Benjamin L. Merkle. 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2007. 272 pp. $12.85.
The topic of church structure seems to be gaining in popularity as more and more pastors and seminary students ask important questions about polity. Ben Merkle has contributed well to this discussion with this entry to the 40 Questions series. Merkle combines scholarly insight with brevity and readability to help Christians to see the value of a plurality of elders leading a church without losing all the benefits of congregationalism.
In general, I find myself agreeing with Merkle’s answers to the important questions about deacons and elders. I agree that the biblical model is that there are 2 offices in the church—elder (also called overseer or pastor) and deacon—and that a church should have a plurality of elders. I also agree that the office of elder is rightly biblically restricted to men, though such a restriction is in no way a claim of male superiority.
I appreciate very much Merkle’s handling of the qualifications of elders and deacons. In those chapters, as in much of the rest of the book, the author has thoughtfully organized his material in a way that would greatly benefit a church looking into these issues. I found his discussion of the phrase “husband of one wife” to be solid and helpful. Personally (and perhaps a bit on the self-congratulatory side), I was excited to see Merkle make an argument against polygamy as the only meaning behind “husband of one wife” that I had often thought but had never seen in print (see chapter 16).
The 40 questions format, while great for reference and readability, necessarily limits the author’s ability to discuss certain issues in depth. For example, in a discussion of women in ministry, Merkle makes a sweeping statement about the gift of prophecy, “Wayne Grudem has convincingly demonstrated that prophecy was a spontaneous utterance and thus distinct from teaching or preaching” (143). Full volumes are written in an attempt to convincingly argue the meaning of New Testament prophecy. Thus, to put in the word “convincingly” in a single sentence on the topic is not sufficient. Of course I recognize that Merkle was not intending to write on the issue of prophecy, and he was limited by the brevity of his chapters, but these explanations for the weakness do not make the weakness not present.
I also know that not all readers will find Merkle convincing on the more controversial issues regarding elders and deacons. Such issues may include discussions of women as deacons or of parity of elders. I think that I would enjoy reading Merkle on these topics in a larger format so that he could make a more convincing argument for his position.
Conclusion and Recommendation
Though the book has strengths and weaknesses, I would highly recommend 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons as a solid resource for churches that are looking into biblical church structure. If your church is considering a move to elders, or if you are curious about the issue in more than a cursory way, you will benefit strongly from reading through Merkle’s introduction of the important issues.