the weblog of Alan Knox

Church Polity – The Problem

Posted by on Oct 19, 2010 in elders, office | 11 comments

Church Polity – The Problem

This post continues 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 previous post, “Scriptural Evidence,” I said that there was no direct scriptural evidence explaining how the church made decisions.) In this post, I was to point out a major problem with all three type of church polity.

What is that major problem? Selected and limited exegesis. In the case of each of the three types of church polity (episcopal, presbyterian, or congregational), support is demonstrated in certain scriptural passages, while other passages are ignored or explained away.

Furthermore, fact that believers never exercise authority over other believers in Scripture is completely ignored. Also, Scripture never shows some believers making decisions for other believers. The functioning of bishops, elders, pastors, leaders, evangelists, prophets, deacons, leaders, etc. are never shown to include decision-making or the exercise of authority. All of this (yes, evidence from silence… but very silent in the face of many decision that must be made by churches in the NT) must be ignored to support either episcopal or presbyterian governments. Similarly, the fact that we never see churches voting in Scripture must be ignored by those who support congregational polity.

Like I said, churches in the New Testament are faced with many problems – theological, ethical, social, moral, etc. Yet, in spite of this, no authors spell out the type of “government” the church should have in order to solve these problems. None. Not Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Not Paul. Not even Peter. Neither James nor Jude tell us what type of polity the church should have.

So far, in order to support any type of church polity, we must ignore the fact that there is no direct evidence, ignore passages that indicate indirectly other forms of church polity, and ignore the fact that polity is not important in any of the writings of the New Testament.

But, there is one more thing that we must ignore exegetically. We must ignore what Scripture says about all believers; things like the fact that all believers are indwelled by the Holy Spirit or all believers have the mind of Christ. We must ignore the fact that believers are to submit to one another. (I would assume this includes leaders? Even bishops? Even the presbyters?) We must ignore that believers are to consider others (and the opinions and desires of others) as more important than themselves. (I would assume this would include the majority versus the minority.)

How do we combine all of these things and still come to a conclusion on church polity? How can we have leaders without decision making? How can we have unity when we disagree? Where do we go from here? Don’t we need a polity or governance? Won’t everything fall apart if we don’t have a system in place?


Church Polity Series


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

  1. 10-19-2010

    Thanks you for the work you are doing on this series.

  2. 10-19-2010

    This is a very good series. I agree with you totally, yet I find myself confused by the dichotomy of mutual submission. Believers are to submit to one another, and believers are to consider others (and the opinions and desires of others) as more important than themselves……but if everyone is submitting to the other, how do we ever come up with a decision? I’ve never seen this played out practically…

  3. 10-19-2010


    Thanks for reading and commenting. 🙂


    Stay tuned for my next two posts…

    But, for now, what kinds of decisions do you think it would be difficult to make if everyone was submitting to one another? Can you think of any examples?


  4. 10-19-2010

    Hmmmm….I can’t really think of a specific situation, but any situation that has opposing sides either needs a mediator or a compromise from the other side, right? or is there truly another way? And if both sides are to consider the other side over themselves, don’t you end up with no answer at all (it kind of reminds me of the converstations Jeff and I have when trying to figure out where we’re going to go out to eat: “You pick, honey.” “Oh no, you pick. Let’s go where you want to go.” “Well I want to go wherever you want to go…” 🙂 )

  5. 10-19-2010

    Alan wrote:
    ‘So far, in order to support any type of church polity, we must ignore the fact that there is no direct evidence, ignore passages that indicate indirectly other forms of church polity, and ignore the fact that polity is not important in any of the writings of the New Testament’.

    I’m not quite sure if you mean this Alan, or are just throwing out questions here, as you progress towards some sort of synthesis/solution in a future post. But I would argue that all (or at least two) of those three mini-statements are incorrect (or, alternatively, that two of the questions are to answered in the negative).

    (a) there is direct evidence of lots of things relating to church government in the NT – to say there is no direct evidence is an unhelpful exaggeration,
    (b) we ignore evidence – this is the statement that I think is true, at least in relation to many people. However, the problem is that some people start off with our categories(presby, episcy, congy), whereas the NT picture of church government does not fit easily into our three categories. Like EVERY other doctrine, church government is multi-faceted & there are truths that must be kept in tension. The solution is more nuanced than our categories.
    (c) church polity is not important – but if the NT says anything about it (and it does), what we are then saying is that the NT is not important. We deny the NT’s authority if we argue that what it says on any subject is not important.

    So, I would disagree with points (a) and (c)

  6. 10-19-2010


    Thanks for considering my questions. So, do you and Jeff just sit and argue, or are you able to reach a mutual decision?


    If you read my previous post, you’ll see that when I talk about “direct evidence” in the NT, I’m talking about the NT authors telling us exactly how decisions were made by the churches. In the same way, I say that polity was not important to the authors because they do not spell out what that polity was. Yes, there are hints and glimpses in some of the stories, but the authors do not directly tell us.


  7. 10-19-2010

    Forgive me if I spill out my ideas on a ‘more nuanced’ version of government than the three standard options. (By the way, I would argue that to define church polity as simply ‘decision-making’ is restrictive and unhelpful).

    The NT seems to say plenty about about elders/overseers/shepherds/leaders within the church. So, the NT DOES say something about about church government structures. Heberws 13:17 says Christians should ‘obey’ them, so they are neither irrelevant titles or honorary titles, with no authority.

    On the other hand, the NT also delegates to the congregation (not to the eldership) to power to discipline sinning members (1 Cor. 5), the responsibility to ‘send out’ missionaries (acts 15:40), the right to choose suitable people to handle the church’s (i.e. the congregation’s) money (Acts 6). Of course, the whole idea of baptising ‘democracy’ with some sort of Biblical legitimacy is devoid of any solid support, and just makes church fights all the more spectacular. Congregational harmony and unity is the biblical pattern (i.e. consensus).

    Also, while the whole idea of apostolic succession is taken too far by episcopalians, yet nevertheless, (a) the Lord called disciples to follow him, trained and prepared them for service, (b) Paul called other younger men to work alongside himself in an apprenticeship system, and (c) Timothy is told to commit the truth to faithful men (2 Tim. 2:2). The whole ‘mentoring’ process is essential to ensuring the continuation of the truth and the furtherance of the work of God.

    My question is this, if we can believe in other truths-in-tension like the transcendence and immanence of God, the Divine-human nature of SCripture, the Divine-Human natures of Christ, why then cannot we accept that God has ordained in the church that there is a dynamic tension between elders, the congregation, and the raising up of future leaders? A system of checks and balances, perhaps.

    Maybe this analogy is not perfect, but I have lived long enough to see elders abusing their authority, congregations without proper leadership (=chaos) and a lack of training and mentoring of future leaders. These problems result from an inadequate appreciation of the richness of what the NT says on the subject of church government (and of course, from our blinkered traditionalism).

    I’m still learning (and open to learn more), but the more I do, the more I love the sufficiency of the Scriptures.

  8. 10-19-2010

    Hi Andrew,

    I’ll jump in with what I’ve been learning lately.

    “The NT seems to say plenty about about elders/overseers/shepherds/leaders”

    The NT does use these words. But I’m learning nobody used these labels to refer to themselves (exception elder – John calls himself an elder – but he may have been just calling himself an old man).

    Nobody in the NT called themselves Pastor. Nobody called themselves a leader in the NT church. Nobody called themselves an overseer.

    If someone was using those labels back then, I think Jesus would have added them to the list in Matthew 23:8-12.

    Maybe the terms were more characteristics that all believers should strive for, and some will be more gifted at than others.

    We should all be loving. But I haven’t heard any church position called ‘the lover’.

    My 2 cents.

    God bless!

  9. 10-19-2010

    … oops forgot shepherd.

    Someone does call himself the good shepherd….

  10. 10-19-2010


    Thanks again for the comment. I really do appreciate the interaction.

    I’m associating “polity” with “decision-making” because that’s typically how the different type of polity play out.

    Yes, Scripture talks of elders/overseers/pastors/deacons/apostles/leaders… where does Scripture tell us how these fit into some type of structure along with the remainder of the church or how these people work within the church while making decisions or exercising authority? It seems, instead, as your examples point out, these mature believers worked more in the realm of discipleship (especially 2 Timothy 2:2) or service (Acts 6) than polity.


    I’ve enjoyed your discussion of those issues. I think that many of the translations of “elder” in our English NT should probably be “older men/people.” I’m still studying through many of the passages though.


  11. 10-20-2010


    Ultimately a decision is made but it’s usually not a thoughtful one. Whoever is driving will just make the decision by default if you know what I mean. Sometimes the choices are similar and we can come to a good compromise (i.e. I want steaks; he wants burgers, so we go toa place that sells both)…but there are times when the choices are polar opposite (i.e. I want Asian; he wants Italian).

    In those times when each party is on polar opposite sides of a decision, how does each party mutually submit to the other?