Book(s) Review: Who Runs the Church? and Perspectives on Church Government

Review
03.02.2010

Of the making of many multiple views books there is, apparently, no end. At last count Zondervan alone has published 25 of them, and other publishers are beginning to join the fun.

Who Runs The Church? 4 Views on Church Government, edited by Steven B. Cowan, and Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity, edited by Chad Owen Brand and R. Stanton Norman, are fine specimens of the burgeoning genre. Both books are written at a moderately academic level, rendering them accessible to the interested layperson, seminary student, or church leader. Both allow each author to present an extended defense of his view, immediately followed by responses by the other authors (Who Runs the Church? also includes closing statements by each author). And both are well-researched and well-documented, making them useful reference works on a topic that is not often at the top of the evangelical agenda: church polity.

A STANDING DEBATE

Despite its low profile, church polity is a particularly apt topic for a multiple views book. Polity, after all, has sparked voluminous debate between evangelical Christians for nearly five centuries. It’s been one of the major sources of denominational division since the Reformation. These debates have worn on for so long, and the different positions have become so entrenched, that many Christians have long given up hope of reaching widespread agreement.

Christians have instead resorted to a number of ways of living with the conflict. Some, including both of the Episcopalians respectively featured in these two volumes, argue that the New Testament evidence on polity is irreconcilably diverse, which means that any search for a biblical form of church government is in vain. Some argue that polity is a matter of Christian liberty. Some say that we should pattern church polity on whatever corporate structures work best in the business world.

All of these approaches, in one way or another, find ways not to deal directly with whatever it is the New Testament says about church polity.

WELL DONE, COWAN, BRAND, AND NORMAN

So with the current evangelical discussions about polity in such disarray, the editors of both volumes should be commended for putting together an engaging pair of books that prominently feature sustained biblical argumentation.[1] In addition, both books model irenic, charitable, Christian disagreement. Both books also include not only theological argumentation, but also useful discussion of the practical importance of church polity. Finally, both books demonstrate that there is indeed a gear in between “essential” and “unimportant.”

FINDING THE MISSING MIDDLE GEAR

Many evangelicals, it seems to me, have only two theological gears: (1) “What is absolutely essential in order for someone to be saved?” and (2) “The rest is just a lot of unimportant details.” Yet both of these books amply demonstrate that there are some matters which, while not essential to salvation, are important for the life of the church and have serious implications for the Christian life.

The clearest articulation of this “middle gear” comes in Steven Cowan’s outstanding introductory essay to Who Runs the Church?, which is one of the most valuable sections in either of these volumes. Cowan writes,

Nevertheless, despite our profound disagreements, we are all united in the conviction that the form of church government is not a matter of indifference. As Thomas Witherow says, “Though we may not regard the polity of the New Testament Church as essential to human salvation, we do not feel at liberty to undervalue its importance.” In other words, the issue of church government may not be a doctrine crucial to the esse (being of the church), but it is a doctrine crucial to the bene esse (well-being) of the church, vital to its spiritual health. (WRC 11)

If you’re indifferent to matters of polity, Cowan’s introduction should upend your complacency, as well as provide a helpful orientation to different polities.

So both books are good. Both books are substantial. Both books will hopefully bless the church by encouraging Christians to look closely at what Scripture has to say about the church. But if you’re not going to buy, much less read, two very similar-sounding books on church polity, you’re probably wondering, “Which is better?”

WHICH BOOK IS BETTER?

For my money, that award goes to Who Runs the Church? First, Steven Cowan’s introduction, as I’ve mentioned, is superb. Beyond that, the chapters in this book tend to be a little more focused than those in Perspectives on Church Government, a couple of which are strewn with so many footnotes or massive quotations that they’re a chore to read.

Also, the taxonomy of the different views on polity is somewhat clearer in Who Runs the Church? In Perspectives on Church Government, “Single-elder Congregationalism” appears side by side with “Congregationalism,” which confuses the conversation a bit, since, unlike all of the other chapters, the defense of plain old congregationalism says little about the role of a congregation’s leaders.

APPEARANCES MAY BE DECEIVING

While I’d recommend either of these books, especially Who Runs the Church?, there’s a danger inherent in this genre which I fear plays out in these two. In perusing a neatly arranged cross-section of viewpoints on an issue, a reader may be left thinking that he’s now considered all the views on a subject.

In this case I would be particularly disappointed if the reader was left with such an impression. Why? Because two elements of polity that I believe are biblical and compatible are presented as incompatible in each book. Not unlike more and more people today and many Baptists historically, (1) I believe that the congregation has final authority in matters of membership, discipline, and doctrine, and (2) I believe that the day to day leadership of a local church should be entrusted to a plurality of elders.

ELDERS AND CONGREGATIONALISM CAN BE FRIENDS! REALLY!

Part of the problem in Who Runs the Church? is that the word “congregationalism” is used in two different ways. Paige Patterson, who defends “Single-elder Congregationalism,” consistently means two things by the term: (1) every local church is to be independent from any higher ecclesiastical authority such as a presbytery or bishop, and (2) the congregation as a whole possesses the final authority in matters of membership, discipline, and doctrine. Some people refer to the first as the “independent principle” and the second as the “democratic principle.” (I will use these terms for simplicity’s sake here, though I think both are problematic. “Independent” tempts us to think that churches should not work together; “democratic” tempts us to think in terms of “representing the will of the people,” which is not the point of congregationalism at all!)

Sam Waldron, on the other hand, who defends “Plural-elder Congregationalism,” uses the term “congregationalism” primarily to refer to the independent principle, while making somewhat ambivalent statements about the democratic principle. For instance, he expresses discomfort with Mark Dever’s description of elders’ authority as “finally advisory” (WRC 177); yet elsewhere he affirms, “The implication of the authority of the church to terminate membership is that it has the right to receive or admit new members” (WRC 210).

So it appears that Waldron does affirm the final authority of the congregation in matters of discipline, but he frequently warns against over-emphasizing the “democratic principle,” which tends to weaken the force of his affirmation. Waldron himself says that “there is a kind of tension between a democratic view of church government and a plural-elder view of church government,” even though he believes both are biblical (189). At the very least, then, by his own admission, Waldron presents plural eldership and congregational authority as being inherently in tension.

In Perspectives on Church Government, a similar wedge is driven between plural eldership and full-scale congregationalism. In this volume Daniel Akin defends a single-pastor-led polity, James Leo Garrett presents a pastor- and deacon-led polity, and James R. White defends a plural-elder-led church. So we have a single-pastor congregationalist, a pastor-and-deacons congregationalist, and an plural–elder-led congregationalist (in the first sense of the term above).

To be fair, the book does not label White’s position “congregationalist,” and White doesn’t claim to advocate congregationalism. Moreover, many churches today practice precisely the kind of independent, elder-rule polity that White advocates, including Grace Community Church, pastored by John MacArthur. No problem there.

But I can’t help being slightly disappointed that the book’s taxonomy of views thereby gives the impression that a plurality of elders is somehow incompatible with congregationalism. Even if the editors of Perspectives on Church Government didn’t intend to erect a wall of separation between a plurality of elders and congregationalism, the book’s selection of views lends such a separation a certain amount of credibility. Given that many of the viewpoints represented in the book are mutually exclusive (such as episcopalian, presbyterian, and congregational polity), the authors of Perspectives on Church Government would have done well to acknowledge that some of them are not.

But why does that matter?  Because I believe that congregationalism (in both senses) and plural elder leadership are taught and exemplified in the New Testament. Not only that, many who advocate for one are highly suspicious of the other, which in at least some cases owes more to tradition than exegesis.

Multiple views books like this provide a perfect opportunity—an opportunity neither book fully makes good on—to set the record straight about positions that are not mutually exclusive. In failing to do so, both books furthered the widespread perception that a plurality of elders and congregationalism are mutually exclusive, or at least in serious tension. No, it’s not the end of the world, but it is a disappointing quirk in two otherwise impressive books.

PRAISE GOD FOR THE CONVERSATION THEY’RE HAVING

But to pull the lens back from this fairly miniscule critique, even the fact that these two books are fostering this kind of a detailed conversation about the relationship between elder leadership and congregationalism is wonderfully encouraging. Books that diligently pore over Scripture in order to discern its teaching about the church are all too rare. I pray that both of these books would be used by God to drive evangelicals back to Scripture and make its teaching their sole sufficient basis for life and ministry in the church.

By:
Bobby Jamieson

Bobby Jamieson is an associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. He is the author, most recently, of Jesus' Death and Heavenly Offering in Hebrews. You can find him on Twitter at @bobby_jamieson.