Thabiti Anyabwile. Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012. 173 pages. $10.99.
If you’re a church leader, then Thabiti Anyabwile has a gift for you. Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons is an immensely practical guide to identifying, enlisting, and reproducing godly leaders in the church.
Anyabwile does not aim in this little volume to make a case for having elders and deacons; agreement there is assumed. Instead, his goal is to put a biblically drenched recruiting manual into the hands of church leaders who desire to see other qualified leaders raised up in their midst.
Based on Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 3 and 4, the book is divided into three parts. Part one, “Finding Table Servants,” focuses on deacons—the nature of the office and the qualifications for service. Part two, “Finding Reliable Elders,” considers the qualifications for eldership: above reproach, a one-woman man, gentle, hospitable, able to teach, and so forth. Part three, “What Good Pastors Do,” reflects on the duties of eldership, such as refuting error, setting an example, hoping in God, teaching, and watching both life and doctrine. Most chapters conclude with a list of “Questions and Observations,” and much of the book’s value lies here.
Developing and Deploying Deacons
Anyabwile’s discussion of the deaconate includes several helpful insights and clarifications. Reflecting on the proto-deacon position introduced in Acts 6, Anyabwile explains that the position of deacon was established to promote harmony across cultural, linguistic, and other lines of division (21).
Pause for a moment and consider what your church’s deacons are like. What do they do? Would you describe them as a harmonizing presence in the body’s midst? Anyabwile explains, “Deacons were the early church’s ‘shock absorbers.’ They absorbed complaints and concerns, resolved them in godliness, and so preserved the unity and witness of the saints” (21). Uniquely positioned on the front line of caring for the body, deacons have the joy of rendering largely unseen service for the practical good of their fellow members and the quiet honor of their King. (For several helpful articles on the topic of deacons, see the May-June 2010 issue of the 9Marks eJournal.)
Further, in light of the overtly spiritual role of elders, it can be easy to view deacons as practical do-gooders who need not engage in heavy theological lifting. We may run the risk, Anyabwile observes, of considering them as “technocrats with specialized skills but little or no theological acumen. We may think of deacons as doers but not as thinkers” (36). But, he observes, the apostle includes keeping hold of the faith in his list of qualifications (1 Tim. 3:9). At the very least, this demands a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus coupled with a firm handle on the gospel and its implications. We should ask, then, whether a prospective deacon has learned to think “from the cross outward.” Does he hold the deep truths of the faith without reservation? Does he bring those truths to bear on his life and ministry? We cannot afford to rush past such questions.
Identifying and Enlisting Elders
The bulk of the book is devoted to recognizing shepherds—that is, elders or pastors whom God has entrusted with spiritual authority to lead and teach his flock. As with his discussion of deacons, Anyabwile meditates on the biblical qualifications relevant to the office.
Indeed, the office of elder isn’t something to be treated lightly. Desire for the work is necessary and commendable (1 Tim. 3:1), but it isn’t sufficient. In a section worthy of careful reflection, Anyabwile explains the complicated nature of finding qualified men:
Some men may “want the office,” but their wanting is really lust for power, and so they are not fit. Conversely, some men who are fit for the office think that wanting it shows pride, ungodly ambition, or impoliteness. Finally, some men are probably qualified, but they either lack the desire or think they are not qualified because they’re holding onto some idea of a “super elder.” (51)
One of the most significant emphases of the book is that eldering is largely about exampling. Churches must therefore seek men whose inner and outer lives are woven together by integrity and godliness. In fact, the qualification “above reproach” (1 Tim. 3:2) functions as an umbrella for all the others that follow (57). Godly pastors shape a church’s culture and set its tone through holiness. If a man isn’t conspicuously holy, then he simply isn’t fit to pastor God’s people. Elders, after all, stand at the head of the “countercultural alternative” offered to the community—if they aren’t attractively distinct, who will be? It is therefore prudent to ask any potential elder a series of pointed questions, including: Is there anything in your life that you feel disqualifies you from serving as an elder? Would anyone be surprised to hear that you’re a leader in your church? Are there people who’d say you shouldn’t serve in any church’s leadership, and, if so, why? Indeed, the godliness of the pastor is of inestimable importance.
Anyabwile’s meditation on managing one’s own household well (1 Tim. 3:4-5; cf. Titus 1:6) is likewise trenchant. An irreducible pastoral prerequisite, this qualification isn’t something to be learned on the job; it’s a minimum requirement “for even accepting the application” (95). After all, if you cannot pastor your family, what leads you to assume you’re fit to pastor God’s? Anyabwile writes:
Women receive an unfair rap, sometimes being stereotyped as busybodies and meddlers in the affairs of others. But here Paul warns against men who could be preoccupied with the affairs of the church and too little occupied with what’s going on under their own roof. One thinks of Eli’s hasty and mistaken rebuke of Hannah as she prayed, while simultaneously abdicating responsibility for his wayward boys (1 Samuel 1-2). An elder tends to affairs at home. (96)
There’s no such thing, in other words, as a good pastor who’s a lame husband or dad. “As strange as it sounds,” Anyabwile observes, “an inordinate love for ministry and ministry activity reveals the pastor’s lack of affection for God himself. But if his affection for and obedience to the Savior are strong, he will be very affectionate toward his family” (152). A qualified elder prioritizes his family over preaching sermons, counseling saints, writing books, and reading blogs.
Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons isn’t a magic bullet solution to the problem of under-qualified leadership that may exist in your church. You won’t find “a ten-step process for turning spiritual duds into elder studs” (13). You will, however, find an accessible, practical, and altogether helpful resource for raising up reliable men to lead the blood-bought bride of Christ (Acts 20:28).
Matt Smethurst is an assistant editor for The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.