How Jesus Runs the Church

Article by   March 2012
howjesusrunsprentisswaters_95.jpgGuy Prentiss Waters, How Jesus Runs the Church (Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2011, 178 pp.)

The foreword to this very timely and useful book was written by Dr. T. David Gordon. He relates that, for approximately a decade, he taught a course in Presbyterian ecclesiology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He laments that many valuable works on ecclesiology and church polity were out of print. He was (and still is) convinced that "The seventeenth to nineteenth centuries had addressed matters not only thoroughly but avidly." (ix.) As a case in point, Gordon cites Thomas Smyth, who, in 1841 wrote a 124-page catechism on the Church entitled An Ecclesiastical Catechism and that asked 280 questions! (Ibid.) Even before I began reading Guy Waters's book I wanted to know how to get a copy of Smyth's catechism. In his inimical fashion, Gordon quips, "Today, we would be hard pressed to think of 280 questions to raise about the church, and even harder pressed to find anyone who could answer them." (x.) He is correct, of course, that what adds to the irony is that we live in a day and age when folks pride themselves on being "ecclesial."

Is it possible to speak often of being "ecclesial" and not understand biblical ecclesiology? The answer to that question lies within the pages of Guy Waters's book. It comprises seven chapters and touches on the most fundamental and essential aspects of ecclesiology. It fills the gaps of what are glaring omissions among those who desire to be "ecclesial." Therefore, I would like to take a few moments and walk you through what Dr. Waters covers in this work. And since the beginning tends to be a very good place to start, we shall open our comments at his Introduction.


Waters asserts that "Church a critical part of Christian discipleship. The government of the church is something in which every Christian should have keen interest." (xx.) Many today have ceased to believe that church government is anything but "boring." As far as each Christian having a keen interest in church government is concerned, well, it is almost laughable. Even within the PCA, one can observe either a disdain for church government or the consideration that it is so unimportant that the most productive thing a pastor can do when it comes to church government is to neglect it altogether. 

How, for example, does church government relate to social justice? If one had to choose, why would anyone choose church government over ridding the world of poverty? Should we not have an urgency to rid the world of the homeless before we all die from heat stroke caused by global warming? Waters's opening salvo points us in another direction. It is not as if he is impervious to the needs in society, but he desires the Church of Jesus Christ to have a solid foundation for being "ecclesial" and "missional." He wants the Church's efforts to be biblically guided and directed. To that end, Waters provides four ways in which the Scriptures emphasize the importance of Christ's Church. First, "there is a close biblical connection between Christ and his church.... Christ's interests are bound up with the church." (xxiii.) 

Second, "the church is a body that is both divinely created and divinely ruled." (Ibid.) While this is one of those statements that appears to be breaking down an open door, it is truly one that needs to be heeded and applied in the modern Church, and especially in those churches that call themselves Presbyterian or Reformed.

Third, "the church is the visible representation of the reign of Christ on earth." In other words, more than being akin to the secular welfare system, "the Scripture identifies the church as the place where Jesus' reign is now on particular display." (xxiv.) Church is to be Church, but in that capacity and role she has a unique role to play, rather than a role that is similar to her secular counterparts.

Fourth, "Jesus has uniquely tasked the church with the work of missions." (Ibid.) In this point, Waters directs readers' attention to the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). He argues that while the commission may have application to the church generally, it is the commission particularly of the disciples "and to all those who after them were called to bring the Word of God to the nations. In other words, this commission has primary application to the ministers of the church." (xxv. Emphasis added.) This touches on a key aspect of the Church that is often neglected. Waters points out that Christ provides two means in the commission: "Christ's ministers will baptize them in the triune name of God (28:19), and they will teach them all that Christ has taught his church through his apostles (28:20)." (Ibid.) 

This is frequently overlooked in the modern Church setting. While in Presbyterian and Reformed circles baptism is administered, the teaching ministry is, at times, supplanted by more "practical" issues. I am also convinced that there is an implicit requirement that Presbyterian and Reformed churches remain unashamedly Presbyterian and Reformed and avoid the "community church" moniker. Within my church affiliation, I have known church plants that went "belly up" and not one soul from that plant remained in the denomination. One might wonder if they were ever taught what being Presbyterian entailed. Waters is convinced that "the ministry of the Word through the officers of the church and the discipline of the church are matters relating to the government of the church. The integrity of the church's missionary calling, then, is bound up with the polity of the church." (xxvi.) If he is correct, many today are going to have to re-think their views on being "missional."

Waters writes that his goal in this book is twofold: "It offers a biblical case for the Presbyterian form of church government" and "to make this case as accessible as possible." (xxix.) In my estimation, the author succeeds on both counts.

What is the Church?

We may no longer gratuitously assume that everyone is on the same page when the question is posed, "What is the Church?" Today, one might receive as many different, divergent answers as there are people in the room. This phenomenon is particularly ironic in light of the fact that many in the modern Church are atwitter (not to be confused with Twitter) about the Church (ecclesial) and "being missional." A number of the modern books on ecclesiology manifest that while there is a deep and abiding concern regarding the Church, there is precious little comprehension of her history.

When those modern works are read, a number of questions arise: Is the Church a vestigial remnant of a bygone era? Is it something that had a place in previous centuries, but is no longer needed today? Has Christ's Church outgrown its usefulness? Should Christ's Church be "emergent"? Mega? Traditional? Waters asserts that "The church is not only crucial to the Christian life, but it is also crucial to God's redemptive plan and purpose, decreed from eternity and executed in history." (1) In other words, Waters is going to present the reader with a full-orbed view of what Scripture says about the Church.

Thus in his opening chapter, Waters has two questions for his readers: 1) Is membership in the church necessary for Christians? 2) Just who are the members of the church? (2) What is most helpful here is that Waters bolsters his statements with Scripture. In fact, this is a trait that characterizes the entire book. Anyone familiar with Waters's books is aware that his assertions are substantiated by careful exegesis. This book is no exception. He lays out the case that God has one plan, one people. He has "One purpose to redeem, one body of the redeemed." (6)

Waters is well-acquainted with many Presbyterian forefathers and he makes good use of them. For example, he cites Stuart Robinson's work, The Church of God, in dealing with the biblical concept of the covenants of redemptive history. He summarizes Robinson's explanation by saying, "In other words, the Mosaic covenant (Exod. 19) ordered the life of the society that God has brought forth from Abraham. God's covenant with David (2 Sam. 7) specifically promises that the people of God shall be ruled by a king descending from the line of David." (9-10)

He tackles the thorny question of church membership, which many modern Christians consider unnecessary. For those who do not believe that church membership is necessary for a Christian, Waters's explanation is most helpful. As far as church membership is concerned, he is convinced that "Church membership is not a declaration that I am a regenerate person. It is, rather, a declaration that the faith that I profess and the life that I live are credible and believable." (15) Our current problem regarding church membership is compounded by the fact that there are certain congregations "in the United States that neither require nor have church membership." (16) Waters gives six reasons why it is his settled opinion that Scripture requires church membership of believers. (17-21.) When addressing the notion of precisely who the members of the Church are, Waters differentiates between communing and non-communing members. Thus, he remains within clear Presbyterian and Reformed lines in making this assertion and he supports his position from Scripture.

The Government of the Church

In the second chapter, Waters lays out a clear and clear-cut case for the Presbyterian form of Church government. (29-54) As almost a "throw away" line he states, "The church uniquely puts on display the reign of Jesus to the world around her." (29.) In reality, this is a major contribution to the discussion surrounding being "ecclesial" and "missional" because he is affirming the Church's need to be and act like the Church and not a secular "knock off." This holds true for her catholicity, liturgy, music, and views of God, man, society, knowledge, truth, and ethics. Jesus holds absolute sway over his Church. Waters cites J.I. Packer approvingly to the point that in the Church "God's dominion is total; he wills as he chooses, and carries out all that he wills, and none can stay his hand, or thwart his plans." (30) After examining a number of pertinent texts, Waters draws our attention to Matthew 16:17-19 and the words, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heave, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." This indicates not only that the Church has a government all its own, but also that it is the government of the Church jure divino (by divine right). (42)

The Power of the Church

Hearkening back to the likes of T.E. Peck and others, Waters reiterates the truth that "The power [of the church] resides in her; it is exercised by [officers]. Ministers are her mouth as elders are her hands." (60) Waters continues, "This understanding of the church means, first of all, that the officers of the church are drawn from among, remain part of, and serve the body as a whole." Implicit in Waters's words is the word "local." That is to say, he is referring to each local body of Christ. Lately, especially within the PCA, we have witnessed the advent of what some call "site churches." In this configuration, elders are elected by the "hub" church and then are farmed out to the site congregations as necessity arises. This is a very recent occurrence, but one that has been embraced in some PCA quarters. If I read Waters--and the history of Presbyterianism--correctly, he views the site church configuration as more of an aberration of Presbyterianism than it is Presbyterianism at its best and finest.

Article I of the Solemn League and Covenant (1643) urged the churches to emulate the best Reformed churches from the past. The infatuation among some regarding the site church configuration tends towards ignoring what the best Presbyterian churches have advocated and practiced on the ostensible basis that newer is better. This chapter is most informative and points those who truly desire to be Presbyterian in the right historical direction.

Waters's discussions surrounding the office of deacon as well as the question of whether the Bible teaches about "deaconesses" are well-ordered and well-reasoned. While he does not dismiss the notion that local congregations should be helping the non-Christian, he touches on the very practical point that "The deacons are called to serve the church, not the world at large." (101) His explanations of Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 5:3-16 in this context are both relevant and instructive. I found this discussion particularly helpful in light of the many debates surrounding the concept of "social justice" in modern Christianity. In a separate section ("Women in Office"), Waters tackles the issues of female eldership and offers the reader excellent exegesis and insights on the pertinent New Testament texts presented in favor of "deaconesses." Irrespective of what one's view is on the issue, Waters is a must read.

For whom is this book written? It will prove to be a very valuable resource for students, pastors, and all church leaders. The style and set-up of the work facilitates easy reading and the index permits finding special topics without a great deal of searching. The size of the book (178-pages, including indices), makes it a work that will not tire the reader out by laborious explanations. Dr. Waters is quite to the point throughout.

A final word: It is a great honor for me to know Dr. Waters. I mention this because as the reader progresses through the book, he or she is inundated with "First, second, third..." Dr. Waters is a good Presbyterian. Things progress decently and in good order. As I have come to know him better, I understand that "First, second, third..." is the way his mind works. Personally, I found his clear delineation quite helpful. Therefore, avail yourself of this work. You will find yourself referring to it frequently.
Dr. Ron Gleason is the pastor Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Yorba Linda, California. He is the author of Herman Bavinck: Pastor, Churchman, Statesman, and Theologian.

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