the weblog of Alan Knox

Church Polity – Moving Forward

Posted by on Oct 20, 2010 in community, elders, office | 31 comments

Church Polity – Moving Forward

This is the seventh post my series on church polity. (See my posts “Introduction,” “Episcopal,” “Presbyterian,” and “Congregational” for introductions to the three major types of church polity. Then, in my post, “Scriptural Evidence,” I said that there was no direct scriptural evidence explaining how the church made decisions, and in my post “The Problem,” I suggest that the main problem is limited exegesis and ignoring some data when it comes to decision making in the NT.) In this post, I’m going to suggest a way to move forward.

First, I want to point out that as a follower of Jesus Christ, I should be able to live, fellowship, and work a church who follows either of the three major types of church polity. Why? Because I (and you) should be willing to submit to others (including those who think they should have authority because of their position and including those who vote with a majority for their own decision).

There is one caveat though. If God is calling someone in a certain direction, and the church (either leader(s) or majority) decide against it, the individual must follow God. Certainly, the person should carefully consider the desires of the group. There may be wisdom in their decision. However, there are times when leader(s) or majority can choose against the will of God for an individual.

As an example, I know a few people (2 couples, actually) who desired to serve in their neighborhood. They asked their church leaders for support (prayer, encouragement, etc.). The leaders refused. The two couples spent some time deciding if they still thought this was God’s desire for them. They decided it was, so they continued, asking others for support.

However, there is another way (besides episcopal, presbyterian, or congregational polity) that churches can make decisions. As far as I can tell, this way takes into account all of the scriptural information.

A church can choose to wait until they all agree before making a decision. When there is disagreement, they can continue to pray, discuss, listen, and wait until they can all agree on the decision.

Usually, this option is not considered because it is impractical for most churches.

But, as far as I can tell, it allows the mature brothers and sisters (leaders) to take part in the decision making process, even speaking (as James did in Acts 15) and offering their “judgment.” It also takes into account the necessity – yes, necessity – of the church seeking the will of God together and seeking unity and agreement. It allows any within the church to submit to others, perhaps even choosing to “champion” the opinion of another brother or sister (even if their opinion would be different).

Finally, and most importantly, it helps the church think seriously about which decisions are really important and which decisions are not important. From what I can tell, most decisions that churches make (and argue about, and split over, and get hurt feelings because of) are decisions that don’t actually have to be made, or decisions in which either option would be equally important (or unimportant) in kingdom priorities.

I hope you (my readers) choose to interact with this option. It is not easy, and it is often impractical (in an organizational sense). What do you think? Why would it not work? Why would it work?

(In the final post of this series, I’m going to share a few experiences of waiting for unity and agreement before making a decision.)


Church Polity Series


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 10-20-2010

    I think waiting for all to agree is the best way. However, I don’t see that working in churches that choose to operate in an organizational/business model structure because it’s just not practical. It seems like waiting has become toxic in our “get it now” age. Our culture lives in a state of urgency for everything.

  2. 10-20-2010


    Speaking from experience,of congregational, presbyterian and consensus styles of church government, I can confidently assert that consensus decision making is, hands down,the best. In the first two of the above mentioned, I have seen the lack of maturity shown by individuals who want their own way (“I know it’s God’s will”),and don’t get it, as well as the resulting disharmony, in the congregational model, including a split over the color of curtains.

    In both the congregational model, and that where elders make the decisions, terrible, and costly, mistakes have been made because of individuals, and groups,pushing something through, and demanding an immediate decision.

    I read an account where of a medium sized church, which practiced consensus decision making,having one person dissenting, meeting after meeting, for a period of 10 months. The congregation continually urged the person to change their mind and go with the flow.

    During the tenth month consensus was reached, but, at the same time, it was discovered that had the group reached consensus, when it wanted to, it would have had serious negative repercussions. They, as a mature congregation, graciously thanked the one dissenter for their stand, and willingness to wait for the Lord’s lead on the matter..

  3. 10-20-2010

    Consensus is often defined as something like “when all can agree to go along, even they aren’t in full agreement” etc. So, I’m thinking you are talking about something more than consensus–unity.

    This would take an expectation of both an active God and a responsive people, as well as requiring that we dismiss substantial obervations and experiences of the extant of rebellion and wickedness among church-folk at all levels.

    But, how winsome and hopeful this way of being together seems.

    Esteeming others better and mutual submission, being a servant, loving others–these surely will all become more evidently required.

    I would think it also very helpful if there was considerable liberty to follow God’s leading to serve within and without the fellowship without first obtaining “permission.” That “control” was replaced with encouragement and OJT opportunities.

    I’m also guessing we would find it more important to confront open sin when it continues and the person remains unresponsive to help and counsel–“church discipline”–if all are going to find the mind of the Lord together?

  4. 10-20-2010

    I fully agree with the consensus approach.

    However, there is one possible scripture, sometimes used to defend voting (in 2 Cor. 2:6 – ‘the punishment inflicted on him by the majority’) that also needs to be considered. In the case of congregational discipline, I don’t think it would be unusual for the sinning party to disagree with his or her discipline (otherwise, if they had just left, they would not need to be disciplined). How is consensus to be acheived in this situation? Is this another angle from which a preference for consensus needs to be modified?

  5. 10-20-2010

    This concept reminds me of a story about leadership and community:

    I was just starting, my first day, and I wore a very nice dark blue wool suit, bright white shirt and red (always red) tie. The well dressed woman opened the door to my new office, and the room was huge. Three walls of windows with shears and curtains. Large cherry desk in the center of the room on a carpet just larger than the desk, fireplace crackling with its glow reflecting on a polished wooden floor. The woman was very deferential, but looked into my eyes like a child when she spoke, with no hesitation or awkwardness.

    I was my usual over-achieving, hard charging, make-my-mark, climb the ladder self, and couldn’t wait to begin. My position was junior level (which is why the office shocked me), but I knew I could climb to the top. I had the drive.

    After bringing me coffee and two large strawberries, she informed me there was a staff meeting in ten minutes. Sipping coffee, I pulled out my leather bound record book, felt for my meierstruck nib pen, and put myself in that “power” frame of mind.

    When I entered the room (always one minute early, never more or less) it was full with everyone seated and talking quietly. As I closed the door behind me everyone rose, and politely introduced themselves. I was given the prime seat (which for years has not been the “head” chair at the end of the table, but the center seat along the width of the table). Most eyes were on me as an agenda was handed out, and I was given a moment to review and make any changes or additions I thought important.

    During that meeting and throughout the day my opinion was sought. If I tried to speak everyone hushed and gave me the floor immediately. People hung on every word. I felt and saw in every nuance and motion the inordinately high esteem with which I was treated. As to their ranks, apart from me being apparently the “top dog,” it seemed they were all at the same rank. I mean, no one seemed to dominate discussion or decisions (except for me). No one demonstrated their power over everyone else by telling some personal story about their weekend or their childhood out of place, pushing into the spaces and times for official things.

    I was so ready to climb, to achieve, to demonstrate my skill, leadership qualities, creativity, insights. But as it was, it was all handed to me, and I never needed to do any of the thousands of things it takes to push and pull and claw your way to prominence. It was so disarming. I began to defer to others. I stopped proclaiming and more started asking questions, wondering out loud. I began trying to understand what others points of view were. I didn’t need to prove anything here, and so I found myself free. I was always inclined to use my power (which they seemed to recognize in me), but since none of them ever demonstrated those tendencies, it felt very awkward. It is easy to dominate someone trying to dominate you right back, fun even! I love the chess match of power play. But, it just wasn’t…fun here. It wasn’t necessary.

    I learned later that not everyone was the right match here. Some folks just didn’t work out somehow, never fit in. They found them a high position elsewhere easily, since there was great demand for folks from this firm who couldn’t fit here.

    A month later, a few of us were talking about a new person starting. One of the folks said, I have a really great office, she can have mine. I heard myself saying, “No, mine’s even nicer. Please, let’s give her mine, if that’s alright…”

  6. 10-20-2010


    In the context of the Body of Christ, unity and consensus are one and the same. The one is necessary for the other!

  7. 10-21-2010

    Thanks for the comments and interaction everyone.

    I have a question for you all… What if there comes a point when it seems that a decision has to be made, but there is no unity on the decision (or consensus if you prefer that term)?


  8. 10-21-2010


    Hmmmmm…that’s a hard question. I think it depends on the circumstance. I think either the church would have to wait for a consensus, or aybe at that point the church would trust the elders to make the decision for them. When a church acknowledges/selects elders, there has to be a certain level of trust and respect there that would allow them to follow their lead in a situation like this.

  9. 10-21-2010


    To answer your question: We never came to that place of impasse, but had decided that should such a situation arise, we would wait, no matter how long it took, for clarity on the matter.

  10. 10-21-2010


    I’m assuming that the elders are part of the decision making process to begin with. That is, they have already expressed their views and opinions on the available options.

    Aussie John,

    As far as I can remember, we’ve never reached that point either.


  11. 3-22-2011


  12. 3-22-2011


    Thanks for the kind words.


  13. 5-3-2012

    WOW! How did you know I read that exact chapter in “Re imagining Church” by Frank Viola just last night?! brilliant! and yes I do agree. If that had taken place I would still be in the church I was. I had to leave because my husband and I knew the decision wasn’t right so we wouldn’t vote for it. They all told us we had no faith!!!!

  14. 1-15-2013

    I have loved reading all these posts on church governance. I think it is refreshing and a very academic piece. My one thought would be: If we wait until the decision is unanimous, then we must ignore all the times that the New Testament church did not wait for unanimity but forged forward with a decision made by a microcosmic group, i.e., elders.

  15. 1-15-2013


    I appreciate your feedback and I’m glad that you enjoyed this series. You said, “If we wait until the decision is unanimous, then we must ignore all the times that the New Testament church did not wait for unanimity but forged forward with a decision made by a microcosmic group, i.e., elders.” Can you share with us some passages in the NT that describe elders making a decision without the church?


  16. 1-15-2013

    I think one example is in Acts 15. The reason the issue of circumcision was taken to the elders was because the church was unable to have unity in their decision/opinions.

  17. 1-15-2013

    I have heard this comment concerning church governance, “the church is a family and in our family the mature ones make the decisions.” I think that fits the church model well.

  18. 1-15-2013


    Is this the passage you’re referring to? “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.” (Acts 15:27 ESV) It looks like “the whole church” was part of the decision making in Acts 15. I agree that the apostles and elders (and probably others who spoke but are not mentioned) were heavily influential in coming to this decision, but the decision itself was still agreed on by “the whole church.”

    I can’t find any instance or instruction in Scripture where elders (or others) make decisions for the church.


  19. 1-15-2013

    No, that is not the scripture, this would be the one: Acts 15:2 “When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.” If the church culture was functioning with the understanding that a unanimous decision must be made by us… not sure the church at Antioch would have faired so well. But the text seems to indicate that the entire Antiochial region was functioning with and understanding that tough ( I know that is vague, LOL) decisions were made by leaders in Jerusalem. Also, verse 6 of Acts 15 clearly states who was present to make the decision “apostles and elders.” We are missing any verbiage that would suggest the elders/apostle indicating, “we need to wait and get a unanimous opinion from the entire body before we move on this.” Furthermore, there is no indication that the church at Antioch had any say so in the matter. Based on the letter sent, Paul and Barnabas were not going back to Antioch to get a consensus, they were delivering a decry.

  20. 1-15-2013


    I’m enjoying this discussion. Thank you! The decision concerning Gentiles/salvation had already been made. (See Acts 11:1-18, especially vs. 17-18, where the believers recognized that God was saving Gentiles apart from circumcision.)

    So, the problem in Acts 15 was based on people who were teaching salvation only with circumcision and who claimed they were sent to teach that by the church in Jerusalem. So Paul, Barnabas, and others went to Jerusalem to determine if this was in fact what they were teaching. It turns out this is NOT what they were teaching, and the letter confirms it.

    By the way, the letter in Acts 15:23-29 begins by affirming that this was the problem (i.e., people claiming to come from the church in Jerusalem but teaching contrary to salvation by grace). Also, the letter does not mention any decision based on circumcision – which is not necessary since the decision had already been made long before. Instead, the letter only instructs the Gentiles how to live in such a way as to not disrupt their fellowship with their Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ.

    There was, in fact, no “church decision” made in this passage. Instead, the believers in Jerusalem confirmed that they were not teaching that circumcision was necessary for salvation.

    Do you know of any other passages in which elders make decisions for the whole church? Or do you know a passage or passages in which elders are instructed to make decisions for the whole church?


  21. 1-23-2013

    Sorry, just now getting back to the post. Thanks for hanging with me in the discussion. Several questions:
    1. I agree that the understanding that Gentiles could experience salvation was chpt. 11, however, I think that were solving the method… must the gentiles become Jews to be saved? The text seems to indicate this : “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” Further proof is that Peter recounts his experience in chpt. 11 that the gentiles were saved just like us, without the yoke that neither them nor their ancestors could follow. However this particular question is not pertinent to the issue at hand.
    2. I did not see the text indicating that the false teachers in Antioch claimed the church at Jerusalem is teaching this doctrine. Not one time is that ever mentioned. The fact that verse “24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said,” does not seem to provide evidence of this claim. No where in the discussion does anyone claim or state anything about these false teachers saying, “we taught this..” Furthermore, in their answer, they simply list what the people should do, that make no mention of refuting a claim that “we were teaching this.” Which, if the text does not support your theory, then your whole reason for Paul and Barnabas going to Jerusalem is flawed, because, they then are not going “to determine if this was in fact what they were teaching,” but they are going to get answers to the problem that exists at Antioch. Please specifically notice verse 2 “about this question.” What question? Not what was being taught in Jerusalem,, but, do we have to be circumcised to follow Christ?

  22. 1-23-2013

    one more thought, haha, notice verse 6 again restates, “consider this question.” Nowhere in the discussion is a hint of questing about what they had been teaching, they were discerning if in fact Gentiles had to be jews first. Peter’s input is such strong proof of this… he indicates how God saved the Gentiles who were not proselytes. Again, the question being discussed is not what they were teaching, but what were they going to teach.

  23. 1-23-2013


    I appreciate the input. Acts 15:1 indicates that these false teacher (who are called “believers” by the Luke, by the way) came to Antioch from Judea. The response in the letter (beginning in Acts 15:24) shows us that:

    1) The false teachers were claiming to representing the teaching of the church in Jerusalem.
    2) It was this teaching that was troubling the Gentile churches.
    3) But in fact, they did not represent the teaching of the church in Jerusalem.

    I think Peter’s recounting of the events in Acts 10 was a reminder of what they were teaching and why.

    Of course, there are different understandings of this passage. Many do see Acts 15 as the first “church council” that sets a precedent for future councils to make rules of doctrine and practice. I don’t see it that way, though.


  24. 1-23-2013

    Help me understand how they were “claiming to represent teaching of the church in Jerusalem.” The text does not say, “They were teaching, unless you follow the teaching in Jerusalem that…” I don’t think Paul and Barnabas were asking what they taught, they did not even recount what they taught, they recounted what God had done. When Paul and Barnabas share, they tell what God had done not what they were teaching. In verse 19- does not sound like a person who is reiterating what has been taught, this is a new edict for the church in Antioch and even Jerusalem…

    ok, moving beyond this… I still think if the church culture had been… “lets get unity…” the decision making process would have looked different.
    How do you think the decision making process might have looked if the goal was to get congregational unity first?

  25. 1-23-2013


    I’m not sure how to answer you, since I think there was consensus among “the whole church.” While the apostles, elders, and others worked through a solution, they did not make the decision for the church, but presented it to the church. The whole church then agreed with what they presented. Not a majority, but the whole church. A consensus.

    Paul wrote to several churches who had major problems. However, he never told the leaders to take care of those problems for the church. Instead, he wrote that the whole church should work together to deal with the issues.


  26. 1-23-2013

    nice answer.. not sure I see James’ words, “It is my Judgement (decision)” as presenting something to the church for ratification. To me, Acts 6, is more of a decision/choice presented back to the church for acceptance.
    As far as Paul writing to churches to “work together to deal with the issues.” Can you provide some examples of this??

  27. 1-23-2013


    1 and 2 Thessalonians are good examples, since we know from 1 Thessalonians 5 there were leaders among the church there. Galatians would be another good example, since we know that Paul and Barnabas appointed/recognized elders while traveling back through that region and before that letter was written.


  28. 1-24-2013

    ok, do you think examples exist of Paul giving instructions where seemingly he was the authority at that local church??

  29. 1-24-2013


    I believe that Paul – just like anyone and everyone else – spoke and acted with authority whenever he spoke/acted in accordance with God’s will. Paul’s authority did not rest in him personally or in his gifting as an apostles or even in his relationships with any particular person or church. Interestingly, the verbs for “exercise authority” are used often in the New Testament, but they’re never used positively in the context of the relationships between brothers and sisters in Christ – not even in the case of elders or apostles.


  30. 1-24-2013

    So with our gifting does not come authority? Hmmm….any authority in a volunteer setting is (in the words of John Maxwell) influence. I think we must admit that the word “pastor” carries a degree of influence with it. Even though the group I am affiliated with does not exercise ecclesiastical authority over the individual churches, I think Paul did with some of the NT churches simple because the verbiage doesn’t seem passive, text is imperative. Do we really think all the words for example in ! Cor 16:1 “Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do.”
    The greek tense is imperative. Thoughts on the many texts like this?

  31. 1-24-2013


    No, I don’t think spiritual gifting includes any kind of authority. Yes, I understand that we have associated certain spiritual gifts and certain titles (such as “pastor”) with authority, but I don’t see that in Scripture. In fact, I think Peter instructed elders not to exercise authority over others. Yes, there are many imperatives in Scripture. Of course, no one thinks we have to obey every imperative in Scripture today. For example, “Take a little wine for your stomach.” How do we decide which imperatives to obey and which not to obey? The way you answer that question will reveal the real source of authority.