Book Review: Benjamin L. Merkle and Thomas R. Schreiner, eds. Shepherding God’s Flock

Merkle, Benjamin L. and Thomas R. Schreiner, eds. Shepherding God’s Flock: Biblical Leadership in the New Testament and Beyond. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2015. 320 pp. Pb. $18.99   Link to Kregel  Link to 31-page sample

Shepherding God’s Flock is a collection of essays by Baptist scholars on the topic of biblical leadership, primarily focused on elders in the local church. For the most part this is a very traditional conservative and Baptist view of church leadership. Do not let the conservative, pastoral appearance fool you. The essays in this collection are intentionally academic and are good examples of biblical and historical theology applied to the problem of modern church leadership. This is the second book I have read published by Kregel Academic which could have been published in their Academic line. (The other book was Joe Hellerman, Embracing Shared Ministry.)

ShepherdingIn an introductory chapter, James M. Hamilton Jr. examines the evidence Second Temple Period in order to determine if the Christian church borrowed leadership structures from the Old Testament or synagogue. While it is unlikely early church borrowed the idea of elder from the Old Testament, it seems obvious the organization of the synagogue had an influence on early Christian congregations. The problem for Hamilton is a lack of information on the organization of synagogues in the Second Temple Period. As he says, the office of elder is certainly analogous to the elders of a synagogue, but there are also serious differences. I think there is more to be said on how early congregations were formed but I am not sure there is much data shedding light on the period. Hamilton’s chapter is handicapped by its brevity. This is not his fault of course, but the topic of first century synagogues merits additional study.

Chapters 2-4 cover the New Testament data on church leadership. First, Andreas J. Köstenberger contributes an essay on “Shepherds and Shepherding in the Gospels.” By surveying the four Gospels Köstenberger develops several observations which inform pastoral leadership in the twenty-first century. After surveying the texts on shepherding in the Gospels, he concludes that it is critical keep the idea of shepherding Christocentric. The Gospels present Jesus as the Good Shepherd and Jesus gives his disciples a mandate to “feed my sheep.” Köstenberger uses the restoration of Peter in John 21:15-19 as a model for every Christian community. Biblical leaders must be involved in training new shepherds, and the ultimate model for shepherd leadership is Jesus.

Second, Benjamin L. Merkle traces “The Pattern of Leadership in Acts and Paul’s Letters to Churches.” Merlke’s dissertation was on elders and overseers in the early church (Peter Lang, 2003). This essay examines elders in the book of Acts as well as the non-pastoral Pauline letters. He first surveys the references to elders in the book of Acts (primarily ch. 14, 20), although he does briefly discuss the authority of the Jerusalem elders found throughout the book. He also includes the deacons (Acts 6) in his discussion even though they are not called elders. One problem for a study like this is that the non-Pastoral letters do not mention elders. Merkle therefore draws together evidence from the church letters where leaders are described (Gal 6:6; 1 Thess 5:12-13; 1 Cor 16:15-16; Rom16:1-2; Phil 1:1, etc.).  Most of these refer to teachers in the local churches, so it is not a stretch to refer to a teacher as an “elders.”

Third, Thomas R. Schreiner focuses his chapter on the Pastoral Epistles and 1 Peter (“Overseeing and Serving the Church in the Pastoral and General Epistles”). The Pastorals have the most biblical data on elders and church leadership, so Schreiner’s chapter the densest of the collection. In fact, it could have been divided into two chapters, one on Timothy and Titus and another on 1 Peter and the rest of the New Testament. Or the editors could have moved the material on women as elders into another chapter and provided more detail on that more controversial topic. Schreiner briefly discusses whether elders and overseers are the same office before surveying the instructions for appointing elders in 1 Timothy. Much of this chapter is concerned with the qualifications for elders. He observes that the character qualities in 1Timothy are expected of all Christians regardless of their level of leadership in the church.

Most readers will want to know Schreiner’s view on the nettlesome “husband of one wife” in 1 Tim 3:2. It is not surprising he advocates the traditional view that an elder must be male, although he is open to a divorced and remarried man serving as an elder depending on the circumstances and length of time since the divorce (98). Paul main concern, Schreiner argues, is that elders have extremely high moral character. One way of demonstrating both spiritual leadership skills is their control of their home. Schreiner briefly discusses deacons in this chapter argues Paul refers to women deacons as opposed to a male deacon’s wife (111). He does not see this as a contradiction to 1 Tim 2:12 since a deacon does not “exercise authority. He does not deal with 3:12 where “husband of one wife” is repeated for deacons.

Chapters 5-9 trace the historical development of elder leadership. These several chapters trace much of church history despite the fact that there was not a great deal of shepherding in medieval Roman Catholic Church. Michael A. G. Haykin (“The Development and Consolidation of the Papacy”) and Gregg R. Allison (“The Papacy from Leo I to Vatican II”) combined to cover church history and explain how the Papacy developed and eventually departed from a biblical model of church leadership. Each concludes with a brief attempt to tie this material to the overall theme of the book. Despite these being extremely interesting chapters to read I did not see them is strictly necessary in a book attempting to describe biblical leadership in the New Testament and beyond.

More on topic is Nathan A. Finn’s “The Rule of Elders: The Presbyterian Angle on Church Leadership.” Finn compares the Presbyterian leadership model with the Baptist congregationalism. The difference is primarily in the Presbyterian view of two types of elders. This is a very friendly chapter and even the critique Finn offers is not a stinging rebuke by any means. In a similar vein, Jason G. Duesing looks at “A Cousin of Catholicism: The Anglican Understanding of Church Leadership.” Like the chapters on Roman Catholicism, this essay is an overview of the history of the Church of English. While very interesting and engaging, it is not directly related to elder leadership churches today.

In the final essay in the historical section of the book, Shawn D. Wright studies “Baptists and a Plurality of Elders.” For me, this was a very interesting chapter because I less unaware of the internal debate among Baptists over plurality of elders. Like all Baptists, Wright is clear the Bible should determine how churches are organized and he is of the opinion a plurality of elders congregational model is the most biblical. Surveying the historical data, Wright shows many of the earliest Baptists in England held to plurality of elders, although this position was later often abandoned. There are at least five factors which influenced Baptists to not maintain plurality as a model for their churches. First as congregationalists, many Baptist churches doubted whether a plural elder system could be reconciled with congregational authority. Second, Baptist sometimes had unusual ways of reading the texts supporting plurality of elders. Third, Baptist confessions never mandated the plurality elders and were often intentionally ambiguous on the issue. Fourth, several prominent Baptist leaders opposed plurality of elders or at least downplayed the importance of elder leadership. Last, many Baptist congregations simply lacked of qualified men who could serve as elders. Wright examine each of these factors and surveys several responses to them from later Baptist thinkers. He concludes by observing the return to plurality of elders in recent years, a trend witnessed by this collection of essays.

Two chapters round out the collection by applying this biblical and historical data to present church leadership. First, Bruce A. Ware develops “A Theology of Church Leadership.” To some extent this essay repeats some of the material from Schreiner’s chapter. Ware emphasizes the New Testament clearly teaches Christ is the Chief Shepherd of the church (1 Peter 5) as well as the Builder of the Church (Matthew 16) and Lord over the Church (Eph 1:20). For Ware, the three Greek and six English terms used for leaders in the New Testament all refer to the office of elder. As might be expected he argues the office of elder in the New Testament is restricted to men (295) and he has a very conservative view in 1 Tim 2:12. Applying this to a modern situation, if a woman teaches a Sunday School class for both men and women, Ware believes this would violate 1 Tim 2:12. He also describes the role of deacons in the New Testament and concludes 1 Tim 3:11 allows for women to be deacons despite “husband of one wife” appearing for both elders and deacons. This seemingly contradiction is left unexplained.

In the final chapter of the collection Andrew M. Davis describes “What It Means Practically to Shepherd God’s Flock.” Davis is the only contributor to this collection who is a senior pastor and his essay offers pastoral advice based on the biblical model of eldership. It is not necessary to summarize all twelve of his “practical elements of Christian leadership” here. Like the other authors in this volume, he is adamant the organization of the church should be based on the New Testament. While it is possible a leader may learn something from popular (secular) leadership books, the ultimate authority must be the Scriptures. For Davis this means a plurality of elders in a congregational system, men who are committed to bringing God glory by leading people in personal sanctification and making disciples.

Conclusion. For the most part there is nothing new or shocking in this book. Since the authors identify themselves as Baptists and nearly all teach in Baptist seminaries, the general argument of the book will please people who are within that tradition, and possibly enrage others, especially on the “women in ministry” issue. The historical chapters take up a large percentage of the book and are very valuable, but I think the space would have been better used engaging both sides of the women-as-elders debate. In addition, all the essays advocate for a plurality of elders. While I happen to think this is the best position, I would have enjoyed reading a counterpoint from a Baptist writer who rejects plurality. All the writers are more or less in agreement on plurality of elders and (it appears) women in ministry, a dissenting opinion would have been a helpful addition.

While well-documented and scholarly, the essays are all written on a non-academic level. The book should be read by church leaders who are interested in what the New Testament has to say about elders and deacons.

 

NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

Acts 9 – Paul in Arabia

Bronze_Coin_of_Aretas_IV

Bronze Coin of Aretas IV

Luke tells us that Paul spent some time in Damascus proclaiming Jesus in the Synagogue, but was forced to leave the city because there was a plot to kill him (Acts 9:23-25).  Paul mentions these events in Galatians and 2 Corinthians in far more detail.  Luke compresses three years of ministry into a few lines!

How long was Paul in Damascus and the Nabatean kingdom? According to Gal 1:17 three years pass between the Damascus Road experience and Paul’s meeting in Jerusalem with Peter and James (Acts 9:26-30). Since the story of the escape over the wall is a unique event, it seems reasonable that Luke’s “many days” (9:23) extends a full three years. Since Aretas IV died in 39, the latest date for Paul’s conversion is 36, if not earlier.

After the initial confrontational ministry in Damascus, it is possible that Paul traveled from Damascus to other major cities in Nabatean territory. This likely included cities of the Decapolis, perhaps, Geresa and Philadelphia (modern Jeresh).  Philadelphia was a large Roman city, the type of city Paul will target later in his ministry. It is possible he visited Petra since it was a major trading center at the time. He may have used Damascus as a “base” since there was already a community of believers there. We simply have no real facts to deal with for this three year period, other than he was living in that territory for three years and that he did not consult the other apostles until three years after his experience n the road to Damascus.

As James Dunn observes, the more difficult question is why Paul spent three years in the Arabia. Paul makes an emphatic statement that after receiving a commission from the resurrected Jesus to be the “light to the Gentiles,” he did not “consult flesh and blood” but went to Arabia (Gal 1:7). Like Dunn, I think that Paul is simply following through on the commission he was given, to take the message of Jesus the Messiah to the Gentiles. The Nabatean kingdom provided him with ample opportunity to do just that.

Sometimes this period is described as a spiritual retreat into the desert, to work out the implications of his encounter with Jesus. I think that it is certain that Paul begins working through what “Jesus as Messiah” means, and what his role as the ‘light to the Gentiles” should be. He likely spent a great deal of time reading the scripture developing the material that he will use later in Antioch, then on the missionary journeys.

But this is far from a period of monastic retreat! Paul is preaching Jesus and being faithful to his calling as the light to the Gentiles.

Acts 9:19 – Boldly Preaching in Damascus

After he is healed from his blindness, Paul immediately begins to do ministry in the same Damascus synagogue he intended to visit. His preaching “agitates” (συγχέω) the synagogues, a verb which has the sense of amazement and surprise. Sometimes Luke uses this verb to describe the confusion of a crowd about to riot (Acts 19:29, variant text, 21:27). What agitates the synagogues is Paul’s successful argument Jesus is the Christ. Paul teaches from Scripture and is empowered by the Holy Spirit in such a way that convinces people. This may not imply they believed, but it was hard to argue against Paul’s evidence.

Where did Paul get this evidence? On the one hand, boldness in preaching is one of Luke’s evidences that an individual is yielded to the Holy Spirit. Like Peter before the Sanhedrin, Paul is filled with the Holy Spirit and boldly speaks the message of Jesus. A second source for his preaching is likely the preaching of Peter, or better, Stephen in the Synagogue.

bible-thumping-26722Undoubtedly Paul has been arguing with Stephen and other Hellenists in the Synagogue for some time, Paul now accepts their arguments and begins to extend them to other scripture. A third source may be Paul’s own thinking about the Messiah and the Messianic age as a well-trained rabbi.

As observed in the last few posts, Paul does not go from totally ignorant of God to a faithful follower of Jesus. He was already aware of messianic texts and methods of argument in rabbinic discussions as well as how to present scripture in a synagogue context. Paul took what he already knew to be the truth and ran it through the filter of the resurrected Jesus and preached that Gospel in the synagogues in Damascus.

Once again, Luke presents powerful preaching and excellent scholarship working together to convince people of the truth of the Gospel. Paul is extremely confrontational – he goes right to the people who likely wanted the Jesus Community to be silent and announces that he is one of them! This is a boldness which is a direct result of the encounter with Jesus and the filling of the Holy Spirit.

There other elements of a “boldness” theme in Acts and clearly Luke is presenting the ministers of the Gospel as unusually bold in their confrontation with authority.  By way of application, should we use Paul’s boldness as a model for modern mission, and if so, what would that look like?  Does this sort of “boldness” work in a pluralistic society like modern America?

Acts 9 – Paul’s Blindness

When Saul meets the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, he is struck blind (9:8). While this blindness might be explained as the result of the theophany (he looked into a bright light and was physically damaged as a result, Acts 22:11 more or less implied this). But it is likely the original readers of the book of Acts would have thought this blindness was a judgment.

Paul Road to DamascusBoth Greek and Jewish often associated “being struck blind” with offending the gods/God. Keener (2:1640-2) offers a wide range of examples of this sort of judicial blindness. For example, Tiresias’s blindness was cause by Saturnia, although he is given the gift of prophecy to compensate for his blindness (Ovid, Metanm.3.335). In the Hebrew Bible, the men of Sodom who attempt to attack the angels are struck with blindness (Gen 19:11).

Perhaps the blindness is the result of the revelation Saul received. At the very least he learned Jesus is the messiah and he really was raised from the dead. As a teacher trained in reading the Hebrew Bible, Saul would have interpreted the glorious light he saw as a theophany. This would immediately associate Jesus with God in some very real way. This revelation alone would have been shocking to Saul, but if more revelation than this was given, then Saul experiences an encounter on a par with Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3.

Luke may intentionally contrast two blind men in the middle of the book of Acts. In Acts 9, Paul was persecuting the church and he is temporarily struck blind. Over three days he comes to fully realize what God has done through Jesus and he is called to be the “light to the Gentiles.” When the three days are over he is free from his blindness, but in a sense he had been blind all along as he attacked those who were claiming Jesus was the messiah.

In chapter 13 Luke introduces another Jew who seeks to hinder the preaching of the Gospel, Elymas. I plan on returning to this story later, but notice how this man is blinded and has to be led away by the hand, very similar to Saul in Acts 9. The difference is Elymas does not recover, as far as we know, and become a believer. He remains in his blind state, unable to see the truth of the Gospel.

Spiritual blindness is a well-known theme from the Hebrew Bible. In fact, Isaiah 6:9-10 is the most important context for spiritual blindness since Isaiah describes the inability of Judah to respond properly to God in the eighth century B.C. While there is a remnant of believers, the nation as a whole will reject the preaching of Isaiah. Jesus applies this verse in a very similar way to Pharisees in Matthew 13 as an explanation for teaching in parables, and later Paul will quote the verse and apply it a third time to the Jewish rejection of the gospel (Acts 28:25-28).

Saul was spiritually blind when he “saw the light” on the road to Damascus. Being healed from his physical blindness highlights his spiritual awakening. For the first time, Saul sees Jesus for what he really is, and his spiritual blindness is healed.

Acts 6 – Were Diaspora Jews “More Liberal”?

JosephusWe cannot make a general judgment like “all Jews from the Diaspora were more liberal” nor “all Jews from Jerusalem were more conservative.” These categories are derived from modern, western ways of dividing an issue into opposing, black and white categories and highlighting the contrasts.  It is entirely possible a Jew living in a Roman city was very conservative on some aspects of the Law even though he lived and worked alongside Gentiles.

Paul is the best example of this since he was a Jew from Tarsus, fluent in Greek but also able to call himself a “Hebrew of the Hebrews” in Philippians 3. He was certainly quite conservative with respect to keeping the law and traditions of the people.  Yet he was a Roman citizen and seems to have had little problem functioning in the Greco-Roman world.  On the other hand, The High Priest, the Sadducees and Herodians appear to have been more relaxed concerning some aspects of the Law and had no real problem ruling alongside of the Romans. But they were still concerned with keeping the Law and maintaining the Temple.  It was therefore possible to be “extremely zealous” in the Diaspora and extremely lax while worshiping in the Temple regularly.

Some in the Jerusalem community in Acts 6 are more committed to a Jewish Christianity and are finding differences with the Jews who are more Hellenistic in attitude. This leads to the appointment of the deacons, but does not solve the ultimate problem. By Acts 11 Jews living in Antioch are willing to not only accept Gentiles as converts Christianity, by Acts 13 Paul is preaching the gospel to Gentiles who are not even a part of a synagogue!

Since these Hellenistic Jews are more open to Gentiles in the fellowship, the more conservative Jews in Jerusalem begin to persecute the apostolic community even more harshly, leading to the death of Stephen and the dispersion of the Hellenistic Jews.

The text in Acts 6 does not imply that the problem was theological – it was entirely social (Witherington, Acts, 250). Some of the Hellenists felt slighted because their poor were not supported at the same level as the non-Hellenists. The word Luke uses (παραθεωρέω) in Acts 6:1 means that one “overlooks something due to insufficient attention” (BDAG).  The neglect may not be intentional, but it was a very real problem which the Apostles needed to deal with quickly.

As we read Acts 6, how deep is the divide between these two groups?  Looking ahead at what happens in Antioch, in Galatia, and in the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), does this “Hebrew” vs. “Hellenist” divide foreshadow bigger problems?

Acts 6 – Who were the Hellenistic Jews?

Acts 6-8 describe the activities of two non-apostles, Stephen and Philip. Both are Hellenistic Jews, and neither is numbered among the Twelve. It is possible these men were not followers of Jesus prior to Pentecost. Perhaps they were among the crowd who hear Yet Stephen is the first martyr and his speech summarizing some important theological points in the transition between Peter’s ministry in Jerusalem and Paul’s mission in Acts 13.  Philip is the evangelist who brings the Gospel to Samaria and to an Ethiopian, perhaps fulfilling the commission in Acts 1 to go to Samaria and the “ends of the earth.”

This section is sometimes cited as an example of Luke creating a story in order to describe a smooth transfer of leadership from the Jewish followers of Jesus to the Hellenistic Jewish followers. But things are not as smooth as they appear. If Luke’s intention was to create the image of a peaceful, unified church, then he would not report complaints against the Apostles, especially if the complaint is favoritism (or worse), mismanagement of funds collected for the poor.

Hebrew and GreekActs 6:1 says that there was a problem between “Hebraic” and “Hellenistic” Jews. This needs to be explained carefully, since the word “Jew” does not appear in the text (although English translations regularly include it). Obviously these are all Jews, but there seems to be problem between the Jews who are in Jerusalem from “outside” and those Jews who remained on “the inside.” Chapters 6-8 concern the activities of two Hellenistic Jews and their ministry outside of the circle of the apostles in Jerusalem. I would suggest here that Luke has intentionally arranged several stories concerning Peter and John in chapters 2-4, and several stories concerning Stephen and Philip in chapters 6-8.

This is not necessarily a geographical division, although doubtless it often was. To be a “Hellenist” was to adopt the language and culture of the Greeks, while to be a “Hebrew” was to adopt a more tradition Jewish language and lifestyle. For Ben Witherington, language is the main issue (see Acts, 240-247, for an excellent excursus on the Hellenists). Bock, on the other hand, agrees more with my sketch of the Hellenists (Acts, 258-9). Language is an important issue, but it is not the only issue separating the Greek from Judean Jew.

Aside from historical accuracy, does this matter for reading Acts?  I think it helps understand that the community of earliest believers were far more diverse than Acts 2-5 would imply. If Peter and John represent the only form of the early followers of Jesus, then it is hard to explain the violent suppression of Stephen. This diversity is less a “development” in the earliest church, but a factor present from the beginning.

Book Review: G. K. Beale, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary

Beale, G. K. with David H. Campbell. Revelation: A Shorter Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2014. 576 pp. Pb; $35.   Link to Eerdmans

Greg Beale’s commentary on Revelation in the New International Greek Text Commentary series was published in 1999 (briefly reviewed here). At than 1300 pages, the book was ponderous to say the least. A paperback version of this commentary was released in 2013, but at $78 retail the volume is still priced out of the range of most pastors and Bible teachers. Hardback copies of the commentary are available on Amazon for well over $100. By reducing the size (and price) of the commentary by more than half, Beale contributes a commentary most Bible will find valuable for understanding this very difficult New Testament book.

Beale, RevelationWhat is different in this shorter commentary? First, there are some obvious cosmetic changes that save a great deal of space. He has removed direct references to the Greek text, although his exegesis is based on the Greek Bible. When Greek or Hebrew appears in the commentary, it is in transliteration. Often the larger commentary would use a smaller font to deal with a meticulous detail of the Greek text, these sections are completely removed from the shorter commentary.

Second, Beale has removed footnotes to secondary literature. This makes for a very readable commentary, although more advanced readers will want to know the source of some assertions. Beale says in the preface his “longer commentary serves as one big footnote to this shorter commentary” (viii).

Third, Beale has also removed various excurses in the larger commentary which focused on details of the text that are not necessary in this shorter commentary, including all his sections on Jewish interpretations of Old Testament passages used in Revelation. For example in the larger commentary he has a section on the Jewish legal background of Satan as an accuser in Revelation 12:10. This is omitted in the shorter commentary, since it is a detailed examination of Second Temple Literature and goes beyond the scope of the shorter commentary.

Fourth, the original commentary had a 177-page introduction; the shorter commentary has only 34 pages. Many of the main issues covered in the original commentary or simply inappropriate for this shorter, handier commentary. For example, the original commentary had a long section on the plan in the structure of John’s apocalypse. Beale compared various views of how the seals, trumpets and bowls are structured. The original commentary had a section on the use of the Old Testament in the Apocalypse. Since writing his commentary he has contributed several other works on the topic, but this shorter commentary reduces this complicated discussion to just a few pages with no reference to other ways of approaching the topic. Once again this is simply a result of shrinking the commentaries size and making it more useful for a pastor or a teacher. There are quite a few other monographs available on the topic of the Old Testament in Revelation (by Beale and others), this commentary can only sketch the issues involved.

Fifth, this shorter commentary includes more than sixty “Suggestions for Reflection” to help readers better grasp the relevance of Revelation to their lives and our world today. These are all new paragraphs which focus on application, or perhaps they can be considered “preaching tips.”  Applying the book of Revelation is always very difficult, so Beale’s comments are welcome. Commenting on in the fourth trumpet in Rev 8:6-12, Beale draws an application on the purpose of disasters within the plan of God (179). There are obviously some places in Revelation which are easier to apply than others, such as the seven churches.

Something that stays the same in this short commentary is Beale’s approach to the book. In his introduction he offers a very short summaries of the classic positions on Revelation (Preterism, Historicism, and Futurism), but ultimately finds a “Redemptive-Historical-Idealist view” the most useful. This is not to say he rejects all futurist application of the book, but he wants to separate his work on Revelation from the sort of populist “Left Behind” style presentations of Revelation. He is not a futurist, and he certainly not a dispensationalist. He makes it very clear in his comments on Rev 20 that the millennium is inaugurated during the Church Age as the church limits Satan’s power and deceased Christians begin to reign in heaven. Yet there is a future rebellion after which a final judgment will occur “at the end of world history” (458).

Conclusion. I have used Beale’s larger commentary for years and find it highly valuable because of his interest in the use of the Old Testament in Revelation. David Aune’s 1200+ page, three volume work in the Word Commentary series was completed just prior to Beale’s NIGTC and is every bit as valuable, although for different reasons. It is hard for me to overstate the value of recognizing the way John crafts the Old Testament into a new apocalyptic prophecy, Beale is a master at explaining how John has used his sources in order to communicate the story of the Old Testament to a new generation. This shorter commentary on Revelation is a welcome contribution to the ongoing study of the book of Revelation.

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.