Best Books of 2021 – Part Three
This is the third installment of four in my series on the best books of 2021. As I noted in the previous articles, there were so many great books published this year that I couldn’t keep it to only ten. So here are numbers 10-6.
(10) The Plurality Principle: How to Build and Maintain a Thriving Leadership Team, by Dave Harvey (Crossway, 192 pp.).
I so greatly appreciated this book by Dave Harvey that I agreed to write the Foreword to it. Few books on local church life and governance are as filled with sound biblical wisdom as this one. Here is what I wrote.
Really? An entire book on why our local churches should be led by a plurality of Elders? Aren’t there more pressing and urgent issues that call for our attention? After all, among the many “-ologies” shouldn’t we emphasize Christology (the study of Jesus Christ) and Soteriology (the study of salvation) and Eschatology (the study of the end times) and Hamartiology (the study of sin)? Is Ecclesiology, the study of the church, terribly important? Does it matter all that much?
My answer, the answer that Dave Harvey provides in this excellent book, is a resounding Yes! I once heard J. I. Packer say that “bad theology hurts people.” So, too, does bad ecclesiology. That may catch many of you by surprise. You struggle to believe that the way a local church is organized, led, and governed could possibly cause much damage. And yet, unbiblical leadership structures in the local church can wreak havoc on the people of God and bring reproach on the name of Jesus Christ. A failure to honor the clear teaching of Scripture on the how a church should be governed is a recipe for disaster. Simply put, as Dave Harvey repeatedly asserts, the quality of elder plurality determines the spiritual health of a church.
One need only survey the landscape of recent train wrecks in several local churches to see how true this is. In virtually every instance where a gifted leader or pastor succumbed to temptation, be it sex, pride, isolation, bullying, or monetary mismanagement, the problem can be traced to a singular, authoritarian “pastor” who largely avoided meaningful accountability and built the ministry around his own giftedness and personality. I have in mind the sort of senior leader who never loses a vote, who regularly intimidates his staff, Elder board, and Deacon board, and is rarely willing to admit that others might have greater insight and wisdom on a particular issue than he.
There are numerous reasons why I so highly recommend this book. Dave Harvey is himself a veteran of ecclesiological train wrecks. He has experienced firsthand what happens when local churches fail to heed the clear teaching of Scripture. His wisdom and humility combine to chart for us a clear path forward as he deftly describes the countless reasons why plurality of male leadership in the local church is the most beneficial and spiritually healthy model to embrace.
This should not be taken as an indictment of every church where “the man of God” mentality or the so-called “Moses-model” of leadership is endorsed. Some of you reading this book likely attend a church where the Senior Pastor is the sole Elder. I’ve known a handful of such men who functioned reasonably well in this capacity. In most instances, however, the Deacons exist only to rubber-stamp his decisions and his unavoidably limited perspective is the only factor shaping the vision of the church. Admittedly, there are always a handful of exceptions where, by God’s mercy, an unbiblical model of local church life succeeds. But that is no justification for ignoring inspired Scripture.
One of the challenges in plurality of leadership is the relationship between the Lead or Senior Pastor and the other members of an Elder board. Many envision the Senior Pastor as the “boss” of the board, while in other churches he is often “held hostage” and rarely permitted to provide the sort of leadership and influence that is essential to a healthy spiritual family. This is one of the many strengths of this book, as Harvey argues persuasively for a plurality of leadership in the local church while simultaneously making a convincing case for the principle of a “first among equals,” a senior or lead pastor whose gifts, calling, education, and spiritual maturity qualify him to exercise a greater degree of influence and cast vision for the body as a whole.
Harvey’s practical counsel on how a senior pastor works in tandem with a plurality of elders is nothing short of profound. He does far more than simply defend the biblical reasons for plurality. He speaks directly and with great wisdom into the many concrete issues that arise on a daily basis in virtually every local church. He rightly points out that the lead pastor does not possess unilateral veto power over the consensus of the other elders. He is alert to the dangers of a top-heavy, authoritarian celebrity pastor mentality. He is also wise in the way he warns against a failure to let leaders lead. He reminds us that a plurality is not an egalitarian enterprise that denies individual gifting, removes roles, or demands equality in function or outcomes. Even among equals, there must be leadership. And this calls for the all too rare combination of both humility and courage.
There are other critically important issues and questions that Harvey addresses which reflect a balanced convergence of biblical instruction and common sense. He stresses the need for lay Elders, provides practical insight on how much a Pastor or Elder should share with his wife, and speaks wisely on the sticky issue of how the Lead Pastor should negotiate his salary and benefits package. One trend that is spreading among numerous mega-churches today is the presence of an external board of advisors that in many ways supplants the authority of the local church Elders. Harvey’s critique of this decidedly unbiblical model is alone worth the price of this book.
I’ve been reading books on the structures and dynamics of local church leadership for many years. Honestly, when I was asked to write the Foreword to this short treatment I wondered if Dave Harvey would have anything to say that I hadn’t heard countless times before. You may be asking yourself the same question as you decide whether investing time into reading this volume will prove profitable. I assure you it will, far beyond what you can reasonably imagine. As far as I am concerned, this is the go-to book on the nature, role, and responsibility of local church Elders that I will happily and energetically recommend to others in the days ahead.
(9) Surviving Religion 101: Letters to a Christian Student on Keeping the Faith in College, by Michael J. Kruger (Crossway, 262 pp.).
Michael Kruger was ill-prepared for what he encountered in his first year at the University of North Carolina. He took a class from widely-known skeptic Bart Ehrman, and found that his confidence in Scripture was coming unraveled. Michael survived Ehrman’s attempt to undermine the integrity of Scripture, but not everyone has been so blessed. As Michael’s daughter prepared to attend UNC, he realized that she would need to be far better prepared for such assaults on the Bible than he was. So he wrote this book with his daughter, Emma, very much in mind.
This is an excellent resource for everyone, and not just those who are entering college. In it Michael responds to such pressing issues as: How can we say that Christianity is the only right religion? Are Christian morals hateful and intolerant? Are we sure that Homosexuality is really wrong? What about hell? If God is good, why is there so much suffering in the world? Doesn’t science explain everything? Why do we need God? Can I believe in miracles if I’ve never seen one? How do we know the Bible is from God? Are there contradictions in the four gospels? How can we trust that the Bible we have today is the one originally inspired by the Holy Spirit? What do I do with all my doubts?
This is a great book. It is written in such a way that anyone can profit from it. It tackles tough issues but in an easy-to-read manner and will prove of immense benefit not only to young people in college but to all believers of every age.
(8) Why I Trust the Bible: Answer to Real Questions and Doubts People Have about the Bible, by William D. Mounce (Zondervan, 272 pp.).
If Kruger’s book proves helpful to you, this one will take you even deeper into addressing some of the objections people have to the Bible’s integrity and authority. Bill has done a masterful job of tackling the primary problems that people have when reading Scripture. Here is the endorsement I wrote for it:
“This excellent volume is a treasure trove of explanations of difficult texts and answers to skeptics’ questions about the Bible. With each chapter I found my confidence in the integrity of the biblical text reaffirmed and strengthened. Bill Mounce is uniquely qualified to respond to the many arguments against the authority and trustworthiness of the Bible, and I highly commend this book to anyone who is struggling to believe that Scripture is genuinely God-breathed and inerrant. His response to Bart Ehrman is alone worth the price of the book, and although Bill is primarily a NT scholar, his chapters on the OT are superb.”
(7) The Case for Heaven: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for Life after Death, by Lee Stroebel (Zondervan, 307 pp.).
By now you should be familiar with the series of “Case” books written by former atheist Lee Stroebel. In it, Stroebel explores the issue of life after death and seeks to provide evidence, both biblical and scientific, for the existence of an afterlife. He addresses the thorny topics of Near Death Experiences, the reality of hell, the controversy surrounding annihilationism, and reincarnation, just to mention a few. Great book!
(6) Why God Makes Sense in a World that Doesn’t: The Beauty of Christian Theism, by Gavin Ortlund (Baker Academic, 225 pp.).
I’m not in the habit of recommending books that I haven’t fully read, but here I’m making an exception. I’m about one third of the way through Gavin’s defense and explanation of the existence of the God of Scripture, and I love it. This is a challenging book. It is deep and profound and goes beyond the standard arguments for God’s existence by focusing on the beauty of Christian theism. I can’t wait to finish it!