Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity

By Chad Owen Brand and R. Stanton Norman, eds.
Nashville : Broadman and Holman (2004). xiii + 353 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Dennis Swanson
17.1 (Spring 2006) : 111-113

The issue of church polity is perhaps one of the most divisive issues in local churches in America. Churches have split over the issue of “elder rule” versus some form of congregational rule. Churches in episcopal systems have seen their congregations locked out of church facilities by denominational leaders who did not like the actions of a particular local congregation. In presbyterian systems, local congregations have had local church-discipline decisions with biblical warrant reversed by synod and general assembly courts.

Congregations and their leaders wonder what is the “biblical” form of church government, how should they be organized, and how should decisions be made. This is a foundational issue for a local church that seeks to conduct its affairs in a manner that pleases God.

Historically, several forms of church polity have developed, and many variations and nuances exist within those forms. A local church struggling with its own organization or a new assembly wondering how to “get off on the right foot” is often left with a “blithering array of competing models, all of which lay claim to biblical authenticity” (22) and are defended by respected evangelical leaders, pastors, and theologians. One work that escapes the “blithering” category is this “five-view” work. Five options of polity are presented clearly, forthrightly, and in a generally irenic manner. Five respected evangelical leaders present their case for local church polity. They and the positions they affirm are as follows:

  • Daniel Akin, President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, defends “The Single Elder-Led Church: The Bible’s Witness to a Congregational/Single- Elder-Led Polity,” (25-86).
  • Robert L. Reymond, Professor of Theology at Knox Theological Seminary, defends the “Presbytery-Led Church: Presbyterian Church Government,” 87- 156).
  • James Leo Garrett, Jr., Professor of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, defends the “Congregation-Led Church: Congregational Polity,” 157-208).
  • Paul F. M. Zahl, Dean and President of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, defends “The Bishop-Led Church: The Episcopal or Anglican Polity Affirmed, Weighed, and Defended” (209-54).
  • James R. White, Director of Alpha and Omega Ministries, defends the “Plural Elder-Led Church: Sufficient as Established— The Plurality of Elders as Christ’s Ordained Means of Church Governance” (255-96).

As normal in such a view book, responses by the other contributors appear at the end of each major presentation. The work includes useful indexes (name, subject, and Scripture) and a clear introductory chapter by the editors dealing with key issues and a brief survey of the history o f church polity.

The contributors uniformly present clear definitions, biblical defenses, and generally offer detailed research. The publisher opted to use endnotes instead of footnotes, which often interrupts important points that the contributors were making. Each author supports his position from Scripture and with a wide array of material. For instance, Garrett has 318 notations which cover 19 pages of material.

Akin’s contribution is superior to the others. He is current in his scholarship, and while though making an affirmative case for his position, still acknowledging room for flexibility (73). Reymond details Presbyterianism and defends it, in large part, as a means of maintaining church and ministry “balance.” He states, “[I]t provides the most trustworthy, just, and peaceful way for the church to determine its principles, its practices, and its priorities and to resolve its differences” (135). Reymond’s point that a congregational model has “too many ministers and too many churches that are accountable to no one” (ibid.) is well stated; however, he weakens his position considerably by attributing the tragedy of Jonestown and the scandals of Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Jesse Jackson directly to a congregational model (136). In doing this, he likewise fails to note that Presbyterianism, as a system, was not able to deal with the liberalism that eventually led to the reorganization of Princeton Seminary in 1929 and the wholesale departure from orthodoxy of several Presbyterian denominations.

Thoroughly noted and detailed, the article by Garrett is more of a laundry list of quotations and people who have supported some form of congregationalism. His criticism of “mega-churches,” the ministry of John MacArthur, and Dallas Theological Seminary, as part of the “crisis” or “major erosion or overt rejection of congregational polity” (190) is a tired old canard. However, his point that individual members need to be more active in the affairs and ministries of their churches (192) is worthwhile.

In presenting the Episcopal model, Zahl centers on the Anglican Church, which is not a major force in American evangelicalism. His presentation is clear and perhaps one of the best affirmative presentations of that system this reviewer has encountered. However, it would have been helpful had he expanded his horizons to include the Methodist, Lutheran, and perhaps even the Roman Catholic schemas.

The final presentation by James White on the plurality of elders is perhaps the most disappointing in terms of presentation. His argument is often pedantic and has an air of “my way or the highway” to it. He utilizes Sola Scriptura in such a manner that he makes it clear that a rejection of his position on polity is a de facto moving away from or rejection of the Sola as well. His notations are weak (he uses only 11 footnotes), and he offers little affirmative support. In fact, his is the only article that fails to cite or quote any supporting source outside Scripture.

Other points of disagreement and issues could be mentioned, but for the most part, the individual authors dispatch these in their responses to one another. A couple of issues deserve mention, however. In assessing the Congregational model, Akin appears to correct Garrett’s assertion that John MacArthur is Presbyterian (196), but points to a reference that he identifies as “Note 99,” which has no bearing on that point. In fact, in the section discussing MacArthur (whose ministry Garrett views as a major reason Baptist churches have moved toward “elder rule,” [191]), Garrett makes no claim that MacArthur is a Presbyterian.

This book, though covering a large swath of evangelical church polity, is not complete. It has no discussion of a minimalist polity such as in Plymouth Brethren assemblies, and as already mentioned, no discussion of the non-Anglican systems that practice the Episcopal model. Further, it has no discussion of inherent weaknesses in each system and how, on a practical level, those are overcome. Also, it has no discussion of how one might practically implement one system or the other if starting from scratch, how one might move a congregation from one model to another, or under what circumstances such a change might be a good or bad idea.

This is an important work and a valuable contribution to the literature of polity and is recommended highly. That being said, this reviewer agrees with the great Anglican expositor and theologian, Bishop J. C. Ryle, who stated, “There is not a text in the Bible which expressly commands churches to have one special form of government, and expressly forbid s any other” (Ryle, Knots Untied [reprint; Moscow, Idaho: Charles Nolan, 2000] 234). The diversity of polity within local churches that God has chosen to bless in history make it clear that outside biblical commands that everything should be done “properly and in an orderly fashion” (1 Cor 14:40), that godly men be given the task of local church leadership (1 Tim 3:1-13; Titus 1:6-9), and that those leaders must dispatch their duties with humility before God (1 Pet 5:2- 3), the structures of church polity may vary to meet the needs of a local assembly.