I once asked a Baptist minister how often his church takes communion. “Once a quarter, like we always have” was his reply. I had expected that response, so I followed with, “Why is that? Why not more often, say, once a week?” “We can’t do that”, he exclaimed, “if we do it too often, it would lose its meaning.” “I wonder, sir, if you feel the same way about taking the offering?” Crickets.
That very real story is meant to illustrate that all denominations, not just the Baptists, have traditions that don’t come necessarily from Scripture, but from tradition. And a flawed tradition at that. Church polity is no different. Focusing in again on the Baptists, it is my experience, and the observation of Pastors Phil Newton and Matt Schmucker, that most Baptist churches in the US are either CEO driven by a ruling, often charismatic leader, or the equally flawed congregationally ruled church-one man, one vote. There is error and danger at both poles. And is often the case, the trust lies closer to the center.
Elders in the Life of the Church is a new contribution (actually, it is an overhauled second edition to Newton’s previous work, Elders in Congregational Life) to the 9Marks series, designed to help provide a Biblical model for local churches. The book is divided into 3 main sections: (1) Why Elders? (2) Four Key Biblical Texts and (3) From Theory to Practice. I already subscribe to elder lead churches being the Biblical model, so for me, section 3 was the most helpful.
The two chapters I found the most interesting were chapter 5 (from section 1) Character and Congregationalism and chapter 15 (section 3) Thinking about Transitioning to Elder Leadership. I am an outspoken critic of the congregational approach to church polity and these two chapters addressed that angle with the most clarity. There are helpful experiences and anecdotes throughout the entire work, but again, the most helpful ones for me were in chapter 15, in dealing with various attempts to transition specific local churches to an elder lead polity.
One criticism would be this: the authors do a fantastic job of laying out the Biblical support for elder lead churches and are very candid in what has worked for their respective churches during their transitions. But having said that, I feel that the authors did not stress enough the dangers and potential sinfulness of tolerating CEO driven churches and true congregational churches on the other end. As I understand the Bible, there are not 3 different political “styles” that the local church can choose from and one of them happens to be the most “helpful”, but rather, only one of them is Biblical and thus the others are not. CEO churches and congregational churches should be challenged to examine the word and repent for their failure to conform to the standard of the Word. This book, in dealing with this exact audience, in my mind, did not present the reader with an urgency to conform, but offered more of a prescription to follow should the opportunity arise.
Having said that, it is an easy recommendation. My church needs this book and there is a good chance that yours does as well. Submitting to the standards of Scripture is what is demanded of us, even when it will make us unpopular, and this book is leading the charge in challenging local leaders to make it right. Enough is enough.