Jul 17, 2014

Review of Elders in the Life of the Church

Phil A. Newton and Matt Schmucker, Elders in the Life of the Church: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership, updated ed. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2014).

Elders in the Life of the Church is an updated edition of the 2005 Elders in the Congregational Life. Not only has Matt Schmucker been added as a contributor, but the content has been significantly bolstered by at least eighty pages. In essence the book examines elder plurality from three angles: historical, biblical, and practical.

The historical angle is primarily concerned with Baptist history. A short but enlightening survey of statements and confessions make a solid case that at least some of the Baptist forebears believed in a polity that included plurality of elders.

In the biblical section, the authors focus on four key texts: Acts 20:17–31; 1 Timothy 3:1–7; Hebrews 13:17–19; and 1 Peter 5:1–5. Strangely, Titus 1 is not treated independently in this section, although the authors do interact with Titus a number of times in the book.

Newton and Schmucker also discuss practical issues related to the elder model. This discussion really involves two aspects. First, the authors unpack the practical advantages of elder plurality. Second, significant attention is paid to practical implementation, that is, how one makes the shift from the more common single pastor plus deacons to the elder model.

This book is easy to read, with short chapters. The authors’ call to consider the elder model is one worth hearing. There is a transparency in the discussions with frequent references to personal anecdotes highlighting Newton and Schmucker’s successes and failures in taking their own churches through a transition to the elder model. Those seeking to make a similar transition will find plenty of practical advice. Even those already in elder-led churches will probably find at least some of the suggestions to be helpful.

The greatest weakness in the book is the biblical section. It is not that a biblical case cannot be made, but ironically, insufficient attention is paid to the details and specifics of the biblical text. Also puzzling is the omission of Titus 1, even if there are parallels to the 1 Timothy passage. The placement of some of the chapters appears to be strange or forced. For example, it is unclear how chapter 2 flows from chapter 1 or transitions to chapter 3. 

Nonetheless, Elders in the Life of the Church is a helpful primer to the plurality of elders model, especially from a Baptist context. Baptist pastors and leaders who want to know more about the elder model or how to transition to such a model should find help here.

You can read an excerpt here

Thanks to Kregel for providing the free review copy used in this unbiased review.


Richard Fellows said...

Thanks, Charles.

Paul and other evangelists had to choose models of leadership that worked within the cultural and economic constraints that applied at the time. Our constraints are rather different, so isn't it hazardous to assume that Paul, for example, would want us to follow that leadership models that he found it expedient to establish?

I have been reading Chapple's fascinating PhD thesis here: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/1611/1/1611.pdf?EThOS%20(BL)
He stresses that the church leaders were generally hosts of the church meetings. Is there any evidence that there were multiple leaders in any Christian community that was small enough to fit in one person's house?

Charles Savelle said...

Hi Richard,

I am a bit out of my expertise here but i am not sure what motivated Paul to utilize the the leadership we know as elders and deacons. As far as I know, this model does not correspond closely to Jewish or Greco-Roman models related to either the synagogue or associations. It also does not seem to correspond to what we know of the Qumran community. So I take it that Paul and the other apostles were led by the Spirit to this form of polity.

Chapple's comment is interesting but it begs the question as to what is meant by "host." If they were just "hosts," that is they merely performed some kind of hospitality and social function, then I wonder why you have to have the qualifications as you do in 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1. Do "hosts" need to be "apt to teach" for example. I know that the authenticity of the Pastorals is often called into question, but even if they are non-Pauline, it seems they relect early church practice whose roots are likely apostolic.

Concerning the plurality issue, it seems that the NT does refer to elders plural. Now, it could be debated whether the plurality related to plural elders in a single church or plural churches each having their own elder. Given the relative smallness of the early Christian communities, the former seems more likley.

Richard Fellows said...

When Chapple and others hypothesize that the bishops were hosts, he is not saying that their only function was to act as hosts.

You are right to point out that 1 Tim 3 expects them to teach. However, it might also be pointed out that most of the qualifications relate to their hospitality and how they run their households, and these things are appropriate for hosts, aren't they?

Charles Savelle said...

So then what was their main function? I am not sure that most of the functions related to hospitality per se. It just seems a bit of an overkill if elders/overseers were merely hosts. It is also worth noting that the qualifications for deacons is almost exactly the same as that of elders, except for the teaching qualification. Does Chapple see deacons as hosts? If so why have two different offices with two different sets of qualifications?