Growing up, my two main sports were always soccer and track. I loved them both, and had a pretty comprehensive knowledge of both of them as an athlete. I have also coached both those sports on a junior high and high school level, and I would say with moderate success as well (no humble brag here… I have a point to this). I knew both sports well. I played soccer through high-school and refereed through college. I ran track through high-school and college, and served as an official for many meets. But one day, I tried my hat at coaching an elementary girls basketball team. It was a complete disaster.
It wasn’t that I didn’t work hard. I did. I spent hours studying game play, ball drills, and team development. I even spent hours watching UCLA basketball, but when push came to shove, I was a bad fit for the job. I’m grateful for how gracious the parents and players were to me! In the end, I simply didn’t have the qualifications. With track and soccer, I had an intuitive instinct, I knew how to respond when things didn’t go right. Not so with basketball. I was clueless.
Fortunately, coaching an elementary girls’ basketball team doesn’t have eternal consequences, but shepherding the flock of God does, both for the shepherd and the sheep. That is why it is so critically important that churches ensure that the men they appoint as pastors/elders are qualified – and qualified according to God’s standards. “They MUST be…” these things. 1 Tim. 3:2 says.
Why would I start with this point if I’m supposed to be writing about church polity?
It’s this – God has put standards in place to protect His flock from abuse and corrupt leadership, IF churches are faithful to apply them, and only if churches are faithful to apply these qualifications can we even begin to talk about church polity, because the whole point in trying to practice a biblical form of church government is to produce strong churches. But, if the leadership doesn’t even meet the basic qualifications outlined in the Pastoral Epistles, then talking about which form of church govt. produces the strongest church is a mute point. The church will already be weak, simply because its leaders aren’t qualified, and the maturity of the church will not outgrow the spiritual maturity of its leaders, just like the girls on my basketball team wouldn’t outgrow my knowledge of the game as long as I was their coach. In the end, I wasn’t qualified to coach that girls’ basketball team, and because of that, the whole team was weakened.
Qualifications ensure that the leaders will make the right decisions, whether in the church, the corporate world, or even when coaching a team. We all understand this. The character of a qualified pastor will function with the necessary intuitive instinct (i.e. spiritual discernment), and he will know what to do when conflict arises.
That is first and foremost imperative to a healthy church. But once godly, qualified leaders have been established, then what? How do they fulfill their roles? How do they lead? In what capacity do they lead? In other words, how do we structure a church government that is biblical – one that will produce disciples who honor Christ, a church that is a strong church?
You might even be thinking, “I don’t think the Bible is that clear about what form of church government churches should model.”
I think it is.
Some may argue that Scripture is really silent about the issue, so churches have flexibility about what form of church government they choose. I think that’s only partially true, insofar that we can say that there are some forms of church government that are permissible. That is to say, I think there are some forms of church government that I would be much more gracious to adopt than others (others I would wholeheartedly reject and say they’re unbiblical and flat out wrong). So, that is where there is some flexibility.
However, I don’t think that Scripture is silent about the issue. That is not to say I believe Scripture mandates or commands a certain form of church government (again, there is room for some flexibility, and there are some forms of church govt. that Scripture clearly teaches against), but I think the New Testament is written in such a way that what we can know a “biblical” form of church government. It is clear, and perhaps even because it that the NT seems to assume a specific form of church government. It’s neither discussed, nor debated. It’s written in a way that if we are honest with the text of the NT, it is obvious what form of church govt. the NT writers expected churches to have.
So, there is one form of church govt. that stands head and shoulders above the rest.
Now, before I actually argue for which form of church govt. I believe to be the biblical one, I would ask you, do you hold to a certain church polity out of tradition? Or perhaps out of pragmatism? Or do you hold to your church polity strictly because you believe, through a careful and honest evaluation of God’s Word, that the church polity you maintain is the biblical one?
In other words, do you allow your tradition, convictions, or pragmatism to dictate how you interpret key passages on the subject (eisegesis – meaning you put into the text, thus conforming the text to your views)? Or do you try, as much as humanly possible, to allow your traditions and convictions to be formed by those key passages (exegesis – meaning you take out of the text, thus allowing your views to be conformed by the text).
That being said, I think we can move forward with evaluating what Scripture teaches on the subject. Pretend as though you’ve never even had an opinion about church polity. What form of church government would you naturally be led to adopt after reading God’s Word? From here I want to start the discussion.
For that reason, I recognize that there are certain forms of church government that we can outright reject. For instance, very few in Evangelicalism argue for Episcopalian church polity (a hierarchical pope-bishop-priest church structure). For that reason, I’m not even going to spend the time discussing those. Debate in our circles are usually stemmed around which form of Congregationalism churches should follow (meaning that the church is governed autonomously from within it’s congregation, whether by an elder, a plurality of elders, by the congregation, or some variation in-between).
Even within Congregationalism though, there are views that are pretty peripheral to Evangelicalism, but others provoke hot debate. Hopefully I stirred your interest. It’s a subject important to the health of the church, and this introduction will springboard us right into the discussion next time.