Book Review: Shepherding God’s Flock, ed. by Benjamin Merkle and Thomas Schreiner
Benjamin L. Merkle and Thomas R. Schreiner, eds. Shepherding the Flock: Biblical Leadership in the New Testament and Beyond. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2014. $18.99. 350pp.
Scenarios abound in Scripture wherein leadership directly impacts and influences people, whether for good or ill. The way a leader goes, the people often go. This is why it is so crucial to think through leadership from a biblical perspective for the church. In Shepherding God’s Flock a number of contributors seek to “take a step back and to consider what the Scriptures teach about leadership” (7). Throughout, one sees the imagery of shepherding as paramount to rightly understanding all the Scriptures say on the subject of leadership. Thus, the goal of this work is provide both justification and a roadmap for a specific philosophy of shepherd leadership aimed especially at local churches.
Benjamin L. Merkle and Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament scholars at Southeastern and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, respectively, grant up front that this work is written by contributors who are confessional Baptists, and thus “are convinced that the Baptist understanding of church government comports with the Scriptures” (8). Initially, authors seek to highlight the biblical warrant for a particular kind of church leadership (chapters 1-4). Jim Hamilton begins this section by speaking of the origins of New Testament elder terminology, and also highlights the robust shepherd imagery contained in the Old Testament and how this shaped New Testament thoughts on church leadership. This chapter is then followed by an assessment of the Gospels, Acts, Pauline literature, and the General Epistles in relation to church leadership.
After the biblical chapters the next section delves into historical considerations of both competing and Baptist views of leadership and polity (chapters 5-9). Michael Haykin and Gregg Allison offer extended analysis on the historical development, consolidation, and trajectory of the Papacy. Nathan Finn and Jason Duesing offer chapters on Presbyterian and Anglican polity respectively, and this is followed by Shawn Wright’s assessment of a history of Baptist polity. Following this historical section is a theological synthesis of biblical leadership offered by Bruce Ware (chapter 10). Here, he seeks to bring together the previous data in order to defend the notion of an elder-led, deacon-served, congregationally-governed church. Finally, Andy Davis offers a practical vision of what this kind of leadership would look like in the local church (chapter 11).
This was a very well written book, but as with most edited volumes, several chapters stand out. Hamilton offers a wonderful, albeit brief, display of biblical theology in demonstrating where New Testament terminology for church leadership was derived from. This is especially true as he accentuates the shepherding imagery of the Old Testament and how this gives a proper interpretive framework for both Jesus as the Chief Shepherd and elders serving as under-shepherds (25-31). Hamilton’s primary thesis is that, in relation to the term elder, the church borrowed leadership structures from the Old Testament more than the synagogue. As such, the title and main thesis feels slightly misleading, though Hamilton certainly demonstrates his point. This excellent section would perhaps have been strengthened by allowing the focus to settle more on the prominent Old Testament imagery of shepherd.
The final three chapters are also worth mentioning. Some who advocate a plural elder-led Baptist polity may be disappointed by Wright’s chapter, due to his understanding of historical Baptists as being “overwhelmingly quiet on the issue,” (250) citing instead that “the overwhelming view of Baptists has been to speak of the leader of the church in the singular: he is the ‘local preacher’” (250). However, one should appreciate both Wright’s attention to detail and careful historical treatment, as well as his positive assessment of the recent renaissance of a plural elder Baptist polity.
Ware and Davis also offer compelling and culminating treatments of the subject. Ware is clear, precise, and biblical as he delineates the theological warrant for this kind of polity, differentiating elders and deacons and demonstrating clearly the crucial role of the congregation. And all of this human leadership, Ware states, is under Christ: “only Jesus Christ has rights of absolute leadership and authority over any and every local church, as he is head and Lord over all the church” (285). Davis, too, offers great practical help on the matter of leadership, including a working definition of Christian leadership: “Christian leadership is the God-given ability through the Holy Spirit to influence people by word and example to achieve God’s purposes as revealed in the Scriptures” (312). The bulk of his chapter contains twelve practical elements of Christian leadership, which will be helpful to anyone serving in church ministry or Christian leadership.
WORTHWHILE, BUT SOMETIMES REDUNDANT
In many ways Shepherding the Flock serves as an apologetic for a polity that is plural elder-led, deacon-served, and congregationally-governed. Unfortunately, it may also serve as a redundancy because, throughout the book, a number of chapters repeat the same arguments and recite the same biblical texts in order to defend the fact that the terms “pastor,” “elder,” and “overseer” are in fact synonymous. To that end, it might have been helpful to build on previous author’s argumentation, so as to avoid merely repeating the entire argument several times, though such repetition certainly does solidify the information in the reader’s mind.
Also, two chapters that seem somewhat disjointed with the overall purpose of the book were the chapters on the Papacy by Haykin and Allison. It should be noted these are historically robust and thoroughly enjoyed by this reviewer; however, in seeking to consider and defend a biblical view of leadership, they may have at least been somewhat curtailed in length (though, again, the storyline is quite fascinating).
These minor caveats aside, one should note the strength of this kind of work. Fitting more in the niche of Merkle’s 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons or Elders in the Life of the Church, by Phil Newton and Matt Schmucker, this work makes a helpful contribution and in some ways is a fitting, pastoral follow-up to Laniak’s Shepherds After My Own Heart. Books on leadership abound and say any number of things, but if one is interested in biblical defense, historical precedence, and theological synthesis, then Shepherding God’s Flock will serve them well.