Book Review: Randal E. Pelton, Preaching with Accuracy

PeltonPelton, Randal E. Preaching with Accuracy. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Ministry, 2015. 170 pp. Pb; $16.   Link to Kregel, read a 25 page excerpt from the book.

This short book of preaching is in many ways a combination of Haddon Robinson’s classic Biblical Preaching and Bryan Chappell’s Christ-Centered Preaching. Pelton recognizes his debt to both books in his introduction. He believes the preacher needs to develop the ability to identify the dominant idea of a preaching portion, but also to allow the language and concepts of the portion to shape the sermon.

The first chapter of the book is a defense of expository preaching. For many preachers, exposition of a text in a sermon is not popular with audiences. Expository sermons will not “grow a church.” It is unfortunately true many congregations lack the biblical background to appreciate an expositional sermon and fewer pastors are attempting to “preach through a book.” I have found that even when a pastor preaches a series on a biblical book, the sermons will still be topical and only vaguely related to the selected text. This book by Pelton will help pastors to pay attention to the main idea of a text a selected text and conform their presentations to the Word of God rather than using scripture as a pretext for the hot topic of the week.

Pelton’s model for preaching begins with selecting an appropriate text to preach. He calls this “cutting the text,” although he is simply demonstrated for the reader how to identify a proper unit of scripture for preaching. Topical preaching tends to err by using a single verse (sometimes out of context) or by jumping to as many verses as possible. Expositional preaching can be ruined by trying to reach too large of a section, forcing the pastor to rush the details or bore the listeners with story-retelling. By paying attention to the genre-based clues in the text itself a pastor ought to be able to limit their expository sermon to an ideal number of verses.

By “cutting the text” properly, the expositor will then be able to identify the “textual big idea” in the portion. Pelton’s fourth chapter demonstrates how to select the broad subject, to narrow the subject to the preaching portion and finally to develop the “big idea” which will govern the content of the sermon. He gives several examples and has a number of “workbook” like exercises to allow the reader to develop their own “big idea” and compare it to his own work.

Randal PeltonOnce a “big idea” for the sermon has been crafted, Pelton describes a method for grounding the “big idea” in the context of Scripture. Obviously the “hero” of every text is God and the main character of every text is Jesus, but creating a Christ-centered sermon will vary from genre to genre. Pelton therefore gives several examples, including a few from the Old Testament, to demonstrate how to ground the “big idea” in the immediate context of the portion of Scripture selected. This contextual approach allows a preacher to select only a short section for the expositional sermon. For example, a preacher can cover the whole of Gen 39, for example, while focusing on only a few verses which demonstrate the “big idea.”

In his final major chapter, Pelton describes what he calls “canonical preaching.” By this he more or less means preaching Christ in every text. This many take the form of what Christians ought to be or do, or how Christ is revealed in a particular text. He is careful to avoid the allegorical “fuller meaning” of medieval preaching which found Jesus in every word of the Old Testament. Pelton firmly believes every text ought to point to Jesus and apply to the Christian and a sermon should be a kind of “theological exegesis” pointing the way to the Cross. This is not unlike Bryan Chapell’s “grace-centered preaching” or Sidney Greidanus’s method for preaching Christ from the Old Testament. While Pelton makes some distinctions between his approach and these other two popular homiletical texts, all three are working similar methods with the goal of preaching every text in the larger context of the whole canon.

If I have any critique of Pelton’s approach, it is this canonical method. On page 118 he has a chart comparing his method to a target, with the textual big idea on the outside, the contextual in the second ring and the canonical interpretation in the center of the bull’s-eye. Until I saw this chart, I would have place the textual big idea in the center and the canonical interpretation on the outside. For me, the idea in the text I have selected is the driving force in my sermon and (perhaps to my shame) I often do not consciously attempt to draw the text to the larger canonical context. Pelton’s book is an encouragement to re-think what is important in a sermon and to center my presentation on the Cross.

NB: Randal Pelton blogs on Preaching at Pelton on Preaching. Thanks to Kregel Books for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Review: Justo González, The Story Luke Tells

González, Justo. The Story Luke Tells: Luke’s Unique Witness to the Gospel. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015. 141 pp. Pb; $14.   Link to Eerdmans, including a short interview with González.

Professor Emerita at Columbia Theological Seminary, Justo González is known for his popular two-volume The Story of Christianity (1984) and three-volume A History of Christian Thought (Abingdon, 1987). In this short meditation on Luke’s Gospel, he offers a historian’s view of the theology of Luke/Acts. There is very little on authorship issues or whether the two books should be read together. Regardless of origin, González assumes the two books are to be read as a unit and his theological observations cover both books. González does not interact with other monographs on Luke’s theology nor is he particularly interested in exegetical details. There are no footnotes or references in these short reflections.

González, The Story Luke TellsIn the first chapter González makes a series of observations about Luke’s interest in history. Luke is the only author shows a particular interest in dating the events he discusses. He does this by placing the story of Jesus in a particular social, political and religious context by mentioning a number of characters by name who are known from history. Luke is also interested in geographic and political data. For example, Luke mentions the bay of Fair Havens on the island of Crete, the type of geographical detail a historian would include. One curious feature of Luke/Acts is that the history is unfinished, not only in terms of chronology but also geography (11). González suggests Luke wrote his history in this way in order to invite both the original and modern readers to continue the ongoing history of God’s work in this world (13).

In his second chapter González introduces the idea of typology frequently found in the Bible. By typology, he means patterns which repeat throughout the history. He first shows that God’s redeeming action in Jesus is a typology drawn from God’s redeeming action leading Israel out of Egypt. In Luke, Jesus is the Passover lamb; just as the blood of the lamb was used to redeem Egypt in the past now, the blood of the first born of God will redeem all people in Jesus. González’s second example is Luke’s development of an Adam/Jesus typology. While this is usually considered a Pauline idea, Luke connects Jesus and Adam in his genealogy and temptation. For González, these sorts of typological connections are not intended as foreshadowing, but to argue Jesus is the culmination of the plan of God. González says the fulfillment typology in Jesus is not necessarily the end since the church participates in the ongoing expansion of Christianity. We often forget Acts “is not only the history of the expansion of Christianity through the work of Paul and others; it is the beginning of the process through which Jesus Christ announces and claims his Lordship over all history and humankind” (27).

In the third chapter, Gonzalez traces what he calls the “great reversal.” He has in mind here the common biblical motif of the lesser being elevated above the greater (i.e., the younger son is given the blessing, the least likely son becomes the king, etc.) This great reversal is both religious and social (32). In Luke, those who had expect to enter into the kingdom usually are on the outside. In contrast, it is a Gentile or a woman who finds forgiveness in Jesus. For González this is the main idea of the Great Feast in Luke 14. The social aspect of this great reversal is seen in the story of Lazarus (Luke 16) where a poor man is elevated while a rich man finds himself in Hades. This theme of the poor entering into the kingdom appears repeatedly in the third Gospel. González points to the beatitudes, which are much more focused on riches and poverty in Luke’s Gospel than in Matthew’s. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus proclaims the year of “the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4), referring to the year of Jubilee, a time when the poor have their debts forgiven. In the Book of Acts, the great reversal includes people who were on the fringes of what it means to be a Jew, such as women, Samaritans, and Gentile God-fearers. González also detects the motive of a great reversal in the appointment of deacons in Acts 6 since they are drawn from the Hellenistic Jews.

One feature often observed about Luke’s Gospel is his interest in the female disciples of Jesus. Women are witnesses to who Jesus is from the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel. In his fourth chapter González surveys all of the women were featured in Luke in both Luke and Acts. Like many who studied this feature of Luke’s Gospel, González points out later church writers may have suppressed Luke’s interest in female disciples. He explains how the Western text of Luke’s Gospel reverses the order of the names Priscilla and Aquila. Gonzalez detects the work of a copyist who preferred putting the husband first. As a result of this sort of thing “much of what Luke has to say on the matter of gender lays hidden under layers of interpretation that we have received from earlier generations” (59).

In the fifth chapter, González surveys Luke’s view of salvation. While the title “savior” is a very Lukan term, the source of the image is the Old Testament. Terms like “redemption” and “to redeem” only appear in Luke, but the Christian reader often overlooks the Old Testament background of the Redeemer who is the “holy one of Israel” (Isaiah 41:14). But there is more to word savior in the context of the first-century Roman world. Gonzalez asks what the shepherds might have thought about “salvation” in Luke 2:1. For peasants living under the oppressive and exploitive Roman Empire, hearing an announcement of salvation may have brought to mind the end of Roman rule in Judea. Undoubtedly the angels’ announcement included salvation from sin, but that salvation would have looked like a New Exodus to Jewish shepherds. While the shepherds had an incomplete understanding of the angels’ announcement, but we too have an incomplete understanding if we are not aware of the political dimensions of salvation. Another aspect of Luke’s view of salvation often overlooked is the language healing. When Jesus heals, Luke uses the language of salvation. Modern over-emphasis on healing in contemporary Christianity obscures Luke’s theological point. This does not mean God will not heal, but it does mean that while we proclaim the message of salvation of the sins of eternal life “we also have to proclaim the same message in the sense of liberation from every power of evil” (74).

In the sixth chapter examines the frequent use of food and drink in Luke’s Gospel. In Luke 7:34 Jesus’ opponents describes him as a “glutton and drunkard” because he frequently shared meals with sinners. In many cases in Luke, a meal is an opportunity to announce the great reversal. González uses the Sabbath meal at the home of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7) as an example. The Pharisee expected to be saved, but it is the sinful woman who goes away justified (82). There is, however, a great deal more to be said about meals than González is able to cover in this short chapter. Who Jesus eats with is often very important in the Gospel and I expected more historical and sociological commentary on meaning of table fellowship in this chapter. There is also an eschatological aspect to these meals, Jesus is demonstrating who he is by inviting everyone (poor and rich) to participate in his messianic banquet.

Luke’s Gospel begins with four of the most important hymn in Christian tradition. The Book of Acts also includes several stories where early Christians worship. These meetings appear to include food, the reading and instruction from Scripture (González calls this the service of the Word). González has a great deal to say on the Lord’s Supper, pointing out all the Gospels include the Last Supper and all highlight the eschatological dimension of the meal. The last supper “points to the future, to the feast of the wedding of the lamb, to a time when people will come from the east and the west and north and the south and eat in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29). We have “sadly often lost that eschatological dimension of the Lord’s supper” (101). González connects the Last Supper to several examples of breaking bread in the Book of Acts. However. I am not convinced all of the references to “breaking bread” refer to Communion in the strictest sense. One such example is the storm in Acts 27. Paul does “take bread,” “give thanks” and he does “break the bread” before they begin to eat. The verbs are found in the Last Supper, but at least in my mind it is unlikely Luke intended this “last supper” on the boat as communion meal. Most of the participants were not Christians. Nevertheless Gonzalez thinks the meal provides hope for those who are traveling with Paul.

The final chapter of this book concerns Luke’s theology of the Holy Spirit. González surveys the passages in Luke’s Gospel which do not have parallels in the other Gospels. In doing so he is highlighting Luke’s particular view of the activity of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is active in Jesus’s birth in early years, the Holy Spirit accompanies Jesus into the desert and when he returns to Galilee Jesus is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. González thinks it is significant that Luke uses the language of the “filling” with respect to the Holy Spirit. This looks back to the Old Testament, using Micah 3:8 for example. While the prophets were “filled with the Spirit of the Lord,” Eph 3:19 also prays that the readers would be “filled with all the fullness of God” (114). In the entire New Testament only Luke uses the word “to fill” to refer a person’s inner emotions: people are filled with rage, filled with villainy and deceit, filled with joy, and filled with the Holy Spirit. Since all these phrases commonly used among Christians today it is clear Luke’s contribution to the Christian doctrine of the Spirit is unparalleled in the New Testament (116).

Conclusion. While this book is not a full-blown theology of Luke/Acts, it is a simulating meditation on the theological contribution of Luke. It would make an excellent supplemental text for a college or seminary Gospels class, but it is accessible to the layman who wants to have an overview of a few of Luke’s major themes. The chapters are short enough the book could be used as in a small group Bible study.


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

Published on   on Reading Acts.

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.


Book Review: Scott A. Bessenecker, Overturning Tables

Bessenecker Scott A. Overturning Tables: Freeing Missions from the Christian-Industrial Complex. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2014. 176 pp. Pb; $16.99.   Link to IVP

In Overturning Tables, Scott Bessenecker offers bold suggestions for new ministry models applicable to both traditional missions as well as western church ministry. The problem is what he calls the Christian Industrial Complex, where the Gospel has become the product and the unsaved the consumer. Strategies for reaching the lost are barely distinguishable from methods for selling products to consumers. As Bessenecker says, “one can barely distinguish a conference design for Protestant pastors, church leaders or mission agency executives from a commercial convention for those dealing with data management, telecommunications or selling shower curtain rings” (23). He argues the American mission movement has become enslaved to a corporate attitude, with an emphasis on privatization and individualism. He believes this corporate addiction is a rejection of the values of the Kingdom of God. While his immediate interest is “world missions,” his observations can be applied to local churches, especially as they grow larger and adopt corporate management systems to cope with millions of dollars in infrastructure.

Overturning TablesThe first several chapters of this book are a brief history of missions. Bessenecker argues the roots of the Protestant missionary movement are intimately connected with the rise of capitalism. Some of the early missionaries were viewed by their Missions boards in the same way a business might look at opening a new market. This Christian Industrial Complex guided decisions about where to open new fields and how the gospel would be presented in these new fields.

In contrast to this capitalist oriented missions movement the author describes early Christian missionaries he served in fields living alongside the poor. George Leile, for example, went to Jamaica and found several churches in the late 1700s. He was more or less uneducated and untrained, but was an effective preacher, responsible for converting over 500 slaves to Christianity. Based on this and other examples throughout the book, Bessenecker argues this model of doing missions is more scriptural then the capitalistic corporate model used in most missions. He sees unintended results from the rise of capitalism and the Protestant work ethic as a result of the Reformation. He tries hard to guard against the charge of anti-capitalism, although I am not sure he is successful. There are indeed real problems with applying western capitalistic methods for doing missions in majority world countries.

In order to remedy the situation, Bessenecker suggests re-examining the structure of mission boards, avoiding corporate organizational models. He also suggests the model found in Acts is far more biblical and ought to be adapted for modern Missions projects. For example, there are many missionaries who live in communities alongside those they are trying to reach. Often this is a missionary from another majority world country reaching into places a Westerner could not.

A serious problem for Western missionaries is the perception of wealth as missionaries move into the majority world. Compared to most of the world, the West is fantastically rich and the potential of getting money Western missions organizations is tempting. But money is not always the answer when establishing missions, Bessenecker argues, since the prosperity gospel has caused a host of serious problems in places like Nigeria. Bessenecker calls this a “syncretic, American expression of God’s kingdom on earth.” It is a fact it costs a great deal of money to put a missionary on the field so many missions organizations must function like corporations in order to deal with the very real problems of money. Instead he suggests the West ought to support majority world missionaries who are going to other majority world fields. He gives several examples of this in his fourth chapter. Is it really possible to do “missions without money”?  Once again he sounds anti-capitalist by describing redistribution of wealth and turning over the purse-strings to the excluded elements of the church.

Prosperity GospelIn chapter 5 the other challenges a common view that the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is primarily about a private exchange, sold through persuasion, making churches distributors something like stores marketing of the product. This Western, capitalist view clouds the Gospel. He bemoans the church leader pastor as a CEO as if they were presiding over a corporation. “Mission cannot be practice package as a product. He cannot be reduced to a privatized exchange. It is not a ‘mission of individual prosperity; but of communal shalom” (110). He finds the language of Christian organizations distracting from mission. Well there’s nothing inherently evil about terms CEO employee brand or market, they really destroy our efforts to preach the gospel. I would suggest this is similar to Joseph Hellermen’s When the Church was a Family (Westminster, 2009). When we use corporate language to describe relationships within the church, we run the risk of polluting the Gospel with Western corporate goals (growth and wealth). These are necessarily bad, but they were not the goals of Jesus in his ministry nor Paul in his foundational church planting.

Bessenecker is very attracted to groups like the old order Mennonites or Quakers who do ministry “like a family.” In chapter 5 he describes what it would look like for ministries to move from individualism to collectivism. Again, most western capitalist Christians cringe at the word “collectivism.” Unlike the West, most of the world value some form of collectivism highly valuing families and communities as a way of existing.  This sort of model of mission work will lead to both plurality and diversity in leadership. The Western corporate model values the “Type-A” leader: a person who is aggressive, no-nonsense, decision-maker, someone who values direct confrontation. That sort of a leader is required in a major corporation. But according Bessenecker, the “Type-A” leader is detrimental to a mission in a culture which values family. A better model is a leader who seeks consensus and community diversity.

In chapter 6 the author uses the book of Acts as a model for how to do ministry today. He examines the appointment of deacons in chapter 6 as a way of empowering the margins of the early church. In my view, Bessenecker overstates his case by using the deacons as a model for cultural diversity. The difference between Hellenists and Hebraists in Acts 6 is not as great as he makes it out to be. In addition I find his comments on Antioch Christianity troublesome. He says “Christianity sheds its Jewish wineskin and become something unrecognizable as Judaism” (146). That does not seem to me to be what is In Antioch at all, as the book of Galatians makes clear. I really don’t think “the sketchy Gentile church in Antioch” is a proper description for what is happening in Acts 11. Bessenecker is however correct that the margins of the church need to be recognized and treated with respect. He is also correct that in order to reach people in majority world countries the West needs to empower the majority world countries in order to reach their own people.

Chapter 7 briefly deals with the problem of independent churches on the mission field in endowing local churches may be a way of breaking dependence on the west. In fact in chapter 8 the author describes this is moving from “growth to flourishing” churches. A serious problem with this however is using western criteria for growth to measure growth and maturity world contexts. A growing church looks different in Southern California than it might in Central Africa. He concludes the chapter by arguing the Western church needs to break from their “addiction to growth (177). In order to do this, Western churches ought to focus primarily on their own spiritual growth and recognize there are times of “spiritual dormancy” in a ministry. These downtimes are not negative at all but can be used to enhance growth in the future.

Conclusion. This is a challenging book since it does offer a model of doing missions that is clearly different than the popular Western model based on capitalism. Most American mega-churches exist because they have copied a corporate model of “moving product” rather than preaching the Gospel of the Grace of God for all people. Bessenecker is to be applauded for this challenge to the church. If you are involved in ministry, either missions or local church work, this book is an essential, challenging read.

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

Book Review: Jim Turner, So-Called Christians

So Called ChristiansTurner, Jim. So-Called Christians: Healing Spiritual Wounds Left By The Church. Greenville, South Carolina: Ambassador International, 2014.157 pages, pb., $11.99   Link

Jim Turner is a pastor with more than 25 years of experience in a variety of church settings. He works with ChurchOneNow, a ministry focusing on “rebuilding unity and restoring relationships” for people who have been hurt and spiritually damaged by their experience in the church. Turner claims that more people have been hurt by the church than World War Two; as many as 37% of un-churched Americans say they do not attend church because of a negative experience.

The goal of So-Called Christians is to meet the suffering caused by the church head-on and offer some healing to people who have genuinely been damaged by Christians. The first two chapters of the book describe the problem of the church as an “autoimmune disease.” By this Turner means the Church is destroying itself. He uses to 1 Cor 1:10-13 and argues the Church today destroying itself with schisms. He jokingly “translates” 1 Cor 1:13 as “Is Christ divided? Was Charles Stanley crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of John Piper?” (34). Later in the book he calls this “doctrinal snobbery.”

In contrast to the divisive nature of the Church today, Jesus’ prayer for the Church is unity (John 17). In chapters 3-5 Turner describes the biblical idea for the church. Paul’s ideal for the Church is having one mind, unified around the idea of Jesus. Turner therefore examines the virtues in Col 3:12-14 as traits of Christ that would promote unity in the church if they were consistently practiced. He also examines the unity resulting from having the “mind of Christ” (Phil 2) and draws several applications to relationships within the church.

In Chapters 6-7 Turner begins to deal with the boundaries defining “Christian.” He makes a distinction between a “matter of conscience” (drinking a beer or smoking a pipe), a “doctrinal distinctive” (local church government, sign gifts, day of worship), and “essential Christian doctrine” (clear moral absolutes and defining doctrines of the faith). Anyone reading this book will likely fill in their own issues in each of those categories, but the idea that there are some things a Christian must reject and must accept is clear. It is the middle category (“matters of conscience”) where judgment and division happen.  He uses the example of contemporary worship here and advises we not “argue over opinions” (citing Roman 13). It is important, however, to accept the fact that my liberty might be a stumbling block to another Christian. A person who “exercises their liberty” in a matter may need to limit themselves so that they do not cause a brother or sister to stumble (85). This is an excellent point, but I wonder how far Turner is willing to push his principle of not judging in “matters of conscience.” The examples he gives are fairly straightforward, but there are other issues that are much more difficult and culturally sensitive.

Chapters 8-10 discuss the doctrinal lines defining Christianity. For the most part, Turner is a conservative evangelical and includes a twenty-four page article from Norman Geisler on the essential doctrines of Christianity. He has a summary of “essentials” drawn from the classic Christian creeds. Following Geisler, he divides these between items necessary to be saved (Trinity, human depravity, deity and humanity of Christ, necessity of grace and faith, Christ’s atoning death and his resurrection) and items that are not necessary (virgin birth, ascension, Christ’s present service and his second coming). Lest you think he is some sort of Rob Bell, Turner is clear that Geisler’s list is correct, but he would not separate from a brother in Christ for misunderstanding the virgin birth or the second coming. His point in this section is that a “loving defense of the truth maintains unity” (122).

There are several things missing from this book. First, I would have liked Turner to be even more forthright about the real problem facing the church today.  Like the church at Corinth, the real heart of our divisive spirit is sin and pride. Since he is writing to people who have been hurt, I suspect that he avoids calling disunity a sin, but that seems to be what Paul would have said to Corinth.

Second, and more perhaps critically, the book does a great job dealing with the solution, but Turner does not deal with any specific, controversial issues. For example, I agree many people stop attending church because they were “judged” by people in a local church. But in my experience, doctrinal issues are rarely the problem. In the modern American church it is very easy to find out what a church believes, simply check their website and you will likely get all the mission statements and doctrinal affiliation information you need. The people I meet who have been wounded by the church are people who have a lifestyle that just does not work in the typical evangelical church. The teenager with several tattoos and piercings who attends a typical church wearing his Slayer t-shirt and a dog-collar is going to be judged by the homeschool kids in youth group. I know of several situations where parents did not want their kids attending youth group because “those kids” were in the group, so this scenario is not far-fetched at all.

Third, sometimes hurt Christians have deep personal sins resulting in a harsh attack by the local church. The book does not address the hurt people have when they are attacked by a well-meaning (or just mean) person over a sinful lifestyle. For example, there are homosexual Christians who are in fact judged harshly by some churches and made to feel so uncomfortable they walk away from the church entirely. How can a church “love the sinner” while “hating the sin”? This is a real problem in contemporary American churches, but this goes beyond Turner’s stated goals for this book. Nevertheless, the harsh attitude towards sinners from the more conservative branches of the American Church need to be addressed and there was opportunity for Turner’s book to do just that.

Conclusion. Turner’s book was written from his personal experience in the Church and his commitment to being the Church as it is described in the New Testament. This is not a scholarly book filled with detailed exegesis; it is a heartfelt reflection on the Word of God as he observes the destructive power of divisions in the church.

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

Book Review: Newton and Schmucker, Elders in the Life of the Church

EldersNewton, 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.

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 fellowshipped I 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.


Book Review: Thom S. Rainer, Autopsy of a Deceased Church

Rainer, Thom S. Autopsy of a Deceased Church. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2014.  Hb. 112 pages, $12.99   Link

Thom Rainer is a well-known Church Growth and Sunday School expert with years of experience in ministry and a number of books to his credit. This short book deals with an very important issue for American churches, why are many Churches dying? Rainer offers a series of reasons and some proposals for how to deal with seriously ill and dying churches. Each chapter concludes with a short “prayerful commitment” and a few questions for further thought. These questions frequently return to the text of the New Testament and ask how the Bible can be used to evaluate the present church.

Autopsy Thom RanierThe first two chapters make a simple point: many churches in America are dying. Rainer claims this number to be as high as 100,000. A Google search will turn up a number of similar estimates for how many churches close each year. Despite a large number of new churches planted each year, few observers of the American church landscape will dispute Rainer’s point. The main theme of this book is “Decline is not an event, it is a process.” Rarely does a church have something so traumatic happen that is suddenly shuts its doors. The process is so slow it is usually not noticed until it is too late.

The bulk of the book is a series of nine indications that something is wrong. Some of these are very obvious – churches that live in the past are usually churches in decline. Ralph Neighbour wrote a little paperback in 1979 with a similar theme: The Seven Last Words of the Church. Those words were “we never did it that way before.” When a church idolizes the past and ceases to reach out to their community, the church marginalizes itself and risks decline and death. Several of Rainer’s chapters deal with this inward focus. First, there is no evangelism, so there are no new members. Churches without active evangelism tend to remember the “good old days” when the church did have evangelistic crusades. Second, a church in decline has an inward-focused budget. Rather than investing in ministry and evangelism, the church cuts money for outreach. Often budget decisions support the church facility rather than the ministry of the church. When the church building becomes more important than the church mission, the church is most likely already dead.

Three of Rainer’s chapters concern spiritual matters. First, a church that does not pray is in grave danger. Here he has a good scriptural foundation, since there are many examples of churches fasting and praying in the New Testament. Second, a church that has no clear purpose is likely in decline but does not know it yet. A church that does not have a clear purpose has no way to know they are not meeting their objectives! A symptom of this lack of purpose is a “preference driven church.” Most people who have attended Church regularly know that any change to a program will be met with strong resistance by those who prefer things to remain the same.(Go ahead and put drums on the stage, see how people react to that!)

It is not all bad news. Rainer offers three chapters for churches that only have a few of the symptoms described in the book, for churches that are very sick, and for churches that are dying. Sadly, there are churches that are too far gone and need to die. Rainer suggests a few steps that will help the church “die with dignity.”  I realize the book is a short set of reflections on the decline of churches, but I think that each of the last three chapters deserve much more attention. Perhaps there is a need for the American church to have a manual on how to let a church die in a way that provides life for another new Church.

Conclusion. This is a short, inexpensive book. I can see church boards purchasing copies for each member and working through the chapters for a few weeks, using the discussion questions to evaluate their own church. In fact, I would highly recommend to Pastors and Church Boards to read through this little book together and honestly discuss Rainer’s points, whether their church is doing well or obviously in decline.  While it is true some churches need to die, it is not too late to begin a revival.

Thom Rainer has a very active website / blog. B&H has produced a “book trailer” for Autopsy of a Deceased Church.

NB: Thanks to Broadman & Holman for kindly providing me with an electronic review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.