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Church Polity - Part 2

Rick BlogHow does biblical church leadership work?

The relationship between elders and flock must be one of mutual respect, love and trust. Often, instead of this approach, there is a severe lack of trust – by both elders and congregation. Elders may attempt to control (lord over) the congregation because it “doesn’t have the needed spiritual discernment” – a policy and practice that inevitably results in the lack of genuine influence. At other times, congregations may throw off the attempts by the elders to provide leadership because of a fear that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” These are the primary reasons why polarization can become so intense between elder rule and congregational rule. These things ought not to be.

The best approach to biblical church government is to see the involvement of an active, participating, engaged body of serving saints being influenced and equipped by an effective, godly group of elders who views the congregation as a highly prized stewardship. I believe a fitting analogy would be the kind of interaction that exists between a husband and wife. The husband is clearly identified by the Lord as the “head” over the wife. However, the husband cherishes the wife and nurtures her – placing her needs and even desires as a primary motivation in his leadership. He listens to her, involves her, respects her, and even yields to her in areas of preference in order to preserve his integrity when he has to exercise his authority in leadership. A husband who sees the need to attempt to control his wife will encounter a woman who is resistant and ultimately resentful of being constantly dominated and discounted. Likewise, an eldership that negates the significance of the congregation’s input will be resented and resisted.

If you have a truly functioning eldership, one that is involved in the congregation, discipling, mentoring, admonishing, correcting, and teaching, the influence that the saints naturally give to such men makes the form less critical. On the other hand, you can have the structure arranged in an ideal way only to have it negated by an eldership that fails to truly shepherd the people of God. In this sense, function needs to prevail over form. Theoretically, if the elders of a church are shepherding the flock the way Scripture commands, the congregation could vote on every decision and the influence of the elders in conjunction with the Holy Spirit will enable the congregation to decide properly. Likewise, if the elders are properly shepherding the flock and they possess the authority in the local church to make every decision in conjunction with the Holy Spirit, the congregation will be well served. The specifics of polity are not dictated by Scripture, but the function of eldership is. Thus, the passion of the local church does not need to be for political structure but for the spiritual fitness and function of its eldership.

The respect for the congregation seems to be emphasized in the practice of the apostle Paul as he gave instruction to the churches in his epistles. He did not address himself to the “elders” in the various epistles, but to the entire congregation. Once again, Alexander Strauch makes the following poignant statement: “Because all members of the local congregation are saints, priests, and Spirit-empowered ministers, all are responsible for life in the community. Therefore, Paul’s customary practice was to address the whole community of saints when he wrote letters to local congregations” (Biblical Eldership, p. 162). To dismiss the congregation as unfit for involvement in various ways in the decision-making process of a local church is to discount the reality of the presence of God’s Spirit and falls short of the apostolic attitudes.

In our next article, we will pick up the specific ways that deacons, members’ meetings, and the selection of elders, and budgeting advance this priority of working together with the congregation through influence and not control.

Continue staying tuned ….