Why does polity matter...and what is it?

by Daniel Rieke

Transient

I want to talk about a rather obscure word for a very important concept that affects just about everything about life in the local church.

Polity. Small word. Big implications.

So…what is polity?

Polity is church government. Polity, at its root, answers the question of who is given the authority to lead the church and how that authority should be used biblically. On one hand, we know that Jesus stands as the ultimate and final authority for the church; however, God has also revealed to us a leadership structure for the human component of the governing of local churches.

So why does polity matter?

Polity matters because the church matters.

The church matters because Christ died for it and because the church is called to display the manifold wisdom of God to the universe (Eph. 3:10). And God did not create the church and then leave us without instruction on what it should look like or how it should be ordered.

God gave us His word and His word gives us guidelines on how the church should be structured. The word doesn't get down to the details of what type of building we should have or what color its walls should be, but Scripture is clear about who should lead the church: elders. And it also paints a clear picture of how elders should lead the churches they’re serving.

Let’s examine a few passages briefly related to the topic of elders.

Acts 20:28-32[i]

[28] Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. [29] I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; [30] and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. [31] Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. [32] And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

God gave the local church at Ephesus elders to guard the gospel and true doctrine from the inevitable flood of wolves sent by the enemy to ravage the church from within. So elders are called to guard and teach doctrine to the church and protect the church from heresy.

Elders, like shepherds, are called to protect the sheep from wolves, false teaching, and false-believers who would undermine the gospel and the witness of the church to the world. One of the primary weapons in this battle is the preaching of the word of God – a responsibility given to the elders in the context of a local church.

Titus 1:5-9

[5] This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—[6] if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. [7] For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, [8] but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. [9] He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

We see from this passage in Titus, and its parallel passage in 1 Timothy 3, that every church is called to have elders (plural…see also Acts 14:23) and these elders are to be men, who exhibit certain biblical characteristics.

1 Peter 5:1-5

[1] So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: [2] shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; [3] not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. [4] And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. [5] Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

Hebrews 13:7, 17

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith…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.

We see in these passages in 1 Peter and Hebrews that elders are called to (1) preach the word of God and (2) to live lives worthy of imitation and (3) that they will be held responsible before God for how they lead the churches He has entrusted to their stewardship. In light of that, the church is called to submit to their humble, Christ-like leadership.

So…what is Hope Church’s polity?

Hope Church is elder-led, with a plurality of elders. This means we have one group of elders made up of multiple men who are responsible for leading Hope Church.

Let me close this post with a few (hopefully) helpful summarizing statements about the role and nature of elders in relation to the congregation at Hope Church:

  • Elders will be men who meet the biblical qualifications set forth in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9
  • There will be a plurality of elders in our church (Acts 14:23; James 5:14)
  • Elders are the spiritual authority over the congregation (1 Pet 5:1-5; Heb. 13:17; Acts 20:28)
  • The church is encouraged to should submit to its elders’ decisions except in cases where the elders are teaching heresy (Gal 1:2,6-9; 2 Tim 4:3-4) or walking in unrepentant sin (1 Tim 5:19-20)
  • The church members will vote to affirm new members and new elder nominees who have been vetted and nominated by the current elder body
  • The church body is called to remove heretical elders from leadership. If an elder stops preaching the gospel, he needs to be removed (Gal. 1:2, 6-9)
  • Hope Church members, under the direction and leadership of the elders, are called to exercise church discipline on unrepentantly sinning members (Matt. 18:17, 1 Cor. 5:2, 5, 13; 2 Cor. 2:6)

What does polity have to do with me as a regular church member?

Ultimately, we pray that if our church is structured biblically and our leaders seek to lead according to the Scriptures, the end result will be a healthy church that is passionate about evangelism, discipleship and the advance of God’s kingdom. And a healthy church means healthy church members.

It also stands to reason that the inverse is true as well.

  • Think for example if a church doesn't have elders to teach the Word of God and to protect the church from false teachings. It seems only a matter of time until the church drifts into major theological error.
  • Or think if a church has elders, but they don’t meet the qualifications for leadership in 1 Timothy 3. It’s hard to imagine a church remaining pure and healthy with leaders who don’t adhere to the biblical qualifications.
  • Or suppose a church just has one man in charge with no accountability or shared leadership. As we've unfortunately seen many times over the past several decades, when one man holds all the authority in a church, it usually leads to blind spots and leadership errors at best and corruption and moral failures at worst.

The further a church drifts from biblical polity, the further that body will eventually drift away from God’s mission for the church and the lives of God’s people.

Polity matters because the church matters. And the church matters because Jesus died for it. May we be those who are passionate about polity for the glory of our Lord!

 

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A helpful resource on the topic of polity:

The Church: The Gospel Made Visible by Mark Dever

 

 

 

[i] Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.