Elder Governance–A Short Review

Posted: October 5, 2011 in Uncategorized

Books that combine historical reflection, theological thinking, and practical application are generally helpful.  The current book under consideration, Elder Governance: Insights into Making the Transition by Daniel Evans and Joseph Goodwin, is a book that combines all the above aspects and is worth the effort it takes to read it.

Both Daniel Evans and Joseph Goodwin are elders at Patterson Park Church.  Evans, at the time of publication, is (or was) pursuing a MAR in Christian leadership, works in the secular world as a physician and has authored several works.  Goodwin Jr is a teaching pastor at Patterson Park, a graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and has served in the pastorate for over twenty-five years.  These two men are pastors and scholars who have not only written on the subject at hand but have also successfully led their church through a transition to a plural-elder model of church government.

After introducing the reader to the theological foundation for making transition in life and ministry, the authors take the reader through a short history of church government and then explain the theological evidence for a plurality of elders.  Finally, the book seeks to help those who seek to move a church in this direction by giving practical advice to make the transition successful.

The first chapter reminds us that change within the world is a constant.  God has used change in the history of the world to bring about His purposes.  Change within the church can be an avenue God uses to accomplish His work.  Given these things, the authors take the reader through a short review of the three major forms of church government that have existed throughout history.  This context helps us understand where we are a bit better.

Once the authors have helped us think rightly about transitions and understand the history of church governance to a greater degree, they are then ready to establish their doctrinal position.  Once the theology is explained the authors will then take the rest of the book (six chapters, an epilogue, and a couple of appendices) to help church leaders think through actually making the transition.

Beginning the book by helping the reader think through transitions theologically is a nice surprise.  The writers give plenty of scriptural evidence that note how God has used change to accomplish His good purposes.  With that in mind, we can always remember that change could simply be God’s will for our church.  However, it would have been helpful to have read a bit of a balance within this chapter.  Change, it is true, has been used by God in the past.  This does not necessarily mean that God is seeking to use change now.  Change, simply for the sake of change, may not be good.  Pointing this out would have brought a needed balance. 

The two chapters that dealt with the models of church government and a short history of the development of polity were nice summaries of a large topic.  These two chapters were very nicely written and would be valuable pages to turn to if one needed a quick refresher course on models of government or their historical development.

The theological portion of the book serves as a good primer on the plural-elder position.  The office of elder, his qualifications, role, and how the elders function together are all covered in these four chapters.  The first of these chapters (chapter 4), does not seem to add much to the argument being made and much of that information seems to have been able to find its way into the following chapter.  Discussing the development of elders and their New Testament qualifications could be accomplished in one longer chapter and space saved.  At the same time, the chapter that dealt with the church leadership serving as a team seemed to be a chapter that was meant to argue for equality among the elders.  Clearly stating this and arguing biblically/theologically for that position would have added some power to the chapter.  Nevertheless, the chapters would be good introductions to the topics at hand for the reader who has not already studied the issue.

The last portion of the book begins to drive the main focus home.  The need for leadership buy-in begins this section.  If the leaders are wavering on the need for change, on what kind of change is needed, and how to go about making the change, it does not seem likely that the rest of the church would follow their lead.  It would have been helpful to have read some recommendations as to how exactly one could begin to approach and garner the support of the larger leadership within the church.  Without that in the chapter we are left with the idea that buy-in is important but little about how to obtain that buy-in.

The two most helpful chapters were chapters eleven and twelve.  Both these chapters encourage the reader to think through the speed of the transition and how the process is being communicated.  The idea of constant communication with the congregation, along with helping us discern the various ways that different generations communicate, is tremendously helpful as one seeks to move their church towards a new form of government. 

Lastly, it must be noted that much of the book, although well-written, could have been left out.  The book is marketed as one that is meant to help one think through making a transition to elder governance.  However, it is not until chapter eight that the process of transition becomes the focus.  This seems a bit strange.  If a church is looking to transition to a plurality of elders it would stand to reason that they are already convinced of the scriptural warrant to do so.  Outlining the history of church government and arguing for a plural-elder model seems to be wasted space. The previous content mentioned may serve well in a book designed to move a person to this model, but that is not the purpose of the book, or so it would seem from the title.  As a result, as one already convinced of the biblical warrant for plural-elder congregationalism, I found myself skimming and moving quickly through the first half of the book. 

Overall this book proved to be a helpful read.  It refreshed my mind in regards to the plural-elder position, as well as giving me more insight into church history and models of government.  The practical section offered wisdom and guidance and will likely prove to be helpful as church leaders seek to move their congregations in a biblically healthy direction.  The authors have accomplished their task in helping us think more deeply and faithfully about a difficult and emotionally volatile process.

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