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
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 (read my review of Joe Hellerman, Embracing Shared Ministry.)
In 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.