When it comes to church polity, there is no shortage of debate. Lectures abound on YouTube, books proliferate the internet, and blogs frequently highlight why their approach is better than yours. In reality, governing a church in the modern world is not quite as simple as, “well, what did they do in the New Testament?” This is how many people try to solve the tension, but even then, variety finds life. I have long held the opinion that the congregational model is the ideal, which is not surprising given my Baptist and Assembly of God roots. However, over the course of the last two years, my thinking has changed. One of the latest markers in this journey has been Elders in the Life of the Church by Phil Newton and Matt Schmucker. The book lays out a cogent argument for why churches should use an elder based model, and is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the topic.
The book was originally published as Elders in Congregational Life, but the folks over at 9Marks have sought to update that title to give the current book its format and perspective. 9Marks is known for offering practical advice to church leadership, and advocating against the CEO model of leadership prevalent in the United States. Thanks to Kregel Publications, and their high quality books, these ideas are clearly laid out in Elders in the Life of the Church. This book is very strong in its Biblical exposition and its accessible approach. Any Christian could pick this up, and interact with it on whatever level they inhabit. New Christian, life-long Christian, does not matter. ELC is intended for anyone to read it. The other place where the book is strongest is in their advice on transition. If a pastor or elder board finds they need to transition a congregation to the specific model laid out by Newton and Schmucker, this book provides real, tangible advice for how to accomplish that (the “evolution, not revolution” bit as my favorite).
That does not mean the book is without weaknesses, the chief among them being the authors’ conviction. I know that this is a strange complaint, but the argument about how to govern a church is not new, so to claim the “best” or “only Biblical” model always comes across pretentious. Schmucker and Newton are anything but pretentious, to be sure, but the argument tends that way. While I think they write graciously, one cannot avoid the claim of one-sided dogma the way the book is framed. I would appreciate it if books like this would offer more of a via media when it comes to church polity, as each of the three main models have weaknesses. Rather than landing in one spot and planting the flag of Christ, we should be landing in multiple places and plantings flags.
But do not misunderstand, Elders in the Life of the Church is worth your time. It is a short read, and serves as probably the most straightforward summation of the elder-led model I have ever encountered. If you have questions about how a church should be governed, or how to transition to an elder model, this is one of the best resources out there.