Elders in the Life of the Church

Newton, Phil A. and Matt Schmucker. Elders in the Life of the Church: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2014. 256 pp. $16.99. Amazon |Barnes & Noble Christianbook.com | Westminster Books

EldersElders in the Life of the Church is a book about transition. How do churches transition to a plurality of elders leading the church like we read in Acts and the epistolary literature of the New Testament? Specifically, what are the Baptist roots for eldership? What are the benefits for recovering plural elder leadership in the local church? While this book is written with an eye towards Baptist church leaders, any leader with questions regarding eldership in the church would do good to turn to this pastoral manual. Phil A. Newton and Matt Schmucker, writing from experience and a well-founded biblical foundation, seek to answer these questions and provide practical wisdom for transitioning a church towards a elder-led model of church leadership. This book serves as a extensive update to Phil Newton’s 2005 offering, Elders in Congregational Life also published on Kregel. Matt Schmucker, founding executive director of 9Marks and an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washinton, D.C., injects additional pastoral substance and executive experience making this volume invaluable for every church leader. 

Historically-grounded within the roots of Baptist life, these authors argue that a plurality of elders was practically the warp and woof of Baptist ecclesiology from its inception. They state, “In short, the practice was not universal, but many Baptist churches of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries practiced plural leadership” (29). Eldership is certainly baptistic, though history records various nuances based on context. Historic baptists on the whole concluded that plural eldership reflected a careful reading and understanding of the New Testament model. Walking readers through the biblical and historical evidence for elder leadership in the church, Newton and Schmucker provide a well-tempered text for church leaders to consider. Their most helpful chapter for readers is chapter five on “Character and Congregationalism.” The authors observe, “Elders not only lead the congregations, they must also work with each other. The character qualities are therefore critical for plural leadership to live in unity and work together in humility” (75). This grand biblical vision for leading the church requires Spirit-derived character and the humility to exercise Christian virtues among fellow leaders. Such a vision encourages the church towards greater humility and unity as they follow their shepherds. They note, “Shared authority hones the focus and spirituality of the elders” (80). This is truly the desired outcome for God’s people who follow the leadership of God’s shepherds.

Rather than leaving readers with theory divorced from application, Newton and Schmucker lay a foundation then lead readers across its level path. Sharing the pulpit, letting all elders have turns to address the body, and wisely transitioning your church body into elder leadership are just a few of the practical guiding steps provided to readers. Elders in the Life of the Church highlights the spiritual battles which may ensue in the journey towards eldership. There are also numerous rewards including the possibility of a vibrant and spiritually healthy local church. Our authors make one of the best cases for transitioning to elder leadership available today. Reflective questions at the end of each chapter make this a useful text for pastors and leadership teams praying through this sort of transition. The book layout itself is a little clumsy, with some chapters dramatically shorter than others, making them seem more like an extended footnote rather than a useful chapter within the flow of the text (specifically chapter four suffers from this). Otherwise, this text should greatly serve leaders who are looking deeply into this question. These authors understand the pain involved as well as the deep spiritual pleasure in successfully transitioning a church to elder leadership. For those needing their wisdom, these authors invite readers to share in their journey so that local churches everywhere may experience the fruits of biblical leadership: a vibrant spirituality in the church and a faithful witness in the world for God’s glory.

Thanks to Kregel Publications for providing a free review copy in exchange for an honest review!

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