Church Polity vs. Church Politics

I was listening to a podcast several weeks ago and a pastor was providing a number of solid ideas on leading a church through change. That’s something that many pastors have been faced with and no doubt the episode was well-received by their listeners. I found myself identifying with the pastor, appreciating his wisdom, and taking away some ideas.

But at some point in the podcast, I began to grow uneasy. He was providing helpful ideas for leading a church through change, but all of his wisdom boiled down to church politics. He had thought about his flock and which members were influential in the congregation and determined that he would approach them first. He presented his ideas to them (which he believes were given him by God), asked for their support, and asked them to visibly and vocally lend him their influence—to publicly demonstrate their support of him as their pastor and the vision that the Lord had laid on his heart. That way, the people who were influenced by these influential people would follow their lead and he would be free to lead the church in the manner he felt necessary.

It took a little time, but I soon realized why I was struggling so much to accept what he was saying: whatever this was, it wasn’t biblical congregationalism.

This was good church politics, but bad church polity.

At the core of congregational church polity is the belief that every member of the church is to search the heart of God for the will of God and, in submission to God, seeks the benefit of the house of God.

So, in the case of a pastor seeking to lead the church through change, his initial steps are good. Seek the Lord. Seek his counsel and wisdom. Discern where you would have the Lord lead.

But rather than taking that information, appealing to influencers, and asking them to multi-level-market your congregation toward your vision, he should have led the church through an extended time of prayer and in that context, led the congregation to discern the will of God corporately.

Congregational church polity is not a democracy; there should be no voting blocks or caucuses. Each member of the church is not called to vote his/her preference or desire. Rather, they are called to seek the face of God and follow his leadership.

No politics should be necessary. If the Lord of the church is Lord of the people, it would behoove pastors to trust him with the hearts and minds of the people. (If the pastor is concerned that the congregation is filled with unbelievers, the issue goes well beyond leading the church to change.)

Is this the easiest manner by which to lead change? No. Clearly. But does it conform more to the manner in which the New Testament would have us lead? I believe it does.

When Jesus told his disciples how to handle an erring brother in Matthew 18, in the event that the brother in sin refused the correction of two or three witnesses, he didn’t command them to tell the influencers. He invests his authority in the church. “And if he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like a Gentile and a tax collector to you” (Matt 18:17).

When Paul discovered that the church in Corinth was tolerating a man living in an adulterous relationship, he didn’t urge the influencers of the church to have a long, hard conversation with him. He urges the church to take action. “When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus, and I am with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, hand that one over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:4–5).

If the congregation has been invested with such authority—that whenever two or three are gathered, Christ is there in their midst (Matt 18:20)—wisdom demands that we avoid the temptation to usurp that authority by following the most shrewd political practices. Instead, we should trust God’s plan and rely on the polity given us in the New Testament.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

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