To many readers, the subject of church government will not seem terribly exciting. Judging from the lack of contemporary literature on the topic, one might conclude that church polity is not very important. Yet, if the truth were known, many of the practical problems facing the church are the result of an abandonment of scriptural church polity.
The church is not a mere social club. The church is the kingdom of Christ (Col. 1:13), subject to his rule. In the Bible, the Lord has established an ecclesiastical government by which his people are to be ruled. Just as Christ has instituted civil government to ensure civil order, so he has established ecclesiastical government to preserve order in the church (1 Cor. 14:33). A man is not free to dispense with the church's government anymore than he is at liberty to disre gard the civil authorities.
We do not contend that the divine order for church government extends to every detail. Obviously, the Lord did not mandate how many times the elders of the church must meet each month; nor did he prescribe any particular attire for them to wear while performing their official duties. Such incidentals are adapted to the needs and exigencies of the time and place, "according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed." Nevertheless, the scriptures do provide an overall plan of government which the church must follow if she is to remain faithful to her Lord. Therefore, it is important to examine biblical principles of church polity.
This booklet will explore several features of church government which men are obligated to receive as scriptural institutions. These tenets are: (1.) scriptural church officers; (2.) church courts; (3.) confessional standards; and (4.) biblical church membership. These principles combine to form the distinctive nature of presbyterian polity.
Presbyterian government exists wherever these features are present. It should be noted that some churches which uphold presbyterian order are not presbyterian in name; this is the case with many churches coming out of the Continental Reformation. Nevertheless, these churches are still presbyterian because they adhere to biblical principles regarding church officers, ecclesiastical courts, confessional standards, and church membership.
The distinctive features of presbyterianism stand in opposition to several tendencies which presently threaten order in the church. One tendency is the concentration of power into the hands of a select number of ecclesiastical heavyweights. Both the hierarchy of Popery, and the Baptist inclination to exalt the pastor into a dictatorial role, flow from failure to adhere to the rule of elders who stand on a parity with one another.
Even among "conservative" Presbyterian denominations, there has been a steady erosion of the parity of the eldership. Judicial appeals are handled by standing judicial commissions. Most routine administrative business is conducted through denominational bureaucracies run by coordinators, committee-men, and staff members who are not even church officers. Thus, an ecclesiastical hierarchy exists which is effectively insulated from the review and control of church judicatories. This organizational structure bears more resemblance to prelacy than to scriptural, presbyterian principles.
An especially pernicious tendency in contemporary America is the growth of independency. A multitude of churches exist which militantly proclaim their autonomy. They arrogantly boast of no connection or common government with any other ecclesiastical assembly; it is as though they believe that schism is a virtue. An outgrowth of independency is the development of an entire industry of para-church agencies and self-appointed ministers.
Membership in the church is viewed as a matter of small significance: a person may attend regularly without ever joining a church anywhere or incurring any particular obligations. Members are free to adopt virtually any belief or lifestyle, according to their own individual preferences. Even open scandals and doctrinal aberration are allowed to continue without any corrective action from the church. In the last analysis, the situation in these so-called churches is nothing short of ecclesiastical anarchy. A proper resort to church courts and scriptural confessionalism could cure churches from these maladies of independency.
Over 150 years ago, Professor Samuel Miller (of Princeton Seminary) wrote:
It is plain, from the word of God, as well as from uniform experience, that the government of the Church is a matter of great importance; that the form as well as the administration of that government is more vitally connected with the peace, purity and edification of the church, than many Christians appear to believe; and, of consequence, that it is no small part of fidelity to our Master in heaven to "hold fast" the form of ecclesiastical order , as well as the "form of sound words" which he has delivered to the saints (2 Tim. 1:13).
May men everywhere labor to restore biblical government to the church in faithfulness to Christ, for the good of the church, and to the glory of God.
Footnotes for Chapter 1
1. Westminster Confession of Faith, 1:6.
2. Samuel Miller, An Essay, on the Warrant, Nature and Duties of the Office of the Ruling Elder, in the Presbyterian Church (New York: Jonathan Leavitt; Boston: Crocker & Brewster, 1832), p. 20. Cited hereafter as The Ruling Elder.
Copyright ©1983, 1994 by Kevin Reed