The format of this book follows the beneficial varying-perspectives-on-one-subject approach of several books that enables readers to evaluate the arguments set forth by the differing positions. In this case the subject is church polity. After an introductory chapter by the editors, the following five chapters first present an extended argument for a particular perspective and then offer a brief critique from each of the other four authors. The five positions argued by the five authors are the single elder-led congregational model, by Daniel Akin; the Presbyterian model, by Robert L. Reymond; the democratic congregational model, by James Leo Garrett Jr.; the Episcopal model, by Paul F. M. Zahl; and the plural elder-led congregational model, by James R. White.
While the editors seem to hold that church polity is not a matter of dogma and probably not even a matter of clear and fully developed doctrine, but rather a matter of belief (with biblical, historical, and reasonable arguments as warrant), not all the authors would agree. In fact one author asserts that his position expresses the “divine right” (p. 138). Another author takes the opposite extreme, “I can argue none of these positions in such a way that the logic becomes necessary or binding. The New Testament evidence is simply too diverse. There is no one governing New Testament ecclesiology” (p. 212). Given the five different and sometimes disparate positions as well as the varying degrees of conviction with which they are presented, the book makes for instructive and lively reading.
The major questions center around what makes a church a church, who (humanly speaking) leads/rules the church and/or churches, and how churches relate to one another? Support is drawn from the Bible, theology, history, creeds and confessions, and bene esse (what works for the good of the church). Some arguments rest on sound exegesis while others rely on huge leaps of imagination. Some theological lines seem sound while others fail. History provides whatever an author wants to find, supported by creeds, confessions, and claims of antiquity and effectiveness. Happily every presentation must survive four critiques from four different perspectives. The reader is left to sort through the strength and soundness of each argument. The style of each author is readable, though some are more interesting and educational than others.
Daniel Akin is president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina; Robert Reymond served at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis and is now emeritus professor of systematic theology at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; James Garrett is distinguished professor of theology emeritus at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas; Paul Zahl is dean and president of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania; and James White is an elder of the Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church and director of Alpha and Omega Ministries in Phoenix, Arizona.
A notable weakness of this volume results from the all but unavoidable difference in the authors’ styles. For example one author employed 318 footnotes while another had only 15. The one, while extremely instructive, seems too heavy for the nature of this work even as the other seems understated. Every pastor, elder, overseer, or bishop would do well to study this text carefully and prayerfully, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of each perspective. When believers disagree, they would do well to understand the nature and reasons for that disagreement. An honest examination of one’s convictions regarding the church can give both clarity and motivation for servant leadership in and for the body of Christ.
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