Review: “Who Runs the Church?: Four Views on Church Government” edited by Steven Cowan

This is a key book for anyone seeking to understand the different views regarding church government. Following the classic Counterpoints style, advocates for each of the four positions state their case, and then the other three critique each presentation. This book is very similar to Perspectives on Church Government, which I also recently reviewed. The editors of this book include a “Closing Remarks” section that provides a final opportunity for each contributor to respond to their critics. Both of these books allow the reader to examine the varying church government models as explained and defended by people who actually hold the respective views, and to listen in as these scholars interact with and challenge each other. This has proven to be an enlightening approach in the past, and no less so with this book.

The book begins with a readable introduction to our topic by editor Steven Cowan. This section is thorough, but concise, getting right to the point. The introduction was a pleasure to read, and serves to draw the reader into the discussion.

Episcopalianism
Fairly quickly, we get an idea of the dividing line between the various views. Peter Toon (presenting Episcopalianism) doesn’t spend much time defending his view scripturally. He feels the Bible doesn’t give us a definitive model of church government. He also believes the early history of the church was providentially guided by the Holy Spirit, and is thus an authoritative guide for later generations. All of the other participants criticize the lack of biblical support for Toon’s position—especially noting that it contradicts the New Testament’s equating of the terms elder (presbyteros) with bishop/overseer (episkopos) as referring to the same church office. This is an important issue because the other three all claim that Scripture does, in fact, teach a definite model of church polity. All three of Toon’s fellow contributors question the acceptance of church history as authoritative, and some wonder why Toon stops at the first five centuries. They also challenge Toon with the historical fact of unorthodox beliefs and practices that crept into the early church. Why accept some historical developments as divinely guided and authoritative, but not all? Toon places a lot of weight on the church’s supposed determination of the canon of Scripture. However, he mischaracterizes both the nature of canon and the process of recognizing and affirming the biblical canon.

Presbyterianism
Next, L. Roy Taylor defends Presbyterianism. It was interesting to see how much of his view was colored by, possibly even dependent on, his covenantal theology. During the course of his chapter, he gives a fairly extensive overview of church history—managing to sneak in a little support for his eschatological views and stacking the deck against his opponents. A primary distinction between Taylor and the two Congregationalists (Patterson and Waldron) is the extent to which the early church’s congregations were connected with each other. Taylor claims to find biblical principles requiring organization, authority and accountability beyond the local church. In contrast, Patterson and Waldron see the New Testament churches as autonomous but voluntarily interdependent—connected in spirit, but not in any official capacity. The only text to which Taylor can point for definitive support of this extra-congregational system of church courts is Acts 15. Waldron protests that this declaration was authoritative to other churches specifically because of its apostolic nature, a setting which is unique and historically unrepeatable after the late first century. Patterson questions where these courts of Presbyterianism are clearly taught or described in Scripture.

Single-Elder Congregationalism
Paige Patterson’s chapter is titled “Single-Elder Congregationalism,” but could be more accurately described as “Primary-Elder Congregationalism” (as Waldron notes in his response). This is very similar to the monoepiscopacy (plural elders plus single bishop leading each church) that led to a full-fledged episcopal model in the late second century. Patterson doesn’t have a problem with a church having multiple elders as long as there is one primary pastor. I was surprised by the lack of a robust case from Patterson. While he claimed to be establishing the New Testament pattern, there seemed to be a tremendous amount of appeal to history and tradition. He allows for the possibility of churches adding multiple elders, but assumes that each New Testament church began with only one elder and then added others only when necessary. He also seems to conclude that some of the churches in the New Testament never needed these additional elders and continued with only one elder/pastor. This is a highly questionable claim since there is no biblical passage that suggests any of this. Waldron considers Patterson to be merely defending the status quo, and this seems to be accurate, at least regarding the distinctive role of the pastor.

Plural-Elder Congregationalism
Samuel Waldron presents “Plural-Elder Congregationalism.” The difference between the two Congregationalists involves the plurality of elders, the parity between the elders, and the appropriateness of distinguishing a pastor from the other elders. Waldron convincingly (to me) establishes a consistent biblical pattern of each church being led by a plurality of elders. This is such a strong pattern, supported by many related passages, that Waldron feels that, while not sinful, it is abnormal and unhealthy for a church to be led by a single elder and that this is a situation that would need to be rectified. He also argues exegetically against the Presbyterian distinction between teaching elders and ruling elders. While he allows for diversity of gifting, influence, and extent of ministry among the elders—even to the point of a de facto first among equals—he points out that there is no biblical support for setting apart one elder and giving him an office (e.g. senior pastor) in distinction to the other elders. He challenges both Taylor and Patterson that if they are willing to distinguish between elders and a pastor despite both of them teaching that Scripture equates the two, how can they criticize Episcopalians for distinguishing between elders and a bishop in the same manner?

Waldron begins his chapter with a very helpful explanation of the two aspects of Congregationalism: the autonomous nature of churches; and the democratic involvement of the congregation in making decisions. I appreciate this because there seems to be a lot of confusion today regarding the precise nature of Congregationalism. Waldron frequently uses the word democratic to describe congregational involvement, and this will be off-putting to some (as it was to me). However, he clarifies that he is using the word hesitantly, and both he and Patterson warn against the extremely democratic form of Congregationalism with which many readers will be most familiar. Waldron also repeatedly refers to the consent of the congregation, and this wording will be much more palatable to some. What he and Patterson seem to be advocating in their Congregationalism is a process where the elders lead the church in arriving at a consensus regarding the will of Christ for his church. I think this could be a healthy corrective for churches who practice an overly democratic model, and a healthy challenge to those, like myself, who have avoided what we though of as Congregationalism because of the abuses and weakness of the extremely democratic model. This aspect of the discussion in this book was thought-provoking to me in a way that I hadn’t expected.

As I mentioned before, the contributors are given a final closing to respond to their fellow writers and to make their case one last time. This gave a nice sense of completion to the book, but it didn’t really add any new insights.

This book is a wonderful resource, and I highly recommend it. We’ve made this work a part of the curriculum for our Didasko School of Pastoral Ministry, our in-house pastoral training program. [Note: We’ve recently replaced this training program with EFCA Gateway.]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s