Review: “Who Rules the Church?: Examining Congregational Leadership and Church Government” by Gerald Cowen

The foreword of this book, written by well-known Southern Baptist pastor Jerry Vines, builds our anticipation of a “thorough study of the whole pastor-elder issue,” one that is “thoroughly researched and well done” and that utilizes “extensive knowledge of and skill in the Greek language.” Unfortunately, the book that follows this foreword doesn’t quite measure up to the anticipation.

Cowen does a fairly solid, if unremarkable, job at explaining the Greek words used for church leaders. What you’ll read here is essentially indistinguishable from what you can find in myriad books and articles on elders, and doesn’t go into the detail that many other authors do. This author spends most of his first chapter describing these words and how they’re related, and presents a faithful explanation of the New Testament role of elders/overseers/pastors. But, sadly, in the last two paragraphs of this opening chapter he undoes most of this good by interjecting a sole leader or pastor of each congregation (in distinction to the other elders/pastors).

He bases this assertion on an incredibly brief and unsupported reference to James being the primary leader of the conference described in Acts 15. This claim is disputed even by some who share the author’s views on church polity, and it wouldn’t establish his idea of a sole pastoral leader for each congregation anyway. But Cowen somehow takes this single, ambiguous reference and extrapolates a biblical “model” (!) of each house congregation having only one leader. He defends this view by assuming that the angels or messengers to the churches in Revelation 2-3 are sole pastors—despite admitting there are widely varying opinions on the meaning of these angeloi, and that “a firm conclusion cannot be reached.” To establish such a normative model of church government requires much more than these two perfunctory—and contested—examples. At the very best, these two references are ambiguous in their support of the author’s claim. After the end of this first chapter, Cowen drops all discussion of pastor-elders working in plurality or as a team. Throughout the remainder of the book, he focuses on “the pastor.”

He devotes his second chapter to defending the traditional view of the pastor’s call to ministry. To serve in pastoral ministry, a man must receive a special calling from God. He seems to base this almost entirely on the special calling received by Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles. However, he never discusses the fact that a special, direct calling and commissioning by God is one of the very things that distinguishes the prophets and apostles from other servants of God (such as pastor-elders). He tries valiantly to establish this traditional special calling as a model for pastors, but I remain unconvinced.

In chapter 3, the author takes exception to Marvin Mayer’s observation that Timothy and Titus were “not elder-overseers but apostolic delegates.” His attempts to counter this interpretation didn’t make much sense to me. Even if all his claims are accurate (and I don’t believe they are), they still don’t add up to the conclusion these men were pastors. He uses surprisingly faulty reasoning. Ironically, he draws from 1 Timothy 5:17 and James 5:14 in exploring the role of the pastor, but never acknowledges the clearly plural nature of pastoral ministry described in each passage.

Potential readers should be aware this book is written from a congregationalist perspective. I confess that I’m puzzled by the author’s model of “Pastoral Leadership-Congregational Rule.” (Shouldn’t the church be ruled by Christ? Are the sheep really supposed to rule the flock?) Regardless, people from similar church traditions might have benefited from this book. But because of the prevalence of the author’s faulty exegesis and reasoning, leading to erroneous conclusions, I would advise looking elsewhere.

I’ve written in greater depth on some of these claims:

Challenge 1: Wasn’t each house church led by one elder?

Challenge 2: What about Peter and James?

Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus?

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