What is the last popularly written book you can think of that argues for a particular brand of church polity? Or, on a more audacious note, what evangelical writer or leader can you point to in the last century who believes “church government is a critical part of Christian discipleship” (xx)?
Ever since George Whitefield found the Baptists and Presbyterians more amendable to his revival work than his fellow Anglicans, talk of church polity has been on the outs among evangelicals. Post-1960 neo-evangelicals especially want their ecclesiology served “mere.” This lets us downplay the topics that cause Christians to bicker—like church government.
Liberal Protestants, too, have called for “more community” and “less institutional authority” ever since Friedrich Schleiermacher borrowed language from the Romantics to pit religious experience against what he viewed as the Enlightenment’s rationalistic formulations of doctrine.1 And these instincts show up in Vatican II’s definition of the church, which prioritizes the “people of God” metaphor over the more hierarchical “body of Christ” metaphor.
What, therefore, do we make of Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson) professor Guy Prentiss Waters’s claim that “properly functioning government is critical to the church’s faithfulness as the missionary agency which Christ has appointed on earth” (xxvi)? Or, “For the church to carry out the Great Commission faithfully, she must be governed well” (xxvi). Or, even more outlandish: “Biblical church government, then, is a tremendous pillar and support to the church’s faith, a signpost of the church’s great hope” (149).
Crucial to the Great Commission? Pillar to the church’s faith? So Waters writes in his book How Jesus Runs the Church.
In fact, I believe he is exactly right, and he serves churches tremendously by helping to put the topic of polity back on the conversation docket. Consider Acts 6. Immediately after the Jerusalem church and the apostles resolve a division in the congregation with an organizational solution, we learn, “So the word of God spread. The numbers of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).
Something similar occurs in Acts 15 and 16. The apostles and elders make a once-for-all decision on requirements for church membership. And once news of the decision spreads, “The churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers” (16:5).
Waters’s theological starting points are as follows: Jesus is king, Jesus rules the church, the church is the visible representation of Jesus, and Jesus has uniquely tasked the church with missions (xxiii-xxiv, 41-48). Add these four claims together, and you begin to understand why a rightly governed church is crucial to the spread of the gospel. A disorganized church filled with bickering and unresolved disputes is hardly an attractive witness. And a community filled with hypocrites and heretics does nothing for the gospel cause.
Not only that, Scripture tells us Jesus’ rule is actually good. Our sinful natures have a hard time believing this, but it’s true. Therefore, insofar as aspects of Jesus’ rule are variously delegated and reflected in the life of the church, that, too, is good.
Waters’s table of contents reads like something out of a 19th-century ecclesiology text, like a James Bannerman or J. L. Dagg volume: what is the church, the government of the church, the power of the church, the offices of the church, the courts of the church.
Three-ringed books of church order and a few hard-boiled fundamentalists might use language about the “powers” or “courts” of the church. But popular-level books these days typically talk about marketing strategies, being organic, being relevant, or pursuing shalom. They have vague and too-hip-by-half titles like Reverberation. Some of this material is useful, but Waters helpfully recovers this older language and employs it for the everyday Christian.
Best of all, he gives careful attention to concepts like government, authority, jurisdiction, and power. One of the greatest weaknesses in present-day theology, I believe, is our lack of institutional sensitivity and specification. This insensitivity plagues our discussions about the mission of the church, eschatology, the relationship between church and state, the relationship between a congregation and its elders, and more. Waters’s discussion of, say, the distinction between government jure divino (by divine right) and jure humano (by human right) will strengthen the evangelical community’s ability to think about both polity and other matters (see 42ff.).
Strengths and Weaknesses
Now, I am a Baptist, and Waters specifically defends a Presbyterian form of church government. This is why the last two inside cover pages of my volume, which is where I jot down notes, are filled with an alternating list of strengths and weaknesses. Here’s a sample of my last two pages:
- Weakness: Lack of institutional and textual specificity in conceiving of the one “people of God” (5-6).
- Strength: God has worked to save a people (7).
- Strength: Observes the necessity of membership (17).
- Strength: Church puts on display of Christ (29).
- Weakness: Inconsistency in relating church and kingdom (compare 29 and 34).
- Strength: Discussion of jure divino vs. jure humano (42-43).
- Weakness: People have no share in government (62).
- Excellent: Church not a voluntary society (73).
- Weakness: Elders alone do discipline (74-75).
- Presbyterian craziness: Teaching elders hold their membership in the presbytery, not the congregation (94).
- Strength and weakness: Discussion of “right of private judgment” theologically perceptive, but underutilized in Presbyterian polity (136).
You get the idea. Does the fact that I’m calling these “weaknesses” mean the book is weak? Not at all. It means I’m a Baptist and a congregationalist. I connect the covenants differently, trace the typology from Israel to Christ to church differently, explain the relationship between visible and invisible church differently, and believe Jesus placed the keys of the kingdom into the hands of the assembly, not just the apostles and elders.
But it’s precisely over these kinds of issues that both Waters and I would invite the reader back into a good and healthy debate about polity.
For his part, Waters offers compelling arguments that deserve consideration. He humbly presents his views not with the certainty by which he clings to the gospel itself, but with “modest certainty” appropriate for issues over which Christians disagree.
Bottom line: I heartily recommend How Jesus Runs the Church to both church leaders and also members. As Waters writes, “Knowledge of church government is beneficial not only to the officers of the church, but also to each of her members” (xxix). Do I want readers to agree with all of it? By no means! But jump into the conversation with this competent, friendly, and wise guide.
1 See Roger Haight, Christian Community in History, Volume 2: Comparative Ecclesiology (New York: Continuum, 2005), 312-13.