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Why Elders?

Many of us were introduced to the topic of elders through Alexander Strauch’s book, Biblical Eldership. Then in 1999 John Piper published the booklet Biblical Eldership. This was followed by Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church in 2000. A few years later, in 2005, Phil Newton wrote a book with Baptist churches specifically in mind: Elders in Congregational Life. That same year, John Hammett, another Baptist, came out with Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, where he supports plural elder leadership. Timothy Witmer, a Presbyterian, just wrote a very practical guide to eldership in the Shepherd Leader. Merkle’s books, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons and its child, Why Elders? A Biblical and Practical Gide for Church Members, are important additions to the conversation.

If you are new to this conversation, it may be hard to understand why Merkle’s contribution is so important. First, Merkle is a New Testament scholar. He has studied the Greek text closely in an attempt to provide fresh, biblical arguments. Second, Merkle is a Baptist who teaches at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. For some, seeing a board of elders in a Baptist church is a little like seeing a Tyrannosaurus Rex in Central Park-and about as welcome. Piper, Dever, Newton, Hammett, and now Merkle, are helping Baptists understand that plural elder leadership is consistent with Baptist ecclesiology. Finally, in Why Elders?, Merkle writes for the pew. This is a book pastors can put in the hands of church members to help demystify the arguments for plural elders.

When I read Why Elders? I was (and am still) in the midst of leading the Baptist church I serve to adopt plural elder leadership. (This church is unique in that the topic of elders came up years before I came. Furthermore, several Baptist churches in the area already have elders.) I have served at two other Baptist churches that have moved this direction, so I know very well the opposition that some have to this model of church government. Seeking to change the leadership structure of a church raises serious questions:

  • If this is biblical, why aren’t more churches doing it?
  • How can we be congregational if we have elders?
  • What are our deacons going to do?

These are the types of questions that Merkle addresses. Why Elders? has four chapters, each one offering a defense of plural elder leadership.

First, he argues that elder leadership is the pattern of the New Testament church. Merkle does not address whether the pattern of leadership is a prescription for change. But the evidence he offers begs the question, “If this is how the apostles organized the earliest churches, why wouldn’t we want to follow suit?” It is in this chapter that Merkle insists plural elder leadership is consistent with congregationalism.

In chapter two, Merkle argues that plural elder leadership is important to give the main pastor help and accountability. Merkle explains how each elder has equal authority while one pastor, by virtue of gifts and calling, may be the first among equals.

Merkle writes in chapter three that elder-led churches are healthier churches. Here he answers why more churches don’t have elder leadership, works through the qualifications of an elder, and explains why it is appropriate, but not necessary, to pay one or more elders. It is not clear to me how the content of this chapter fits the title of the chapter, “It Produces a Healthier Church.” But this is a small criticism given the important topics addressed.

Finally, in the last chapter, Merkle shows how a healthy elder board empowers the deacons. Deacons exist to serve the church in practical, task-oriented ways. Just as the deacons of Acts 6 freed the apostles to devote themselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer, so churches, in a twenty-first century context, are “free to define the tasks of deacons based on their particular needs” (98).

To save space, several important questions are not addressed in Why Elders? Readers will need to turn to 40 Questions for more discussion of whether women can serve as deacons or whether divorce disqualifies a man from serving as an elder. Also, though we know Baptist leaders advocated for plural eldership in the early nineteenth century (including the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention) we would be helped to know why so many churches did not heed this counsel and why the practice seemed to die out. Merkle’s three answers (lack of qualified men, lack of biblical knowledge, and fear of change) explain where we are now but not how we got here.

Baptist pastors especially will want to give this book (as I already have) to church members in order to fight against the prevailing thesis that having elders is, somehow, not Baptist.

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