I’ve read the first of the three books that were being given away by Mark Dever at The Whiteboard Sessions. The title of this small work (61 pages) is: A Display Of God’s Glory – Basics of Church Structure – Deacons, Elders, Congregationalism & Membership.
This is the first book I’ve read by Mark Dever and I maybe shouldn’t have started with this one. I was looking forward very much to reading his book on church health, and I still will, but now I have a bad taste in my mouth for his writings.
The premise of this book is stated on page 2 in the introduction.
When we say that church polity can be found in the pages of the New Testament, that does not mean that we assume the correctness of our own practices and then go in search of ways to justify them biblically. Rather, our goal must be to look at the Bible, recognize some basic aspects of structure and organization that are taught there, and then organize our churches according to the Bible’s teaching.
This is much easier said than done. Actually setting aside one’s closely held beliefs and going to Scripture free from preconceived notions and ideas, is probably the hardest task we face with regard to studying the Bible. Unfortunately, I don’t believe Dever accomplished his opening resolution.
Chapter one deals with the subject of Deacons. I was with the author as he defined the function and role of the deacon according to Scripture. He even pointed out the widespread use of the word throughout the New Testament. On page 13 though I started to question things. He makes this statement.
That deacons are commanded to be the “husband of one wife” does not preclude the service of women in diaconal positions. The example of Phoebe in Romans 16:1, the use of “deacon” words elsewhere of women in the Scriptures, and to a lesser degree, the long history of deaconnesses in Baptist churches, has led our own church happily to embrace the ministry of women serving us as deacons.
Now to be fair, I had previously somewhat agreed with this position. When I read it though, it struck me as wrong. Paul actually gives Timothy more instruction concerning deacons and their wives, than he does for elders. Yet Dever later goes on to insist that women cannot be elders. So when Paul says that an elder must be the husband of one wife, that means no women elders, but when he says a deacon must be the husband of one wife, and that his wife should behave in a certain way, that means it’s OK for women to be deacons? I don’t follow that logic.
Earlier in the chapter Dever pointed out that Jesus and Paul both used the “deacon words” about themselves, and he doesn’t seem to believe that either of them was serving in the role of deacon. When Paul uses the “deacon words” concerning women though, Dever seems to think that means these women were serving in the office of deacon, rather than just “serving” as the word means, and as he meant it concerning himself. He even suggested at one point that the qualifications for both elder and deacon are things that all Christians should be doing. Agreed. So when we see a Christian woman doing those things, that doesn’t mean she’s filling the office of deacon.
I would need further prayer saturated study on the subject, but I think Dever may have just unwittingly convinced me to disagree with a position that I used to hold in common with him.
This was one of the lesser issues I have with the book though. Moving on…
Again, I started out tracking just fine with him in this chapter, but things soon went awry. He spoke to the idea that eldership should be plural in the local church. He even spoke to the fact that elder, pastor, shepherd, overseer and bishop are all used interchangeably by Paul to refer to the same office.
It was at this point that he started hunting for justification for an office of pastor that is distinct from that of elder. He tried hard not to say that, just as the Presbyterians do with their whole teaching elder vs ruling elder routine. The distinction is as thin and vaporous for him as it is for them. He does admit that the Bible does not teach an office of pastor distinct from elder, but then asserts:
I do think that we can discern a distinct role among the elders for the one who is the primary public teacher of the church. [emphasis his]
He then gives four “glimpses” of the role of pastor as distinct from that of ordinary elders.
- Timothy was an elder who was different from the others (in Ephesus) in that he came from outside the local body rather than being raised up within it.
- Some elders where supported full-time by the church, while others were not.
- Paul wrote to Timothy rather than to all the elders in Ephesus.
- Jesus’ dictation of letters to John were to be delivered to the “messenger (singular) of each of these churches.”
He admits that these are not “air-tight commands” but says they are “consistent with our practice” of having a paid professional who is unique among the elders and known as “the pastor”.
I would respond to these points in this way.
- Where does it say that Timothy was an elder? He was the representative of an Apostle, sent to correct some faulty preaching. Paul calls him a “deacon of Christ Jesus” in 1 Timothy 4:6 and in 2 Timothy 4:5 tells him to “do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” He also gives him instructions to leave Ephesus and come to Rome. Yeah, Timothy was different from the Ephesian elders, because he wasn’t one.
- Does this make the paid ones pastors? That’s thin logic. And the verses he gives as proof of his logic are 1 Timothy 5:17-18 in which Paul is writing to Timothy, who is supposed to be the paid professional, telling him to make sure he gets paid by the congregation? Why didn’t Paul write that to the congregation instead of Timothy. I think he’s reading into that passage. His other text is Philippians 4:15-18 where Paul is thanking the Philippians for a financial gift they sent him and for their support in the past. But Paul is a missionary and church planter, not a pastor/elder.
- Timothy was Paul’s protege and had been instructed to remain in Ephesus and correct some wrongs. He wasn’t the full-time paid pastor over the elders there. See also my answer to #1.
- In my Bible (ESV, NASB, KJV) is says “angel” but I’ll take his rendering of “messenger.” Does he mean that the letters were written to the pastors of these churches? Fascinating. I don’t know how he got there. He doesn’t explain.
Basically, I felt like he was doing exactly what he had stated we should not do
…assume the correctness of our own practices and then go in search of ways to justify them biblically.
In this chapter Dever says that the congregation is the ultimate earthly court in all matters of both discipline and doctrine. He says that no one should impose either of those things on a particular congregation, from the outside. The problems with this idea are Paul’s letters, in which he’s doing exactly that, and Acts 15.
He goes way out on the limb talking about congregational, democratic votes for church discipline being modeled for us in 2 Corinthians 2:6-8. There was no vote there, Paul told them to discipline that man, and how to do it, in 1 Corinthians 5:4-5. He didn’t tell them to vote on it, he told them to do it.
The biggest stretch Dever made, and the one at which I stopped reading, was when he explained Hebrews 13:17 to mean that the congregation should “trust” the elders.
Obey your leaders and submit to them…
Odd way of saying “trust” isn’t it? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting the elders should tyrannically rule over the congregation. When it comes to matters of discipline and doctrine though, Paul did not leave it up to the congregation to democratically vote on “the fundamental definition of the gospel” as Dever seems to think. Paul wrote letters that we now include in the Cannon of Scripture to straighten out these churches when their doctrine had gone wrong. If the local congregation was “the court of [earthly] final appeal” as Dever says it is for all matters “of discipline or of doctrine”, then why is Paul trying to “from the outside…mandate something for a particular congregation” which Dever says should not be done?
Dever is a Baptist and was defending his job as a paid pastor in a denomination that practices congregationalism. The disappointing thing is his clear, and correct, introductory premise which he eagerly abandons in the following chapters.
Now I don’t trust his writing much, and I was so looking forward to seeing what he had to say about church health…