Book Review: Elders in Congregational Life, by Phil Newton
For almost twenty years, Phil Newton has poured his life into South Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. In an age when the average tenure of a pastor is less than five years, Newton is a model for a young pastor like myself. He’s no Johnny-come-lately to the topic of elders, either. Years ago, he led his congregation to explore the Scriptures until they concluded—unanimously—that having a plurality of elders is the biblical model. Thus, he wrote Elders in Congregational Life from experience, acutely aware that many pastors and future-pastors are struggling over the questions with which Newton has already wrestled. With superb brevity, Newton made a case for elder leadership, unpacked three biblical texts that speak to the issue, and discussed the details of implementing a plurality-of-elders model in a church that might originally find the concept foreign in a congregational environment.
The historical question is of special interest to those of us with Baptist backgrounds. We may be tempted to think that Baptist congregations have always had one pastor supported by a board of deacons. Not so. Newton cited a seventeenth-century English Particular Baptist, William Kiffin, a nineteenth-century Southern Baptist, W.B. Johnson, and numerous other prominent Baptists who advocated elder plurality. In addition, Newton worked through the main Baptist confessions that each leave ample room for plural elder leadership in congregational churches. The weight of the evidence points to the plurality-of-elders model as being historically Baptist.
Why, then, the change? Why did Baptist churches adopt, primarily, the single-pastor/deacon board model? Newton noted Mark Dever’s argument that some combination of “inattention to Scripture” and “the pressure of life on the frontier” may have contributed to the decline of elder plurality—at least in Baptist contexts. One thing is for certain, in the early nineteenth century there were more Baptist churches than Baptist pastors (or elders!). Baptists in the North and South lamented the “want of ministers” to serve their congregations. For example, a Baptist paper, The Columbian Star, reported in 1824 that over one thousand Baptist churches were without pastors. The editor encouraged these churches to meet regularly and, if necessary, read published sermons (those by Andrew Fuller were especially popular). In a day when struggling, young churches could hardly find one qualified elder to fill their pulpit, a plurality of elders may have seemed ideal but impossible. By the early twentieth century, leaders hoping to make churches more “efficient” began to promote deacons as managers. By this time, elder plurality had already become—in most cases—a polity of the past.
The essential question is whether Scripture teaches a plurality of elders. Most of Elders in Congregational Life is devoted to answering this question—and rightly so. After all, tradition is a fallible guide but Scripture will not lead us astray. Therefore, Newton faithfully directed his readers to several texts that place the burden of proof on the skeptic to show that a plurality of elders overseeing a congregational church is unbiblical. As Newton observed, the assumption throughout the New Testament is that churches were led by elders:
The historical record clearly demonstrates the normative practice of the New Testament church—and plural eldership was at the heart of these practices . . . All of these passages assume the establishment of overseers in church leadership (34-35).
There are several reasons to reach this conclusion. For example, the interchangeable terms of overseer, pastor, and elder are always used in the plural—unless referring to a specific man (37). In addition, Luke noted in Acts 14:23 that Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders for them in every church” in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. Also, Paul called the elders (plural) of the church (singular) in Ephesus (Acts 20:17). Furthermore, Newton reasoned why the normative, biblical practice was to appoint elders: “Leadership by a plurality of godly men, accountable to one another, reduces the temptation for one man to wield excessive authority in the church or to use the church to satisfy his ego” (39).
Of course, one can turn to a number of different sources to find the biblical arguments for a plurality of elders: Biblical Eldership by Alexander Strauch; Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever; “Plural-Elder Congregationalism” by Samuel Waldron in Who Runs the Church?; and “The Plural-Elder-Led Church” by James R. White in Perspectives on Church Government—to name just a few. Add to this the writings of John Piper and John MacAarthur, Jr. and one might ask, “Do we really need this book on elders?” Allow me to close this review with several reasons why Pastor Newton’s book is a helpful addition to a small but growing list of works on eldership.
First, the emphasis on congregationalism. Newton’s title says it all: Elders in Congregational Life. For those of us committed to congregational church government, it isn’t enough to defend a plurality of elders. We need greater light on how a plurality of elders meshes with a polity that understands members—under the lordship of Christ—to be the final authority. This book is devoted to working out the nuances of the relationship between congregation and elders. Newton is clear:
It is true that some forms of plural eldership by-pass the congregation. In the early church, however, the congregation was involved to some degree in all decisions. The church is to hold the final authority, for instance, on matters of disciplining its membership” (57).
It just won’t do to dismiss Newton as a Presbyterian in Baptist’s clothing—he established well his commitment to biblical congregationalism. In fact, his chapter entitled, “Elders and Congregation in Concert: Hebrews 13:17-19” is a must read for any pastor or church leader trying to understand the nature of pastoral authority (which is, I think, all of us!).
Second, the treatment of the senior pastor. Newton spent a good deal of time unpacking the relationship between the senior pastor and the elders—a relationship that can be particularly vexing to wrap one’s mind around. On one hand, no one man has the gifts necessary to lead the church: “Some men are endowed with strong pulpit gifts, but lack pastoral skills. Others excel in pastoral work of visiting and counseling, but are not strong when it comes to pulpit exposition” (38). What encouraging words to the pastor worn out from trying to be all things to all members! Newton put it well when he wrote, “the strain of tending to the entire ministry needs of the church can quickly deplete even the most gifted man.” On the other hand, 1Timothy 5:17 seems to argue that there is a special role for that man uniquely charged to preach the word. Thus, “Elders do not replace the need for a senior pastor who labors in the Word and gives leadership to the church” (40). Proponents of elder leadership may quibble with Newton’s conclusion (some emphasize the uniqueness of the “senior” pastor while others avoid any mention of differences). I think Newton strikes an appropriate balance.
Third, the explanation of what an elder actually does. Here is where Newton’s book really shines. One cannot put it down without having greater clarity on the principal and practical role of the elder in congregational life. He divided elder duties into four easily understood and biblically defensible categories: doctrine, discipline, direction, and distinction (41). Doctrine refers to responsibility for the teaching of the church. Discipline refers to responsibility for the church’s holiness. Direction involves decision making while distinction implies an elder will model the Christian life. Very clear, very nice. Toward the end of the book, Newton even included an agenda from one of his elders’ meetings at South Woods Baptist (149). Seeing this agenda, it is easy to imagine a group of men, seated around a table, thinking and praying about the spiritual health of the believers in their care, thoughtfully considering who would be best to teach a children’s class, and brainstorming evangelistic ideas for the summer. These men have gathered together to build up the church; they are “engaged in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1Cor. 15:58).
Fourth, the reminder that an elder-led church is not necessarily a healthy church. Again and again, Newton told his readers that it is not enough to simply have elders in place. The conduct and character of these men is of the utmost importance. The elder:
. . . must not dishonor the noble office entrusted to him by the church through failing in his conduct. Other things are important, but the spiritual leader’s conduct as a Christian serves as the foundation for the whole of his ministry. Neglect his conduct, and his ministry is negated. But honor the Lord in his conduct and, even with weakness, he will prove to be faithful” (87).
It can be tempting, when discussing church polity, to lose sight of the forest through the trees; to think that a well-ordered congregation is prepared to meet her groom. Without undermining the importance of biblical polity, Newton expounded upon the importance of godly leadership.
Fifth, the practical instruction on implementing elders in your church. One third of the book is devoted to this topic. He shared his own story as well as that of John Piper, Jeff Noblit, and Mark Dever. These men brought up the issue of a plurality of elders carefully, prayerfully, and lovingly. Each of these pastors treated their congregations with respect and patience, recognizing that for many a change from one pastor to a plurality of elders is a dramatic shift from conventional wisdom—and therefore an intimidating prospect. In the end, by God’s grace, elders became a reality and these pastors univocally testify to the significance of this change for their own ministries.
Sixth, the book is short. This is not a point to be overlooked. For the pastor in need of a quick, thorough, biblical, and practical introduction to this issue of elders in congregational life, Newton’s book is a ready help.
Pastors need help understanding how to lead, lest they follow a model foreign to the Scripture they hold so dear. To this end, Newton is of great service to Christ’s church.