I teach church polity to seminary students, largely because it is a required course and someone has to teach it. I have no illusions about how (un)enthused most of them are when they sign up for the course. Almost all of them view it as the ‘I need this only because it might help me pass my ordination exams.’
Beyond captive seminarians few if any members of our churches will give much thought to church government, and those who do probably see it as confusing or even obstructive. Yet it is essential for all believers to grasp a basic understanding of church government if our churches are to thrive.
The Need of Church Government
In a broader sense, we can ask why any sort of government is necessary. The reason ought to be obvious. It is due to the ongoing effects of the fall of mankind into the darkness and delusion of sin. Sin results in men and women whose impulse is no longer to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, but to make ourselves as gods. Pride and selfishness lead us to seek our own good, most often at the expense of or even harm of others. Any cursory study of history proves this repeatedly. Thus God has instituted government, which even as flawed as it remains in every nation, is to be seen as an extension of God’s rule (Romans 13).
In case you hadn’t noticed, most of our churches are filled with sinners (hopefully most are redeemed sinners). Therefore even Christians, though we are set free from the bondage of sin, need governance to restrain our remaining sinful tendencies. As with every other aspect of our lives we turn to Scripture to see how we ought to govern ourselves. While church polity is not an essential doctrine on a par with things relating to our salvation, yet we still should seek to be as biblical as possible.
Here also we must look to the whole counsel of God to see the patterns and principles which ought to guide us in church governance. Sadly, many look only to the New Testament for guidance on church governance. We ought to look also for Old Testament principles which are picked up in the New Testament church.
The key aspect of church government which we find in both testaments is already in our name, Presbyterian. ‘Presbyterian’ is an Anglicizing of the Greek word presbyteros which means elder. Elder leadership is not something which was invented by Calvin and Knox. It was clearly instituted among the covenant people of God under Moses’ leadership, and remained a key aspect of life among Israel, God holding the elders accountable for the waywardness of the people.
Some will argue that such elder leadership is not clearly instituted in the New Testament in the same manner as deacons. However, elder leadership was merely carried over from Jewish practice into the new Church, and we later see Paul and others discuss these leaders in the new churches (cf. Acts 14:23).
The elders were primarily dealing with the governance of the church, while the Apostles and pastors thereafter were focused on the ministry of the Word. Both pastors and elders are held to a higher standard than others in the churches of Christ (1 Tim. 3; Titus 1). Elder leadership in the local session as well as in the connectional, higher courts of the church, such as presbyteries, synods, and assemblies, is the keystone of Presbyterian governance.
Two other basic forms of church government exist: independency (such as with Baptists and other congregationalists) and prelacy or rule by bishops (as in Catholicism, episcopacy, and Methodism). While these forms also seek to find justification in scripture, they fail to find as biblical a foundation as Presbyterianism does, and we ought not shy away from saying so. There is much wisdom in a multiplicity of leaders as well as in being connected to other churches in a meaningful and mutually submissive body.
Something we should note is that Presbyterianism is *not* democracy (congregationalism comes closest to that). Members do indeed elect their elders from their midst. Yet elders are not our representatives in the same way in which members of a legislature or Congress would be, where we expect our elected officials to act how we want or we seek to coerce them or vote them out. In the case of elders, we should elect godly men to make the primary decisions in the life of the church, and then it is our *duty* to submit to them. “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Hebrews 13:17 ESV; see also WLC 127)
Church polity is thought of pejoratively by most as a ‘bunch of rules.’ While we do indeed have rules which govern church life, polity is ultimately about the godly leadership of the church, primarily in a local session, but also in our presbyteries and General Synod. It is also about the governance of other members who are not officers in ways both formal and informal, structured and unstructured, as we live in submission to one another (Ephesians 5:21; 1 Thessalonians 5:11; Galatians 5:13).
Governed by His Word
Not all rules of our congregations, presbyteries, or denomination have a specific biblical mandate, and some are more crucial than others. But all rules of church governance ought to aid in the worship, fellowship, discipleship, and witness of the church. Rules should set clear and biblical expectations for the mutual life of the saints.
The Church is not like Rotary, DAR, Kiwanis, or any other organization created by society. The Church is the Body of Christ, the kingdom of God, and therefore it is organically and spiritually united to Jesus Christ and governed by His Word, not by human custom or expediency. Good order in the church is essential to fostering the unity, peace, and prosperity of the church, which then should foster growth in holiness in Christ. By His grace and for His glory.