Gerry’s Principles of Polity
Course: A Guide to Christian Theology
Lecture 32: Gerry’s Principles of Polity
This is the 32th lecture in the online series of lectures on a Guide to Christian Theology by Dr Breshears. Recommended Reading includes: Biblical References from the Course and Study Guides 1 – 39.
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In regards to principles of polity, I want to make it clear that what the Bible prescribes, you need to do and what the Bible describes, you should follow closely as possible and what the Bible is silent about leaves us to be free and wise and Spirit led. Now churches takes different approaches on polity but the question is how does it help in getting the Gospel out to our communities and also in unity and in focus for what God wants in our lives. So polity is simply how things are done in church. This lecture is an accumulation of my own ideas based on Scripture.
II. Leadership Offices of a Church
As I have already stated, I believe authority resides in the congregation as a whole. Of course the primary authority is in Scripture. There are certain offices in the church which we don’t really understand; simply because we are too person centered and gifted centered to do so. An office is a responsibility, an authority and an empowerment given for a position and therefore people move into that position. Biblically, the two leadership offices of the church are elders and deacons. I think there is another office of what I would call ‘member’ and thus when a person comes into membership of the church; they enter an office with responsibility and authority associated with that. When I came to Grace Community Church, as an office, I was a Sunday school teacher, teaching an adult class. After that I was asked to join the preaching team which consisted of four people who preach at the moment. Then at a later date, I came on to the officer of Elder which gave me responsibilities within that team that I only have as long as I belong to that office. Of course all of these offices continue whether I am a member or not. So the Biblical term for elders as an office of the church is men who are responsible for pastoral care to oversee that and equip members for ministry. While the other responsibility is to guide the body of the church in terms of doctrine; so these two key responsibilities are to care for the people and their growth and to equip people to do ministry and to guide and guard the life and teaching of the church. There is an authority of office and a responsibility of character in gifting. Being who I am with the knowledge of the Bible that I have; I am an authority on the Bible and people come to me with particular questions. And someone within the office of eldership should have such a character. 1st Timothy 3 and Titus give us some background on this. Elders need to be perceived as leaders. And I think the role of elders is to lead the congregation wisely in decision making.
For example, a decision on the speaker system the church should use in the building; a problem which we just went through. This involves a lot of money with equipment, cables and installation. We appointed a leadership team which we called deacons. They met with people in the church who had ministry involvement and interest in this area. They ended up with a lot of detail ending up with a new speaker system. So the elders gave that responsibility to others as mentioned. It ended up with a wide group of people making the decision. This is not the only way but this is the way our church did it. So I would phrase this as elder led.
Now for deacons, we see they first show up in Acts 6 where they are overseeing the serving of tables. We also see them described in 1st Timothy and other places such as Romans 16. These include men and women with responsibility to administer certain services or ministries. My understanding is that they never meet as a board as such. Some churches have a team of deacons that deal with specifics such as budgets, special projects or certain church departments. So you would do this in a wise and Spirit led way within your congregation.
C. Church Members
The third office that I would include would be that of member. We see this in Acts 2:42 where the people were devoted to the disciples and Jesus. As members of the church, we have the responsibility to engage in the ministry of our local church and to contribute our gifts, our vision, our opinions and our support and seek the unity and coherence of the ministry in order to do things effectively. There are responsibilities that come with being members of churches and I think people should become members of churches. Often membership is done in different ways and sometimes it is more official than at other times. Some churches let the individuals who attend take the responsibility to be members or not. Sometimes, membership is about having the ability to discipline a member, sadly to say. The point of membership is devoted to or committed to the fellowship.
You need to consider chapters like Acts 15 and others and consider these case studies comparing them to how your church is set up. In Acts 15 the circumcision party said that you had to be circumcised to be saved. We see this in Genesis and with Moses’ son and the other Hebrews. Paul and Barnabas are even arguing over this and they decide to return to Jerusalem and present this problem to the church, elders and the apostles, all of them. Believers of the party of Pharisees argued for circumcision quoting Genesis. After much discussion, Peter gave his ideas and ended up saying that the gentiles were saved by grace of the Lord Jesus and further developed New Covenant principles in his argument. James then had a turn defended the Word going forth to the gentiles citing Old Testament verses from Isaiah, Amos, Jeramiah, Daniel and Ezekiel. They are children of Abraham, not children of Moses as such, again stressing the now New Covenant that they were now under. So the whole assembly heard what was said. So we ended up with four different presentations: the Pharisees, Peter, Paul and Barnabas and James who spoke to the Apostles and Elders who are an authority that they recognized and also the whole church. This was not pure democracy as such. There were apostles, elders and even deacons and the congregation.
III. Holy Spirit Authority
Another interesting point is in verse 28, ‘for it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.’ In working together, the church has the authority of the Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit authority comes out of actions taken according to Biblical principles and Scripture.