Bigelow believes the Bible mandates a plurality of elders as the God-given form of church governance. I don't necessarily disagree with his thesis. I do take issue with the way he presents his case (all 324 self-published pages). This is a long review, a section by section critique of Bigelow's argument. (It is equivalent to three pages.) If you are not interested in the critique, jump to the very end and my conclusion.
Bigelow defines the Titus mandate based on Titus 1:5. In this verse Paul instructs Titus to appoint godly men (elders) to lead the church. Eldership is God's designated design for church government. Elders create a framework of accountability. “In true eldership, the elders are given authority to remove wolves without congregational permission.” (41)
He covers the qualifications of an elder and assures readers, “Once in office, men of this kind will sacrificially serve Christ's agenda in the church.” (38) “...[E]lders are not under the congregation's authority, nor a bishop's authority, nor a pastor's authority, but under God's authority.” (39) “...[E]lders alone are granted the authority of appointing other elders.” (44) Yet, “...each person in the congregation was empowered to determine who was and was not in leadership.” (45) Any member (actually, two or three witnesses) of the congregation may object to an elder appointment based on observed violations of the biblical list of qualifications for elder. “In a biblical eldership appointment process, each member of the church with a Bible has total power.” (45, italics in the original)
If an elder no longer lives up to the list of qualifications he becomes disqualified and is to voluntarily step down. (45) If he refuses, the other elders are to verify the charge (based on multiple witnesses), and publicly rebuke the man in front of the entire church.
It is at this section I have my initial question as to Bigelow's statements. He says, “The full level of biblical authority is granted to each Christian who may justly fulfill the role of a witness and investigate the claims of sin in an elder.” (47) Yet, the elders must verify any accusations, and there must be multiple witnesses. (45) He says each member has total power when it comes to elder appointment (45) yet elders have rule over the individual's accusations. Each member of the church does not have total power! The elders have the final say and total power.
Here is another problem area. “Each believer has authority to call his church to heed all of God's commands.” (56) This is based on the concept of the priesthood of every believer. However, “When qualified elders possess the authority granted them in Scripture... Then, and only then, can the believer's priestly authority be honored.” (57) So let me get this straight: I, as a believer, have authority but that authority will only be honored when the elders have the authority granted them in Scripture. Ah.
And, the elders have no one overseeing them. “...[E]lders were completely free from all hierarchy and external human authority.” (69) Now, wait a minute. I though Bigelow said each congregant had total power! I though Bigelow said Titus had the authority to appoint elders! So, are elders free from external authority or do congregants have total power?
Bigelow reminds his readers that any decision-making needs to be one hundred percent. Each elder possess veto power.
Bigelow predicts a“dire future for your church if you do not have the leadership he is advocating. “The downward descent into apostasy starts with compromise in leadership. Every church that compromises in leadership is only a few decisions away from denying the gospel itself.” (157)
The example of Third John is given. Bigelow notes that John specifically identifies himself as The Elder (not an apostle). He also notes that John, as an apostle, “oversees” this church. (169) John's “...call as an apostle is to oversee multiple churches...” (171) Odd. I thought Bigelow argued back on page 39 that the elders of a church were “under” no one's authority – they are “overseen” by no one!
There is an additional problem with the example of Third John. Bigelow says, “In calling himself the elder John placed himself on the same level as Diotrephes [the sinning elder] because his excommunication of Diotrephes would not come 'from above,' that is, from an apostle, but from the same level, from an elder, setting a pattern the church would follow.” (176-7) Does that mean, then, that an elder from a distant church has the authority to excommunicate an elder in another church? Bigelow also says, “[John's] opening words served notice that, from now on, he alone as the elder, and the present elders are disqualified.” (177)
Bigelow says that if local elders are unresponsive in dealing with sin, the individual “should request help from other church's qualified elders...” (186) There is no record in 3 John, however, that anyone in the troubled church asked for John's intervention. It would seem that John, as an elder, exercises his authority over the elders of another church.
An aspect of Bigelow's exposition of Titus 1:5 that bothers me is his claim that churches in each town merged into one or were shut down. “The precise language Paul uses in Titus 1:5 doesn't allow for any other meaning.” (187) “Guided by Paul's apostolic command, Titus must have evaluated a great many churches, including plants, and brought them to a swift end.” (188) I find it odd that no commentary I consulted recognized this “precise” language.
Bigelow assures his readers that the example of Titus does not mean there is to be only one church per town. “...[N]ot every city in the Roman Empire had only one church, or was supposed to have one church. If we were to assume that The Titus Mandate is a call for one church in every city or town, we would be mistaken.” (191) So why did Titus have to see to it that churches merged or were shut down so that there was only one per town?
Essential to Bigelow's argument is that, “In apostolic times, there was one church in the city of Jerusalem.” (207) First, I find that hard to believe that if towns in Crete had multiple churches, Jerusalem didn't. Acts 2:46 and 8:3 seem to indicate more than one house church in Jerusalem. (A quick Google search yielded many articles on house churches in Jerusalem during apostolic times.)
The third part of the book is “a defense of The Titus Mandate for those demanding the scholastic and exegetical underpinnings of apostolic reformation.” (213)
Bigelow mentions that Paul visited Crete churches while on his way to Rome as a prisoner. The passage is Acts 27:7-15. When you read that passage, it seems that the ship never made landfall. As the ship approached the shore, a wind came up and blew the ship out to sea (13-14).
Then, “Once out of prison several years later, Paul quickly made his way back to Crete and initiated The Titus Mandate.” (216) While it appears from Titus 1:5 that Paul did visit Crete with Titus along at some time after his first imprisonment, it is misleading to say Paul “quickly made his way back to Crete.” No one knows the time frame and Bigelow's comment makes it sound like Paul was desperate.
Bigelow argues that the instructions for Titus to appoint elders “in every town” means not “in every church.” Bigelow takes that to mean Titus reduced the number of churches in each town to one. The logic fails me. (John Calvin, noting that subsequent verses mention teaching, calls the appointees pastors. He says, “In saying that every town should have a pastor, Paul is not saying that no town should have more than one pastor but that every town should have a pastor.” Clearing up the double negatives, Calvin says Paul is not precluding a town having more than one pastor but each town has to have at least one pastor.) Paul is saying that every town needs elders. He is not precluding a town having more than one “set” of elders. Claiming that there could be only one church per town, only one set of elders per town, is reading something in to the text that is just not there.
Even Bigelow admits, “We simply don't know what happened to Crete's churches in early history.” (222)
With respect to the Corinthians, Bigelow admits, “Paul never acknowledges or mentions any recognized leadership of any kind in the church of Corinth. The two letters in the New Testament are virtually silent on the leadership in the church of Corinth.” (277) Bigelow declares, “...what they needed were godly elders to shepherd them week by week.” (278) If that is the case, then why didn't Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, tell the Corinthians that!
Part Three of the book must be as long and detailed as it is because of some Baptist denominational influence. He takes a great deal of time showing that the congregational form of church governance is not right. Southern Baptists are certainly congregational and Bigelow may be preaching to them. Coming from my own elder/deacon governance church, I found this section boring.
Bigelow's conclusion, “...twenty of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament were written to churches, plainly teaching them how to function as churches. … The Bible's instruction on eldership and elder authority is clear, copious, and commanding.” (307) “...[T]he evidence in Scripture is overwhelming that the churches structured by Christ's apostles always had a plurality of elders.” (308) Sorry. You haven't convinced me. Paul's letters to the Corinthians, failing to mention elders, is a case in point. Another, as Bigelow says himself, is 2 John. He admits, “The book of Second John describes a church that does not have elders...” (314) Yet, John does not instruct the recipient to appoint elders! Remember, John calls himself “the elder” in 2 and 3 John. Instruction on eldership is not “clear, copious and commanding,” by any means!
I do not necessarily disagree with Bigelow advocating eldership. I attend a church that is over 100 years old, has (elected) elders and deacons, and preaches the gospel! What I do not like about Bigelow's book is the way he tries to argue his point. He makes assumptions and draws conclusions which, I think, are unfounded or a real stretch of Bible interpretation. Sometimes his footnotes are really disappointing. For example, a footnote referring to “the contemporary books on the topic” (229) yields a reference to two books written seven years ago. A footnote on the possibility of multiple churches in Jerusalem (272) yields information on churches in Antioch. And, Bigelow does not address the role of deacons, leaders I think essential in the church and God ordained.
Bigelow's book is the kind of theological book that must be read with discrimination. His thesis may be sound but his argument is not.
I received a copy of this book from The B & B Media Group, on behalf of the author, for the purpose of this review.
Book availability: http://www.thetitusmandate.org/
ISBN: 978-1-4538-3127-4/352 pages/paperback/$14.95
His church ministry: http://www.gracechurchministry.org/index.php