New book examines church polity

Communications Staff — September 30, 2004

What is the most biblical way to structure church government?

That is the central question addressed in “Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity,” a new book edited by Chad Brand and R. Stanton Norman and published by Broadman & Holman, a division of LifeWay Christian Resources.

Brand serves as associate professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and Norman is associate professor of theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in New Orleans, La.

The book features five chapters written by five different scholars. Each chapter defends a different view of church government and ends with responses from the other four scholars.

No single view of church government should be considered an essential tenet of Christian orthodoxy, Brand and Norman write in the introduction. Yet developing a biblical perspective on church government is highly important for those seeking to minister effectively in the context of a local congregation, they write.

Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forrest, N.C., defends single elder-led congregational model of church government.

According to Akin, New Testament churches operated according to a congregational polity whereby ultimate human authority in the church was vested in the members themselves. Within the framework of congregationalism, God established the offices of elder (or pastor) and deacon in each church, Akin writes.

“Each and every member has equal rights and responsibilities,” he writes. “However, aspects of representative democracy are not ruled out. Certain persons may indeed be chosen by the body of believers to lead and serve in particular and specific ways. Those who are called to pastor the church immediately come to mind.”

Because the New Testament does not specify the number of elders required in a congregation, a church may have just one elder if only one man in the church meets the scriptural qualifications for the office, Akin writes. Even in cases where there is a plurality of elders, Scripture suggests the one elder should emerge as the “first among equals,” he writes.

Robert L. Reymond, professor of systematic theology at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., argues for a Presbyterian model of church government. Individual congregations should elect elders, Reymond writes. Those elders “are to rule and to oversee the congregation, not primarily in agreement with the will of the congregation but primarily in agreement with the revealed Word of God, in accordance with the authority delegated to them by Christ, the head of the church.”

Unlike the congregational model, Reymond argues that each local church is not an autonomous unit. Instead, the New Testament teaches that congregations should form a “connectional government of graded courts,” which exercises spiritual and moral oversight over individual congregations, he writes.

James Leo Garrett, distinguished professor of systematic theology emeritus at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, presents the democratic congregational model of church government. According to Garrett, final human authority in a church rests with the entire congregation when it gathers for decision-making.

“This means that decisions about membership, leadership, doctrine, worship, conduct, missions, finances, property, relationships, and the like are to be made by the gathered congregation except when such decisions have been delegated by the congregation to individual members or groups of members,” Garrett writes.

While congregationalism allows for pastoral leadership in local churches, congregations that adopt elder rule in some from move toward the “erosion or rejection” of congregational polity, Garrett argues.

Paul F. Zahl, dean of the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Ala., argues for the Episcopal model of church government. The New Testament does not mandate any one model of church government as essential for a biblically functioning congregation, he writes. Therefore, Christians must opt for a form of church government that most effectively contributes to the well-being of the church, Zahl argues.

Out of all the models of church government, the Episcopal model most effectively contributes to the well-being of the church because it “comprehends three schools of thought, Protestant, Catholic, and Liberal,” into one unified organization, Zahl writes.

Under the Episcopal model, churches are governed by a three-tiered leadership structure, Zahl says. Deacons are the first order of leaders and act as servants in local congregations. Presbyters or elders are the second order of leaders and act as overseers in local congregations. Bishops are the third order of leaders and oversee the activities of elders and congregations.

James R. White, adjunct professor of theology at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif. and president of Alpha and Omega Ministries, advocates a plural elder-led congregational model of church government. Like Akin, White argues that the ultimate human authority in a church rests in the gathered congregation and that the congregation should elect elders to lead the church.

Unlike Akin, however, White argues that the Bible calls for more than one elder in each congregation and does not elevate one elder as the “first among equals.” Elders may perform slightly different functions within the congregation according to their giftedness, he writes.

White concludes that all Christians must seek to discover the Bible’s standards for church polity if they hope to build up the body of Christ effectively.

“The issue (of church government) is an important one, despite the fact that it hardly appears on the ‘radar screen’ of the modern church. It truly reflects how much we really believe Jesus is Lord of his church and is concerned that it functions as he has commanded.”

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