Book Review: 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons, by Ben Merkle
Here are 11 questions about Ben Merkle’s 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons.
1. What qualifies Benjamin Merkle to write this book?
Merkle wrote his dissertation on elders and overseers at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and is now a professor of New Testament at Malaysia Baptist Theological Seminary. His grasp of the many issues associated with church leadership, together with his desire to address them with sound exegesis, are evident in the book and is one of its great strengths. In addition, Merkle’s personal experience in an elder-led church and his conviction that “a return to a biblical model of government is desperately needed in the church today” (13) add edification to exegesis.
2. Broadly speaking, what topics are covered in the book?
Merkle divides the book into three parts: Offices in General, The Office of Elder, and The Office of Deacon. The second section is by far the heart of the book, containing 27 of the 40 questions. Those questions are divided into four subsections dealing with a) background issues, b) qualifications, c) the plurality of elders, and d) the selecting, ordaining, paying, and removing of elders.
3. How does the question-and-answer format work?
The individual question chapters follow a fairly consistent outline. Take question 16, “What does it mean that an elder must be the husband of one wife?” as an example. First, Merkle identifies the relevant texts, in this case 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6. Second, he presents the strengths and weaknesses of the primary interpretations of those texts before concluding with his view that “an elder must be faithful to his wife in a monogamous relationship” (128). Finally, he closes with a quick summary and a series of “reflection questions.”
4. What role does Scripture play?
Scripture is foundational to Merkle’s understanding of church polity. His approach “is not to answer the questions primarily from the perspective of what is practical, but from what is biblical,” though he quickly adds that “biblical leadership is extremely practical because God’s way is always the best way” (14-15). To this end, exegesis of the relevant biblical texts directs his responses to each question.
5. Who is the book’s intended audience?
Merkle does not give a direct answer to this question, and different aspects of the book give conflicting signals. Merkle’s simple and accessible style along with the “reflection questions” suggest that he had busy pastors and laypeople in mind. However, at times his dissertation research appears in lengthy footnotes and extended discussion of only tangentially-relevant issues. This is most evident in his chapters on the background of the term “elder.” Few pastors or church members have either the need or the desire to know whether the Christian episkopos is modeled after the mebaqqçr of the Qumran community (73).
6. What specific church polity does Merkle endorse?
Merkle believes each church should have a plurality of elders, each having equal authority even though one may act as a “first among equals.” Both the elders and the congregation should have authority in the church, but as a congregationalist Merkle argues that the congregation has the final authority under Christ, though the elders “should be given freedom to lead” (99). All elders are given the responsibility of ruling and teaching in the church (those are not two separate offices), and the deacons are to aid them in these pursuits by handling the details of the church.
7. What does he say about women?
The role of women is one of the most controversial issues surrounding church leadership, and Merkle spends a number of chapters on this topic. After spending one chapter outlining the reasons often given for allowing women to be elders, Merkle dedicates the next two chapters to refuting them. He does the same for the office of deacon, though he spends only one chapter on the refutation, possibly because, as he admits, “the grounds for not allowing women to become deacons is not as strong as those for not allowing women to be elders” (257).
8. What are the book’s strengths?
The book is designed to be easy to use both in its style and format. Aside from a few pedantic distractions, it fulfills this aim admirably. Though the chapters are short, generally about five pages, Merkle packs them with clearly presented information, and footnotes directing the reader to fuller discussions. He gives as fair a presentation of the various sides of each issue as his limited space allows. His biblical conviction is evident both in the strong stance he takes on culturally unpopular positions such as barring of women from eldership, as well as in his willingness to allow for freedom where the Bible does not give specific instruction, such as whether elders should serve terms (207). His advice to choose men who already effectively serve as elders (111) is an example of the practical insight that he combines with his biblical exposition.
9. What are the book’s weaknesses?
At times, as a result of its format, the book is repetitive. Merkle’s argument against women deacons is forced, resorting both to an argument from silence (when he had previously warned against this kind of argumentation; 256-7; cf. 255) and to a circular argument about the application of the term diakonos to Phoebe (257).
10. Should churches use this book?
Yes. Merkle reminds us that the Bible has a great deal to say about how we do church. He presents the teaching clearly in an easy-to-use format that leaves without excuse any church determined to look elsewhere for wisdom.
11. How should churches use this book?
Due to its FAQ format the book is better used as a reference tool than as a cover-to-cover read. Additionally, many church leaders will disagree with Merkle on an issue here or there, but the format allows them to avoid introducing contention into their churches since they can recommend only the chapters that are relevant to their members (the chapter on the advantages of a plurality of elders is especially helpful). A church that is considering transitioning to a plurality of elders will find the book a helpful starting point for the vital decisions ahead of them (there’s even a chapter on making that transition).