Book Review: Eldership and the Mission of God, by J. R. Briggs and Bob Hyatt
J. R. Briggs and Bob Hyatt. Eldership and the Mission of God: Equipping Teams for Faithful Church Leadership. IVP, 2015. 216 pps. $17.00.
J.R. Briggs and Bob Hyatt are both leaders of Ecclesia, a network of churches affirming the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds and encouraging “missional churches and movements.” Eldership and the Mission of God is a short apology for and guide to a plurality of church elders.
The book begins with a useful analogy to explain how Ecclesia churches are unique: A local church is a dock standing on the land of the mission of God. The water is the culture. When the water recedes the dock is left high and dry. Most churches, they say, are like that dock, unable to connect Christianity and culture. But Ecclesia churches aim to be floating docks that tie the mission of God to the culture of the world. This, they say, is a missional church.
But Eldership and the Mission of God offers no concrete explanation of what a missional church looks like. For the most part, their description of a missional elder fits any evangelical pastor. Elder teams that are “on mission” pray, depend on the Spirit, spend time with church members, commit to make disciples, and express a willingness to do things differently. They eschew pride, fear of the unknown, distrust, love of comfort, and pragmatism (30-37). If that’s what it means to be “missional,” sign me up.
There is much in this book that anyone committed to plural eldership should affirm, which is perhaps a testament to nothing more than the clarity of Scripture. For example:
- Pastors should care about church structure (13).
- Pragmatism is ungodly if it prioritizes what works over what’s right (37).
- Elders should equip congregations to do the work of the ministry (47).
- Elders must model commitment, “There is [in every elder’s life] . . . an element of sacrifice and ownership of the vision of the church and its relationships” (51).
- Elders must model integrity because the church will not exceed the example of its leaders, “The most effective way to see your church embrace a culture centered on Jesus and aligned with his mission is to have your elders live it out” (71).
- Stature in the community doesn’t make someone an elder (93).
- An elder’s identity needs to be in Christ and not in the opinions of others (102).
- Team leadership is key; elder bodies shouldn’t leave all the work to one pastor (113).
- Elder bodies should warn other churches of wolves leaving their flock (159).
Many more examples could be given. Briggs and Hyatt have clearly been involved in the nitty-gritty details of church life, and they’ve written a very practical book that covers elder roles, qualifications, selection, decision-making, and more. Numerous recommendations are both sound and insightful. I especially appreciated this reminder to meditate on the gospel:
As elders, we are called to ministry and to preaching the good news that God himself has come to rescue and redeem us through the work of Jesus on our behalf—and that nothing else can or will save us. We must also realize the person we need to preach it to most often is ourselves (108).
Amen! And yet, for all its merits, I won’t recommend Eldership and the Mission of God to other elders. Here are three reasons why.
First, it promotes an impoverished view of the church’s mission.
The authors say many good things about our need for the gospel. But they also express a concern that Christians are so heavenly-minded they’re of no earthly good. Following N. T. Wright, Briggs and Hyatt take a swipe at those who “make salvation about going to heaven.” Missional elders, they argue, will “bring heaven to earth as we live” (25).
I agree that churches should make a difference in the world. We ought to be salt and light; we ought to love our neighbors and do good to all men. Absolutely! But Jesus never pits love of neighbor against the offer of everlasting life, and neither should we. We can promote neighborly love without diminishing the need for salvation from eternal hell. In fact, I would argue we can’t promote neighborly love unless we preach the need for salvation from eternal hell.
Second, it promotes a lack of church membership.
One of the most important tools God gives elders is the concept of church membership. The Bible presents the church as more than a community; it is a congregation of baptized believers. Our gatherings will and should include seekers, and we are right to do all we can to make seekers feel welcome. But it is loving to teach that to be part of the church one must repent, believe, and be baptized.
Bob Hyatt, however, led his church to reject what he calls “formal church membership.” He explains why:
One of the earliest decisions we made together (Bob’s community) was that we would not have formal membership. In those early days, many believed that the desire to be a place where people could belong before they believed superseded the need for formal membership. This means that we would be—out of necessity—an elder-led community. Though we would try to lead by consensus and involve the community as much as possible, we couldn’t do congregational government in the traditional sense without formal membership (134).
I appreciate his desire to make the church “a place where people could belong before they believed.” Many churches can do a much better job making their gatherings safe for people to doubt, question, and explore the faith. Churches should welcome those unready to commit their lives to Jesus and his people. And yet, churches should make clear Jesus demands submission to him as King and allegiance to his body, the church. That’s all formal membership is—but it’s important.
It is obvious Briggs and Hyatt want to have a loving, tolerant, and magnanimous posture toward those in attendance. In many ways I applaud their concern. Yet I can’t help but think the end result robs Christians of the privileges God would have them exercise. In the authors’ ideal church, “Elder decisions tend to be high-level directional issues regarding doctrine or personnel. Decisions regarding our doctrinal statements, church discipline with community members, or letting a staff member go are handled exclusively at the elder level” (135).
As a Baptist who affirms congregational church government, I may encourage more decisions go to the congregation than my elder-rule friends. Nonetheless, their statement highlights a fundamental problem when churches don’t actually have formal membership: Who, exactly, are the “community members” who are disciplined?
Third, it promotes an unhelpful hermeneutic.
Briggs and Hyatt don’t see egalitarianism as a primary issue, and they want freedom among Ecclesia churches to disagree over whether women may serve as elders. I’m a complementarian; I believe God designed men and women to have different roles in the home and in the church. It seems clear to me from Scripture that women are not to serve as elders. This does not make either gender better or worse.
These authors disagree. They’ve looked at key texts, seen the leadership and spiritual influence exercised by women like Esther and Phoebe, and concluded that Paul’s restriction in 1 Timothy 2:12 is merely a command for women not to teach in a domineering way rather than a prohibition against women teaching and overseeing men in the church (174). But my biggest concern is not that Briggs and Hyatt advocate women elders, it’s how they do it.
I’m not convinced Scripture is the only thing driving their conclusion. Could it be they are influenced, at least in part, by a desire to make the Bible palatable? For example, once they agreed that women elders is not an “A-level issue” they asserted, “If our mission was to reach people, we wanted the offense to be in the gospel, not in our polity, ecclesiastical structure, or how we treated half the people who came to our community” (171). In short, they call for women elders—at least in part—because it’s unseemly in the modern world to restrict the office of elder to men. The authors conclude:
For us, telling a woman who is qualified that she cannot lead because of her gender did not seem consistent with the heart of God and his mission in our time and place. And with that realization, we became open to women in leadership in our community if God put them there. We now believe that if God were laying down an absolute law in the New Testament and backing it up by the order of creation, he would have been a little more consistent in his application of the principle throughout the narrative of Scripture (173).
I fear Briggs and Hyatt are letting “our time and place” force an interpretation of the Bible that a plain reading of the text disallows. I fear their reading of “the heart of God” is out of step with the Word of God. I’m convinced their biblical hermeneutic is fraught with problems. As the culture becomes increasingly hostile towards Christianity we need elders who will keep the dock sure, steady, and unmoved, all the while holding a rope out to those drowning in the water of the culture, looking for solid ground.
In many ways Elders and the Mission of God is a helpful book. It’s written by brothers who want to see twenty-first century churches reach as many people as possible for Christ. I’m thankful for their goal. But I’m concerned that in their attempt to make the church relevant, they fall into that common trap of letting the culture shape the church rather than encouraging the church to boldly and winsomely stand firm in the wake of a changing culture.