He may have felt righteous anger welling up on the inside, but at that point more than any other in his career, Jonathan Edwards needed peer level leadership advice.
To read what happened click here and follow the links
The term ‘Elder’ means different things in different church contexts. I am using it in the sense of 1 Tim 5:17, that the elders direct the affairs of the church; they govern the church as servant-leaders. In biblical humility and by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, they are the leaders.
Throughout the New Testament we see that elders were appointed to lead the church. We see the model of an apostolic leader, like Paul, with an ever changing team accompanying him, but when we see the local church there are no ‘Senior Pastors’ there, as such!
Nevertheless, we acknowledge that each church eldership team needs a team leader, and the team leader is first among equals, the captain of the team, the deciding vote if there is an impasse, but he’s not the only player on the team.
Respected Bible teacher John Hosier writes, ‘the Bible indicates that local churches are led by Elders (sometimes called Presbyters or Bishops in the New Testament) and there seems no good reason to abandon this pattern of leadership.’
‘The New Testament always speaks of Elders in the plural. The Bible recognises that it is not good for a man to be alone! Certainly where there are at least two Elders then they can seek God together and watch over one another in leadership.
‘God raises an Elder up, so occasionally we have to wait for other Elders to be raised up – we cannot rush ahead of God. But in Titus 1:5 Paul tells Titus to appoint Elders in every church.’ (John Hosier, Christ’s Radiant Church, Monarch)
If Jonathan Edwards had a team of elders leading the church with him it’s unlikely he would have made such a mistake. Out of his shock and desire to correct error and bring people to godliness he publicly shamed most of the families in the church!
Iain Murray writes, ‘the youth of almost every prominent family in the church appeared to be involved.’ (Jonathan Edwards, Banner of Truth, p.276)
Having lost the good will of many, the next item on the agenda for those aggrieved was Edwards’ salary. And lastly came the communion controversy. Tough times for a man alone.
A Sudden and Sad Halt to the Growth
Perry Miller, in his biography of Edwards, writes that ‘for four years nobody in Northampton applied…for admission to Edwards’ church…’ (Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards, Meridian New York, p.216)
Sereno Dwight, an early biographer, writes, ‘This was the occasion of weakening of Mr Edwards’ hands in the work of this ministry, especially among the young people, with whom, by this means, he greatly lost his influence.
‘It seemed in a great measure to put an end to his usefulness at Northampton…He certainly had no great visible success after this.’ (‘The Life of President Edwards’, quoted by Murray, p.277)
A Sad Farewell
In his farewell sermon six years later, Edwards felt the need to mention this controversy once again, ‘How exceeding beautiful, and how conducive to the adorning and happiness of the town, if the young people could be persuaded, when they meet together, to converse as Christians and as the children of God.
‘This is what I have longed for: and it has been exceedingly grievous to me when I have heard of vice, vanity or disorder among our youth.
‘And so far as I know my heart, it was from hence that I formerly led this church to some measures, for the suppressing of vice among our young people, which gave so great offence and by which I became so obnoxious [to you]…’ (quoted in Murray, p.328)
Let every leader take heed from Edwards’ mistake and draw on the necessary counsel of peers. The Church of Jesus Christ needs elders, and not merely ministerial superstars.
And here, surely, is evidence from history of the church’s great need for plurality of eldership.
For more resources on Jonathan Edwards click here for Yale and here for Princeton
To read George Whitefield’s impressions of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards’ family life click here
Jonathan Edwards and Plurality of Eldership, Part Two
So, some of the teenagers and twenties had got hold of a book. It was an illustrated manual of midwifery and was causing a stir amongst them. (For the first part of the story read here)
The numbers involved quickly increased, with an accusation that the keeper of the book was charging a fee for others to look at it. Some then made inappropriate comments to young women who reported the whole story to Edwards.
His hopes for a continued reformation amongst them and their younger siblings seemed dashed. His ambition for them to make religion the guiding influence in their lives seemed to be faltering. His expectation that the families of Northampton should live in holiness was shaken.
The details shocked him and, while doubtless calming himself internally, he began a process which would finally and irreversibly alienate him from the majority of his congregation.
Edwards began an inquiry. He preached a sermon which touched on the matter, called for an after meeting and a committee of investigation was formed.
It is difficult to imagine that what happened next would have taken place if Edwards had been in a Biblically functioning Eldership team, where key pastoral decisions and directions could be debated and discussed.
But Edwards held a solitary leadership position, in the Congregational Church in Northampton. Therefore, while he legitimately sought to lead the young people to godliness, his own sense of shock was not tempered by the wisdom of pastoral peers.
A Surprising Pastoral Blunder
And so he made the mistake from which he never recovered. During the public meeting, he read out the names of those alleged to be involved; both those suspected of lewdness and those who would be called upon to give further information. It was a long list of names, and with each name called another set of parents dropped their heads in disbelief and shame – and anger.
The sources reveal some confusion about whether a distinction was made between those accused and those merely mentioned as witnesses. That confusion may well be a reflection of the tumult that followed the meeting!
The list included members of many of the families of the town, most of whom were members of the church. They were understandably horrified that they had been exposed in this way, and doubtless regretting they had ever agreed to a formal inquiry. The strength of feeling against Edwards was intense.
It was a monumental pastoral blunder.
Next time we’ll consider some leadership lessons from the saddest period of Jonathan Edwards’ life as he strove to live a Godward and obedient life.