170. Book Review # 11: “Eldership in Action through Biblical Governance of the Church” by R.H. Swartley (2005)

Frequently pastors and church board members question me about the relationship between governance and eldership. In most cases skepticism about their compatibility drives their concern. Above all they sense that the very term “board” somehow will contaminate the operations of a local church elders council. Swartley contends the word “board” has “the secular connotations of a corporate board of directors, with all its attendant power relationships.” However, in this assessment he seems overlook the fact that non-profit charities all operate with boards, most of whose members are volunteers and not operating with a corporate model.

I appreciated Swartley’s desire that church leadership structures follow and implement biblical principles and he does a reasonable job of expressing some of these principles. For example, the principle of plurality of elders, the spiritual responsibility the elders have for the teaching, care and protection of the congregation, and the elders’ responsibility to ensure that all ministries are fulfilling their appropriate mandate should be central to every congregation’s leadership and governance structure. A church board is the primary ministry leadership team in a local church and should be modeling the spiritual dynamics of Christian community in all its relationships and operations.

In several areas I think Swartley misapplies New Testament passages or presses them beyond what they can bear to serve his perspectives. He argues for example that “no one, including a pastor or pastors, may be placed in a position of power or authority over individual elders or the council, thereby usurping the the position of Christ.” He repeats this position frequently and in various ways. The question of elder accountability requires considerable discussion and we do not have space to address it fully in this blog. One text he uses to justify this position occurs in Acts 20:28 “guard yourselves and all the church in which the Holy Spirit has set you as episkopous to shepherd the church of God,…” First, although the Holy Spirit obviously is exercising oversight in the church, this text does not define how the Holy Spirit accomplished this. The Spirit may well have used congregational input as part of the process. Secondly, their role as leaders in the church in this verse is that of protecting the “flock,” i.e. shepherding. I do not think this text supports the idea that elders are accountable only to Christ.  By the way the same argument, in my opinion, applies to the interpretation of Titus 1:5. Titus is to ensure that elders are appointed in every city, but no details are provided regarding the process.

Another group of texts brought into the discussion occurs in 1 Timothy 5. Paul gives instructions to his delegated representative Timothy so that good order will prevail within the house churches at Ephesus. He talks about “elders” (5:17ff) who are worthy of double honour because they exercise appropriate care for the body (the translation of proestōtes as “ruling” is possible but not the only option. Given its use in 3:5 to describe a father’s care for his family as credential for serving as an episkopos, I would lean towards the sense “those exercising care.”). Paul also notes that such “elders” are accountable for their sinful actions when appropriately substantiated by witnesses. Timothy is to “convict before all” (5:20). While we cannot prove from this passage that Christians in the house churches appointed elders and elders were accountable to the house church, there was public accountability exercised for the good of the body. While Timothy is to recognize elders by “laying hands” on them, we again have no details as to the process for selection and appointment.

He indicates that the list of roles in Ephesians 4:11-12 describe various kinds of elders, though Paul did not use that term in that setting. Neither is the term elder found in 1 Corinthians 12:27-30 or 1 Thess. 5:12-13. We do not know as Swartley asserts from these passages that “the apostles themselves, and other elders under their instruction, selected some of these workers to be elders.” However, again the process of appointment is not defined in any of these passages. I am not sure we have any explicit cases in the New Testament where elders appointed other elders without reference to congregational input. When Paul and Barnabas “selected elders for them,” i.e. the churches they had established (Acts 14:23), the term used describes the selection and appointment of leaders, but often the process is associated with casting lots or voting (cf. www.internetmoments. #116. “Selecting and Appointing Church Leaders,” for a fuller description of the evidence). Luke in Acts does not define the precise method in this instance.

One of the key texts discussed is the dispute narrated in Acts 15. Certainly apostles and elders engaged the question, but it was before “all the multitude” (15:12) and the whole church agreed  with the conclusion reached by the apostles and elders (15:22). The subsequent detail in 16:4 does not negate the role played by the congregation.

Perhaps the clearest example of congregational involvement in the selection and appointment of leaders occurs in Acts 6:1-6. The apostles proposed a solution and the congregation acted to select the individuals “whom they stood before the apostles” (6:6). The apostles appointed those whom the congregation selected. Their capacity to make such a selection seems to be assumed.

I have taken some space to review these texts because the impression given by Swartley and others who write on these matters is that all the evidence in the New Testament supports their view eldership and, I respectfully suggest that this is not the case. I am aware that gaining congregation input into the selection of elders and enabling their role in such appointments can encounter abuses. However, the same can be said for the system that Swartley proposes. I do not think that Swartley’s conclusion is correct, namely that “the elders are responsible for the congregation, Christ’s flock, not responsible to it.”

The second major perspective that  concerns me in Swartley’s presentation is the portrayal of the congregation. On the one hand he states that the congregation appropriately has voice in various matters, but not when it comes to the appointment of elders. For some reason the congregation lacks the spiritual discernment necessary to engage in what many would regard as the most important decision in the congregation. To my mind this sounds rather elitist — which I am sure Swartley does not intend. However, the message sent is that Holy Spirit is not working in the lives of the congregational members to enable their discernment or that they do not have the spiritual maturity or capacity to make good decisions.

In my view such a position negates the message of the New Testament regarding the capacity and role of the believer in the life of the church. Peter, for example, emphasizes in 1 Peter 2 the transformation God generates in a person when they come to faith. He describes them as “living stones being built into a spiritual house/household for a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices well pleasing to God through Jesus Christ” (2:5). Such language, though metaphorical, does speak to the new capacities with which God gifts his people to serve him. Similarly Paul in 1 Corinthians 12-13 argues vigorously against a spiritual elitism and insists that all members in the Messiah’s “body” have God-given roles and are empowered by the Holy Spirit to serve the body. Yes, believers need to be taught and equipped, but God intends them to do the ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12). If believers are involved in the discernment of matters of spiritual discipline and restoration (Matthew 18:15-20) and can “bind and lose” through their collective decision informed by the presence of Christ himself, why can this not work similarly in the matter of the selection and appointment of elders? I think the activities in Acts 6:1-6 indicate one way in which the early church involved the members in leadership selection.

Finally, I will comment briefly on Swartley’s remarks regarding Carver’s model of governance. In his fourth chapter he asks “how…should this divinely appointed collective leadership be expressed?” In his view the “most common perversion of the elder council’s divinely established responsibility occurs when it is operated as a board of directors.” He rejects this pattern of leadership because”as God’s stewards, the elders collectively function as the owner.” So they are not accountable to any other human agency.

In my reading of the New Testament it does not state that elders “own the church.” Yes, they care for and protect ity, but they do not own it as Swartley states. I think such perspectives push backwards to clergy-laity distinctions which in congregational polities have been found fundamentally harmful to the nurture of congregations. We respect those whom God has led us to entrust with leadership, but they exercise their stewardship on behalf of the congregation, the body of Christ. Varieties of gifting occur, diverse roles emerge, and different vocational callings exist, but all within the life of the congregation and to enhance the life of the “body.” I think the New Testament writers conceive of the church as God’s family/household or temple or body, a very dynamic community in which every believer has responsibility for the health of the body (Galatians 3:25-29). Diversity of role or gifting does not diminish this responsibility. I would suggest that a logical outcome of Swarley’s position is that members in the congregation become spectators or are viewed as resources to be used by the elders to accomplish their own purposes.

But to get back to the question of the appropriateness of Carver’s principles of governance in the context of a local church. Swartley suggests that the principle of boards making policy and then staff implementing, effectively disenfranchises the elders from “doing the ministry.” That is certainly a possible outcome, but one which only arises if those adopting Carver’s principles forget the congregational context of their leadership. Carver’s principles are means to an end, i.e. the effective fulfillment of the congregation’s mission. Some of that work gets done by developing good policy, even following Swartley’s system. In his perspective this gets implemented through one or several elders, not a specific lead pastor. However, he seems to have a fear that the lead pastor or some other elder, if Carver’s governance principles are followed, will “be placed  in the position…of making decisions for the church.” Of course, this is precisely what Carver’s principles control — the limitation of executive power. If appropriate delegation occurs with consistent reporting and assessment in place, then those delegated to implement will know the boundaries for their activities.

He suggests in his chart comparing “biblical elder council” and “board of directors” that in the case of the board of director model “the individual directors are passive” in contrast with the elders who “manage as active leaders and shepherds.” Here is where Swartley runs into one of Carver’s key principles — the separation of governance and management. Swartley mixes these two elements. As Carver himself acknowledges, this often has to occur in smaller, startup entities because the institution cannot afford to hire staff to manage the enterprise. However, it is critical that the governing body (and surely by Swartley’s definition that is what an Elders Council would be) know when it should govern and when it should manage. As the congregation grows the board will focus more in the direction of governance.

Does this mean that elder councils that follow Carver’s principles are “passive managers”? Absolutely not. The are active governors, providing strategic ministry leadership for the congregation particularly in the development of strategic ministry plans. They also may be delegated some management work. It is advisable that elders who are engaged in management leadership be accountable to the lead pastor so that alignment of ministry in fulfillment of mission and vision can occur.

In some respects a congregation does not have a CEO. However, someone needs to have the authority to manage and lead the various aspects of the congregation. Whether you call that person a lead pastor or some other name is irrelevant. The functions have to be fulfilled. In the case of church boards, usually the lead pastor is a voting board member along with other board members and thus all board members have equal authority in decisions. Naturally all church board members do not all possess the same knowledge, experience, skill and giftedness and this is where an effective chairperson helps a board to be effective in its governance. Swartley argues for a collective “CEO” shared among an Elders Council and this may work in some cases, so long as appropriate principles of accountability are being used.

Swartley does have a section on “the Role of the Moderator.”In his view “of all the elders deliberating a matter, the council’s moderator bears the greatest burden.” He quotes appreciatively from Carver’s description of a chairperson’s role. He recognizes that the chair is a “team manager” assisting the board to operate according to biblical and operational principles. Although he regards the term “chairman” as having “power relationship connotation[s],” he immediately proceeds to outline the duty of the “moderator” (to regulate the discussion) and to describe this person as “the chief enforcer of the biblical imperatives for personal conduct.” Sounds like the moderator is as much involved in power relationship as a chairperson.

Swartley seeks sincerely to define a pattern of church governance which he regards as biblical and productive. My criticisms relate to several of his key arguments regarding the relationship between elders and the congregation, which in my opinion are not sustainable in the light of New Testament teaching or the lack of it. I would suggest that the Holy Spirit has given more freedom to the church to discern various patterns of strategic ministry leadership and governance, while adhering to several key principles as I have attempted briefly to outline.


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