“The importance of church leadership can so easily be either overstated, or understated” (p. 283).
It is common knowledge that when it comes to the leading of people by people, everything rises and falls on leadership. Whether it is a small business or a large multi-billion dollar corporation, both can be brought to their knees under bad leadership. Moses’ father-in-law realized as much when he approached Moses and suggested that he divide his oversight by appointing capable men to rule over Israel along with Moses. People need competent men and enough of them to lead them rightly.
For centuries Protestant churches have debated over proper and biblical polity, particularly regarding the office of elder and deacon and the roles they play within the local church and beyond. This issue continues to attract attention and there is no end of new books on all sides of the debate being published regularly. Writing from a Baptist perspective, Benjamin Merkle and Thomas Schreiner have teamed up with a number of Baptist pastors and theologians to bring us Shepherding God’s Flock: Biblical Leadership in the New Testament and Beyond from Kregel (2014). This book provides a thorough presentation of Baptist polity while also evaluating Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian forms.
While the book contains 10 chapters and no sections, there are essentially two sections to the book: chapters that address the issues raised theologically and those that handle them historically.
Historically, in chapters five and six Michael Haykin and Gregg Allison address the rise and development of the papacy within the western church (Haykin) and from Leo I to Vatican II (Allison). Both men ably handle the historical development of the papacy and its well-developed polity. Haykin begins at the first few centuries after the establishment of the New Testament church and builds on the early Catholic understanding of Peter’s role and significance as the one upon whom Christ said He would build His church. Gregg Allison picks up where Haykin leaves off (mid 400’s) and walks the reader right up through Vatican II. After all of the historical survey, the authors conclude that the idea of the papacy as a model of church polity is unbiblical and smacks of men grasping for power which is not theirs to have (p. 195-96).
Following these chapters Nathan Finn outlines and critiques the Presbyterian model of church polity and in doing so he touches briefly on its historical development and context. His historical survey is by no means comprehensive but he lays out the relevant data nicely. Of particular focus is the Presbyterian differentiation between teaching and ruling elders and the role of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15.
The final historical chapter addresses the Anglican form of church polity. Jason Duesing provides an overview of the historical and theological development of Anglican polity from the Church of England to the Modern eras. Duesing concludes that one of the central problems with the Anglican view is that it does not view the terms for bishop and elder as interchangeable (p. 247). Further, like Catholicism, Anglicanism has a dependence on tradition that clouds its ability to see what is revealed in Scripture (p. 248).
Theologically, this book presents a defense for Baptist polity marked by the following key points: the terms for bishop and elder are best understood as interchangeable; there is a greater emphasis placed upon congregational rule; and the events in Acts 15 at the Jerusalem council are not viewed as paradigmatic for the church today.
The first three chapters lay the ground work for describing the essence of church leadership – the suffering righteous shepherd. This is of course patterned after Christ. So how do we get there?
In the first chapter James Hamilton Jr. compares and contrasts the Old and New Testament qualifications for leadership. He notes that in the OT the qualifications were not laid out as they are in the NT because of the difference between the covenants and how one is admitted into those covenants. In the OT “elders are never defined and no qualifications are ever given” because “the evidence in the Old Testament indicates that eldership arose from the standing that derives from age and the wisdom and stature that tends to accompany life experiences” (p. 15, 22). Qualifications for leadership are spelled out in the covenant so separate ones are not needed.
The event that makes the change from the OT to the NT is the “new birth”. The change of structure from Israel to the church initiates the need for specific requirements for church leadership. “This change in what makes people members of the people of God changes the pool of candidates from which the elders will be drawn. The making of converts into disciples introduces people into the congregations who have little or no background in the Torah, resulting in the need for qualifications to be spelled out more explicitly” (p. 24-25).
From here Hamilton works his way to establishing the pattern of leadership as seen through the suffering righteous shepherd. This is picked up by Andreas Kostenberger in the second chapter as he walks through the Gospels and the life of Jesus to show how Jesus fulfills the suffering shepherd motif. Kostenberger fleshes out three aspects to the shepherding motif: teaching, training, and modeling (p. 51-57).
In chapter three Benjamin Merkle works through Acts to establish a pattern of leadership by elders. Merkle points out that while the office of elder is not emphasized in Acts as much as their function, there is a recognizable emphasis on the role of certain believers who are gifted in such as way as to be primarily responsible for the teaching and leading of the churches (p. 70, 75, 85).
In chapter four Thomas Schreiner addresses the character and role of elders and deacons within the church. While there is a lot of discussion in the Pastoral and General Epistles regarding the teaching ability of elders, “what stands out in the list is the emphasis on character qualities instead of skills” (p. 95). Schreiner rightly sees a marked difference in the text between the role, and therefore requirements, for deacons and elders. Elders are to be gifted in teaching and leadership while deacons are servants in the church attending to the physical needs (p. 109-12). In regards to the “wives” mentioned in I Timothy 3:10 Schreiner is under the impression that they are not the wives of male deacons but are in fact women who serve alongside the men as deacons (p. 111). Later, Bruce Ware echoes the same sentiments when he says, “if Paul is so concerned with the qualifications of the wives of deacons….then why dos he not also propose this same requirement when it comes to elders?” (p. 302). In my mind this has always been the key to that particular question, as well.
Chapter seven by Nathan Finn is one of the best chapters in the book. In it, Finn lays out and critiques the Presbyterian view of elders. Essentially, they make a distinction within the biblical text between teaching and ruling elders (p. 200). This is grounded in Ephesians 4:11-13 where shepherds and teachers are listed as offices “for building up the body of Christ.” Further, Presbyterians see the Jerusalem meeting in Acts 15 as a prototype for the church in all times. But, as Finn points out, they must make a number of assumptions about the text in order to arrive at this conclusion, namely, that “the decision made by the general assembly is a binding church law rather than a contextual decision for a particular season in redemptive history” (p. 219).
The final three chapters provide a conclusion to the book in regards to Baptistic understandings on the plurality of elders, Christ as the head of the Church, and the qualifications of elders and deacons.
From start to finish Shepherding God’s Flock is a short (considering the issues covered) but packed book on the nature of Baptist polity. It is excellent in its treatment of the related biblical passages. This is the perfect kind of book to use for college or grad school in teaching this subject. Additionally, its treatment of Catholic, Anglican, and Presbyterian polity is thorough and fair. This book should be in every pastor’s library.
About the editors
Benjamin L. Merkle (PhD, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Professor of New Testament Greek at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and is the author of 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons.
Thomas R. Schreiner (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) has been faculty at the Southern Seminary since 1997. He has taught at Bethel Theological Seminary, as well as Azusa Pacific University. Dr. Schreiner, a Pauline scholar, is the author or editor of several books and commentaries.
Craig Hurst received his BA in Church Ministries from Clearwater Christian College and his MA in theology at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He currently lives outside of Grand Rapids, MI and attends Grace Community Church, where he serves as a volunteer youth worker (along with his wife), and teaches some elective classes. He blogs at Theology for the Road.