Reformed Baptist Fellowship

John Owen, Gospel Church Government

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on November 8, 2012 at 8:29 am

Book Review

John Owen, Gospel Church Government, simplified and abridged by Jeffrey T. Riddle (Grace Publications, 2012):  110 pp. Reviewed by W. G. Crampton, Th.D. 

Gospel Church Government[1] is “an updated and shortened version” of The True Nature of a Gospel Church and Its Government written by John Owen which was first published in 1689, and is available in The Works of John Owen.[2] The book under review is Jeffrey Riddle’s “simplified and abridged” edition of Owen’s original work. The abridged edition is approximately one-half the length of the original.

Gospel Church Government consists of a Preface followed by ten chapters:

In the Preface (7-8) Dr. Riddle tells us that “John Owen (1616-1683) was a man whose conscience was captive to the Word of God.” In his early years Owen defended the Presbyterian form of church government, but after reading John Cotton’s The Keys of the Kingdom his “convictions began to switch” to the congregational view expressed in the Savoy Declaration (1658), of which Owen was “one of the principal authors.”[3] As we will see, Owen’s view of congregational church government is, as Sinclair Ferguson has written, “a truncated form of Presbyterianism,”[4] as is taught in the Westminster Standards.[5] Dr. Owen wrote this book to combat the “vigorous assaults made upon separate and congregational churches” at that time. He finished the work in 1683 while undergoing serious health difficulties shortly before his death.

Dr. Riddle concludes the Preface by informing us about the content of the book:

Owen presents his mature reflections on the Biblical doctrine of the church. This includes a high view, under Christ, both of the role of the congregation in the government of a local church body and of the role of her officers (pastors, teachers, ruling elders, and deacons). Owen also addresses a Biblical understanding of church discipline, while attempting to correct abuses and offer practical counsel. Finally, he stresses the importance of local churches sharing in “communion” (fellowship) with other like-minded gospel churches.

The following chapters overview these Owenian doctrines:

Chapter 1: “Who Belongs to a Church?” (pp. 9-14). In this chapter Dr. Owen maintains that membership in the visible church is restricted to those who, in the charitable judgment of the church elders, are able to make a credible profession of faith in Jesus Christ, i.e., those who are disciples of Jesus Christ and have been baptized into the name of the Triune God of Holy Scripture (Matthew 28:18-20) and willingly submit to the authority of Christ and His officers in the church. Church membership, says Owen, does not belong to non-believers or to the household members (including the children of Christian parents[6]) of a Christian family who are not able to make a credible profession of faith. Such household members are to be given special care by the church, but they are not permitted to join the church until they willingly embrace Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

According to Dr. Owen, church membership is required of all believers. Such persons need to join a Biblically based church—one that preaches the whole counsel of God, faithfully administers the sacraments of water baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and exercises church discipline when necessary. A Christian must not remain in a “corrupt church.”

Chapter 2: “How is a Church Formed?” (pp. 15-16). The church of Jesus Christ, writes Owen, is to be formed “through a solemn agreement” in a covenantal relationship. This is a “gospel duty in the covenant of grace” that God established with His people. The New Covenant community is to consist of particular, local churches. If a person is a member of one local congregation, he is not to be a member of another congregation. As noted in chapter 1 these members are those who have made a credible profession of faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, as Lord of the church, has also ordained that His church is to be governed by “officers, rulers, or leaders in His church.” In the Old Covenant community (the OT church) God made a covenant with Abraham and his physical seed who were required to obey His commandments. In the New Covenant community (the NT church) God makes a covenant with Abraham and his spiritual seed (“gospel worshippers”) who are required and empowered to keep His commandments.

Chapter 3: “Who Rules the Church?” (pp. 17-21). In this chapter we are studying the subject of “the power and authority of the church.” Jesus Christ, as Lord of the church, grants “power and authority to the church only for the ministry of edification.” Rulers in Christ’s church must understand that their power and authority are limited “to the use of ministerial power only.” The rule of Christ’s church is spiritual, not carnal. The New Covenant church was initially granted both extraordinary (apostles, prophets, and evangelists) and ordinary (pastors and teachers) officers (Ephesians 4:11-16). With the close of the canon of Scripture, the extraordinary offices “have now ceased in the church.” Only the ordinary offices remain.

According to Dr. Owen, even when a small number of believers “meet together in the name of Christ for mutual edification” they are permitted to form a local church. This is the mind of Christ as taught in Matthew 18:20: Wherever “two or three are gathered together in My name I am there in the midst of them.” Here Christ promises to be with His people in a covenantal relationship. Yet, “the church is not yet complete…until it has proper officers in order to establish the church (Ephesians 4:11-15).” These officers must be men who are called by God to this ministry. They must also be called by the local church when the gifts for leadership are recognized. Only Christ, the Lord of the church, can give men such gifts, but the church has the responsibility to recognize these gifts and call the man (or men) to leadership within that local church body. Officers are to be men who not only know the Word of God, but have the wisdom to practice it in their ministry. This wisdom comes by means of “diligent study” of the Scriptures and “fervent prayer.”

Chapter 4: “The Officers of the Church” (pp. 22-33). According to Dr. Owen there are “two major kinds of officers in the church”: elders (who are also called presbyters, overseers or bishops) and deacons (which office is studied below in chapter 8). There are, however, two kinds of elders: 1) those who have authority to teach and administer the sacraments, and who also rule; 2) those who only have authority to rule.

The New Testament uses the terms overseer (or bishop) and presbyter synonymously. Overseers and presbyters are one and the same office (see Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5, 7). Dr. Owen believes that while there is to be both a parity and plurality among the elders, among the elders there should be one who takes “a leading role.” He is to be recognized as a superior among equals (Peter, for example, was the leading apostle, even though all of the apostles had the same authority).

The first officer or elder of Christ’s church is the pastor or shepherd. He is the teacher and the bishop of the church. The pastor’s role is that of teaching and ruling. This man must be properly qualified for the office, possessing the God-given gifts set forth in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. It is Christ Himself who has created this office and it is to continue in the church until the end of the age. These pastors, in accordance with Hebrews 13:17, are to be obeyed by the congregation (in all things Biblical), while at the same time they will give an account to God as to how they carried out their pastoral duties. Pastors are to be called by the local assemblies after having been examined by the church members as to their qualifications. They are to be elected and ordained for this work. The author cites Acts 14:23 as proof text for this teaching, where the literal rendering of the Greek verb (cheirotoneo) maintains that the elders are to elected to office by the “stretching forth of the hands” (i.e., by voting) of the congregation. Dr. Owen is adamant in saying that the entire congregation is to be “involved in the process” of electing such men to office.

Chapter 5: “The Office of Pastor” (pp. 34-48). In this chapter we study “the work and duty of pastors.” The author discusses eight pastoral duties. The first and primary duty is preaching the Word of God to feed the flock over which he has “overseer” responsibility (Acts 20:28). This duty, states Owen, “is essential to the office of pastor.” All other “employments” are to be subordinate to this duty.

There are several requirements in pastoral preaching: the pastor must possess spiritual wisdom and understanding of the Word of God, which also necessitates the “spiritual experience” of the Word of God implanted in his own soul; he must have great skill in “rightly dividing the Word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15); he must know his own flock well enough that he can apply the teaching of the Word of God to the hearts and souls of his flock; and he must have a “zeal for the glory of God and compassion for the souls of men.”

The second duty is that of fervent prayer for the flock (Acts 6:4; James 5:16). Third, is the duty, as “Christ’s stewards,” of administering the sacraments of water baptism and the Lord’s Supper which are the “seals of the covenant” which God has established with His church (1 Corinthians 4:1). Fourth is the pastor’s duty of defending the truth (Acts 20:28-31), which involves the work of apologetics (1 Peter 3:15). Fifth is the duty of evangelism—laboring for the conversion of lost souls (2 Timothy 4:5). Sixth is the duty of counseling and caring for the members of the church (Isaiah 50:4). Seventh is the duty of “rule and fellowship among churches” of like mind and doctrine (which will be studied below in chapter 10). Eighth and finally is the all-important duty of a “holy life.” The pastor must be “blameless” in all of the qualifications set forth in 1Timothy 3:2-7 and Titus 1:6-9.

Finally Dr. Owen teaches that a pastor must always be related to a particular church. He may be called to mission work in establishing new churches in different areas, but he must be called by a particular church to serve in this capacity.

Chapter 6: “The Office of Teacher” (pp. 49-54). The Lord Jesus Christ has given to His church the ordinary office(s) of “pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Acts 13:1). There are several different “views” within the church of Christ, says Owen, as to what the Bible means when it speaks about teachers. Some believe that the teacher is the same office as that of pastor. Others believe that it is an office wherein the teacher is “confined to teaching only.” Still others believe that it is a distinct office within the church but of the “same kind” as pastor. This office would also include the administration of the sacraments. This is the Owenian view, in which the distinction between the pastor and the teacher is merely one of degree. Both the pastor and the teacher are “teaching elders” rather than “ruling elders,” but the teaching elder should focus more on “teaching” than on “preaching.” Dr. Owen notes that it is his understanding that under “normal circumstances” the church should have only one pastor, but it could have more than one teacher. In this view the parity and plurality of the eldership is maintained.

Chapter 7: “The Office of Ruling Elder” (pp. 55-72). As we have already noted the “rule and government of the church is the hands of the elders.” We have also seen that in a Biblically based church there are to be teaching elders and ruling elders. All elders rule, but some also have the authority to teach as well.

Dr. Owen notes that the work of rule in the church is distinct from that of preaching and teaching the Word of God (Acts 20:28; Romans 12:8; 1 Corinthians 12:28). The need for “ruling” elders to serve with their fellow “teaching” elders is recognized in that the work of the ministry of prayer and the preaching of the Word of God, along with the administration of the sacraments, is “more than enough to absorb the whole man who is called to the pastoral office.” Nevertheless, to state the matter again, the teaching elders are likewise to be involved in the overall “rule” of the church.

Perhaps the key text in this matter is 1 Timothy 5:17, which reads “let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the Word and doctrine.” There are different views among scholars as to what the Apostle Paul is saying in this verse, but in the Owenian view, although the verse clearly (at least implicitly) teaches that “there are two sorts of elders” (teaching and ruling), Paul is here speaking of the two duties (teaching and ruling) which are those of the teaching elder. In other words, in the verse under discussion Paul maintains that the teaching elder is to teach and rule in the church of Christ.

According to Dr. Owen the “nature of church authority” vested in the “rulers of the church” is not “autocratic, despotic, or absolute.” Rather, it is “ministerial,” and it restricted to “spiritual matters concerning the authority of Christ.” And as in all things, the standard of rule in the church is “the holy Scripture alone.” Basically says the author, there are three areas of responsibility involved in ruling: 1) “admitting and excluding members;” 2) “directing the church for the glory of God and for its own edification”; and 3) “managing the meetings of the church.” Such responsibility necessitates both teaching and ruling elders. Writes Owen:

It is vain to believe that one teaching officer could attend with proper diligence to all the duties that belong to the rule of the church. No one man can have all these gifts in any eminent degree. Those who labor in Word and doctrine are to give themselves wholly to that task. They are to convince skeptics by word and writing, pleading for the truth. They are to give guidance and counsel and do many other things. A church may have a faithful pastor and greatly value his ministry but be unaware of the wisdom, goodness, love and care of Christ in instituting the office of ruling elder. Thus the authority and benefit of proper government are in danger of being lost.

John Owen concludes chapter 7 with “some other views of church government. Here, among others, he critiques democratic (majority rule) and hierarchical church government. The Biblical view is that God has appointed elders who are elected by the members of the church to govern the church according to the Word of God.

Chapter 8: “The Office of Deacon” (pp. 73-78). This office, says the author, has its roots in the Old Testament, with the need to care for the poor (see Deuteronomy 15:11). It is confirmed in the ministry of Christ and His concern for the poor. The diaconal office was first instituted in the apostolic era in Acts 6:1-6, and it (mainly) involves caring for the physical needs of a local church (1 Corinthians 16:1-2). Simply stated, it is a ministry of service. It is an office distinct from that of the elder, wherein special care is exercised in distributing to the needs of the downcast. The deacon is to be involved with the health and welfare aspect of church ministry. The qualifications for the office of deacon are given by the Apostle Paul in 1Timothy 3:8-10, 12-13.

Chapter 9: “Church Discipline” (pp. 79-96). Church discipline, along with the faithful preaching of the Word of God and the faithful administration of the sacraments, is normally considered one of the “marks” of a true church of Jesus Christ.[7] The author tells us that church discipline is a controverted mark, which some churches (e.g., the Roman Catholic Church) have abused. Yet “nothing is more clearly instituted by Christ” than this mark. The Biblical basis for church discipline is found in a number of places in the New Testament: Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, 13; 14:33 40; 1Timothy 1:19-20; and Revelation 2:14-16. A faithful and loving exercise of church government is necessary for the maintenance of the purity of doctrine and life of the church.

As Dr. Owen relates, the church, by means of its elected elders, is responsible to oversee its members. The authority granted to the church by Christ includes the power to apply church discipline, to admit and exclude from the fellowship of the church, and to govern the conduct of the members while they continue members. The discipline involved is not a physical discipline, nor are any of its applications corporeal. It is a spiritual discipline, and as such is strictly ministerial and declarative.

When unrepentant sinners exist within a congregation, church discipline becomes necessary. Christ gave directions for church discipline in Matthew 18:15-20. There we read of a three-fold procedure in the disciplinary process. The first and second of these are to be carried out by the church members themselves; the third is to be handled by the ruler-representatives of the church. First, the sinner is to be approached by the offended party alone. If this does not lead to repentance on the part of the offending party, then the second step is to involve witnesses. If the disciplinary actions of the church members fail, and there is still no repentance, then finally the matter is to be handled at the church level. In this third phase, the church is represented by the elders. In all cases of private grievances, these steps should be followed. However, in the case of public sins where there is not a single aggrieved party, but the honor of the whole of the church of Christ is involved, it may become necessary for the elders of the church to be the party bringing complaint.

Whenever repentance is manifested in the process, the sinner is to be forgiven and restored to fellowship within the church. If there is no repentance manifested, then, as taught by the Westminster Confession of Faith (30:4), “the officers of the church are to proceed by admonition, suspension from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for a season, and by excommunication from the church, according to the nature of the crime [i.e., sin], and demerit of the person.” The Bible teaches that church discipline serves three purposes: the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31), the purity of the church (1 Corinthians 5:4-8), and the restoration of the sinner (2 Corinthians 2, 7).

The chapter concludes with a list of “eleven questions about church discipline,” followed by some of the “basic rules for excommunication” which have been mentioned above.

Chapter 10: “Fellowship Among Churches” (pp. 97-110). In this final chapter we see John Owen’s “truncated form of Presbyterianism.” In many ways his view of church government is much in line with that of chapter 31 of the Westminster Confession of Faith (“Of Synods and Councils”). A synopsis follows.

The Owenian view the church is not a democracy; neither is it a hierarchy; it is presbyterian, in that it is to be governed by board of elders.[8] This body of local church officers constitutes a local church court. Every local congregation is autonomous in the sense that it is a complete church of Christ and is fully equipped with everything that is required for its government. No government should be imposed upon it from without.[9] But Scripture teaches that there is also a form of connectionalism that exists between churches. In this sense there is also a broader church court system. These broader courts function as ad hoc assemblies where elders from various churches convene as often as they shall judge it expedient for the good of the church. As taught in the Westminster Confession of Faith (31:1), the elders are “to appoint such assemblies, and to convene together in them, as often as they judge it expedient for the good of the church.”

In such assemblies, writes Owen, there is a form of unity between the churches of Christ. In the author’s words, “their union is in Christ… and with each other.” These churches “believe the same doctrine of truth.” They all believe that “the Lord Christ has had in all ages a church on earth that cannot be confined to particular places.” They all understand the importance of Biblically based prayer. They all “administer the same sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.” And they all “profess that they are subject to the authority of Christ in all things.” And “the bond of this union is love.”

The authority of synods or councils comes from Christ and His apostles. Dr. Owen points in particular to the Jerusalem council of Acts 15, where the appeal to the assembly of elders and the power of a broader church court to make decisions affecting the whole church is clearly taught. Barnabas and Paul had a dispute about the relationship between circumcision and justification (a doctrinal matter) with certain false teachers from Judea. The dispute originated in Antioch, but it was not settled there. The matter was referred to a broader church court (i.e., a synod) consisting of apostles and elders at Jerusalem. Acting jointly, these church representatives rendered a decision on the issue, a decision to which the church at Antioch and the churches of Syria and Cilicia yielded submission (see Acts 16:4).

What, according to Owen, should synods consider when they are called and meet together? Among other things they should consider “matters of faith…matters of peace, order, and unity…matters of improper use of church discipline…[and] matters of worship.” And “the general goal of such synods among the churches…is to promote the edification of the whole body or universal church.”

Finally, what does the Bible teach about “the power and authority of synods”? According to Dr. Owen, church synods have a threefold power: 1) “they can declare the mind of God in Scripture by authoritative teaching”; 2) “they can appoint things to be believed or practiced”; and 3) “they can act towards people or churches.” The decisions made in such synods “may affect those churches that send representatives and take part in the discussions but might also relate to someone being censured or excommunicated, or to a church that had acted in a disorderly way towards others.” As taught by the Westminster Confession of Faith (31:3):

It belongs to synods and councils ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of His church; to receive complaints in cases of mal-administration, and authoritatively to determine the same.

As noted by the author, the decision of such courts should be followed only when it is Biblical, as per Acts 15. In the Westminster Confession of Faith (31:3-4) we read that all decrees and determinations of broader courts “if consonant with the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission.” Further, we read that these decisions “are not to be made the rule of faith and practice, but to be used as a help to both.” Since all courts, from time to time, can and do err in their decisions, no man or group of men can bind the conscience of a local church or church member. God’s Word is the only sure rule of faith and practice; it alone is to be followed with “implicit faith.” Hence, no court decision must ever be yielded to without serious (Biblical based) consideration. The Berean principle of Acts 17:11 must always to be followed.


 John Owen has written an excellent book; one that is as necessary in our time as it was in the 17th century. Today, as then, we see the church drifting into various forms of democracy and hierarchy which are in violation of the Word of God. We must return to the Biblically based church government taught in this book by John Owen.

Thanks are to be given to John Owen for the original writing of his treatise on Gospel Church Government; and thanks are also to be given to Jeffrey Riddle for this simplified and abridged edition of the original book. May Dr. Riddle’s prayer be answered: “that the timeless substance of this book will prove valuable to any who desire to see Christ’s church more nearly conformed to the Scriptural pattern.” Ω

Dr. W. G.  Crampton, Elder, Reformed Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia

[1] John Owen, Gospel Church Government (London: Grace Publications Trust, 2012). The pagination found in the body of this review is from Gospel Church Government.

[2] John Owen, The Works of John Owen (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1968), edited by William Goold, 16:2-208.

[3] The congregational view is also taught in the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689.

[4] Sinclair B. Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), 161.

[5] All references to the Westminster Standards comprised of the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, are from Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1994). The English has been modernized.

[6] Here Dr. Owen, as a paedobaptist, would differ with the Westminster Confession of Faith (25:2) which teaches that visible church membership belongs to “all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children.”

[7] See, for example, chapter 30 of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

[8] The word “presbyterian” means “rule by elders.”

[9] See Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1979), 589.

  1. This lengthy article was well worth reading. In fact, I forwarded it to an associate in ministry, and we discussed it on the way to church together this morning. The only thing I might take exception to is concerning synods (my associate is in agreement with me as well). The 1689 Confession, chapter 26, paragraph 15, states, “In cases of difficulties or differences, either in point of doctrine or administration, wherein either the churches in general are concerned, or any one church, in their peace, union and edification; or any member or members of any church are injured, in or by any proceedings in censures not agreeable to truth and order: it is according to the mind of Christ, that many churches holding communion together, do, by their messengers, meet to consider, and give their advice in or about that matter in difference, to be reported to all the churches concerned; howbeit these messengers assembled are nor intrusted with any church- power properly so called; or with any jurisdiction over the churches themselves, to exercise any censures either over any churches or persons; or to impose their determination on the churches or officers.” This seems to me, in the light of scripture (2 Cor. 1:24). Each local assembly should be ruled by Christ alone, and that local assembly should be autonomous in its own affairs, but should always welcome the advice and counsel of other like-minded assemblies in order to have a safeguard against errors and heresy (1 Jn. 4:1).

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