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.

The Underlying Premise of Congregationalism

Recent years have seen an increase in discussions concerning polity. Historically, the leadership of any given church has taken on one of several forms: an episcopal church structure wherein the leadership of a given local church is overseen by a bishop or bishops outside the local church, a presbyterian form of church governance wherein the local church is governed by a number of elders who may also join other elders from other churches in the formation of a presbytery that oversees a number of churches, or autonomous congregationalism. Local church autonomy emphasizes that no board or leadership outside the bounds of the local congregation have any authority over the local church and congregationalism emphasizes that no leader or group of leaders from within the congregation have any authority over the members of the church body that is not derived from the local body itself.

Baptists have generally, almost univocally, advocated for autonomous congregationalism.

Discussions may be had (and in my view, need to be had) as to what this means, but unlike other denominations wherein the authority of the church exists outside the local congregation, Baptists have often emphasized that no earthly authority outside of the local church exists over the local church.

Instead, it is argued, the New Testament teaches that churches must be ruled by Jesus Christ, led by faithful elders, and served by godly deacons. (Note that my use of the term “elder” is synonymous with the pastoral office. I am merely attempting to use the language typified in the New Testament.)

In a congregational model of church governance, this means that the membership of the church seeks the will of Jesus Christ corporately and then, in light of his will, calls a pastor/pastors to lead them (in the ministry of the Word and prayer) and ordain deacons for service.

Recently, it struck me that the Baptist emphasis of autonomous congregationalism is inextricably linked to another point of distinction from other denominations.

Congregational church polity is built upon the foundation of regenerate church membership.

Think of it. If one were to believe that the membership of the church (in distinction to the attendance of a church service, which should be a mixed gathering) was comprised of both believers and unbelievers, it would be foolish to entrust the direction of the church to the congregation. How can those who do not know Christ know his will?

However, if one believes that the congregational membership is made up entirely of believers who know Christ and who seek his will, congregationalism is the logical conclusion.

Every born-again Christian has direct access to Christ. This is one of the emphases recovered by the Reformer, Martin Luther that has continued to be advocated by those in the Free Church movement. There are to be no intermediaries between believers and the “one mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5 CSB). All believers are part of the same holy and royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:5, 9).

Therefore, there is only one authority external to the local assembly of believers—Jesus Christ. He alone is there head. He alone rules the church. It is the responsibility of the congregation to discern his will and walk therein.

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