Book Review: How Jesus Runs the Church – Guy Prentiss Waters

waters05Church government is an important part of the way Christ rules his people, a crucial part of Christian discipline, uniquely tasked for world missions, and is “a way to give concrete and visible expression to the present reign of our risen and exalted Mediator, Jesus Christ” (xxiv). Naturally, it is important to know the form that this government should take and how it should be run.

It is this question that Guy Waters takes up in his book How Jesus Runs the Church. His goal is twofold: to offer a biblical case for the Presbyterian form of church government, and to make that case as accessible as possible.

In his defense of the Presbyterian form of church government, Waters is clear that he is not saying that non-Presbyterian churches aren’t true churches – the church can exist without Presbyterian polity – but he is arguing that Presbyterian polity is better for the well-being of the church. He draws this argument primarily through implication from the way that the church is described as being run in Scripture and the imperatives or mandates which are placed upon it; a case for church government must be made this way given that “the New testament, by design, does not give us an exhaustive manual of church polity… Rather, the New Testament gives the church her government in the form of principles that need to be applied” (p49).

In laying out his understanding of church government, Waters begins by first defining what the church is. This involves centering the church in God’s redemptive history, distinguishing between the visible and the invisible church, laying out who the members of the church are (those who make professions of faith along with their children, and presenting the fact that church membership is required for those who profess the faith. With this groundwork of ‘what is the church’ laid, Waters moves on to discuss the government of the church, noting that it derives it’s authority from Christ, that its is determined by principles drawn from Scripture, that it is separate from the civil magistrate, and briefly answers objections to his arguments.

After discussing the source of the church’s authority and its source, Waters moves on to discuss the power of the church, pointing out that “Men exercising power in the church do not do so upon the authority of their own person or character. They do so as representatives of Jesus, who posses all such power in his own person” (p63) and that “No officer of the church and no court of the church has any right to draft and to impose legislation on the church. By definition, officers of the church are authorized only to enforce the Word of God” (p66).

With the grounds for church government and its power outlined, Waters moves on to discuss the offices of the church. Here he describes both the ordinary and extraordinary offices of the church. The latter of these offices are the temporary offices of apostle and prophet. The former of these offices are those of elder and the deacon (where deacon is divided into both Teaching and Ruling Elders). Here Waters discusses the various rationale for these positions and there responsibilities, also touching on the topic of women as elders (taking the position that the Scriptures do not allow for them to hold this position).

With the offices covered Waters moves on to what might be called the explicitly Presbyterian aspect of the text, where he begins to lay out the various courts of the church. In this he lays out a system of both higher and lower courts as he sees them in Scripture, where the higher courts have authority over the lower courts only insofar as the higher courts contain the lower courts. In this sense it is perhaps better to speak of ‘smaller’ and larger’ courts, such that “There is subordination, to be sure, but it is ‘a smaller body to a larger body of officers of the same order – the smaller constituting a part of the larger'” (p142), or in more detailed terms: “Each church court has inherently all the powers that nay court of the church possesses – ‘the power of the whole is in every part.’ The courts of the church, however, are not autonomous or independent. The lower courts are subject to the review and control of the higher courts, in regular gradation, according to the provisions of the church’s constitution – ‘the power of the whole is over the power of every part'” (p144).

On the whole, Waters gives a solid outline of and basis for the Presbyterian form of church government. His explanation the church builds from the ground up, first working through the basic idea of what the church is, moving through to discuss the basis for its government and its power, what its offices are, and finally the courts that make up the ruling bodies. Waters also does a good job of touching on some of the more minor aspects of the debate, such as whether the office of elder is meant to be divided into two parts (Teaching and Ruling).

While Waters works to maintain a Biblical basis for his points, there are times in his book when he suffices to appeal to the Book of Church Order rather than giving direct Scriptural grounding to his conclusions. This can be seen perhaps most clearly in his discussions of the role of ruling elders versus the role of teaching elders, and even more so in his discussion of the lower courts of the church. While Waters’ justification for the higher courts seems valid, his justification for the lower courts seems flimsy at best, a conjecture based on little more than such things as the fact the multiple congregations in Jerusalem being referred to under the umbrella term of ‘the church in Jerusalem.’

That aspect of his book could have benefited from some deeper development, but on the whole this book is a good outline of the basis, form, and justification for Presbyterian polity.

Memorable Quotes:

“God has had one and only people throughout redemptive history.”-5

“Church power does not derive from the members of the church. It derives from Jesus alone.”-57

“The church is not authorized to speak to matters to which Christ has not authorized her in the Word of God to speak.”-67

“Prophesying is a revelatory gift – the prophet is the instrument through which God speaks his Word to the church. Teaching is not a revelatory gift – the teacher explains and applies what God has already said in his Word. While God has allowed women to be instruments of revelation, he does not permit them to teach that revelation in the public worship of God.”-110

“Presbyterianism is essential to the well-being but not the essence of the church.”-126

 

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