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Book: Elders in the Life of the Church

Elders in the Life of the Church is a book that scares me with its subtitle of “Rediscovering the Biblical Model of Church Leadership.” I know that, in the past two millennia, we have had times of drift from Biblical truth. However, when someone claims in 2014 that we finally have something right that’s been wrong for a long, long time, that sets me on edge. Our predecessors were not always right (see: slavery, segregation, religious warfare), but to claim that you are “Biblical” where no one else is, that’s no small claim.
Because of this, I come to Phil A. Newton and Matt Schmucker’s work with some bias against it. I’m not reading this as a big fan, nor as someone who wants to muck about with the outline of church governance handed down by many years of Baptist congregational practice. I do not want to keep the traditions if they are unbiblical, but you’ve got to show me how they are wrong.
Elders in the Life of the Church, though, does a good job demonstrating Newton and Schmucker’s point. I have not read the previous edition, Elders in Congregational Life, but this is billed as a comprehensive update. That says to me that having read the first one would not matter.
What does this book do? It explains, in an alternating chapter format, the case for guiding a church through a plurality of elders. The authors alternate chapters, starting with Newton. While both authors have been pastors, the experiences noted for both them involve super-sized local congregations, so it’s a different world than I live in.
The structure of the book works from ideas to implementation. The first six chapters address why a church needs a plurality of elders. Further, it builds on the idea from a Baptist perspective, rather than an import from Presbyterian perspective. I do find the chapter “Not a New Idea” unfortunately short here, as it could have been used to develop the history of plural eldership in Baptist churches for centuries, but focused only on Capitol Hill Baptist Church.
The next set of chapters addresses the Biblical case for plural eldership. I like that this segment uses Scripture to make an affirmative case for elders more than trying to refute the various other positions. Second, the case that is made allows for the combination of congregational accountability along with elder leadership.
The final set of chapters work through the implementation process. Overall, this section was well-written but not as practical for my context, as I don’t really have very many people looking for learning to be an elder.
Overall, the case made here is a good one. I can see how elder leadership works with congregational responsibility, and also how preachers, teachers, and pastors benefit from the shared leadership of elders. As a guide to implementation, it’s not perfect, but it’s a helpful lead-in to the idea.
The chapter focused on special cases like missions and new church starts was helpful as well. Each chapter contained discussion questions.
I can readily recommend this for study groups or for discussion as a church considers its operational polity. I’m not whole-heartedly convinced, but do find the case persuasive and well-stated, enough to hold its own among traditional viewpoints.
Free book received from Kregel Academic and Professional in exchange for the review.

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