Eldership and the Mission of God: Equipping Teams for Faithful Church Leadership

Written by J. R. Briggs and Bob Hyatt Reviewed By David Mathis

I was reading The Hunger Games all over again: the creative concept, the captivating opening chapters, the forward-thinking perspective, unfettered to the categories of the past—and then, all too soon, the sneaking suspicion that something in the narrative was amiss. Was this storyline just too good to resolve well? I began to cringe at the thought that this might end in disappointment, that our heroes might not be grounded enough to avoid that one fretful, but significant indiscretion just as the story was ending. I wish my worries had been needless.

I had found so much to celebrate along the way. Evangelicals, perhaps especially Reformed types like myself, could use a balanced and biblical exploration of what eldership will be in the increasingly post-Christian days ahead. Eldership and the Mission of God has no wrist-binding nostalgia for the pastors of another age, no sentimental notions about the practices of the old Puritan shepherds. God bless Puritan theology, but the methods, of necessity, were fit for a bygone era. But Briggs and Hyatt are ready to ask the uncomfortable questions about what it means to be pastor-elders in the twenty-first century, when posting service times on a display board outside the church is no longer enough to inspire the masses to come steaming in. What will it look like to be elders who think like missionaries?

I was pleasantly surprised to find the wonderful, clear embrace of plurality in the eldership (throughout, and especially in chapter 8) and church discipline (chapter 10), and even a subtle and measured anti-church growth subtheme. In places, the book almost read like something from 9Marks, even if the specific roots in the biblical texts were thin in spots, and lacking in others (which contributed to my sneaking suspicion). It had the ring of wisdom to advocate team consensus over mere majority decisions, and to emphasize how vital is the health of the elders as a team. Do the elders trust each other? Are they welcoming? Are they forthright and self-disclosing? Caring? Gentle? On mission? What the elders are as a team, the church soon will be as a body.

In particular, the authors make good on the focus of the title and the notion of elders being agents of mission amid their communities. The church will not be on mission if her elders are not. The flock will not do the hard work to press out of the Christian bubble and into the world, into significant relationships with the lost, if her shepherds are not. And elder teams are essential in modeling the unity, harmony, and camaraderie the church should have.

Even with my growing suspicions that something wasn’t right under the hood, I was caught off guard in chapter 8 by the nonchalant mention of “one of our former elders, Sarah” (p. 124). Sarah? That didn’t sound like a one-woman man. Feminine pronouns confirmed it. But they did say “former elder.” Let’s wait and see where this goes.

I really wanted to like this book. I was eager for a resource that would take a chastened but prophetic perspective on eldership in light of the post-Christian mission in the West. I’m eager for a resource on “missional eldership” for the eldership course I teach to seminarians, as well as to use in the life of our local church, where we’re training men for the office.

But the ironies were telling of a greater confusion to come. I found it odd that Briggs and Hyatt would argue so extensively (and helpfully) for the community’s role in decision-making while treating church membership as an unimportant reality. And the greatest irony was to come.

Chapter 9 began to expose the weakness. Something seemed askew in the talk about listening for the voice of the Spirit, a hitch in the Word-Spirit dynamic. I noted that at least the authors could use more care in addressing “what God is saying to you.” Is God speaking through his word, or does “listening to the Spirit” happen in one’s own head, without the Scriptures open. Talk of “listening to the Spirit” can serve as an easy cover for sanctifying one’s own thoughts without owning up to it.

At least this much was clear: Briggs and Hyatt were emphasizing “the Spirit” to the detriment of the Word. Then the curtain came all the way back in chapter 11.This chapter is unlike anything else in the book. The authors turn to the question of women elders, and Hyatt tells the story of planting a complementarian church that seemed to have trouble reaching its community with all-male elders, and so made a midcourse correction to egalitarianism.

For several months, the elders read up on the topic, and convenient for the mission, found the egalitarian perspective freshly persuasive. When it comes time to quote a scholar, it’s William Webb and his Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals (p. 170). Then the authors proceed to rehash the speculative egalitarian arguments from the 1970s—Phoebe, Junia, Priscilla, and all—that have been so ably answered by those who take the Bible’s teaching on gender seriously.

It is sad thing that, motivated by how those we’re wanting to reach will receive us, they take away a vital part of the counter-culture people need. This is an issue about which our society is terribly confused. Churches that abandon God’s pattern do their people a massive disservice—as well as society. God’s pattern in creation will prevail, and a day is coming when the society will finally own up to the confusion, and look to the church for help in healing. What a tragedy it will be for churches that have buckled under society’s pressure and have nothing to offer in this important area of human life and relationships.

It is a terrible misunderstanding of eldership (and a contradiction of what the authors say earlier in the book) to imply that a woman must hold the office of elder to be doing meaningful ministry (p. 172). That is patently not the case. All Christians do ministry. The elders are to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Eph 4:11–12). Women (and all who are not elders!) are in no way “excluded from leading people closer to the heart of God” (p. 172). This is province of every believer. To imply anything else is to evidence an unfortunate gaff in one’s ecclesiology.

The authors point again and again to women being qualified and competent. But this is not an issue of competency, but obedience. As a man, I’m happy to admit that women are often the more competent gender. But God has made it more than clear that the elders are to be qualified men. In churches where this is treated as privilege, women rightly will bristle. But where elders are manifestly self-sacrificial, relentlessly taking loving initiative and giving of their own time and energy for the benefit of others, it will produce a world of difference. It may still repel some, but many others will be won to what they were designed for.

Evangelicals could use a good book on missional eldership. Unfortunately, this is not it.

David Mathis

David Mathis
Desiring God
Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

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