The Church Part 7a: Church Politics

Church 7a

Hearing the phrase “church politics” causes most to cringe. No doubt, you can think of a time when there was tension in the church because of politics. I want to come at this blog from two directions (and in two different posts): how a church is organized–also known as church polity and church politics (found in power struggles and personal agendas). Let’s start with church polity first.

Church Polity

Simply put, church polity is how a church organizes itself, or how they are goverend. There are four types of church polity: Episcopal, Presbyterian, Corporate and Congregational.

Episcopal

In this system of church government, authority rests in the office of the Bishop.

The most elaborate episcopal system is the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). Central to RCC polity is the doctrine of “apostolic succession.” The RCC teaches that Jesus entrusted the care of the church to the apostles who then passed their authority on to the bishops, of whom the Pope is chief. Peter is claimed to be the first pope and the current pope is considered to be Peter’s successor.

The RCC claims the office of the Pope was divinely instituted by Christ (Matthew 16:18-19; Luke 22:31-32; John 21:15-17).  The main argument comes from Christ’s words to Peter in Matthew 16:18: “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (NASB).

Evangelicals have generally argued that Christ’s promise here is a reference to Peter’s confession of Christ as the messiah and not Peter himself.  Thus understood, the “rock” on which the church will be built is on faith in Jesus Christ–not on Peter.

Other groups which hold to a form of episcopal government in varying degrees include the Eastern Orthodox Church, Anglicans, Episcopalians and Methodists.

Presbyterian

In presbyterian forms of church government, authority resides in the elders. Presbyterianism is expressed in many different forms. Typically, advocates of this view argue for a difference between ruling and teaching elders. In some forms of presbyterian polity, a general assembly of elders may have authority over more than one congregation. While this can resemble episcopal polity, the difference is that in the presbyterian system, there is only one level of clergy, the elders, while episcopal systems have many layers of clergy.

A passage of Scripture central to the Presbyterian position is 1 Timothy 5:17: “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” From this text (and others in the New Testament), advocates of Presbyterian polity argue that there are two different groups of elders: ruling and teaching. Robert Reymond argues for such a distinction and says, “Ruling Elders then is a term descriptive of the nonministerial elders of the church; teaching elders are those that have been set apart for the ministry of the Word.” [1]

Corporate

Ed Young, Jr. represents this view when he says:

When I say that Fellowship Church is a staff-led church, what do I mean?  Simply that the people in the church who are gifted to lead are the ones in the leadership positions.  We have no elders or deacons; each pastor or director is responsible for the decisions made in his or her department. No one knows the church like the staff, so we believe they should be the ones calling the shots.” [3]

Similarly, Andy Stanley contends that the term “deacon” is descriptive, not prescriptive.  He says, “And from what we read in 1 Timothy chapter 3, I think it’s safe to assume that the appointment of deacons was common in the early church.  At the same time, nowhere is the appointment of deacons commanded or required.” [3]

Some concerns related to this model include pastors with a “C.E.O.” mentality and a polity more influenced by modern business practices than the New Testament.

Congregational (Baptist and similar churches)

Congregational polity begins with the Lordship of Jesus Christ and assumes a converted church membership.  As such, authority rests in the local church.

Baptists affirm two offices in the local church: Pastor and Deacon.

Baptists as a general rule reject the notion that 1 Timothy 5:17 calls for a differentiation between “ruling” and “teaching” elder.

The Baptist understanding of church polity is heavily influenced by 1 Peter 5:1-4 where the words for elder, pastor, and bishop are all used in reference to the same office.

In the New Testament, Congregational church polity is also seen when the responsibility for maintaining correct doctrine is assigned to the church as a whole. Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, provides several examples:

  • Acts 11:22; 15 – The Church sent Paul and Barnabas to Antioch; they then reported back to the church.
  • 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 – The church is rebuked for their poor conduct when observing the Lord’s Supper.
  • Galatians 1:8-9 – The church is charged with upholding the purity of the Gospel.
  • Philippians 1:1 – Paul addresses his letter to believers in Philippi, overseers and deacons.
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:21 – The church is told to examine everything carefully and keep what is good.
  • 1 Timothy 3:1-13 – Qualifications for church offices are defined only for overseers and deacons.
  • 1 John 2:20, 27 – The church is instructed that the Spirit gifts every believer to understand the truth.
  • 1 John 4:1 – The believer (individual church member) is expected to test every spirit to know if it is from God.
  • Jude 3 – The individual believer is admonished to contend for the faith entrusted to all believers. [2]

The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 says,

“Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes.”

There are various expressions of congregational church government, some more healthy than others. In its most broken form, congregational church government reduces the pastor to a chaplain and demands a vote by the entire congregation on every matter conceivable. On the other end of the spectrum is a form of congregational church government in which a single pastor rules the church as a pseudo-dictator. This form of church government essentially limits the congregation’s decision to one–the pastor.

A much healthier model for congregational church government is one where the pastor leads and the congregation rules. Adrian Rogers summarized this approach when he said, “A Baptist church is Pastor led, deacon served, committee operated and congregationally approved.”

It should be noted that there are some Baptist churches who have mixed the congregational and presbyterian models by adding elders.

How is your church organized? Let me know in the comments below.

 

 

 

[1] Robert Reymond, “The Presbytery-Led Church,” in Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity, Brand and Norman, eds. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2004), 121.  Italics added.

[2] Daniel Akin, “The Single-Elder-Led Church,” in Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity, Chad Brand and R. Stanton Norman, eds. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2004), 26 – 34.

[3] Ed Young, Jr. and Andy Stanley, Can We Do That? (West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing, 2002), 103, 115.

Information pertaining to the types of church polity in this article came from notes taken during a Seminary class called “Ministry Leadership.”

 

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