Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Elders in Congregational Life by Phil Newton

There has been quite a resurgence of Biblical polity in many churches that have, seemingly since the advent of the Second Great Awakening and Finney-brand revivalism, often been plagued by an unbiblical model of church government. I remain convinced from Scripture of the necessity of a plurality of qualified and called pastor-elders to serve as under-shepherds, leading God's local flock. I do still have reservations as to the validity of congregationalism, but do see that the idea(generally) is not completely foreign to Scripture. In particular, Newton presents a rather convincing argument for the necessity and legitimacy of a type of congregationalism, particularly one led by a plurality of elders.
Phil Newton's book,Elders in Congregational Life , dives into the challenge of moving a church with an unbiblical government to a church with a plurality of qualified elders. This book seems specifically aimed at Southern Baptists, but is applicable beyond. By being aimed at Baptist, Newton is able to address specific issues, use specific examples and pull from the history of the denomination, while consistently basing his argument in Scripture, to counter illegitimate examples, modern tradition that spurns the tradition of the founders of the SBC and poor exegesis.

Newton divides the book into three sections. The first section is used by Newton to address the problem of poor church polity and the history of biblical church polity in the SBC. Section two looks at 3 specific passages and how they support the idea of a plurality of leadership and what a biblical elder actually resembles. Section 3 is the application section. Rather than begin by giving a list of how-to's and pages of commands and promises, Newton chooses instead to tell the story of some churches that have made the change, and the challenges faced and success enjoyed by these examples. He then proceeds to make some practical suggestions. It is important to note that this section is not binding. It is not commanded in Scripture, or even modeled in Scripture, but it is practical advise gleaned from multiple sources that have led a change in a congregational church from single elder/pastor to plural, biblical elders.

It was when Newton began dealing specifically with the “first amongst equals”, or the “senior pastor”, that he lost my seemingly perpetual “amen”. The term itself, “senior pastor”, when applied to a man is offensive to me. According to Scripture, Christ is the Senior Pastor, the Chief Shepherd, of His Church and, subsequently, every local church. Anyone who serves the church as an elder is an under-shepherd of Christ. This is not just some semantical* nit-picking because it is important, as Newton points out in his book, that every elder realize that he is not autonomous and that he is accountable to the Shepherd for how he handles His flock. Beyond that, when addressing the role of the “senior pastor”, it seemed to place much too high an emphasis on him. Plurality of leadership did not seem to flow into plurality in the pulpit and plurality when leading the way in decisions and announcements and vision. I would have liked Newton to have offered a vision of true plurality, where a plurality of men are filling the pulpit on a regular basis and the vision of the church is solely tied to the church, and not to the “first amongst equals”.

Elders in Congregational Life is great for what it is. It is concise yet robust, dealing with the Biblical mandates, support and examples as well as addressing the rich history of plurality of leadership within Baptist history. The practical sections give a lot of great ideas, if at times the advice seemed a bit one-size-fits-all. If you want a broader defense of plurality of leadership and exposition of the texts dealing with plurality and elder qualifications, I would suggest Strauch's Biblical Eldership. But, if you want a solid, congregationalist based argument for plurality and a sufficiently thorough exposition on the qualifications of an elder, Newton's Elders in Congregational Life is a great read.

*It appears that the word “semantical” may not exist. For the sake of clarity, brevity, and possibly irony, I have left it in. Plus, legitimate semantics or not, I like the word. :-D