A New Church Polity?

When we look at the majority church in our day and compare that to how the Bible describes the church, we see two organisms that seem to be completely different. This is true even with regard to the polity (governing structure) of the church. In the 19th and 20th centuries, there has been a drastic change in the governing structure of the local church. The most drastic change prior to the 19th century was during the Protestant Reformation. Before the Reformation, the most drastic change was the development of the Roman Catholic system as a state-church. The system prior to the Roman system was that of the apostles and patristics. Though this is a very simplified history, not dealing with the diversity of the organized church at any given time, it helps us to realize that the polity of the organized church has not been consistent and has changed over time. The organized New Testament church has teetered between some form of elder plurality and some form of top-down polity. The newest form of church government is a sort-of bottom-up system in which pastors are rendered incapable of actually leading. As I write this, we are experiencing a revival of elder plurality as part of what I am referring to as the neo-reformation. There are different types of elder plurality and have been over the centuries. We are seeing a revival of elder plurality over and against the top-down and the bottom-up church polity of the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, there has never been an attempt at any sort of bottom-up form of church government prior to the 19th century so far as I can discern.

Elder plurality is not a new trend, though. Historically (before the Roman system and after the Reformation), almost every local church was led (not ruled) by elders. As we read in Elders of the Church, bottom-up polity really began in the protestant church as a result of men like Isaac Backus responding to the British Colonialism of the late 18th Century. The church polity they developed relied less on Biblical instruction than it did on the idea of American democracy. Backus, in particular, would place a single pastor in the church and all decisions were made by a democratic vote of the church (29-31). It was new. This is how modern-day congregationalism started: not in response to the Bible, but in response to colonialism. I am not yet saying whether or not or to what degree congregationalism is consistent with Biblical teaching. What I am stating is that the church looked more American than Christian, more concerned with the will of the people than with the will of God as described in Scripture.

This is the context in which we begin our new leadership study, following the outline of Elders in the Church by Phil A. Newton and Matt Schmucker. Subscribe to this blog to follow this study as we consider the biblical view of elder plurality and consider exactly what this type of polity means in light of Scripture and for the good of the congregation and community.

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