Benjamin Merkle and Thomas Schreiner. Shepherding God’s Flock: Biblical Leadership in the New Testament and Beyond. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2014. $18.99.
Almost three centuries ago, pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards offered this observation on the value of godly leaders: “Useful men are some of the greatest blessings of a people. To have many such is more for a people’s happiness than almost anything. . . . They are precious gifts of heaven.”
Competent shepherd-leaders are of particular worth to a congregation since their ministry is one of the primary means Christ uses to protect and provide for his people. It seems obvious, then, that those who desire to grow in their skill as shepherds and capacity to bless God’s people should make the study of biblical leadership a high priority.
In Shepherding God’s Flock: Biblical Leadership in the New Testament, editors Benjamin Merkle (professor of New Testament Greek at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina) and Thomas Schreiner (professor of New Testament interpretation and biblical theology at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky) have marshaled their own group of skilled shepherds to help the church develop and sustain convictions on the necessity of a biblical pastoral ministry. Writing from a baptistic framework, the contributors establish a case for congregational churches led by a plurality of qualified elders.
Bigger than the Pulpit
For pastors who have nursed the mistaken notion that pastoral ministry is only a pulpit ministry, Andrew Davis’s counsel on the necessity of setting an example for the flock will serve as a timely exhortation:
Leaders should teach their flock by clear example how to pray, evangelize, study the Bible, love and lead a wife, train children, deal with adversity, face persecution, make difficult decisions, and put temptations to death by the Spirit. This kind of “life on life” role modeling is very difficult to achieve in the busy, 21st-century setting in which we find ourselves. It is far easier to have a scheduled Bible study on Thursday afternoon in the pastor’s office than to observe him making a household budget or disciplining a child. One of the biggest sacrifices for a busy leader is to open his life and his home to a young disciple so he can lead by example. (349)
Davis’s counsel is apt given our enjoyment of many fine preaching and teaching ministries. Yet with the blessing of renowned preaching ministries comes the temptation to conceive of ministry only in terms of formal teaching. But a good preacher does not a pastor make, and several chapters—especially the three just mentioned—remind us of the importance of a qualified, well-rounded ministry.
Elders and the Problem of (Baptist) History
Alongside these useful expository sections are a number of chapters dealing with questions of history and arguments that oppose a baptistic view of church polity. For example, historians Michael Haykin and Gregg Allison examine the development of the papacy, while Nathan Finn and Jason Duesing offer their respective critiques of Presbyterian and Anglican forms of church government.
Shawn Wright investigates the Baptist tradition but refuses to doctor the evidence to establish a clear historical precedent for a plurality of elders. Instead, he demonstrates that throughout their history Baptists have seen a few prominent leaders actually distance themselves from the idea that a church should guided by multiple elders. Benjamin Keach (1640–1704) and John Gill (1697–1771) are the most notable examples, each of whom “downplayed the necessity of plural elders” and influenced other churches to do the same (283).
Nor do historic Baptist confessions offer a definitive word on the issue. On whether the preferred structure of church leadership should consist of plural eldership, Wright notes a “decided ambiguity” running through the London Confessions (1641, 1646, 1689), the New Hampshire Confession (1833, 1853), the Abstract of Principles (1858) and the Baptist Faith and Message (1925, 1963, 2000). Nevertheless, he observes, “Historical investigation is not the same as advocacy” (298). Although those insisting on a plurality of elders have often been in the minority, there is a “recent resurgence of advocacy of plural elders among Baptists” (298). According to Wright, this growing support for plural eldership among Baptists makes sense given their historic commitment to the authority of Scripture and its pattern of elders exercising oversight in a church.
Despite this biblical pattern, though, Wright speaks for himself and the other contributors when he distinguishes between practices essential for the church’s life (esse) and for its well-being (bene esse). Establishing a plurality of qualified elders fits the biblical model, but a true church can exist without it. “A church can exist apart from plural elders,” he writes, but it “cannot exist apart from the gospel” (298). That said, Shepherding God’s Flock doesn’t shy away from extolling the wisdom of instituting a plurality of elders who feed, protect, and serve Christ’s sheep in the local church.
Though the authors provide a compelling case for elder-led congregational polity, there’s some unnecessary overlap between the chapters. Rather than referring to previous sections with a footnote or parenthetical citation, several authors offer their own take for why we should understand the terms “elder,” “overseer,” and “pastor” synonymously. The pedagogical value of repetition notwithstanding, I would’ve liked to see a few of these recurring sections trimmed for the sake of readability.
Despite this minor weakness, Shepherding God’s Flock should be regarded as a valuable addition to the discussion on church leadership. By drawing our attention to Scripture as the final arbiter over questions of church government, and by using historical studies to expose the inherent weaknesses of certain leadership structures, this book helps us appreciate the need for a biblical polity.
While it’s true that a church can exist without a plurality of qualified elders, it doesn’t follow that the question of leadership is inconsequential, nor that the health of a church will remain unaffected by how its leadership is structured and evaluated. When New Testament qualifications for shepherds are ignored for the expediency of a magnetic personality, or when biblical leadership structures are set aside in favor of tradition, we can only expect trouble to follow. But when qualified men are placed into the right roles and given the right responsibilities, they will prove to be a great blessing to the church. They might even be called “precious gifts of heaven.”