So far in the series, I have introduced the three primary types of church polity. (See my posts “Introduction,” “Episcopal,” “Presbyterian,” and “Congregational.”) In this post, I’m going to investigate some of the scriptural evidence concerning church polity.
As a reminder, church polity refers both to the structure and the decision-making responsibility of the church. The primary differences in the three main forms of church governance relate to who has final authority: either one person (episcopal), a group of leaders (presbyterian), or the majority of the congregation (congregational).
When it comes to church decision making in Scripture, some point to Old Testament texts such as Jethro’s advice to Moses in Exodus 18:17-23. Others refer to the prophets, priests, or kings of ancient Israel.
In the Gospels, several statements of Jesus are often consulted concerning polity and decision-making, such as Matthew 20:25-28 (or Mark 10:42-46 or Luke 22:25-27) and Matthew 23:8-12.
However, the primary evidence for decision-making in the church comes from Acts and the Epistles. For example, in Acts 1:15-26, Luke tells the story of choosing Matthias to take Judas’ place. We are told that they “threw lots” to decide between Matthia and Joseph/Barsabbas/Justus. However, we are not told who among the 120 (Acts 1:15) “put forward” those two men.
In Acts 6:1-6, the church has to make another decision. This time, they have to decide who will take care of food distribution among the Greek widows. The church (or some of them?) bring the problem to the apostles, but the apostles give the problem back to the church to solve. The church (somehow) chooses seven men to distribute food for the widows. However, again, we are not told how these particular men were chosen.
In Acts 15:1-22, Luke tells about the meeting in Jerusalem. The key verse, which is used by proponents of each of the three forms of church polity, is Acts 15:22 –
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. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers… (Acts 15:22 ESV)
Those who support an episcopal form of polity point out that the church was simply following James’ “judgment.” Those who support a presbyterian form of polity point out the role of “the apostles and the elders.” Those who support congregational polity point out that “the whole church” approved the decision. Again, we not specifically told how this decision was made.
Other scriptural evidence is similar to the three examples above. We are not told precisely how Paul and Barnabas “appointed” elder in Acts 14:23. We do not know what process was used to decide whether or not to “deliver… to Satan” the man who was sleeping with his step-mother (1 Corinthians 5:1-5) or what process was used to decide whether or not to receive him back into fellowship with the church (2 Corinthians 2:6-8).
We are not told specifically how Titus was to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5)Â – by himself, with others? In fact, even with the discussion of elders/bishops/overseers/deacons/leaders/etc., we are never told how these people relate to the decision-making activities of the church. (For examples, see Acts 20:28-35, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, 1 Peter 5:1-3, among other passages.)
In fact, there is very little direct evidence in Scripture explaining how the church made decisions.
Church Polity Series
- Scriptural Evidence
- The Problem
- Moving Forward
- From Experience