Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity. By Chad Owen Brand and R. Stanton Norman. Nashville: B&H, 2004. 253 pages. Softcover, $19.99.
Who cares about ecclesiology? Why should a church member concern himself with who runs the church? In Perspectives on Church Government, editors Chad Owen Brand and R. Stanton Norman seek to facilitate a discussion that will engage these questions by providing the reader with a defense of the “classic positions on the matter of governing the church” (23), which include the Congregational model, the Presbyterian model, and the Episcopal model. Brand and Norman include three broad variations of congregationalism with Daniel Akin defending the single elder position, James Leo Garrett, Jr. defending the congregation led position, and James White advocating a plurality of elders. Robert Reymond and Paul Zahl defend Presbyterian and Episcopal models, respectively. Each contributor presents an essay-length defense of his position, followed by a brief response from each of the other four scholars.
Defining church polity as “the manner in which a church or denomination practices organization and governance,” Brand and Norman provide an introductory chapter that seeks to demonstrate that “polity has profound implications for understanding the nature of the church and its various functions and ministries” (5). To that end, they give a chronological survey of the development of polity in church history and highlight its importance in each major period. Acknowledging the difficulty of proving which form of church government is the “prescribed pattern” for the New Testament church, the editors assert that there is an obvious criterion which must be considered in every model, namely, “the scriptural witness seen in the light of the historic and contemporary interpretations of the church” (23). The task of each of the contributors is to weigh their model according to this standard.
One positive feature about this volume is the depth of the essays presented. The contributors attempt to ground their views in biblical texts while highlighting the way their positions interact with the theological themes and emphases present throughout church history. Brand and Norman’s introductory chapter sets the stage for this development in the essays themselves by highlighting the importance of the discussion and by orienting the reader to the major categories necessary for thinking through the issue of church government.
The panel discussion format of the book also provides the reader with the opportunity to consider each view defended by someone who actually holds that position. For the most part, the responses to each essay highlight the main areas of agreement and disagreement between the various positions. Though this format is helpful, the similarity of some of the positions lends itself to redundancy. For instance, a few of the minor issues in the debate such as the qualifications for elders and deacons are shared by all five contributors. In fact, even on the issue of the interchangeability of the terms elder and bishop, where one would expect the Episcopal position to differ, there is repeated agreement among the participants. Further, though White does not specifically mention congregationalism in his essay, his interpretation of many key texts (e.g., Acts 15) is in line with Akin and Garrett. Thus, some points regarding congregational government are defended three times, and some rebuttals to Reymond and Zahl are similarly reiterated. In this sense, the congregational position serves as the first among equals in this plurality of contributors.
There is also some disparity in the tone of the presentations. Reymond’s essay on Presbyterian is the most dogmatic, and his responses have the most edge to them. In the defense of his position, Reymond allows minimal flexibility for varying interpretive possibilities and describes Presbyterianism as the “divine right form” of church government (138). In stark contrast, Zahl’s essay on Episcopal polity is perhaps not dogmatic enough. In his theological triage, Zahl lays much less emphasis on ecclesiology than do the other contributors in this volume. He would rather no one posit any form of church polity to the exclusion of another. The assertion that ecclesiology relates to the “well-being” of the church rather than its “being” drives his presentation and responses to the other positions. Zahl also fails to relate his position on polity to the biblical text. He gives an intriguing and thorough survey of the historical situation that gave rise to the Episcopal system in Elizabethan England, but does not seek to provide a biblical foundation for his position. Thus, while his writing style is notably engaging, it is sometimes unclear in this volume how the Episcopal system interacts with the other positions.
There are a few other minor issues related to content and style. Regarding the former, Akin argues for a senior pastor but continually upholds a plurality of elders as the ideal, and White does not interact with the congregational position. Concerning the latter, Garrett has twice as many footnotes as the other contributors combined, and Reymond uses an overabundance of lengthy block-quotations. Despite these concerns, this volume represents a helpful contribution to the contemporary discussion of church polity. Those who affirm that a pattern for ordering the churches can be discerned from the New Testament documents will appreciate the dialogue this work affords.
PhD Student, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary