Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Chruch Polity by Daniel Akin (Broadman & Holman Publishers) presents in counterpoint form the basic models of church government which have developed over the course of church history with a view toward determining which is most faithful to Scripture. Each chapter is written by a prominent person from within each tradition—with specific guidelines dealing with the biblical, historical, and theological issues within each governance tradition. In addition, each writer provides a brief response to the other traditions.
Excerpt: Following the insights of other theologians, I have adopted a threefold scheme for the categorization of valid doctrines.' These categories are: "dogma," "doctrine," and "belief." The category "dogma" encompasses those tenets that make us "Christian." "Dogma" consists of concepts that are absolutely nonnegotiable for the Christian faith. To deny a tenet within the "dogma" category would be to deny a tenet of orthodox Christianity. Students typically and rightfully place such concepts as the Trinity and the per-son and work of Jesus Christ in this grouping. The second category, "doctrine," includes those concepts that shape our understanding of the nature and ministry of the church. Differences of under-standing for concepts within this classification would not necessarily constitute a denial of the Christian faith, but differing perspectives on concepts within "doctrine" would determine differences in denominational identity, nature of ministry, and such. My students (primarily Southern Baptists) typically place beliefs such as a regenerate church membership, believer's baptism, or a memorial view of the Lord's Supper in this category. The final category, "belief," encompasses those ideas that are important but can be matters of difference of opinion. Concepts within the "belief" category are matters on which Christians can "agree to disagree" without disruption or breach of fellowship. Differences of theological understanding for tenets within the "belief" grouping neither constitute a denial of the Christian faith nor separation into differing denominations or churches. Students often place within this third category eschatological concepts such as the sequence of events and the timing of the second coming of Christ.
The previous examples of categorization are relatively easy for most introductory-level theology students. Some theological concepts, however, pose more of a challenge for categorization. Among the more debated beliefs among my students is church polity. Some students say that the manner in which a church functions and organizes itself is a matter of opinion; thus, polity should be relegated to the category of "belief." Other students are more adamant that church polity should be classified within the second category of "doctrine" (no student ever argues that polity should be categorized as "dogma").
In a real sense, the exercise of doctrinal categorization reveals the questions at the heart of this book. What is church polityl and how important is it? Are discussions of polity really that necessary? In great measure, the manner in which one defines church polity will typically shape the level of importance and necessity attached to this doctrine.
If church polity is important (and all the contributors to this volume believe such, although they disagree about the level of importance), then what exactly is this concept? Each contributor will define his particular understanding of polity in his essay. For introductory purposes, however, polity can generally be defined as "the organization or governmental structure of a local church or fellowship of churches," or as "a form of church government adopted by an ecclesiastical body." As these two definitions illustrate, most general understandings of polity involve governance and organization. In other words, church polity is typically conceived as the way in which a local church or a group of churches organize and administrate themselves.
The early church in the Book of Acts provides ample evidence for understanding polity as organization. Early disciples kept a record of the number of their members (2:41; 4:4); they gathered together at set times and places for public worship and prayer meetings (2:42, 47), and they practiced the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper (2:41–42, 46). The "breaking of bread" seemed to follow some organized pattern (2:42). They shared property (2:45; 4:32–37) and received and accounted offerings (4:32, 36–37; 5:1–11). They even enlisted and organized deacons for the care of the poor and neglected widows among them (6:1–7).
The meetings of the early church also reflect organization. Believers were commanded to meet together regularly (Heb. 10:25). The disciples set aside the first day of the week for this purpose, a practice that began almost immediately after the resurrection of Christ (John 20:19, 26). Paul instructed the Corinthian believers to receive an offering on the first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:2), and he ministered to the believers at Troas "on the first day of the week," when the believers had gathered together "to break bread" (Acts 20:7).
Organization within the early church is also evident in the concern for orderliness in all aspects of church life. Paul instructed the Corinthians that all things in the church were to be done "properly and in an orderly manner" (1 Cor. 14:40 NASB), suggesting that all activities of the church were to be conducted with symmetry and arrangement. The orderliness prescribed is that which results from discipline and structure. Thus, Paul commands orderliness from Christ's followers (Col. 2:5) and rebukes lack of discipline and structure (1 Thess. 5:14; 2 Thess. 3:6–7).
Ecclesiastic organization can be found in other practices of the New Testament church. Letters of recommendation were often sent from one church to another in which the letter bearer was commended to the church of destination (Acts 18:24–28; 2 Cor. 3:1; Philem. 9–12). Ordered processes for the giving and receiving of such letters surely were followed. Collections were often solicited and sent from one church to another in the name of the giving church (Rom. 15:24; 1 Cor. 16:1–2; 2 Cor. 8:6–9:5). Official lists were kept of those who`needed care or assistance from the church
(1 Tim. 5:9). Certain customs or observances seem to evidence uniform patterns of practice and organization (1 Cor. 11:16).
Polity today, as well as in New Testament churches, is in part the organization of a group of believers in definitive, prescribed patterns. Ecclesiastic organization ideally brings symmetry, harmony, and discipline within the membership of the church. Further, this organization also defines the corporate relationship of Christians to those persons outside the membership of the church.
The organizational conformity of a group of believers to certain structural patterns reflects the belief that Christians should submit themselves in distinct, prescribed ways to the will of Christ. As will be seen in the essays that follow, convictions differ not only on the nature of the structure of the organization but also on the specificity of the explicit will of Christ on this subject. Nevertheless, all major forms of church polity posit in some form the notion that the rule of Christ should be manifested through the organizational structure of a church.
The issue of governance is most visibly seen in the lordship of Christ. The church exists by and under his lordship. He builds the church and calls it "my church" (Matt. 16:18). Christ claims all authority for himself, both in "heaven and on earth" (Matt. 28:18), and he commissions the church to make disciples in all the world in light of his authority (Matt. 28:19-20). Further, Christ instructs the church that its task is to observe all that he has instructed. His lordship is further evidenced in that he appoints those who are to minister within the church and gives gifts for ministry to the church (Eph. 4:7, 11; 1 Cor. 12:5-6).
The governance of the church is also manifested in the quest of believers`to conform their ministries and relationships to the teachings of the Bible. The will of Christ as Lord is expressed in the inspired Scriptures. Before leaving his disciples, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit, who would act in his behalf to convey his will to them (John 16:12-14). The written Word of God is thus the very word of the resurrected Christ. As such, Jesus provides instruction and direction directly to his church through the inspired, apostolic witness. Christ thus directly and clearly through the Spirit's illuminating work manifests his lordship as he speaks to his church through Scripture. Polity, it is argued, becomes one means of implementing the governance of Christ's lordship within a body of believers.
Polity thus becomes a means of manifesting the lordship of Christ within his people. As the church functions and ministers in Christ's name, it attempts to do so in submission to his presence (vis-à-vis the Holy Spirit) and his written Word. The structure of its ministries, the nature and function of its officers, and the relation-ships of its membership both within and without the fellowship are considered expressions of Christ's governance over and among his people. As the church corporately submits herself to the lordship of Christ, the process, expression, and structure of her submission can be designated church polity.
Church polity is thus the manner in which a church or denomination practices organization and governance. Because these two principles permeate all areas of church life, polity has profound implications for understanding the nature of the church and its various functions and ministries.
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