Book Review: Elders in Congregational Life by Phil A. Newton

Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership
by Phil. A. Newton

Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2005, 176 pages

Phil Newton, Pastor of South Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, has provided the church with an exceptional study on the biblical basis, historical background, and practical outworking of eldership in congregational church settings. Many books have been written on elders in recent years – Alexander Strauch’s Biblical Eldership and Gene Getz’ Elders and Leaders being among the best – but the unique contribution of Newton’s book is its grounding in baptistic church polity. Newton explores the implementation of elders in Baptist churches, not Brethren or Bible churches (the respective denominational backgrounds of Strauch and Getz). For pastors in Baptist churches, this will make Elders in Congregational Life an excellent and especially helpful companion to these other two helpful studies.

Newton divides his book into three parts. Part one, “Why Elders?” begins by answering “Why Baptist Elders Is Not an Oxymoron” (chapter one). The author here explores elder plurality in both American and English Baptist history, with numerous brief quotations from historic Baptist confessions and church leaders. His conclusion is the same as John Piper’s whom he quotes: “The least we can say from this historical survey of Baptist Confessions is that it is false to say that the eldership is unbaptistic. On the contrary, the eldership is more baptistic than its absence, and its disappearance is a modern phenomenon that parallels other developments in doctrine that make its disappearance questionable at best.”

Chapter two, “Elders in the New Testament”, covers ground that will be familiar to students of Scripture, especially those who have read other books on elders. The three biblical terms applied to elders (presbuteros, episkopos, poimen) are discussed in their Scriptural contexts. A case is made for the plurality of elders. And the duties and responsibilities of elders are described under the fourfold list of doctrine, discipline, direction, and distinction in modeling the Christian life.

The third chapter addresses “Character and Congregationalism,” giving special emphasis to the biblical qualifications for elders, the need for both elders and deacons, and how a plural eldership should function within a congregational church.

Part two, “Three Key Biblical Texts”, is more expository and sermonic in nature with three chapters which deal with Acts 20:17-31 (Chapter Four: “A Model for Our Times), Hebrews 13:17-19 (Chapter Five: “Elders and Congregation in Concert”), and 1 Peter 5:1-1-5 (Chapter Six: “Spiritual Leaders for God’s Flock”). The chapters not only teach the biblical basis for eldership, but also apply biblical exhortations to both pastors/elders and congregations. A key paragraph from chapter six, which summarizes well the Baptist/congregational view of eldership presented in this book, reads: “We [the church Newton pastors] differ from our friends in the Presbyterian General Assembly and Bible Churches who put final authority in the hands of the local session of elders or submit to a presbytery outside of the local church. In contract, the final authority on matters of our church life resides in the congregation. But the functioning of a purely congregational system is both unwieldy and lacking biblical support. Instead, the establishment of a body of elders to serve in day-to-day leadership in spiritual matters, serving at the pleasure of the congregation, enables us to maintain both the traditional distinctive of congregational life and the clearly biblical structure of elders” (97).

Part three of the book, “From Theory to Practice,” is especially valuable in providing practical and tangible steps for transitioning a more “traditional” church polity to eldership. Chapter seven, “Thinking About Transition to Eldership,” begins the discussion with appropriate cautions about transitioning and then spotlights three churches as case studies in which this transition has been made: First Baptist Church of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, under the leadership of Jeff Noblit, Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D. C., under the leadership of Mark Dever, and Newton’s own church in Memphis.

Chapter eight then asks “Can it Be Done?” answering with a resounding yes – and then showing the way. The transitioning process is broken down into three phases: the evaluation phase, the presentation phase, and the implementation phase. Each of these phases is then broken down into smaller steps. During the evaluation phase, the pastor must assess (the current leadership and polity of the church), study (the Scriptures – with a leadership group), probe (give members of this team assignments, don’t just spoon-feed), and summarize (the group’s conclusions for the whole church). Then comes the presentation phase, which will involve exposition (of Scripture to the entire congregation, with careful and patient teaching on the biblical basis for eldership), discussion (with the members of the congregation, giving them ample opportunity to both comprehend and buy into the vision for change), and heavy emphasis on qualifications. Finally, the implementation phase is reached, involving prayer, screening of potential candidates, ordaining elders to service, involving those elders in leadership, and reviewing the biblical teaching on elders on an annual basis.

Finally, chapter nine, “Putting It All Together”, addresses the nitty-gritty concerns of how the elders’ authority works, what role the “senior pastor” has, the concept of “ruling” elders, the question of church staff members as elders, the relationship between elders and deacons, the conducting of elders’ meetings and congregational meetings, and elders’ terms of service and dismissal. The final pages of the book acknowledge that some readers will not be persuaded that the view of eldership presented in this book is correct. And a helpful exhortation is joined with that acknowledgement: “Whatever type of leadership structure you embrace, by all means determine to raise the standards for leaders to match the biblical requirements. Failure of leaders to meet those requirements is the greatest deficiency in church leadership!” (153) Adding to the book’s usefulness is a foreword by Mark Dever, thorough notes and documentation of the sources used in the book, a two page bibliography for further reading on elders (with numerous links to on-line resources), a Scripture index, and a subject index.

As a pastor who is in the midst of leading a Baptist church through the transition to the kind of Baptistic and congregational eldership as described in this book, I found Newton’s book helpful and encouraging. His exegesis of Scripture is solid, and much in line with some of the other resources already available. But especially valuable are his reflections on how to make the transition from a more traditional form to eldership. He is honest enough to acknowledge the challenges he and his own church faced, which gives the book a flavor of realism often missing from books on church leadership that present neatly packaged plug-in-and-play models that are much easier to sell than implement. But best of all, Newton’s presentation is really nothing more than clear biblical instruction.

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