Friday, July 13, 2007

Church polity: Biblical church polity (part 1)

[continued from previous post here]

Church polities that are practiced throughout Christendom today can be roughly split into four camps: Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Single elder/Pastor-led. Of course, there are other models, which are mainly a combination of either of the four. For example, the church polity model embraced by Dr. James R. White, Plural elder-led congregationalism, is a fusion of both Presbyterian and Congregationalist concepts[1].

The Episcopal church polity is embraced by demoninations such as the Methodists, Anglicans, some Lutherans, and heretical groups such as Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The basic teaching of Episcopal church polity, or Prelacy, is the idea of having a hierarchy of clergyman. Thus, such churches have several ranks of offices such as deacons, archdeacons, bishops, archbishops, etc., all of which are structured in an hierarchy. For example, the archbishop would have a higher rank than a bishop, and thus more authority than and over him. Each office would thus have its own 'job specification and scope' and its own sphere of authority, which is different from the others.

The Presbyterian church polity is typically embraced by denominations such as the Presbyterian and Reformed denominations. Basically, the Presbyterian church polity posits only two to three offices in the church; that of Deacons, Elders, and for some, Pastors. Within the offices of Elders, some have created a distinction between teaching Elders and ruling Elders, of which the former teaches, while the latter rules the church, and some overlap may be possible, depending on which variation of Presbyterian church polity is adopted by each particular church or denomination.

As for the Congregational church polity, it is embraced mainly by the Brethren, Congregationalists, and some Baptists. As its name suggest, such a polity have most of the authority in the church and the decision-making power in the congregation of that church. Decisions are typically made through democratic voting, and the only offices present in such a church is mainly to facilitate the process. Elders and deacons and pastors in such churches may be present, mainly for functional purposes, but they have no power and authority at all to make any decisions; all must be referred back to the congregation.

The last church polity to be introduced is the single-elder/pastor-led polity, or the one-man-show church polity. This is the church polity adopted by most independent churches, especially modern mega-churches, most charismatic and most baptist churches. Authority resides with the resident/founding/senior pastor or apostle, who governs his own church almost infallibly. Such churches may have an elder board and other offices present, but these people only have authority inasmuch as their choices and decisions agree with what the senior pastor wants or have no objections to.

Now, with all the major church polities being introduced, let us see what the Bible has to say about the polity of a church.

The first point to note is that the biblical polity of a church must be found within Scripture. Some people may desire to look at church history as a validation of their particular church polity, but that is the wrong direction to look at. Granted, if a particular church polity is prevelant within church history, that would lend some weight to the claims of that polity being biblical. However, since part of church history, and the earliest and most authoritative part of it, can be found in the Scriptures in the book of Acts, Scripture still trumps church history as beig authoritative. Furthermore, if one wants to talk about church history, although the Episcopal polity seems to be prevelant, it is not present within the first few centuries of the church. Even when it became more prevelant, the Bishops within the churches are all equal, as they did not submit to any higher ecclesiastical authority like Archbishops or Popes until later on. Moreover, there are other groups present at that time like the Donatists, which followed a more congregational church polity, who were thriving until the hoardes of Islam wiped them out.

With this settled therefore, let us look to the biblical data.

In the book of Acts, we can see the first mention of any type of church polity, which can be found in Acts 6:1-6, whereby the Apostles delegated authority to seven qualified men to serve the brethren while they themselves concentrated on ministering the Word of God. In Acts 14:23, we read of Paul and Barnabas appointing elders in every church. In Acts 15:2,4 & 6, we read that the Jerusalem churches have elders in them, who are altogether a seperate group of people from the Apostles. Turning to the pastoral epistles, we read of the offices of elders and deacons (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9). The office of bishop or overseer, as mentioned in 1 Tim. 3:1-7, upon further examination from Scripture has been shown to be the same office as that of an elder (Tits 1:5-7; Acts 20:17,28), with the name difference being mainly to emphasize the duties of the elders in the churches.

As we look at these data, one thing that should strike us is the near absence of many of the offices found within churches and groups that have adopted the Episcopalian church polity. Nowhere are the terms archbishop, archdeacon, pope, patriarch etc mentioned in the Bible, and the idea of the office of bishop being seperate from that of an elder is foreign to Scripture. Prelacy has thus been found to be deficient scripturally. Furthermore, by having so many layers of hierarchy, Prelacy tends to accentuate the clergy/laity divide, instead of removing it altogether, as Scripture dictates (1 Peter 2:9).

Scripture therefore seems to indicate two offices that are to be found within the Church. In order to discern more regarding the nature of these offices and exact number of them, let us look more closely into these and other passages of Scripture.

[to be continued]


[1] Brand & Norman, ed., 2004, Perspectives on Church Government: Five views of Church Polity, B & H Publishing Group


vincit omnia veritas said...

I would love to see some discussion of the regulative principle with regard to church government.

Also, I perceive that most plural elder led congregationalist type churches are in tension with both their "democratic" counterparts and the presbyterian brethren. Why, we see voting in most, if not all, Reformed churches in Singapore. Is that congregationalism? Such reformed elders do not have absolute authority. So, there is indeed some sort of tension or balance between elder rule and congregational “vote” or decision.

Also, I am pondering upon the Puritan tradition and its form of government. Any takers?

I believe congregationalism takes on two nuances: Firstly, independence (which comes with it certain tension with the Synod/classis structure of Presbyterianism); secondly, democracy. I would lean towards the former, while attempting to de-emphasize the latter,

Looking forward to your contribution.


ddd said...

Hello Vincent,

I will be talking about the Congregationalist/ Presbyterian form of government over the next couple of posts.

With regards to the Puritan tradition, if I'm not wrong, they were either Presbyterian or Congregationalist, and John Owen bifurcated between the two?

And with regards to the regulative principle, I have just adopted it. Is there any controversy over the issue, by the way? I was mentioning that even if historical precedent was to be the final authority, then we should go to the book of Acts and the Pastoral Epistles, since they reflect the Church of the first century. Was there any other issue brought up with regards to this topic that I have not addressed?

vincit omnia veritas said...

Hi bro Daniel,

You didn’t seem to get the hint in my previous comment. Heheheh … I was just pointing out some blatant inconsistencies with some “reformed” government. You see, Presbyterians like to point the finger at Congregationalist congregations and cry, “Demon-cracy! Demon-cracy!” Then they turn around, calls for votes (also known as “call” for a pastor, “call” for elders etc) from the congregations, and coined the term “calling” to mean “democracy” – that is, the majority vote counts. Isn’t that hypocrisy? It is funny, actually! Therefore, if the congregation is to call the pastor or elder, we need a majority vote. Yes – MAJORITY VOTE. So is that congregationalism?

If indeed Presbyterian elders have any “absolute” authority, it must be in my dreams. Haven’t seen that in any congregation as yet.

Hint: I think James White is very close to the truth.


ddd said...

Hello Vincent,

yes, I did get your hint, but I have chosen not to bite. Don't want to tip my hand yet. But I agree with you.

Oh, and speaking of Presbeyeterian elders with 'absolute' authority, I can show you at least one - my former church. The voting is a farce, with everyone encouraged to vote yes; the wives of the elders even offering to 'help' the older people who do not know what to do. The whole system is in actual fact a single elder/pastor-led system, with the elders almost all apointed by the pastor to be his 'yes-men'. Presbyterian-in-name-only (PINO)!