Book Review: Gospel Eldership, by Robert Thune
Robert Thune, Gospel Eldership: Equipping a New Generation of Servant Leaders. New Growth Press, 2016. 144 pps. $14.99.
“A healthy, gospel-centered view of eldership is not only about ensuring better ministry, but about forming better men,” concludes Robert H. Thune in his new book Gospel Eldership: Equipping a New Generation of Servant Leaders (122–123). That statement offers a good summary of his book. A healthy church will be led by a plurality of men who are “grounded and rooted in the gospel” (4). So to help churches toward that end, Thune has put together a series of essays, exercises, and questions for aspiring elders to consider before embracing the office of elder.
Thune probes issues of leadership, character, and elders’ duties. Each of the ten chapters contains a brief essay on the subject, e.g. “Servant Leadership,” “The Leadership Triangle,” “Elders Care for the Church,” etc. And when I say “brief,” I mean it; he spends no more than ten pages working through each subject, often including a series of discussion questions for small group engagement. Of course, Thune doesn’t exhaust the subjects, but he provides enough biblical and theological comments to spur the reader’s thoughts toward the chief idea he identifies in each chapter. In several chapters, I wanted more but he chose to keep his content brief, seemingly to make it manageable for both readers and small groups. Occasionally, he points toward additional resources on the subject; doing this more often would have improved the book’s usefulness.
In my estimation, the best part of the book is the way Thune poses question after question in order to explore a given subject. He does so with both pastoral sensitivity and an awareness of the serious responsibility that’s involved in being recognized as an elder. For example, in his chapter “Elders Lead the Church,” Thune asks the reader to identify other leaders in the church community that they would compare themselves to.. He writes, “Where do you feel insecure—like you don’t ‘measure up’ to these other leaders? Where do you feel more skilled/competent/effective than them? In what ways do you catch yourself being critical or judgmental toward their ministry?” (76). Each question probes deeply. No doubt, even one reading of this book will unearth plenty of places where we as elders need to confess and repent of sin. Yet we’ll also feel a genuine challenge to rise to a new level of intensity in applying the gospel to the whole of life, our shepherding not excluded.
Thune seems to broad brush a couple of issues in order to heighten the value of his book. In one case, he suggests, “Almost nothing has been written about the quality of spiritual life an elder must have as an elder” (p. 5). My reading has concluded otherwise, yet that does not diminish the usefulness and importance of Thune’s contribution to the subject.
In his chapter, “Missional Eldership,” Thune’s use of missional language reflects his generation’s appropriate emphasis on missional terminology. He makes helpful points about the elder having a missional life, missional heart, and missional skill. Yet in questioning what he considers a failure by elders to lead their congregations missionally, he suggests that the reason is that “existing books and resources on eldership have precious little to say about this question,” because, “they fail to answer the broader question What is the church?” (p. 102). Typically, books on eldership address a narrow category of polity within the larger framework of ecclesiology. Thune does this as well. However, works by John Hammett (Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches), Mark Dever (The Church: Gospel Made Visible), Gregg Allison (Sojourners and Strangers), and others offer a full-orbed ecclesiology, including its mission, while demonstrating the necessity for elder plurality.
While pastors and elders might think a few of Thune’s questions go too far, no doubt, most of his material will save pastors and elders an enormous amount of time in developing thoughtful, probing questions for elder candidates, like Thabiti Anyabwile’s Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons does so well. Thune intends for his book to be utilized in small group discussion. It will serve as an excellent tool for mentoring men who aspire to the office of elder. For that matter, it will be a useful resource for discipling men in the congregation. I hope that his book receives wide circulation and serves the church well by helping men learn to apply the gospel to the whole of life—including eldership.