What’s in a Polity?

A Review of Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity. ed. C.O. Brand and R. S. Norman (Broadman and Holman, Nashville TN: 2004)

This book is about five different views of church polity written from proponents of each view who give an apologia for their views. In addition, which I really liked, each proponent critiques the other’s views in a section after each chapter. The five different polities are:

(1) The Single-Elder-Led Church (Congregational) – Daniel Akin

(2) The Presbyterian Church Government – Robert L. Reymond

(3) The Congregational-Led Church – James Leo Garret, Jr.

(4) The Bishop-Led Church (Episcopal or Anglican) – The Very Rev. Dr. Theol. Paul F. M. Zahl

(5) The Plural-Elder-Led Church (Congregational) – James R. White


The book is obviously heavily weighted with congregational models, where the congregation decides on some level what should be done in the church either by voting on everything or at least in selecting leaders. I suppose these different polities make up the bulk of protestant churches in America, but I don’t really know.


So, in reading through the book I was wondering how important is polity, how and why do some churches do things one way and others another, and what does the Bible emphasize in comparison?


How important is polity? I had just read Viola’s Reimaging Church prior to the Perspectives book and from Viola one gets the feeling that polity really isn’t that important at all, it’s about Christ working in and through the body in a relatively unstructured, organic way. In the Perspectives book, the importance of polity varies between the authors with some arguing that there really is no set polity doctrine in the Bible, just principles to follow (1, 3, and 4), and therefore is flexible and may be highly influenced by tradition (as in the case of the Bishop-Led model) and others argue it is much more clearly defined in Scripture (2 and 5) and therefore should be followed accordingly, if not rigidly. All the authors also seem to agree that Biblically “epsikopos” and “presbyteros” (terms for overseer or bishop and deacon in the Bible, respectively) are essentially referring to the same position, the former referring to the ministry (overseer or shepherd) and the latter referring to the position/character of the individual. Even Zahl (Bishop-Led) states that there are essentially two orders of ministry: deacons and presbyters, with the third level (episkopos) sounding more like an advanced presbyter rather than a Biblically based position.


Perhaps the best way to go about this report is to critique the views in what I believe to be their degree of being off-the-mark.


The view which I think is most off-the-mark is the Bishop-Led view of Zahl. His was probably the most readable and entertaining chapter of the whole book and I do appreciate is own critique of the foibles of Anglicanism and Episcopalians throughout history and even their bulky, stuffy, if not stuck form of polity. He argues that the BL view is good for the well-being (benne esse) of the church but does not define its essence (esse). I guess this is the case because it upholds tradition and enables people to have some form of humility because the service is “vertical” and not “horizontal”. Even if the teaching sucks you can get something out of the rest of the service. I was surprised that he didn’t make a greater appeal to apostolic authority (which the Catholics do). He did state that “In the bishops unique ordaining power lies the validity of the church: its “apostolic succession” going back in one unbroken line to the apostles…” (p. 228). Also, in the same section that the church’s catholicity is safeguarded in the three-fold order (Bishops – Prebyters – Deacons) through preaching the Word of God and administering the two Biblical sacraments (Baptism and Communion). However, it wasn’t a very big plea. It seems to me that this is the only argument for this position, albeit a bad one. Perhaps that is why he didn’t make much of it and focused on how the Bishop-Led is good for the well-being of the church and does not constitute its essence. But that doesn’t leave me with much. How is the church going to impact the world if this is all there is (Matt 16:18)? It seems like the BL church is just going to fade away. I thought it fascinating that Zahl, apparently worried about this too, ends his chapter by praying for a “new John Wesley” to emerge again and shake things up.


The next most off-the-mark approach in my view was the Presbyterian model. Reymond was the most authoritative and forceful in his arguments of all the authors. He absolutely feels like Scripture has laid out a definite pattern for church government in the form of different levels of presbyters (or courts of presbyters) from the local to the universal church. He claims this is clearly the Biblical position. He did make a big deal about the need for connection between different local churches based on the interconnectedness seen in the NT (e.g., visits and oversight exerted by Paul and others in Acts and epistles). His main argument for ruler ship by a court of presbyters only comes from Acts 15 and Gal 2, a single Biblical event. He spends over a quarter of his chapter on this event and its nuances as the prototype for all intra-church interaction. The Antioch presbytery sent Paul and Barnabas to the Jerusalem presbytery to sort out the Gentile/circumcision thing, the different presbyteries debated the issue, they came to consensus and drafted a letter to be sent to all the churches of which Paul capitulated in his 2nd Missionary Journey:


“In sum, Presbyterians believe that the New Testament teaches in a schematic way ecclesiastical “connectionalism” between local churches, presbyteries, and a general assembly because they see it being lived out by the church in Acts 15!” (p. 109)


Now, there is much to take issue with on this interpretation including what appears to be a formal importation of modern day Presbyterian-speak and polity into the early church as well as how much Paul capitulated to all that was laid out by the Jersualem church (at least the meat sacrificed to idols part). But I’m not going to get sidetracked. It seems to me that the most difficult aspect of this argument is that one is basing an entire doctrine on this one passage. He does argue that there needs to be a visible and universal unity in the church (Jn 17:20-21; 1 Cor 12; Eph 2:14-16; 4:3-6; Phil 2:2; Col 3:12-14 etc…); however, most of those passages are addressed to local churches and the basis for unity is not a formal polity structure but the fellowship of the indwelling Holy Spirit (Phil 2:1,2) and the unity within the Godhead itself (Eph 4). Yes it would be nice to have a more together and unified universal church, but is that the mandate from Scripture? Clearly not (at least I don’t see it anywhere)!  Also important and profound is the idea that human institutions could really bring about the unity expressed in the passages above. I guess one could argue that God could do it if He wanted to, but He certainly didn’t make it a big deal in the NT. From the NT, the reason connectionalism was maintained was because of how God orchestrated things through the apostles. They had the authority from Christ. How can we export that beyond the apostles? I don’t read that there were really bodies of presbyters holding court, it was the apostles who seemed to be the ones orchestrating what little formal order there was (e.g., Paul with the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:17ff). In this sense, I think the BL church has more elegant (but wrong) basis to argue for a universal paradigm by appealing to apostolic authority. The Presbyterian model doesn’t even do that but instead appeals to a structure that is void of both fictitious apostolic authority and Biblical grounding and was missing for 1500 years until the Reformers picked it up. 


The congregational models appear to be the closest to what the Bible speaks to polity; however, each view is not without its own issues. For all the congregational chapters there is the understanding that the Lordship of the church is from Christ alone and not from some higher human organization, i.e., a greater independence and self-sustaining character than the other two views.

  • The emphasis of Garret (Democratic Congregationalism = DC) was on the passages that demonstrated where the church decided things, e.g., church discipline (Matt 18:20, 1 Cor 5/2Cor 2), the selection of the first deacons in Acts 6, the sending of Paul and Barnabas by the Antioch church in 1 Cor 13 and Acts 15:22 where the “entire church” chose Judas and Silas to go with Paul and Barnabas. However, that is about as far as Garret goes. What of leaders? Is everything to be decided democratically? The NT certainly affirms the need for elders/overseers (1 Tim 3 and Titus 1). Aiken points out in his critique that Garret has “no mention, much less interaction, with the crucial text on pastoral leadership such as 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; Hebrews 13:7, 17”, which I concur was severely lacking in this chapter.
  • White advocated for plural eldership which is the polity I would most agree with. He makes a case for the sufficiency of the local church and also a disclaimer that this does not mean that local churches should interact, seek council, etc… with other local churches. He argues that Acts 15 (contra Reymond) was a unique event. Plurality of elders is pretty clear in Scripture (Acts 14:21-23; Titus 1:5; Acts 20:17ff, Phil 1:1). Interestingly, he seems to ignore all the congregational passages brought out by Garret.
  • Akin argued for the Single Elder Congregational model. I appreciated his broad use of Scripture to argue for Congregationalism[1] and for the concept of Elder/Overseer[2]. His point that “… congregationalism undergirds the New Testament pattern of church government prevents churches past or present from being locked into some type of ecclesiastical strait-jacket.”(p. 40) was very insightful. Actually, his argument for the Single Elder position was based more on the idea that the Bible is flexible on this and that there are circumstances that warrant it… not that it is the way it should be all the time. He argues that it was probably necessary in some house church situations. That the “Pastor-teacher” role of Eph 4:11 is geared toward the local church, whereas apostle, prophet, and evangelists were not? The pastor-teacher being what many refer to as “senior pastor” today. This seems to be a case of importing today’s polity into the first century. He then goes on to discuss how a senior elder (pastor) among elders is similar or at least a variation of the single elder position and uses Moses (not in NT though), Peter (first among the three), and James (Jerusalem church) as examples of senior elder/pastor types in the Bible. Certainly there are probably cases where a one leader is all there is (e.g., a small body) and in plural leadership one or two leaders are more strategically gifted, knowledgeable, or mature and are more influential than others. So, I could agree with his flexibility point to some extent, but the clear example of Scriptures is for there to be plurality – which should be the norm and strived for in a church.


So in sum, I thought the book to be rather stuffy. I read through Acts recently noting anything that seemed to relate to polity. What struck me were the informal nature of the church and the rather spontaneous nature of church growth. Decisions and direction seemed to come from God’s leading through visions, open doors, closed doors and persecution. How else could God lead?


Human structure seems to get in the way of God’s leadership. When we establish many levels of organization or set in stone “this is the absolute way”, it’s probably the death of that church. At least that’s what seems to be the case especially for the Bishop Led and Presbyterian models. Even the congregational models can get pretty uptight about protocol. Have we replaced visions and revelations from God with structure?


It is also evident that churches did interact with one another in Acts. It is probably a very dangerous precedent to claim complete autonomy, but at the same time the interaction is hardly structured and formal (like Presbyterianism advocates for). Unity comes from Jesus (we are the BOC through the Holy Spirit) and His mission for us, not structure.  


[1] Evidence for Congregationalism: Mat 18:15-17, Acts 6:1-7, Acts 11:22, Acts 14:27, Acts 15, 1 Cor 5, 1 Cor 6, 1 Cor 7-12, 1 Cor 16, 2 Cor 2

[2] An Analysis of the Concept of Elder Elders in NT and OT, the equivalence of Elders and Overseers in the NT (e.g., Acts 20:28), Acts 20:17-38, 1 Tim 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, 1 Pet 5:1-4, 1 Cor 16:15-16, Gal 6:6, Eph 4:11, 1 Thess 5:12-13, 1 Tim 5:17-25, In addition: Heb 13:17; James 3:1


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