The Noble Task of Eldering (1 Timothy 3:1)

First Timothy 3 and 1 Titus 1 are well-known passages because the describe the qualifications for church leadership. We usually fret the most over the line about “one wife” and perhaps that the leader must have well-behaved children, but there is far more here than those two more controversial points.

TimothyLike the previous section, Paul’s main concern is that the church be organized and led in a way which gives it a good reputation with outsiders. This is also true in business: good reputations are hard to build, they take time. On the other hand, it does not take much at all to destroy a good reputation and develop a bad one.

If you have ever read a restaurant review online, you know that one bad experience can lead to a terrible review and potential lost business. One cranky customer who has bad food or poor service can leave a review (anonymously) online, and scare dozens of people away. The same is true for church.  A family could visit on a Sunday when things were not quite right in the nursery, the musicians were out of tune and didn’t really know the songs, and the pastor finished his sermon on the way to church. This family leaves “unimpressed” and never comes back, but they tell their friends that they tried “that church” and it wasn’t very good.

But Paul is not talking about “church shoppers” in this text, since that sort of thing did not exist in the first century. There are people in the congregation who are leaders in a local house church who have a bad reputation with the community. Maybe they have some shady business practices, or they are quick to bring lawsuits, or maybe they are known to attend the banquets at pagan temples and fully participate in debauchery. If the leader has a bad reputation outside the church, then they bring that dishonor with them when the “desire to be an overseer.” To remedy this situation, Paul tells Timothy (and by extension, the churches) to appoint people to the office of Elder and Deacon who are qualified spiritually and morally for the task.

First Timothy 3:1 is another “trustworthy saying.” In this case it is not a theological statement, but that the person who aspires to be a leader in the church “desires a noble task.” Desiring to be a leader of a local house church is not a bad thing at all, it is a noble task, or a “good work” (v. 1).

It is possible that this line betrays a problem in Paul’s churches in Ephesus. It appears that people were not wanting to serve as leaders in the church. There are several possible reasons for this. First, perhaps the false teachers had created a situation where good people were not inclined to challenge them, the did not desire to become involved in leadership because it meant challenging these false teachers. A second possibility is that the role of overseer or elder was not considered to be a job people wanted to do – it was not considered a “noble task.” It is also possible that people who were capable and qualified did not see themselves as up to the task of leading the church, perhaps for a combination of the previous two points.

One serious problem reading this passage is that we hear words like elder and deacon and immediately think of our modern “office” of elder and deacon. This is not necessarily going to help understand Paul’s view of church leadership. If at all possible, it is best for us to bracket out modern church practice for a few minutes and try to read Paul in the context of first century Ephesus.

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: 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.