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Committee on Christian Education Feature

How Jesus Runs the Church

Larry Wilson

I love the title How Jesus Runs the Church—the title of a book written recently by Guy Prentiss Waters. Too often we lapse into a kind of practical deism, as if our Lord has set things in motion and now it is up to us to run the church according to his directions. Far from it! As Waters points out in his introduction, the church is a spiritual organization; it is the Spirit of Christ who gives it vitality (pp. xxvii–xxviii).

Waters highlights two goals for this book: (1) to make a biblical case for the Presbyterian form of church government, and (2) to make this case as accessible as possible (p. xxix).

For the most part, he does an outstanding job in pursuing these goals. I once heard R.C. Sproul summarize the differences among three branches of the church in this way: Pentecostals shout, “Fire! Fire!” Baptists shout, “Water! Water!” And Presbyterians respond, “Order! Order!” Waters is a true Presbyterian in the orderliness of his treatment of how Jesus runs his church. This book is readable, thorough, and well outlined; it is not hard to follow. There is a lot of good information in the footnotes, and, happily, they are at the foot of the pages. Waters not only explains what Scripture teaches on the topic, but also shows where—and why it is important. The book has good indexes and a helpful annotated bibliography.

Waters digests and distills a great deal of material, much of it long out of print. Accordingly, his handling of what the church is and why it is important in God’s plan and in the life of the believer is excellent. So is his discussion of the importance of church membership (for the children of believers, too). His treatment of church authority—its nature and limits—is excellent.

The book is not abstract theory. For example, his discussion of “term eldership” versus “life eldership” is outstanding. His discussion of the object of diaconal ministry is excellent. His discussion of women in office is very good. His treatment of the courts of the church, and of connectionalism on broader levels, is superb. And there are many other good points.

Indeed, because the book is so excellent, a few disappointments seem especially to leap out in contrast. First, he seems to have written mainly for a Presbyterian audience; I wish he had made his case more with non-Presbyterians in mind. Furthermore, this book focuses on the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Waters is a minister in the PCA, so that is understandable, but it does lessen the book’s usefulness for churches of like faith and practice.

Second, that PCA orientation seems to predispose Waters to favor the so-called two-office view. One of the great strengths of this book is that it is fair in presenting various views and in citing Scripture to make his case. This section, however, seems more to assume the view than to argue for it. He rests his case on a fact that advocates of the three-office view also point out—that the words elder and overseer are used interchangeably in the New Testament. Alas, by limiting his treatment of this question only to New Testament texts, Waters seems temporarily and unwittingly to adopt an Anabaptist hermeneutic. This stands out in contrast to the whole rest of the book.

He summarizes the case for the three-office view like this: “Scripture describes church office in terms of three functions: teaching, ruling, and serving” (p. 88). From that summary, who would ever think that the Westminster Assembly discussed the distinct service of ministers of the Word, paralleling them to the old covenant priests and Levites (The Form of Presbyterial Church Government, “Of the Officers of the Church: Pastors”)? From that summary, who would ever think that the Westminster Assembly discussed the office of ruling elder like this?

As there were in the Jewish church elders of the people joined with the priests and Levites in the government of the church [2 Chron. 19:8–10]; so Christ, who hath instituted government, and governors ecclesiastical in the church, hath furnished some in his church, beside the ministers of the word, with gifts for government, and with commission to execute the same when called thereunto, who are to join with the minister in the government of the church [Rom. 12:7–8; 1 Cor. 12:28]. Which officers reformed churches commonly call Elders. (The Form of Presbyterial Church Government, “Of the Officers of the Church: Other Church-Governors”)

Who would ever think that some of the men he references in his footnotes (e.g., Edmund P. Clowney, Leonard J. Coppes, and Robert S. Rayburn, not to mention the “sundry ministers” who wrote Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici) point out that the old covenant Levitical priests who ministered the Word and sacrifices (sacraments) and the elders of the people were both designated “presbyter” (elder)? All priests were elders, but not all elders were priests, thus providing the assumed background to understand the distinction between “elders” in general and “those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17).

In fairness, Waters does make a distinction between “teaching elders” and “ruling elders.” He embraces what many call the two-and-a-half-office view. This may well be the majority view among our own churches. Accordingly, he does not advocate any practices that a conscientious three-office advocate would have to reject. In my judgment (following Ed Clowney’s), however, this two-and-a-half-office view is an unstable compromise. It not only has the disadvantage of neglecting the Old Testament underpinnings of the offices and the disadvantage of straying from our Presbyterian roots, but also tends to break down in one of two ways. Either, little by little, it so raises the expectations for the office of ruling elder that godly, wise men who lack gifts for public speaking are disqualified from serving, or, bit by bit, it so lowers the expectations for the office of minister that the quality and faithfulness of the ministry of the Word is diminished. But does not King Jesus build and rule his church by the agency of the Holy Spirit through the instrumentality of the Word, especially its preaching? The danger of the two-office view, it seems to me, is that it tends to shunt aside the centrality of the ministry of the Word as the Holy Spirit’s primary instrument.

This implies a third disappointment, which, to me, is the most serious. On the front cover, the title is first printed as “How to Run the Church,” and then letters are crossed out and added to change the title to “How Jesus Runs the Church.” That is outstanding. But does the book adequately deliver what this title promises? In his introduction, Waters approvingly quotes F. P. Ramsey, “It is not constitutional regularity, it is not mechanical perfection, that makes the church effective for its end; it is the Spirit of Christ using the church as his agent. . . . Alas, form and machinery may exist without life and power. . . . [The Holy] Spirit creates fit instruments for his own use, and therefore we may expect the church to become more nearly perfect in organization and methods as it becomes more perfectly the obedient organ of the Spirit” (p. xxviii). Then Waters comments, “To be sure, the Spirit and not church government is the source of the church’s life and power. And yet God works by means. The government of the church is one of those appointed means” (p. xxviii). And that is that. “How Jesus Runs the Church” seems to break down to “How to Run the Church.” I am confident that Waters agrees with this concern. He does reiterate it in the conclusion. I just wish that he had treated it in a way that was more integral to the entire book, so that it would actually deliver what its title promises.

I feel bad about voicing these criticisms. Readers can consider the source as they decide whether or not they have any merit. As I said, the reason these disappointments stand out to me is that the book as a whole is so good. I would love to see Waters address these questions more adequately, and the publisher put it out as a durable hardback. In the meantime, there is no other book like it. Highly recommended.

How Jesus Runs the Church, by Guy Prentiss Waters. Published by P&R, 2011. Paperback, 178 pages, list price $14.99. The reviewer is an OP pastor.

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