A Display of God’s Glory by Mark Dever 2001
I remember using the word “polity” in a paper I wrote in the 8th grade and having the word circled by my 24-year old English teacher as an error. It was with juvenile glee that I took the dictionary to her, opened it, and read to her something like “the organization created for managing affairs, especially public affairs; government.” Polity, then, is management, organization, government, and structures of authority.
As Christians, we strive to found our lives on the teaching of Scripture. The question, though, must be asked: Does Scripture deal clearly with questions about the polity, or organization, of the church? And if so, what exactly does Scripture teach about it? Of course, we Christians believe that Scripture is sufficient for our preaching and discipling, for our spirituality and joy in following Christ, for church growth and our understanding of evangelism. But is Scripture even meant to tell us how we are to organize our lives together as Christians in our churches, or are we left simply to our own investigation of best practices? Is our church polity a matter indifferent? Is it a matter to be determined simply pragmatically, by whatever seems to work best and to most effectively avoid problems?
I believe that God has revealed in His Word all that we need to know in order to love and serve Him, and this includes what we need to know even about the organization of our churches. This has been the assumption of the confessions of Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians,
and many others in years past, and it has been assumed by those men whom God has called to fill our pulpits. Let me be clear. When we say that church polity can be found in the pages of the New Testament, that does not mean that we assume the correctness of our own practices and then go in search of ways to justify them biblically. Rather, our goal must be to look at the Bible, recognize some basic aspects of structure and organization that are taught there, and then organize our churches according to the Bible’s teaching.
The pages of the New Testament are full of examples of how the early Christians structured their churches. In its pages we find that there were clear times of meeting together (Acts 20:7; Heb. 10:25), elections (Acts 1:23-26; 6:5-6), officers (e.g., Phil. 1:1; Acts 20:17, 28), discipline (I Cor. 5), contributions (Rom. 15:26; I Cor. 16:1-2), letters of commendation (Acts 18:27; II Cor. 3:1), the administration of the ordinances (Acts 2:41; I Cor. 11:23-26), and qualifications for membership (Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:47). Clearly, God has given us in His Word direction about many aspects of the structure of a church’s life together.
It is wonderful for us that He does so! Being certain that God’s Word is meant to regulate our lives together, even in the organization of our churches, frees us from the tyranny of the latest fashion. Some pastors today may feel that we must have choirs and committees, but that we merely may have sermons (if we don’t feel that our video ministry is ready yet to fill that time slot), or that we may have membership (if we can’t think of anything more creative to do). God’s Word, though, realigns our thinking on the church: We find that the Bible lays out some clear parameters for our instruction (though within those parameters there is flexibility). We begin to learn that we must have preaching and membership, and that we may have choirs and committees.
John L. Dagg (1794-1884) wrote that
Church order and the ceremonials of religion, are less important than a new heart; and in the view of some, any laborious investigation of questions respecting
them may appear to be needless and unprofitable. But we know, from the Holy Scriptures, that Christ gave commands on these subjects, and we cannot refuse to obey. Love prompts our obedience; and love prompts also the search which may be necessary to ascertain his will. Let us, therefore, prosecute the investigations which are before us, with a fervent prayer, that the Holy Spirit, who guides into all truth, may assist us to learn the will of him whom we supremely love and adore. (Manual of Church Order, p. 12)
Recognizing this, we would do well to consider Scripture’s teaching about a few central aspects of the church’s polity. So many questions could be considered, but I want to focus on what Scripture clearly teaches on four of the most basic components of church polity—deacons, elders, membership, and congregationalism. May God use our efforts to help us better understand His intentions for our life together in the church.