Brand, Chad O.and R. Stanton Norman. Perspective on church government. Nashville: Broadman & Holman. 2004
Church polity and the views surrounding it provide a necessary dialogue for all church leaders to engage. Polity shapes a variety of discussions in the church including church offices, membership, discipline, and ministries of the church (9). Denominational differences are most often rooted in polity conversations that started centuries ago sometimes related to the Reformation. Polity falls into the category of essential doctrine for some, while it is relegated to the coffeeshop chitchat for others. 1 Corinthians 14:40 is a passage that reminds us that the Corinthians were charged by Paul that matters of the church should be done “properly and in an orderly manner” (3).
The Single Elder-Led Church by Danny Akin
Danny Akin is the President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Akin says that “Congregationalism locates the authority of the church in each local body of believers. No person or organization is above or over it except the Lord Jesus Christ alone as its head” (27). His essay is geared towards helping the reader understand the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers while also pointing to the Reformational principle sola scriptura (39). Akin’s perspective points to 8 functions of the pastor/elder from the New Testament. He references: overstay and direction of the church (Hebrews 13:17), seeking the mind of Christ through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the word of God (Ephesians 1:22), able to teach the church in sound doctrine while rightly defending the truth (Ephesians 4:11), instruction for the maintenance of healthy relationships within the church (Galatians 6:1), general oversight of financial matters of the church (Acts 11:30), appointing of deacons as necessary to accomplish the mission of the church (Acts 6:1-6), lead by example (Hebrews 13:7), and to lead in the exercise of church discipline (Matthew 18) (55). His perspective regarding church polity does not give a particular number of deacons or elders as much as it points to congregational representation in both the mission and ministry of the church. He does seem to point towards a central “pastor-teacher” as the main authority in the church.
The Presybtery-Led Church by Robert Reymond
Robert Reymond served in a variety of roles at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. Reymond draws most of his discussion primarily from the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 which is the basis of a good bit of the foundation of the Presbyterian Church (142). He gives a definition of the Presbyterian form of church government as “governance of the church by elders/overseers in graded courts, with these officers executing the responsibilities of their office in unison and on a parity with each other, and with the material care and service of the church being looked after by deacons under the supervision of the elders/overseers” (93). The Presbyterian Church distinguishes roles for two types of elders, ruling and teaching elders. The ruling elders are those who are not ministers, but are heavily involved in the decision making of the church. The teaching elders have been set apart for the ministry of the church mainly in the areas of preaching, teaching, and speaking. The teaching elders are often referred to as the ministers of the Presbyterian church (121). Reymond gives several responsibilities to these elders: teach and catchecize thouse under his care, go after the members of the flock when they go astray, protect the members of the church from false doctrine, and to lead the members of their flock in a way that cares for them and provides for their needs (128).
The Congregation-Led Church/Congregational Polity by James Leo Garrett, Jr.
James Garrett was a longtime theology professor at Southwestern Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. His main points seem to center around fairness and representation. One of the essays that refutes Garrett’s points asks the question “Is it our goal to be fair or biblical?” (197). The definition he gives for congregational polity is “the form of church governance in which final human authority rests with the local or particular congregation when it gathers for decision-making” (157). Garrett gives a few thoughts on advantages of congregational polity particularly: fairness, does not centralize all the decision making, empowers the congregation, likely to produce stronger, more mature Christians, and a way for church members to truly understand what it means to seek and follow God’s will (194).
The Bishop-Led Church by The Very Rev. Dr. Theol. Paul F.M. Zahl
Paul Zahl is dean and president of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. Zahl points out two advantages to a bishop-led church: leadership is centralized around God’s Word and can bring more efficiency to the mission of the church. He also draws attention to three potential downsides of this form of polity: it can put power primarily with the social elite, can lead to unnecessary formalities, and can lead to power grabs that are difficult to rein in (234). Zahl did not use any particular Scripture to make his point, but rather talked about how he has reached this philosophy of polity by studying other denominations with an eye towards ecclesia.
The Plural-Elder-Led Church by James R. White
James White is an elder of the Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church and director of Alpha and Omega Ministries in Phoenix, Arizona. White points to Titus 1:5 “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you.” as well as 2 Timothy 2:22 “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” in making his points regarding the plural-elder led church. In making his points about the need for plurality of eldership, White is trying to convince the reader of the benefits of decentralizing the leadership in the church, which should more clearly allow for the needs of the body to be met in a broader context.
We will likely never know this side of heaven what the most correct form of church government should be. Unfortunately most people think of church government and are immediately reminded of something that went horribly wrong in a church years ago that altered the trajectory of their faith in a way that no one could have ever intended. It’s those unintended consequences that we hope to avoid when we intentionally have conversations regarding polity and church government.
In the 21st Century, we have a plethora of Christian denominations that can too often be found guilty of working hard to prove that their way is the right way. Have you heard the jokes about the Baptists at the liquor store? How about a jab at the “Frozen Chosen?” As long as we continue to build our arguments on the differences in our styles of worship and forms of government, we will miss the incredible opportunity that we have to find unity in the person of Jesus Christ who himself is part of a community in the Trinity made up of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. While we read a lot about the roles of the Trinity, we don’t see them arguing about which of them is greater.
I personally find a plurality of elders to be the form of church government that models both accountability and servant leadership. 1 Timothy 5:17 says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” If the structure of the leadership of the church is focused on preaching and teaching in tandem with serving the needs of both the congregation and the surrounding community, then that church will truly be living out the gospel. A church that is set up in a way that puts its leaders, regardless of how many there are and the office that they serve, on a pedestal will not be able to live out the gospel that was modeled for us in John 13:5 when Jesus himself washed the disciples’ feet.
Some of the more formal structures of governance and polity seem to be so formalized that they live little room for actually living out the gospel. My personal opinion would fall most in line with Danny Akin’s view of eldership because of the various offices and responsibilities that he describes in his argument. “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you” Hebrews 13:17 (279).
In closing, I believe that the most Christ-honoring way for us to view church government is to consider the heart of the men that contributed essays to this work. James White speaks to this in saying, “The fact that each writer in this work has taken the time to enunciate his understanding of the proper form of church government speaks to the shared commitment to the truth that Christ is the Lord of the church and hence has the right—no, the duty—to order the church under his lordship so as to bring honor and glory to God” (257). Yes and amen!