Newton, Phil A. and Matt Schmucker. Elders in the Life of the Church: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2014. Pb. $16.99 Link to Kregel
Both of the authors of this new book from Kregel are well-qualified to write a book on biblical leadership. Pastor at South Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Phil Newton has written on elders in Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership (Kregel, 2005). Elders in the Life of the church is a revision of this earlier book. Matt Schmucker is the founding director of 9Marks, “a ministry dedicated to equipping church leaders with a biblical vision and practical resources.” The ministry publishes 9Marks Journal, a quarterly themed journal with articles of interest to pastors and church leaders. Elders in the Life of the Church is decidedly Baptist in orientation: Mark Dever (author of Nine Marks of a Healthy Church) writes the forward and Al Mohler offers a back-cover endorsement. The authors contribute alternating chapters, with Newton giving the detailed biblical support for elders and Schmucker offering short anecdotal sketches of how Mark Dever and Capitol Hill Baptist Church made a transition to Elder Leadership. Newton has also published 40 Questions about Pastoral Ministry (Kregel, Academic 2021).
The main point of the book is that the ideal model for the leadership of the local church is a plurality of qualified elders. These qualifications are found in specific passages in the New Testament and the “church must give serious attention to the New Testament pattern of spiritual leadership” (114). The book is written to support leadership by “plurality of elders” as opposed to a single elder (the pastor).
The first part is a defense of elder leadership in the local church. Schmucker says “mentioning “elders: to most twentieth century Baptists was like saying ‘College of Cardinals.’ It was unfamiliar, maybe even secretive, and therefore deserving of suspicion” (59). This first section therefore must deal with this kind of mistrust from church members who have never been led by a plurality of elders by showing the history of elders within Baptist circles as well as a brief overview of the qualities expected of elders in the New Testament.
Part two examines the biblical data for elder leadership, Acts 20:17-31; 1 Tim 3:1-7, Hebrews 13:17-19; 1 Peter 5:1-5. One chapter is devoted to a basic exegesis of these texts, with references to Greek in transliteration and in footnotes. With respect to the duties of elders, preaching, teaching and ruling are the main duties, although “ruling” is left undefined. Newton follows Mounce’s commentary on the Pastoral Epistles closely, pointing out that the character of an elder is defined in 1 Timothy in contrast to the opponents in Ephesus. Paul is not saying an elder must be a “super Christian,” but rather a spiritually mature leader. They are shepherds, watching over the flock (1 Peter 5:1-5).
Finally, part three of the book moves from theory to practice, offering some advice on transitioning a church to a leadership style based on biblical elders. If they are right about elder leadership in the second section of the book, then some congregations will have to change radically in order to have biblical leadership. Here both Newton and Schmucker share the experience in moving a congregation to a “plurality of elders” leadership model. The advocate for a slow, almost evolutionary change and offer advice on making some beginning steps in establishing elders and deacons within a congregation. Change is never easy and is almost always resisted, Newton and Schmucker recognize this and hope to ease the pain if a church should decide to change in this way.
I have always worshiped in churches with a “plurality of elders,” so to some extent it was disorienting to read a defense of elder leadership. On the one hand, I was already in agreement with the premise and did not need to move my church to a plurality of elders. There was nothing shocking in Newton’s presentation of a biblical model of elder leadership, although I was occasionally puzzled by reading Schmucker’s experience at Capitol Baptist. But that is mostly because my experience has been quite different.
In fact, I have often wondered if the leadership model of the early church is supposed to be normative for all generations of the church. It seems to me Paul’s churches were not significantly different than synagogues, but Christian churches only pick some elements of that leadership and not others, and usually in ignorance of the origins of these practices. People tend to tenaciously cling to church traditions without really wondering if they are biblical or not. In the end, however, I agree elder leadership is far more biblical than any of the alternatives (monarchial, single elder, American corporate board leadership, pure democracy, etc.)
One thing missing from this book is any discussion of women as elders. The assumption seems to be that only men may serve as elders. Neither 1 Tim 2:9-15 or 1 Cor 14:3-35 are discussed, and although 2:12 appears once in the book, it is with reference to the views of another pastor. While those two texts are not specifically referring to woman as elders, they are part of the discussion. There is no mention of Phoebe (Rom 16:1, a deacon) or Junia (Rom 16:7, possibly an apostle) in the book. Given the Baptist context of the book, this is not surprising and a discussion of the issue of women in ministry would have introduced a controversial and divisive issue, distracting from the overall argument of the book.
This does not mean the book will not be valuable to churches already using elder leadership. The use of “biblical” in the title is important, since the goal of the book is to describe how the churches of the New Testament were led. One could read only Newton’s chapters and have a good overview of the New Testament view of church leadership, or read just Schmucker’s chapters in order to see how a church can change to this style of leadership.
Any church (Baptist or non-) can use this book to redefine and reinvigorate their leadership by re-aligning that leadership with biblical values for those whom God has called to lead his flock.
NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.