Note: Jeffrey T. Riddle is Pastor of Christ Reformed Baptist Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. He recently completed a simplification and abridgement of John Owen’s classic “The True Nature of a Gospel Church and Its Government” under the new title “Gospel Church Government” (Grace Publications, 2012). The book is distributed by Evangelical Press.
RBF: Tell us about Gospel Church Government.
Riddle: This book is a simplified and abridged revision of John Owen’s classic work The True Nature of a Gospel Church and Its Government, from volume 16 of his Collected Works. It is being released this month (April 2012) by Grace Publications in the UK in their “Great Christian Classics” series.
RBF: How did you come to work on this project?
Riddle: I first read Owen’s original work in 2009. I was really struck by his interpretation of Biblical ecclesiology. As most know, Owen is not always easy to read and understand in the original. As I worked my way through the book, I thought that it might be nice if there were a simplified version to make it more easily accessible to modern readers. I know how much I have personally profited from reading some of the simplified and abridged versions of Owen that Banner of Truth has published (e.g., R. J. K Law’s Communion With God and Richard Rushing’s The Mortification of Sin). I also knew about the simplified “Great Christian Classics” series by Grace Publications. I had read a couple of the books in that series and used them in ministry, particularly Wake Up and Live (a simplified version of Joseph Alleine’s Alarm to the Unconverted—a great book to use in evangelism). The books in the Grace series are pitched at an even simpler level than the Banner of Truth abridgements. I contacted the editors at Grace Publications about working on a revision of The True Nature of a Gospel Church and Its Government, and they agreed that it would be a worthwhile project.
RBF: Why consult a simplified revision rather than encouraging the reading of the original?
Riddle: I suppose there are some purists who would say that you should always and only read the original works. I recently read about a debate that broke out among English literature scholars over an abridgement of Sir Walter Scott’s classic novel Ivanhoe. My hope certainly is that some people might read Gospel Church Government and be led to take up and read Owen’s original. Perhaps reading this book first might even help them to understand Owen better. Others might not have the time or inclination to read the original, and they can, at least, have access and exposure to many of Owen’s important teachings on church government through this revision. Grace Publications also works with an affiliated ministry called Grace Missions which publishes some of the works in the series into other languages. We have such a store of Christian literature in English that many other languages do not have. I am hopeful that Gospel Church Government might be translated into other languages and Owen’s ideas on church government shared in other cultures.
RBF: What is Gospel Church Government about?
Riddle: This book is Owen’s mature reflections on the Bible’s teaching on church government. He wrote it in 1683, the year of his death, though it was not published until 1689. Owen had started out as a Presbyterian but then became a Congregationalist and Independent. In this book, he first discusses the nature and authority of the church. He then spends a lot of time on what he sees as the four Biblical church offices: Pastor (Teaching Elder); Teacher; Ruling Elder; and Deacon. He then discusses the practice of church discipline, warning in particular about abuses, and offering very practical pastoral counsel. Finally, he discusses the importance and necessity of fellowship or “communion” among churches.
RBF: Why would this book be of interest for Reformed Baptists?
Riddle: Owen obviously had a significant influence on the early Particular Baptists, including their views on church government. He was one of the principle authors of the Congregationalist Savoy Declaration (1658) which deeply influenced the Second London Baptist Confession (1689). Among contemporary Reformed Baptists there seems to be some recent renewed discussion, in particular, on the role of elders in the church. Does the Bible teach “parity” of elders? Is there a distinction to be made between Ministers and Ruling Elders? Given this, I think anyone would profit from reading Owen’s views on church officers. Owen gives emphasis, in particular, to Ruling Elders (two chapters in the original are condensed to one in this revision). Though this was a minority position among the early Particular Baptists, James Renihan has shown that it was a view held by some (see his book Edification and Beauty: The Practical Ecclesiology of the Early English Particular Baptists, 1675-1705). Those who reject the idea of Ruling Elders will have to respond to Owen’s arguments in its favor. He was not known for holding a view lightly or unadvisedly. This would be one example of an issue this book addresses that might interest contemporary Reformed Baptists.
Gospel Church Government is not by any means an academic or scholarly book. It is a popular and simple presentation. I hope it might be helpful and edifying for the busy church officer or interested Christian who simply wants to know more about the church and Biblical churchmanship. Ω