Well Ordered, Living Well: A Field Guide to Presbyterian Church Government, by Guy Prentiss Waters

Ryan M. McGraw

Well Ordered, Living Well: A Field Guide to Presbyterian Church Government, by Guy Prentiss Waters. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2022, 100 pages, $8.99, paper.

Church government has been a divisive issue among Protestants since the Reformation. For this reason, few authors, and even fewer publishers, are willing to tackle the subject in our modern world. Although church government affects the well-being of the church without striking at the heart of its being, the Bible still has something to say about the subject, and so should we for this reason. Guy Waters, as a convinced Presbyterian, illustrates in these pages why Presbyterian government is rooted in Scripture and how Christ designed this form of government for the benefit of his people. This is an easy-to-read and a useful introduction to this subject that readers will find edifying, even if they do not agree with all of his conclusions.

Reducing the biblical principles of Presbyterianism to five points in chapters 2–3, Waters addresses the church, its members, offices, courts, and ordination. Of course, this material answers the arguments of the first chapter for the relative importance of church government. Relative because church government relates to the well-being or health rather than the being or foundation of the church. Chapter 5 helpfully answers a range of questions arising in relation to church membership and church government. Concluding the work with three points of application, chapter 5 urges believers to think biblically, to choose self-denying love, and to be thankful to God and joyful in the church (85–8). The recommended reading list, following the conclusion, usefully introduces readers to material that can help them press further in exploring church government.

In terms of content, Water’s treatment in chapter 2 of what the church is and why church membership is biblical should be points that all churches have in common. Divergences among churches occur primarily in relation to his last three points of Presbyterianism in chapter 3. He argues that Christ has appointed elders, divided into two classes, alone to govern the church, with deacons serving over believer’s physical concerns. Some Presbyterians have described this classification as two offices, with a distinction regarding Word and sacrament within the office of elder, and some as three offices, consisting of ministers, elders, and deacons (45). The common point between these models is that ministers and elders alone govern the church locally, regionally, and ecumenically through doctrine, order, and discipline (51–6). Fifth, and finally, officers in Presbyterian churches, and in Scripture, are elected by church members and ordained by elders through the laying on of hands (58–61). By contrast, Episcopal churches of various forms commit government into the hands of bishops in place of presbyters (elders), especially on the regional and ecumenical levels, while Congregational churches make church government terminate at the local level, whether elders or whole congregations govern such congregations. This presentation of Presbyterianism is biblically grounded, easy to follow, and punctuated by useful application to the church as a whole.

A few clarifying points are in order in relation to Appendix 2 by Bartel Elshout, who further illustrates what Presbyterianism is. Elshout augments Waters’s material by adding that “two distinct models of Reformed church polity” emerged from the principle of Scripture alone: Presbyterianism and the Church Order of Dort. Both models stress Christ’s headship, Scripture alone, rule by elders, and a federal relationship with other churches (94–5). He adds that they differ in the number of officers, in assigning rule to deacons as well as to elders (96, 98), in setting terms for service for elders and deacons (96; not for ministers!), in the autonomy of local congregations (97), in whether the term “church” extends to regional and ecumenical bodies as “permanent assemblies” of the church (98–9), and in the idea that church discipline can be “initiated and administered” only in local churches (99).

Readers should note, however, that many Presbyterian churches distinguish the offices of minister and elder, resulting in three offices, and that some implement terms for officers. This author questions whether setting term limits for elders and not for ministers can retain true parity of office. The main differences between Presbyterianism and Dutch polity, however, lie in their views of deacons being part of the church’s governing body and in whether the term church applies beyond the local congregation. Deacons do not share in church government with the elders in Scripture, which is why elders must be “apt to teach,” while deacons do not have this requirement (1 Tim. 3:2; 2 Tim. 2:24). Elders are apt to teach because they must apply the keys of the kingdom in church government and discipline, while the deacons exercise authority over the church’s temporal affairs (Acts 6). In this respect, Elshout is not quite right in saying that “both models are presbyterian” in that they recognize government by elders (94). Presbyterianism has always recognized that the elders govern the church exclusively and that “church” in Scripture includes local churches, regional churches, and the whole church, united in exercising elder government at its various levels. The Church Order of Dort, from which most Dutch churches draw, is more akin to English Congregationalism than it is to Presbyterianism, due to its refusal to apply the term “church” to synods and councils. This may have resulted from the number of Congregational Puritan refugees in the Netherlands in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. In any case, Dutch polity differed from other continental forms of church polity, such as in seventeenth century France and Geneva (via Francis Turretin, for example), which remained distinctively Presbyterian. In Congregationalism the church terminates at the local level, while in Presbyterianism elders govern the church in its regional and ecumenical forms as well.

Though the excellent features of Waters’s book are hard to overstate, one additional thing that is worthy of note in relation to Appendix 1 is the content of the PCA’s membership vows (91–2). While officers in Presbyterian denominations subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, the only “creed” required of members is their membership vows. Such vows express one’s faith in Christ, rooted in the fundamental ideas of Christianity. In this light, it is unfortunate that these vows include nothing explicit about the Trinity and the incarnation, as do vows in churches like the OPC, the URC, and in many Baptist congregations. This is a sad omission, since the Trinity and Christ’s incarnation have always been the bedrock of biblical Christianity from the time of the Apostles, through the early church and Middle Ages, and into the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. Knowing the one Triune God through the one Mediator between God and man are the most essential components of the Christian faith, without which everything else we believe stands on thin air. Such a confession of the Trinity and the incarnation undergirded Paul’s summaries of the gospel in passages like 1 Timothy 3:16, and we would do well to retain and cherish it. The church today desperately needs to recover the Trinity and the person and work of Christ as the bedrock of biblically grounded faith and life. Though it may be controversial to say so, I believe that the PCA vows are defective in promoting a distinctively Christian confession that reflects the confession of both the Scriptures and of the church in every age. The point here is to challenge all churches to dig deeper into these key foundations as they lead people into church membership.

Whether or not readers agree with everything that Guy Waters teaches in these pages, all believers will likely find elements that they resonate with. It is important to wrestle with the Bible’s own teaching on church government as we seek to learn at Christ’s feet as he governs and shepherds us through his church. We should be grateful that Reformation Heritage Books was willing to publish a book on church government, helping promote the well-being of the church today. Though such books should never mark the lines between true and false churches, they represent attempts to teach the whole counsel of God in Scripture faithfully. There is likely none better than Guy Waters to take up this task with winsome charity, writing clearly with the health of the church in view.

Ryan M. McGraw is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as a professor of systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina. Ordained Servant Online, June–July 2022.

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Ordained Servant: June–July 2022

A Living Sacrifice

Also in this issue

A Living Sacrifice

Commentary on the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapters 30–32

Dueling Methods: A Review Article

The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis by Jason M. Baxter

Daniel’s Hope

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