role of church history after the apostles is often set aside in contemporary studies on leadership in the church, even though church history itself is comprised of those who inherited the apostles’ teaching and attempted to put it into practice (Acts 2:42-44).
The book’s greatest weakness is that its design and content make it so dense it will seem difficult for study by some groups of elders. However, the study questions in the back, along with a summary of each position, might make for interesting discussion on the topic of church leadership and eldership as it relates to the perspective of the greater body of Christ in the contemporary world. The book would work well as a four-week study, highlighting one position per week.
Gene Getz, Elders and Leaders: God’s Plan for Leading the Church (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2003, 361 pages).
This book approaches the detail and strength of Strauch’s Biblical Eldership. It is al-most exhausting in its detail, providing a chronological walk through the New Testament and showing the development of leadership within the church—especially the role and function of eldership within the individual congregations of the first-century world. Getz supplements the biblical material with challenges and personal experiences that assure the reader his intention is not to hand down the official plan of God (despite the definite-sounding subtitle), but to show the results of a study that Getz and his eldership at Fellowship Bible Church North, Plano, Texas, participated in on the subject of church leadership.
The strengths of this book are numerous, especially the intense biblical analysis, but perhaps the gem of this book is Getz’s humble and clear discussion on the role of women in ministry. Granted, I disagree with some of his conclusions, but on the whole it is a sensitive and wise discussion on how both sexes contribute to local church leadership in light of passages such as 1 Timothy 3.
What is clear is that Getz and the eldership of which he is a part have spent time dealing with this issue, and that energy alone distinguishes the book from the others in this review; they are largely silent about the role of women.
As far as weaknesses, Getz’s book presents some unique views of contemporary local church leadership that could be disputed or rephrased. But overall it is a tremendously helpful corrective or directive to a group of elders who are looking to hold each other accountable to biblical standards, or even an eldership looking for a way to process possible future elders within the local church. The practical suggestions and the appendices of the book could be great starting points for either action.
Casey Tygrett is the preaching minister with Emden (Illinois) Christian Church.