I have been watching from a distance the discussion among churches affiliated with Sovereign Grace Ministries. This past month, they announced a process to re-examine their structure. You can google it if you want more information. There are strong views (both pro and con) about the process, the reasons for the process, the fairness of the process, and so forth.
Church polity, a distant relative of “church politics,” (a much more violent sport) has to do with the ways and means that churches make decisions and enforce them. Like any organized human activity, from families to corporations, churches have rules that govern the interactions between members. Implicit rules (that may never be formally acknowledged) are often as important as written rules.
Evangelical churches desire to be “biblical” in their approach to polity. This is a tricky business because the scriptures provide for a wide road on how a church should make decisions. When somebody asks me why there are so many denominations and divisions within Christianity, I like to remind them of the relatively open position that the New Testament takes on polity.
At this point, some readers are thinking, “But what about elders? The Bible is clear about that…” Yes, that’s true, but be careful when applying the “doctrine of beards” (in Hebrew, not Greek, the word “elder” usually translates the word zaqen from a root that means “beard” or “chin”). I think we have traveled some distance from its early-era application.
For example, one of Paul’s commands to Timothy was to appoint elders in every town (Titus 1:5). Today, we have created a huge amount of concern for the “local church” (a phrase not found in the scriptures). There is a tendency today to over emphasize the “local” nature of the church (leftover angst from the Reformation perhaps?). When combined with how we view pastors in contemporary Christianity (the word “pastor” in the New Testament refers to a gift, not a role) our models of church are more “localized” than they might have been in the New Testament era. This is a contrast to the idea of a “town church.”
It’s more reasonable to conclude that churches in the first century were city or town-based networks of house churches, loosely connected; yet unified. Their polity was different than what most of us know today. This is not to suggest that our modern structures are “un-biblical.” But let’s not assume that when the Apostles Creed states, “one holy and catholic church” it does not mean 1st Baptist or Cross(road/way/point/etc.).
On the other end of the spectrum from “local” is the organization of congregations into denominations. Denominationalism has fallen more or less out of favor in the decentralized world of evangelicalism except perhaps among the Presbyterians. We have a fear of institutionalization (born of some pretty difficult history) and this leads us to concerns about associations with other churches.
Once again, I would advocate for caution in how we label denominationalism. “Local autonomy” for the church is not something that Paul preached on extensively – if at all. While I tend toward being a bit more decentralized in my view of church, I can’t agree that denominations are explicitly or implicitly forbidden. There is, in fact, much to be said about unity among believers. Cooperation seems to be a part of unity.
Why is this all so important? Because of the potential for “spiritual abuse;” the whitewashing of leadership decisions with the brush of God’s approval. This is dangerous business and the source for much disunity in the church.
Polity can be a little like nuclear power. It has the potential for great harm or great good. The shear potential for danger has ended in many government avoiding nuclear energy altogether. The consequences from a bad accident are so long-lasting that they are discussed in terms of their “half-life.” Similarly, a bad church experience, when coupled with issues of polity, has long-lasting consequences.
Many in our culture have walked away from the church because of issues surrounding polity. Rather than wresting the good from church, it has become too dangerous to handle. Leaders, with all humility, should take note and avoid making their polity the Gospel truth.