This book review originally appeared on the Presbyterian Polity website here.
The venerable ecclesiastical word “Presbyterian” has fallen on hard times. The Twentieth Century played host to a fierce contest between so-called Modernists in one corner and so-called Fundamentalists in the other. Christians of every denominational stripe were caught between the opposing forces of theological Liberalism and a fractured or reductionistic conservativism. Though no expression of Protestantism was left unscathed, American Presbyterianism was perhaps hardest hit. One sign of this is the cloud of confusion and unfamiliarity that surrounds the very nomenclature of our fair church.
Guy Prentiss Waters of Reformed Theological Seminary has rendered valuable service to those who are wondering, “What in the world is Presbyterianism?” In his most recent title on the subject, Well Ordered, Living Well: A Field Guide to Presbyterian Church Government (Reformation Heritage Books, 2022), Guy Waters does for everyday Christian readers what he did more extensively for pastors and church officers in his earlier work, How Jesus Runs the Church (Presbyterian & Reforming Publishing, 2011). In this more lately published book on ecclesiology, we have in-hand a readable and biblical introduction to Presbyterian church government.
The structure of this appropriately denominated “field guide” follows five questions. The first question gets to the heart of the matter: Why Does Church Government Matter? Essentially, church government matters because our God is the God of good order, and we are a people in need of organization into fruitful spiritual society. Salvation itself is in large measure the act of bringing good order out of dark chaos, and our God is our Savior King who orders us for righteous living as His people. We need God to direct us in the redress for sins, the resolution of conflict, and the pursuit of discipline. Our own commonsense (i.e., the light of nature) understanding of how groups work prompts us to look for order in the gathering of the saints. “If the church is a society gathered for some set purpose (as are families, nations, and clubs), wouldn’t we expect God to have set in place some form of government?” (p. 4). In answering the “why” question up-front, Dr. Waters presents a biblical case for discernible (and careful) church government according to God’s guiding word.
The second question proceeds with definition crucial to the rest of the book’s subject: What Makes a Church? This chapter divides neatly into two parts. In the first part, Dr. Waters presents the ‘who,’ ‘what,’ and ‘why’ of the church itself. The church is the divinely created visible expression of the unified Kingdom of Heaven tasked with gathering and growing individual saints through the ministry of Word and Prayer. Though Dr. Waters avoids polemics, it is worth noting here – by way of my own op-ed comment – that this spiritual mission of the church was all but forgotten by Modernists and Fundamentalists alike during the raging debates of the Twentieth Century. Today, this mission is cast aside by Social Justice Warriors on the left and Christian Nationalists on the right. But if we lose sight of God’s purpose for the church, then on what basis might we reasonably suppose that He will bless our programs, initiatives, gatherings, and so-called ministries?
Holding fast to a biblical understanding of the church carries great significance for the Christian life. Such an understanding supplies to us the assurance that our strenuous efforts in her service are worthwhile, makes plain to us the enduring relevance of the Old Testament for the people of God today, and clarifies for us the personal importance of the church for our individual lives. In the second part of this chapter, Dr. Waters discusses the blessings and benefits of the church’s members. Principal among these endowments of church membership is the right of discipleship in God’s covenant community. As Christ followers, we have full and free access to the means of grace He has appointed for our salvation and growth in godliness. There are amazing blessings in store for the members of Christ’s church!
The third question Dr. Waters asks in this book directly addresses Christ’s government of the church: How is the Church Led? In his three-part answer, he distills some of the best thinking from Presbyterians of the past concerning the officers, assemblies, and ordination of the church. Dr. Waters presents the classic two-office view that Christ has given the eldership and the diaconate to His church as perpetual offices until His return. This position finds historical currency in the Southern American Presbyterian tradition, as continued today in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). In an appendix in the back of this book, Dutch Reformed pastor Bartel Elshout briefly highlights the difference between American Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed practices on this and other points. More generally, this chapter develops in simple terms how Jesus Himself, by the means He has appointed, rules in His church (through elders gathered into assemblies). The kind of rule exercised by elders is not legislative, but rather ministerial and declarative. This is why the assemblies of the church are referred to as courts or judicatories in historic Presbyterianism. When elders gather together, they do so not as legislators, but as ambassadors with authority to apply God’s Word to the situations of God’s people. Each of the three parts of this chapter is helpfully concluded with practical applications.
The fourth chapter features a collection of frequently asked But What About…? questions. These questions include:
- Where was the church before the New Testament?
- Do I have to be a member of a church?
- Does being a member of the church mean that I am saved?
- What do I have to do to become a member of a local church?
- What if a church I’m interested in doesn’t have church membership?
- I’m moving to a new town. What should I look for in a new church?
- Are you saying that all non-Presbyterian churches are not real churches? Let the reader note that the answer to this question begins with the exclamation, “Not at all!”
- How can there be unity in the church if there are all these denominations and church splits?
- In congregational churches, the congregation plays an active part in receiving and disciplining church members. Why don’t Presbyterian do that?
- What about apostles, prophets, and bishops? We see churches today that have leaders who use those titles. Why don’t Presbyterian churches have these offices?
- May women serve as church officers?
- What if my church leaders make a decision that I think is wrong?
These are excellent questions well worth our time and attention, and the answers given are careful, pastoral, and sensitive to controversy but firm in biblical conviction. Take up and read!
The final chapter (before the “For Further Reading” section and appendices) briefly asks the predictable question: Where Do We Go from Here? As Christians concerned with developing our understanding of what the Bible teaches us regarding church government, we should do at least three things. We should think through this material and what the Bible says about how King Jesus rules this visible expression of His heavenly kingdom. We must choose to love one another in the church, despite our differences and difficulties, and certainly because of what Christ is doing in our lives by bringing us together as His body. We must feel the joy of the Holy Spirit at the revelation of our God’s good and life-giving promise of order for His people. It may seem counterintuitive, but God’s purposeful and intimate government of His church gives us every reason to rejoice! “In the messiness of church life today we can be joyful. God is at work and He is sanctifying and perfecting His church. The fact that God is with us for the long haul should stir our hearts to joy” (p. 88).
In conclusion, I heartily recommend this most excellent little manual on Presbyterianism. My prayer is that God will use this and similar materials – even our modest website here – to “win back” the name ‘Presbyterian’ from those who have trampled it under the opposing cartwheels of Liberalism, Modernism, Fundamentalism, and all manner of ham-handed Transformationalism. Long live the church, and long live her King!