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.

Review: “Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity” edited by Chad Owen Brand and R. Stanton Norman

If you want to have a deeper understanding of the different views on church leadership, this book will be very useful. Each chapter is written by an author who holds a distinctive view, and then his presentation is critiqued by the other four contributors. We get to listen in on the discussion and hear some of the strengths and weaknesses of each viewpoint. If each author had been given the opportunity to respond to his critics the book might have been even more effective, but it includes insightful interaction as it stands. The editors also provide a solid introduction to the issues with an excellent historical survey. (I did think the lack of biographical material for each contributor was a curious oversight.)

Some may question why there are three chapters presenting varieties of congregationalism. I think this reflects recent debate over the nature of congregationalism. What exactly is it? Does it simply refer to autonomous churches who answer to no formal authority beyond the local church? Or does it necessarily include the idea of democratic involvement by the whole congregation? And how much involvement is required to be truly congregational? Meeting monthly to vote on everything? An annual affirmation of the church leadership? People who identify themselves as congregationalists strongly disagree on these issues, and some would not view all three of the “congregational” chapters as authentically congregational. The editors seem to have taken a broad view of ‘congregational’ in their descriptions of these viewpoints.

The single-elder-led church
Daniel Akin is first up, supposedly presenting the view that the church is led by a single elder. Akin doesn’t seem at all committed to this view, and doesn’t spend much time defending it. He prefers a plural-elder-plus-senior-pastor model. He devotes most of his chapter to defending his view of congregationalism. Arriving at his conclusions requires a considerable stretch for each passage he uses. I remain unconvinced that the New Testament clearly teaches the traditional, Baptist form of congregationalism. Akin writes in a very affable style. He doesn’t view the New Testament as being definitive regarding a specific model of pastoral leadership, which allows him to show appreciation for varying polities. He approvingly quotes Adrian Rogers’ claim that, “Anything without a head is dead; anything with several heads is a freak.” But just who is supposed to be the head of the body of Christ? Shouldn’t that be . . . Christ? Interestingly, his fellow congregationalist, James Garrett, criticizes Akin’s reliance on the possible existence of multiple house churches per city in the early church and his finding of senior pastors in Ephesians 4:11. Akin bases much of his view on the priesthood of all believers and seems disappointed that others do not tie their polities to this concept as well.

The presbytery-led church
Next, Robert Reymond presents the Presbyterian model of church government. This chapter is direct and well-presented. But, when it comes to the distinctive aspects of the Presbyterian system, Reymond has to stretch even farther than Akin in trying to find his view unambiguously taught in Scripture. In his response, James White rightly criticizes Reymond for basing his exegetical arguments on inference and supposition. Akin notes, “one searches the New Testament in vain for the ‘graded courts’ of local ‘session,’ regional ‘presbytery,’ and ‘general assembly’ Dr. Reymond so confidently asserts is there.”

The congregation-led church
James Leo Garrett Jr presents the Democratic Congregational model, or the congregation-led church. Garrett is even more focused on congregationalism than Akin, and displays the same exegetical over-reaching. His chapter is exhaustively foot-noted, and probably the least enjoyable to read. In Akin’s response to his fellow Southern Baptist, he describes many of the serious weaknesses inherent in a democratic approach. White questions the view that the elders derive their authority from the congregation. He sees this authority as being delegated by Christ, not the congregation.

The bishop-led church
Paul Zahl explores the Episcopal model of church government. Zahl is a delightful writer, and this chapter is a pleasure to read. Unfortunately, he includes no scriptural defense of his chosen leadership model. Zahl feels that Scripture does not give us a definitive, normative model of church government, and he seems to be happy with any and all views. This attitude is also reflected in his responses, where he approves of Akin’s acceptance of multiple approaches as valid, but strongly opposes Reymond and White who argue that the Bible has given us a clear, unambiguous church leadership model we must follow. In his response, White effectively demonstrates that the synonymous nature of episkopos (bishop/overseer) and presbyteros (elder) in the New Testament makes the Episcopal model biblically untenable.

The plural-elder-led church
Lastly, James White presents the plural-elder congregational model. He begins with some grand, overarching themes that may be off-putting to some. But his intent is to build a solid case, from the foundation up, that Christ has provided everything for his church, including ordering how it is to be led. He gives a clear explanation of the autonomous nature of the church, and what this does—and  doesn’t—mean. His chapter includes a good biblical defense of the independence of congregations and a sound presentation of scriptural teaching regarding church elders. White also explores some issues related to applying these biblical principles, and gives us some helpful insights. Unfortunately, he seems to accept using a title of “pastor” for one primary teaching elder in distinction to the other elders (although he makes clear this is not a separate role or office). Akin takes advantage of White’s apparent fudging on this, and notes this doesn’t sound that different from his senior pastor model. (Akin also wrongly accuses White of holding the teaching elder/ruling elder differentiation.) In his response, Garrett finds it too difficult to believe that four centuries of Baptists could be wrong in their views of church leadership.

I thought the chapters written by Paul Zahl and Daniel Akin were the most enjoyable to read, yet also the most disappointing because neither really tried to biblically defend their view. I was surprised by the amount of inference and conjecture relied upon to somehow find a clear Presbyterian or congregational (i.e. democratic) model in Scripture passages that simply do not clearly teach such. In my opinion, White’s chapter and responses contained the most sound exegesis and thus were the most convincing and compelling. Overall, the book was incredibly helpful. It left me wanting to hear much more of this discussion, which I think is an indication of a well-executed book.