Book Review: Biblical Eldership, by Alexander Strauch
Leadership in the church has become a hot topic of late. It seems pastors today are looking in almost every direction for help on how to cast a vision, draw a crowd, lead a church, and change a culture. In one sense this is great – pastors are taking their God-given leadership roles seriously. Yet on every corner they find a different salesman peddling a uniquely indispensable brand of leadership wisdom, often more closely associated with Peter Drucker than Peter the Apostle. At the same time, growth and effectiveness – however measured – have become the dual indices of the leadership market. So it is not surprising that what our local pastor is likely to find on the “Leadership” shelf at the Christian bookstore is a syncretistic blend of pragmatism (whatever works), corporate management philosophy, and utilitarianism (whatever accomplishes the most good for the most people), all sanctified with a few Bible verses and built on the popular but rickety assumption that the Bible gives us practical carte blanche when it comes to leadership, authority, and organization within the local church.
It is in this context that Alexander Strauch breathes fresh air into the church leadership discussion with his book Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership (Littleton, CO: Lewis & Roth, 1995). Strauch’s twofold goal is “first, to help clarify the biblical doctrine of eldership and second, to help church elderships function more effectively” (p11). This sentence alone separates Strauch’s work from the pack. Instead of ditching doctrine as a turn-off to the average Joe, Strauch seeks to re-discover it as that which will revitalize and renew health and holiness in our local churches. He uses the first section of the book to present five biblical observations about what eldership looks like, contending that biblical eldership is pastoral (or shepherd) leadership, shared leadership, male leadership, qualified leadership, and servant leadership. In the second section, he defends a Bible-based leadership structure, arguing that a plurality of elders is biblically modeled, apostolically mandated, and best suited to both the familial nature of the Church and the exclusive headship of Christ over her. The third and by far longest portion of the book deals with the exposition of relevant New Testament passages from Acts to 2Peter.
Overall, the book is a helpful and encouraging corrective to the burgeoning body of church leadership literature. Probably the most basic and permeating strength of Strauch’s work is that his methodology and conclusions are both rigorously biblical. He defines eldership first in the biblical terms of shepherding – without dispute the most prominent and controlling image for leadership in general or eldership in particular, either in the Old or New Testament. Constraining himself to this shepherding image leads Strauch to the conclusion that the primary responsibilities of biblical elders are to feed the flock on God’s Word, lead by example, guard the flock against the ravages of false teachers, and care for struggling or straying sheep. Strauch handles all major New Testament passages that intend to provide instruction on elders. And it is evident that he is diligently laboring to faithfully respect authorial intent in his interpretations by allowing himself to be guided by the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of each passage. His conclusions are therefore generally in line with the plain meaning and practical implication of each text – an interpretive fidelity that endows his work with a plausibility and gravitas that most others in the field simply lack.
Also helpful is Strauch’s recognition of the importance of structure for the health and holiness of the local church. “Some of the worst havoc wrought to the Christian faith has been a direct result of unscriptural forms of church structure… Church organizational structure matters because structure determines how people think and act. Ultimately, structure determines how things are done in the local church…. The point is, the structure of the church both reflects and determines our theology and beliefs” (pp101-102). This is all true, and such thinking again sets Strauch apart from the evangelical publishing masses, who contend in near unison that polity (church structure) is a matter indifferent that God has left each local body free to consider and conclude on it’s own. Churches need a plurality of spiritually qualified, male elders who will together provide spiritual shepherding and humble servant leadership. This is the structure that is consistently modeled and mandated for us in the Bible, and this is the only structure that preserves the final authority of the local congregation while diffusing unfair criticism of leaders and therefore not buckling under the pressures of church discipline. Without plural leadership, solo pastors are susceptible to either the corruption of singular authority or the isolation of unjustified criticism. Without qualified leadership, churches languish under intemperance, quarrelsomeness, and didactic incompetence (1Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:7-9). Without male leadership in the church, male headship in the home is undermined (1Cor 11:3; 1Tim 2:9-15). Without shepherd leadership, the flock will become emaciated and scattered (Ezek 34). Without servant leadership, church leaders will naturally lord it over those allotted to their charge (1Peter 5:3).
The implications for our understanding of the senior pastor role are at once a strength and a weakness for Strauch. I am grateful to him for pointing out the myriad benefits of plural leadership, one of the most important of which is that it makes the primary teaching pastor a “first among equals” as a member of the eldership team (p45). This is such a valuable insight, because as Strauch so rightly notes, it balances a pastor’s weaknesses, provides accountability, and lightens a still heavy load (pp39-44). How many of our pastors need to hear this word!
Yet I think the author may take one step too far in this direction, for elsewhere he takes the exclusive headship of Christ over His Church to imply the presumptuousness of assuming “the position or title of solo ruler, overseer, or pastor of the church” (p115). I share Strauch’s impulse to guard against a misperceived self-sufficiency in senior pastors, and to be wary of absolute power corrupting absolutely. But I question whether the senior pastor title or role is necessarily illegitimate on the grounds of Christ’s exclusive headship, or whether the title of senior pastor is mutually exclusive with a plurality of elders. After all, the letters to each of the seven churches in Revelation were all addressed to the singular angels of those respective churches, which most commentators regard as the singular pastors of those churches. Both Timothy and Titus seemed to exercise a role akin to what we would call a senior pastor without threatening either Christ’s exclusive headship or the plurality of local church leadership. And it makes sense that the one who is released by the corporate provision of the congregation to devote himself to teaching God’s word would accrue a level of authority that only such a corporately recognized teacher could have. Of course, his authority is only derivative, accruing solely from the authoritative Word he preaches and remaining legitimate only insofar as he accurately conveys the Word of his King (Jer 23:16). And it is also subsidiary, being bestowed by the Chief Shepherd through the agency of the Holy Spirit (1Peter 5:4; Acts 20:28). But derived and subsidiary as it may be, it is still legitimate, and should therefore be recognized as such, even if a plurality of elders serves as the necessary and biblical context in which it is exercised.
Only two other weaknesses present themselves. The first is that the authority relationship between the elders and the congregation is not fully or biblically explicated. To his credit, Strauch devotes a five-page appendix entitled “Elders and the Congregation,” where he encourages congregations to esteem and submit to their elders while maintaining a brotherly relationship that rules out a hierarchical scheme. He goes on to articulate an elder-rule understanding of church government (p293), while allowing for congregational involvement in matters of discipline and the examination of potential elders (p294). He characterizes the relationship by saying “the leadership body takes the lead for the congregation, and…the congregation participates” (p295), such that “the goal of the elders and congregation should always be to speak and act as a united community” (p294). These are true and biblical statements with which I do not disagree in the least. Yet what is unsatisfying is that the biblical authority of the congregation is never acknowledged.
To explain briefly, the New Testament gives the gathered, local congregation final authority in matters of dispute, discipline, doctrine, and membership. Personal disputes are to be handled according to Matt 18:16-18, where the church gathered is the final court of appeal. Disciplining the unrepentant sinner in Corinth fell under the jurisdiction of the gathered congregation according to Paul in 1Cor 5:1-13, a passage in which elders are not even mentioned. Paul held the whole congregation in Galatia responsible for the doctrinal purity of the gospel preached in their pulpit in Galatians 1:6-9, and tacitly implicates those who want their ears tickled for “gathering to themselves teachers in accordance with their own desires’ in 2Tim 4:3-4. And the re-admission of the disciplined brother in 2Cor 2:5-8 is urged upon the whole Corinthian congregation, not just the elders. The final authority of the congregation in these four areas of church life, even within the context of a properly functioning biblical eldership, is missing from Strauch’s otherwise masterful treatment.
Secondly, I might also simply disagree with Strauch’s explication of how the local church should appoint elders. “Finally,” Strauch argues, “the [current] elders, acting as the chief representatives and stewards of God’s household, will formally state, in full consultation with the church, their approval, rejection, reservations, or counsel concerning the prospective elder” (p284). It is the “finally” at the beginning of the sentence with which I am reluctant to agree. While Strauch’s model does provide ample opportunity for congregational involvement in the examination and appointment of new elders, it again misses the final authority and responsibility of the congregation for appointing their shepherd leaders. This is not to say that the elders are biblically consigned to the whim of a popular vote on one of the most important decisions that a congregation ever makes together. Indeed, the current elders are precisely those members expressly recognized by the congregation as the ones most spiritually and biblically qualified to lead the congregation in making such decisions. Thus the elders should be the ones making the nominations, serving and leading the congregation by funneling down the number of candidates according to the biblical qualifications. (This is in large part why so many churches end up with unqualified or problematic leaders. They appoint a nominating committee – the members of which are usually chosen based as much on demographic representation as spiritual maturity – to do the kind of work that only elders are recognized and qualified to do.) But once this elder-level work of recognizing qualified candidates and nominating them to the congregation is done, the gathered congregation is finally responsible for deciding who will feed them on the milk and meat of the gospel. Since the congregation is finally responsible for the kind of teaching they listen to (Gal 1:6-9; 2Tim 4:3-4), they are also finally responsible for appointing (and removing) the people who teach them.
But again, these few oversights do not undermine the helpfulness of the author’s work. With Strauch’s rigor in taking all his cues from the biblical text and organizing his whole work as an investigation into what the New Testament says about eldership, it might be hoped that his work will eventually refocus the church leadership discussion so that it clearly reflects the biblical witness, rather than refracting it through the modern prism of pragmatics, utilitarianism, and business management theory.