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Church Polity - Part 1

Rick BlogOver the years, the question of polity (form of governing) in the local church has encountered considerable theological and practical confusion. Where should authority rest?

The great danger in striving to derive from Scripture the solution to this question is to strive to draw lines so clearly that inconsistent realities with one’s view are negated. For instance, many who favor strict elder rule do so with the thought that to involve the congregation is to “allow those least qualified to make the most important decisions.” On the other hand, many who favor congregational rule declare that to place the “power” in the hands of only a few select members is to eliminate the reality of the priesthood of the believer and establish an artificial distinction between the sheep and the shepherds (since the shepherds are themselves in reality sheep). Thus, elder rule is set in an opposite polarity to congregational rule as though the two are mutually exclusive. It is for this reason that the terms “elder rule” and “congregational rule” have become undesirable terms.

It is inarguable that the New Testament teaches that the spiritual leadership in the local church belongs to the eldership of that local assembly. Every mention of the office of elder is recorded in the plural, which argues against the congregational model that holds that the only “elders” are the ordained pastors in the local church. Biblically speaking, all of the men comprising the eldership in a local assembly are to pastor the flock of God, not just the pastor-teacher. The three terms for spiritual leadership emphasize the plurality and commonality of function among spiritual leaders:

  • “presbuteros” (elder) refers to the office;
  • “poimen” (pastor or shepherd) refers to the function;
  • and “episkopos” (overseer) refers to the authority possessed by the spiritual leadership.

These godly men are set apart from within the congregation itself to provide humble, selfless leadership as they serve the Lord Jesus Christ as undershepherds to the flock of God – this is described as “ruling” or “leading” (1 Timothy 5:17; Hebrews 13:7, 17). The people of God are charged with the responsibility to “esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). That these men are to function as “overseers,” “rulers,” or “leaders” is unmistakable. This is made all the more clear by means of the Spirit of God’s warning that they be careful not to be excessive in the exercise of their leadership – 1 Peter 5:2-3; and in the instruction to the congregation to obey and submit to them willingly (Hebrews 13:7, 17).

However, the elders in the local church are not to be viewed as a “ruling oligarchy” that considers the church to be “theirs.” The church belongs to Jesus Christ and they are to see themselves as stewards of what belongs to Him. They are not to see themselves as mediators between God and the people. Because of the reality of the “priesthood of the believer,” each individual Christian possesses a direct relationship with the Lord and is not dependent on the mediation of an elder. It is in this light that the elders must see themselves as accountable, in part, to the congregation that is indwelled by the Spirit of God. Consider Alexander Strauch’s comment on this: “The elders are most assuredly answerable to the congregation, and the congregation is responsible to hold its spiritual leaders accountable to faithful adherence to the truth of the Word” (Biblical Eldership, p. 292). Because of this reality, there are matters that are best decided by including the congregation in the decision making process. These matters include the final discipline of erring believers (Matthew 18:17-20), the evaluation, confirmation of reputation, and selection of leadership (1 Timothy 3:10; Acts 6:3), and in practical matters where the congregation itself is obligated such as in the financial matters of indebtedness and budget. Strauch further states: “Elders who understand the sacred nature and dynamic energy of the Spirit-empowered congregation know the necessity of congregational participation in all major decisions.” Therefore, the elders wisely consult with the congregation in the process of maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (striving after an upsurge of consensus as opposed to the imposition of policy).

The specifics as to how this works will be the subject of the next couple blog entries. It is important that a church that is enjoying the unity of ministry between the elders and congregation know why it is working so well. The biblical principles that inform how we conduct ministry are joyously evident here at GBC and I pray that these articles will help to explain why God is blessing as He is.

Stay tuned ….