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On Church Polity
by Daniel Chew

The topic of church polity is definitely a practical one, albeit somewhat boring to the average modern Evangelical. Certainly, in terms of doctrinal importance, such a topic is typically not considered very important, as believing and practicing different church polities is not a salvation issue, nor is it on the surface a theological consistency issue. It is definitely less important than issues such as Monergism/Synergism, Calvinism/ Arminianism, or even the controversy over the so-called Common Grace view held by neo-Amyraldians which I have covered some time back. Furthermore, modern day Evangelicals, especially in Singapore, typically do not even think about the topic, just accepting whatever church polity which is practised by the churches in which they are saved in (or which they happen to 'be' in 'somehow'), and in fact even shifting to churches or denominations with different modes of church polities when the need arises. Modern evangelicals are more interested in finding places where they can serve God in, which by the way is DEFINITELY important. For those who read more of the Scriptures and earnestly desire to obey God, holding on to correct doctrine would definitely feature as one of the criteria upon which they would judge whether to join (or remain) in a particular church.

Now, someone may therefore ask me why I would address this particular topic. Doesn't the church have enough problems already? One does not have to be the Apostle Paul, or other of the apostles or early church fathers, to know that the Christian churches are in a total mess. Within Evangelicalism itself, we have all kinds of heretics undermining the faith, and numerous compromisers to aid them in their task. The Word-faith heresy, the Third Wave Neo-Apostolic movement, the Purpose Driven and Seeker Sensitive compromise and deception, the Emerging apostasy; all these are enough to give anyone a headache. And these threats are not somewhere far off, to be clinically dissected, coolly analyzed and discussed. No, these threats are close by and present among us. For example, numerous churches in Singapore have embraced the Purpose Driven paradigm and the Seeker Sensitive agenda. The charismatic fringe mainstream is moving in the Word-faith and the Neo-apostolic direction. With the churches in a mess, and few, if any, good churches in sight, one wonders whether we should even touch upon this topic. After all, if it is hard if not impossible to find a church that satisfies the criteria of pure orthodoxy, should we even bother about the polity that the church practices?

I would submit that the topic is important, although not manifestly so, and here are some of the reasons why:

First of all, even if due to various reasons, the only sound church one can find to attend is one which practices a church polity which is not biblical, it is not an exercise in futility to find out which church polity is the biblical one. If such were indeed the case for any individual, that person could slowly work towards reformation within the church that he is currently in. Of course, I am here assuming that the leadership are true shepherds and not hirelings who would chase away the 'troublers of Israel' and are just orthodox in order to keep the status quo. Such a church would, of necessity anyway, slowly drift away from the truth of God's Word, since a failure to abide in Christ would result in fruitlessness (Jn. 15:5-6) and then compromise and more compromise as church leaders panic due to their fruitlessness, resulting in the entrance of all the Seeker Sensitive and Purpose Driven methods to help their churches 'grow'. Anyway, if not impeded by the leadership, one could continue to stay in that sound church to work towards reformation of the church in its other aspects.

Secondly, the reason why this topic is important is its practicality. A church cannot say that it does not care about the topic, because by default of its need to be functional as a church body, it MUST have a certain way of leadership which is dictated by the church polity adopted by the church. Definitely, churches, especially new churches set up by young denomination-independent leaders, will face this problem. Of course, churches can always just blunder their way through this and adopt whatever polity they can first think of, of which some churches do so. However, is this the correct method of deciding how to govern a church? By just adopting whatever method you know, and then having the possibility of having mid-course correction because the previously adopted polity doesn't work? Of course not! It is definitely unbiblical, and no one wants to make such a blunder in business anyway.

Thirdly, church polities, like political systems of countries, have their own strengths and weaknesses which affects the living of Christians within the various systems, their ministry opportunities, effectiveness, and definitely their role and status within the church. Certain church polities would be easier to be exploited by wolves in sheep's skin, and others may be harder for that to happen but then could be rendered ineffective by the younger lambs who may be easily led astray. Since such is the case, which church polity we embrace is important.

Lastly, and most importantly of all, the reason why this topic is important is because God is important; because His Word is important, and that He desires that we glorify Him in whatever we do (1 Cor. 10:31). As the Church is the Bride of Christ, we are to strive to reform her continually into what her bridegroom desires her to be, and that definitely includes Church Polity. God is definitely interested in how the Church is ruled, a fact upon which a cursory look at the pastoral Epistles of 1 Tim., 2 Tim. and Titus would clearly reveal.

So how is the Church to be governed? Does God prefer prelacy, presbyterianism, congregationalism, or something else? To that, let us look at the various polities and examine them in the light of Scripture.

Introduction to main types of church polity

Church polities that are practiced throughout Christendom today can be roughly split into four camps: Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Single elder/Pastor-led. Of course, there are other models, which are mainly a combination of either of the four. For example, the church polity model embraced by Dr. James R. White, Plural elder-led congregationalism, is a fusion of both Presbyterian and Congregationalist concepts[1].

The Episcopal church polity is embraced by denominations such as the Methodists, Anglicans, some Lutherans, and heretical groups such as Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The basic teaching of Episcopal church polity, or Prelacy, is the idea of having a hierarchy of clergyman. Thus, such churches have several ranks of offices such as deacons, archdeacons, bishops, archbishops, etc., all of which are structured in an hierarchy. For example, the archbishop would have a higher rank than a bishop, and thus more authority than and over him. Each office would thus have its own 'job specification and scope' and its own sphere of authority, which is different from the others.

The Presbyterian church polity is typically embraced by denominations such as the Presbyterian and Reformed denominations. Basically, the Presbyterian church polity posits only two to three offices in the church; that of Deacons, Elders, and for some, Pastors. Within the offices of Elders, some have created a distinction between teaching Elders and ruling Elders, of which the former teaches, while the latter rules the church, and some overlap may be possible, depending on which variation of Presbyterian church polity is adopted by each particular church or denomination.

As for the Congregational church polity, it is embraced mainly by the Brethren, Congregationalists, and some Baptists. As its name suggest, such a polity have most of the authority in the church and the decision-making power in the congregation of that church. Decisions are typically made through democratic voting, and the only offices present in such a church is mainly to facilitate the process. Elders and deacons and pastors in such churches may be present, mainly for functional purposes, but they have no power and authority at all to make any decisions; all must be referred back to the congregation.

The last church polity to be introduced is the single-elder/pastor-led polity, or the one-man-show church polity. This is the church polity adopted by most independent churches, especially modern mega-churches, most charismatic and most baptist churches. Authority resides with the resident/founding/senior pastor or apostle, who governs his own church almost infallibly. Such churches may have an elder board and other offices present, but these people only have authority inasmuch as their choices and decisions agree with what the senior pastor wants or have no objections to.

Now, with all the major church polities being introduced, let us see what the Bible has to say about the polity of a church.

The first point to note is that the biblical polity of a church must be found within Scripture. Some people may desire to look at church history as a validation of their particular church polity, but that is the wrong direction to look at. Granted, if a particular church polity is prevalent within church history, that would lend some weight to the claims of that polity being biblical. However, since part of church history, and the earliest and most authoritative part of it, can be found in the Scriptures in the book of Acts, Scripture still trumps church history as being authoritative. Furthermore, if one wants to talk about church history, although the Episcopal polity seems to be prevalent, it is not present within the first few centuries of the church. Even when it became more prevalent, the Bishops within the churches are all equal, as they did not submit to any higher ecclesiastical authority like Archbishops or Popes until later on. Moreover, there are other groups present at that time like the Donatists, which followed a more congregational church polity, who were thriving until the hoardes of Islam wiped them out.

With this settled therefore, let us look to the biblical data.

In the book of Acts, we can see the first mention of any type of church polity, which can be found in Acts 6:1-6, whereby the Apostles delegated authority to seven qualified men to serve the brethren while they themselves concentrated on ministering the Word of God. In Acts 14:23, we read of Paul and Barnabas appointing elders in every church. In Acts 15:2,4 & 6, we read that the Jerusalem churches have elders in them, who are altogether a separate group of people from the Apostles. Turning to the pastoral epistles, we read of the offices of elders and deacons (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9). The office of bishop or overseer, as mentioned in 1 Tim. 3:1-7, upon further examination from Scripture has been shown to be the same office as that of an elder (Tits 1:5-7; Acts 20:17,28), with the name difference being mainly to emphasize the duties of the elders in the churches.

As we look at these data, one thing that should strike us is the near absence of many of the offices found within churches and groups that have adopted the Episcopalian church polity. Nowhere are the terms archbishop, archdeacon, pope, patriarch etc mentioned in the Bible, and the idea of the office of bishop being separate from that of an elder is foreign to Scripture. Prelacy has thus been found to be deficient scripturally. Furthermore, by having so many layers of hierarchy, Prelacy tends to accentuate the clergy/laity divide, instead of removing it altogether, as Scripture dictates (1 Peter 2:9).

Scripture therefore seems to indicate two offices that are to be found within the Church. In order to discern more regarding the nature of these offices and exact number of them, let us look more closely into these and other passages of Scripture.

Since Scripture seems to indicate only two offices, let us look at each of the offices in detail.

The office of the elder

The office of the elder is first stated in Scripture in Acts 14:23, whereby we read that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church. From this passage, we can see that every church has elders (plural) in them, which thus show that nowhere in Scripture is the single elder/pastor-led church polity ever mentioned. This concept of the plurality of elders is thus the biblical norm, and practically it benefits the church as there should be less of a tendency to elevate any single person to a higher status than allowed by Scripture. This is opposed to the idea of a single elder/pastor-led church, where whatever the only elder or the pastor says is near infallible, as unless the elder or pastor is himself humble enough to receive criticism and evaluate his teachings according to Scripture, nobody has the formal authority to rebuke him.

We shall next look into the functions and roles of the elders. The elders or overseers/bishops were seen to preside over the first and only infallible Council of the Church, together with the apostles, in Jerusalem (Acts 15: 1-32) in deciding over a doctrinal dispute. From this, we can see that it is the job of the elders in discussing and presiding over a doctrinal dispute, and handling down a decision over the matter. More on this issue later.

In the pastoral epistles, we are told that elders are to above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money, must manage his household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, not a recent convert, well thought of by outsiders (1 Tim. 3:3-7), not quick-tempered, upright, holy, disciplined, holding firm to the trustworthy word as taught, able to give instruction in sound doctrine and to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:6-9).

The list of qualifications for elders can be hereby separated into two categories; their personal conduct and their aptitude for the office, as follows:

Above reproach Able to teach
Husband of one wife Not a recent convert
Sober-minded Holding firm to the trustworthy word as taught
Self-controlled Able to give sound instruction in sound doctrine
Respectable Able to rebuke those who contradict it
Not a drunkard
Not violent but gentle
Not quarrelsome
Not a lover of money
Must manage his household well
Well thought of by outsiders
Not quick-tempered

As it can be seen, the qualifications which fall under the conduct category can be summed up in the observation that these people are constantly living a life in submission to Christ, being filled with the Spirit. A person who loves Christ and desires to obey Him in every way he can would naturally possess these qualities in ever-increasing manner, proving his Christian faith by bearing fruits in accordance with it (Mt. 7:16-20); the fruit of the Spirit would become evident in his life (Gal. 5:22-24). In other words, this list of qualifications is not meant to function as a proponent of moralism, as a judge of whether the person is moral or not. It is definitely not meant to function just as a list of criteria that you tick off in evaluating whether someone is 'fit for the job'; as a 'minimum requirement list' for elders, but rather to know that such a person is mature enough spiritually for the job and would not dishonor Christ on the job by his behavior and conduct.

I would like to just mention a bit more on two of these qualifications: the qualification that he must manage his household well, and that of being well-thought of by outsiders. The qualification that an elder must manage his household well is evident in the fact that his children are submissive (1 Tim. 3:4), believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination (Titus 1:6), and the rationale behind that given by Scripture is that if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church (1 Tim. 3:5). Practically speaking, what that means is that an elder must be passionate enough about God that he will teach his children about God and discipline his children, such that his children will grow up to embrace the faith and be obedient to Christ in their personal walk with Him too. However, someone may well ask, what about the free will of the children? What if the children decide of their own free will to reject Christ? This shows a lack of understanding of the Covenant of Grace towards the children of believers. Also, if the father really loves Christ, that would be seen by the children in his life and his conduct. Even if they rebel, the father should be constantly praying for them to turn to Christ, and God may well reward his perseverance in prayer, for ultimately salvation belongs to God (Rev. 7:10), and if God wants the person to be an elder, would he not be able to convert his children also? Is the arm of God too small to accomplish this?

The children of elders must not be open to the charge of debauchery and insubordination. What that means is that the children must be living lives holy and pleasing to God. No one should be able to say that they saw or heard the child of an elder committing various sensual and sexual sins, and that charge be found to be indeed true. It reflects badly on the Church and on her leaders when the children of leaders behave like the world and adopt its practices and sensual pleasures. As we shall see later, this criteria also applies to deacons, and obviously deacons who do not fulfil this criteria do not glorify God in their conduct.

The next qualification of elders of being well-thought of by outsiders basically means that no charge of immorality or wickedness can be validly leveled at them by anyone; similar to the qualification of being above reproach, except that this qualification emphasizes that even hostile witnesses cannot find fault with them. This obviously does not mean that outsiders necessarily love them; as we know that the world would hate us because we follow Christ (Jn. 15:18-20). In fact, sometimes if we are well-thought of by outsiders in the area of being loved by them, it may not be a good thing. For example, if we are loved by the world because we refuse to preach the Gospel to them; because we are so 'loving' that we refuse to put forth the exclusivity of the Christian faith, then obviously we are not obeying Christ. For elders, they would have violated the qualification of being holy. Although they seem to be well and truly 'well thought of by outsiders', they are actually well and truly disqualified from holding the office of an elder.

Next, we would look to the aptitude of an elder. An elder must not be a recent convert, the reason being that he might be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil (1 Tim. 3:6). What this means is that a recent convert is not spiritually mature enough to handle the power and authority that comes as part of the job scope and would thus abuse it. As Christians, we slowly learn of the biblical concept of servant leadership (Mk. 9:35), of our inability to do right (Rom. 7:14-25) and thus of our total dependence upon God (Rom. 7:24-25). Only upon one who submits to Christ would God be able to use him mightily for his glory.

The other aptitudes has to do with doctrines. As the elders are tasked to lead the church, and in fact are the successors to the Apostles (without infallibility though) in their roles within the Church, this is not surprising. We have seen earlier on that the elders of Jerusalem took part in the Jerusalem council, and that Paul appoint elders in every church they planted. The elders are also called overseers or bishops because they have been tasked with tending to the flock of God; to care for them. In Acts 20:28-31, we can see the Apostle Paul instructing the Ephesian elders to take care of the flock which God has given to them, and protect them from the wolves. All of this has to do with doctrines, since doctrines delineate who God is and how we can come to be saved and how we can know Him, and consequently false doctrines promoted by false teachers are analogous to poison by wolves who seek to devour the spiritual lives of the sheep. The Bible is abundantly clear that false doctrine = false Christ or Gospel, which will lead to damnation (Acts 20:30; 2 Cor. 11:3-4; Gal. 1:6-9; 1 Tim. 4:1-3; 6: 3-10; 2 Tim. 3:1-8, Jude). Thus, an elder has been tasked to hold firm to the sound doctrine as taught by the apostles, to be able to teach, to give instruction in sound doctrine, and to rebuke those who contradict sound doctrine, in order that he might fulfil his role as an overseer.

An elder must hold firm to sound doctrine. An elder must be someone who knows his doctrines well and is able to defend it, not looking lost whenever a doctrinal controversy erupts, or worse still, being unable to differentiate orthodoxy from heresy. The contemporary craze over preferring and appointing successful and especially business people to be elders is notably absent in Paul's description of what an elder's aptitude must consist of. Instead of knowing how to successfully manage a company, which will be translated into proper 'efficient management' of the church, the apostle Paul is more concerned that an elder must be able to contribute to the doctrinal health of a church. Any elder who cannot do so is not fit to be an elder, scripturally speaking, which certainly disqualifies quite a lot of people in contemporary, anti-intellectual Evangelicalism from that role.

An elder must be able to teach. Closely related to that is that he must be able to give sound instruction in sound doctrine. Elders who cannot preach and teach obviously was not something that the apostle Paul had in mind when he penned the pastoral epistles. Furthermore, if elders are to tend to the flock, how can they not be able to feed the flock with the spiritual food of Scripture? A shepherd who doesn't feed his flock would be negligent, what more spiritual shepherds who don't feed the flock of Christ?

The last aptitude mentioned is not something which modern effeminate Evangelicalism has the stomach to accept. An elder must be able to rebuke those who contradict sound doctrine. He DOES NOT have the liberty to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude to the issue. As false doctrine has the potential to destroy the spiritual lives of the flock, he of necessity must rebuke false teaching, unpopular though it may be. A shepherd would be very cruel towards his flock if he allows the wolves to go in and devour them, but yet why it is that our spiritual shepherds do not seem to see anything wrong with allowing false teaching into the church? Why is it that they do not rebuke false teaching and false teachers? Do these leaders love the wolves more than the sheep? Modern Evangelicalism current pre-occupation with 'unity' has allowed the wolves into the flock, and the leaders of the church are in fact showing their hatred of the flock when they do so.

Leaving these passages, let us look at another passage, 1 Tim. 5:17. The passage says that elders are to rule well, and double honor is to be given to those who labor in preaching and teaching. I have already commented on this passage before, and I would be applying some of the points I have made later, but suffice it is to say that a surface look at the passage shows that elders are to rule the church. What the concept of ruling refers to is that elder are to be in charge of the church's spiritual direction and overall thrust, and that not by lording it over the flock like Diotrephes (3 Jn. 9). They are to provide pastoral care, not leaving that to the pastor only. Such pastoral care is in the form of visitation, praying for the flock, counseling the flock, admonishing the flock, encouraging the flock etc. In fact, what are pastors but full-time elders, in the biblical sense of the word? The office of pastor is never mentioned at all in the Scriptures. Yes, it is mentioned in Eph. 4:11, but that is meant to describe the various functions the ministers of God function within the Church, not on the offices of the church. After all, do we have an office of the Evangelist, the Prophet, or do we call teachers an office within the church? Or do we want to follow the Charismatics in promoting the 'five office view', which is unbiblical? (Briefly, the reason why they are not offices is because they are not spoken as such by the Scriptures. We are not told to select apostles, prophets or evangelists and install them as such but rather that people function in such a manner.)

As I have mentioned before in my exposition of 1 Tim. 5:17, elders rule and teach within the church, and thus there is no clear distinction between 'ruling elders' and 'teaching elders', contra classic Presbyterianism. The 3-office view is definitely erroneous, as there is no office of Pastor stated in Scripture, nor are the 'ruling elders' and the 'teaching elders' totally separate offices. In fact, they are almost identical, but for the fact that the word 'especially' shows that some elders may not be as proficient at teaching as others, therefore this view is not a 2-office view, but rather a π-1 (2.14159...) office view. As an aside, a glance at Phil 1:1 would show that Paul only regarded two offices in the church, that of overseers or elders and that of deacons.

We would next look at the office of the deacon, before looking at the interactions between the two offices.

The office of the deacon

The office of the deacon, unlike that of the elder, is less mentioned in the Scriptures. The concept of a deacon was first mentioned in Acts 6:1-6 whereby seven men are chosen to take care of evenly distributing the alms among the brethren. We can thus see from this that the deacons are mainly in charge of the more practical business of the church, while the apostles and the elders are more in charge of the spiritual business of the church.

With such being the case, we can see from the pastoral epistle in 1 Tim. 3:8-13 the qualifications of a deacon. Deacons are to be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain, holding fast the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience, tested and found blameless, having wives who are dignified, not slanderous but sober-minded, faithful in all things, husband of one wife, managing their children and their households well. As we can see, most of the qualifications have to do with the conduct of the deacon, which is also rather similar to that of the elder. Like elders, deacons are to be the husband of one wife and to manage their households well, not having children who are given over to sensuality. A notable difference is the emphasis in the deacon's qualifications on issues of honesty and integrity. Deacons are not to be double-tongued, not greedy for dishonest gain, tested and found blameless, faithful in all things, which are all traits associated with issues of integrity and honesty. Clearly, this does not suggest that deacons are more honest than elders, as elders are to be upright and holy (Titus 1:8), but to emphasize the qualifications which are important for the office of deacons. Since deacons would be dealing with practical issues like the distribution of alms which involve money, such traits are emphasized.

With regards to aptitude, it is noted that deacons are not told to be able to teach, which shows that deacons do not have to able to preach sermons and tend to the flock's spiritual needs, although they could do so, as in the case of Steven in Acts 7:1-53. Rather, their primary focus is on the practical needs of the church. Nevertheless, deacons are told to hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience (1 Tim. 3:9) which shows that deacons must also know enough doctrine that they would be able to defend the faith. Practically speaking, it means that they could serve in the church without having reservations about the church's orthodoxy, and thus do so unreservedly.

One question that may crop up is regarding whether there is an office of a deaconess, or a women deacon. Certainly, since deacons do not preach, they are not subjected to the prohibition stated in 1 Tim. 2:12. Furthermore, Rom. 16:1 seems to indicate that Phoebe was a deaconess in the church at Cenchreae. However, we know from Scripture that deacons are to be the husband of one wife, thus Rom. 16:1 must indicate that Phoebe was ministering in the same way as that of deacons, rather than she was actually holding an office of a deaconess, especially since the Greek word translated deacon, diakonos (διακονος), can also refer to 'a minister' generically in other contexts.

Practically speaking, in what manner do deacons serve in the church then? Deacons, being tasked mainly with the practical needs of the church, are to meet those needs. Thus, deacons would serve in areas such as the collection of tithes, distribution of alms, dealing with the church's finances, church building fund, and other items like the maintenance of church property and assets etc.

Interactions between elders and deacons

Having thus established the various roles and functions, and number of the offices as established by Scripture, let us look at the interactions between the two offices with respect to their practical outworking.

As stated, elders are to care for the spiritual well-being of the flock while deacons meet the practical needs of the flock. In areas such as providing for a member who is having trouble financially and spiritually, there would be an overlap of the ministry of the elders and the deacons. However, generally speaking, the two offices are separate from each other. In Acts 6:2, the apostles remarked that it was not wise for them to give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. This was made not to demean the ministry of the deacons, but to show a clear demarcation between the two offices. Elders, following the apostles, are to focused exclusively on the spiritual well-being of the flock, rather than the practical, material needs in the church, which is the domain of the deacons' ministry. Elders are NOT to do the work of the deacons, nor deacons the work of the elders! However, this is not the case in many churches in Singapore, and perhaps even around the world. From what I have seen, judging by the work they do, elders seem to be just senior deacons. These elders do the finances of the church, they are basically doing the job of deacons, except that they are more respected and are higher in status. In such a system, it is no wonder that people want to be elders, since it has become a symbol of prestige. This occurred in my former church so I know what it is like, and I wouldn't be surprised that such is the case in many churches.

Let's be clear about this. The Scriptures do not support the transformation of elders into senior deacons in any shape reformed. Elders are elders; deacons are deacons. If they keep to their specific ministry roles according to Scripture, that would solve a lot of the problems plaguing the church today. Elitism would be much less. Furthermore, since elders do not have access to the church's finances, and more spiritual responsibilities, businessmen would be less inclined to desire to be an elder. Elders would be respected not because of their seniority in years of service, but because of their good work in tending to the flock and in instructing them in sound doctrine. Furthermore, since that is 'all' the elders do, churches would be 'forced' to grow deeper in the Word, since otherwise the elders are not doing anything and there wouldn't be a need for them anymore. Instead of spending time to discuss the practical problems of the church, the elders should spend their time teaching and discussing doctrinal issues. Deacons are after all NOT second-class elders, and they are tasked with an important and vital task in the churches which only they should be in charge of. Elders should not therefore exercise oversight over the diaconate in every meeting they have, as if the deacons are serving under the elders positionally, but the two boards (Session and Diaconate) should be separate and independent and elders only exercise oversight over the deacons in the area of doctrine, as they do over the entire congregation. Other than that, the finances, church building fund etc should be revealed only at the AGM (Annual General meeting) of each church, whereby all the congregation would then know of the exact details.

With the number, roles, functions, responsibilities and the interactions between the offices of the Church settled according to Scripture, let us look more closely into the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, and then evaluate the various church polities that we still have not analyzed according to the Scriptures.

The Jerusalem Council

In Acts 15, the one and only council ever to be recorded in the Scriptures, and the only infallible one at that, being presided over by the Apostles and recorded in Scripture, convened in Jerusalem. The issue being decided then was whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised after they became Christians (v. 1). This was due to the Jewish roots of Christianity, and because of the continuity between OT Judaism ad Christianity. As God seemed to be doing a new thing in broadening the church to be global in scope, many Jewish believers, especially those who came from more religious and Pharasiatical backgrounds, were concerned as to how Gentile believers should be incorporated into the Church. Were they supposed to observe the Mosaic Law, just as believers during the OT times did? If the Law was still valid, shouldn't the new Gentile converts be circumcised as well, as a mark of entry into the Covenant?

It is in such a transition period that the Jerusalem Council took place. In this Council, the Apostles and elders present convened, heard the case (v. 5-7a) and then declared the position that Gentiles believers should not be tied down with obeying the Mosaic Law but to obey the Lord according to their conscience being led by the Holy Spirit, with some general observances for them to keep in order not to stumble their Jewish brethren (v. 19-21). Such a ruling was sent out to the churches involved in the controversy (v. 22-29) and became binding on them (although in this case it was gladly received by the churches, since it ruled in their favor).

Now, it has been said, often by Baptists, that the Jerusalem Council is not a Council in the sense of it deciding doctrine, but of Paul deciding whether the Church in Jerusalem was still following the faith. This of course is contradicted by the text of Scripture. Furthermore, if such was indeed the case, then why was it said that the church in Syrian Antioch send and appoint men to 'the apostles and elders about this question' (v. 2), instead of Paul personally going there himself to see whether the circumcision party were 'official representatives of the Jerusalem Church'? Why was Paul sent with regards to the question posed by the circumcision party instead of being sent with regards to whether the party had official sanction from Jerusalem? After those of the circumcision made their point to the Council (v. 5), why was there much discussion and debate over the points they have raised (v. 6-7a) instead of the Apostles and Elders of the Jerusalem Church just immediately mentioning to Paul that such is not their position and these people were not official representatives of the Jerusalem Church?

The fact of the matter is that the Jerusalem Council was indeed a Council which met for the purposes of deciding on doctrines. The position that this was not a council which met for the purposes of determining doctrine is clearly a reading into Scripture of a certain church polity rather than of letting the text speak for itself.

Now, it may be granted that Paul was indeed worried whether the Jerusalem Church was still orthodox. Certainly, Paul, being himself an Apostle called personally by our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:5), preached with the authority that comes with his status and office, and he certainly have no qualms rebuking a fellow Apostle who compromise the faith (Gal. 2:11-14). However, that does not have any bearing about why the council convened in the first place.

Councils where doctrines are decided therefore has a biblical precedent. However, are they still valid for us today?

To answer this question, we must first note that the Jerusalem Council is the only council ever presided over by the Apostles, who were given the gift of apostleship to pronounce the very Word of God. Thus, the Apostles could pronounce doctrines 'ex cathedra', in that sense. Therefore, whereby the Council of Jerusalem decide on doctrines, no other Councils since then could do so, since there are no more Apostles then and now. In other words, the Jerusalem Council is unique in Church history, and will never be repeated again.

Nevertheless, since the elders are the successors to the Apostles, and they were present at the Jerusalem Council too, could Councils still be convened and their rulings made binding on believers? To a limited extent, they can. However, since elders are not infallible, nor could they pronounce on issues infallibly, their rulings are only binding on believers inasmuch as they are biblical. We shall hereby note that even the Apostles pronounced truth in accordance with Scripture, as they quote from the texts of the Old Testament (v. 16-18), and therefore for us who do not have the gift of apostleship among us today, all pronouncements of Councils must be made from the Scriptures; that they conform to the truths of Scripture and not just proof-text from it.

We can look though Church history to see both the use and abuse of Councils. Councils have been good and well used in the church as they have helped to keep out heresy (e.g Council of Nicea, Council of Chalcedon) and preserve the purity of the Church. However, Councils, being guided by fallible Man, can and do err, as groups of clergy have pronounced error which may be in direct opposition to the truths of Scripture. An example of such an errant Council would be the Council of Trent, which formalized the separation of Roman Catholicism from biblical Christianity.

With that said, what can that be said of operational councils in the form of classis, synods etc.? Are such higher level institutions scriptural? Certainly, there seems to be a biblical precedent in the Jerusalem Council. However, does the Scriptures support such an application of Acts 15?

It is my opinion that such is not the case. Councils, whether biblically or historically, were convened only when necessary, never to be an permanent organization which serves only to glue congregations together. They were only convened when doctrinal controversies erupted in the churches, and such churches then met together in order to discuss the doctrines involved in the controversy. Certainly, synods which convene together for the planning of 'Presbyterian Sports Day' or 'Combined Easter celebration' or 'Synod Sunday' (just to make them feel relevant, I guess) are not scriptural (and these concrete examples did in fact happen, because I was in a Presbyterian church before). Presbyterianism in this particular area has been found to be lacking in Scriptural support., and in fact these higher-level organizations most of the time end up as just 'so much red-tape' (Bureaucracy)

Analysis of the remaining church polities

We have already disqualified Episcopalian and Single elder/pastor-led church polities as being contrary to Scripture. Presbyterianism has been found to be lacking in its emphasis on Councils and Synods and other higher-leve assemblies. Let us now look at the remaining church polities.

Congregationalism places a huge emphasis on the priesthood of believers, by giving each member of the church a 'voting right'. However, is that what the Bible teaches? In certain congregationalist churches, like Brethren churches, the offices of elders and deacons do exist. Of course, it may be granted that some of these office bearers do not function biblically, but that is a separate issue, as plural elder-led congregationalism does exist. The main issue in contention with congregationalism is whether every member should have a 'voting right'. Is that how the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers should be applied?

Certainly, there is much merit to the idea, as elitism tends to be minimalized in such a situation. However, the problem lies in the fact that leaders in both the Old and New Testament do not seem to be picked by democratic voting. In fact, sometimes they are not someone who would naturally be chosen by the majority. Joshua was personally handpicked by Moses, and only later accepted by the people. David was not even one of the choices given to the prophet Samuel initially to choose from. And who chose the Apostles? Certainly not the church! Paul and Barnabas appoint elders in every church they planted, which certainly does not mention anything about the voice of the congregation.

It can be said that in the case of the seven deacons (Acts 6:1-6), the deacons were chosen by the people and then the apostles accepted them. However, the most we can legitimately infer from this passage is that the deacons are to be selected by the people of God. No mention of elders are made in Scripture with regards to the same procedure, however.

Within congregationalism itself, the democratic congregationalist system works in such a way that even doctrinal issues are decided by the congregation itself. This, however, contradicts the Scriptures, as elders are commanded to teach and to rebuke those who err (Titus 1:10-15), without being told anywhere in Scripture to leave it to the congregation to decide on doctrinal issues or on the implementation of church discipline.

In conclusion, various church polities have been looked at and examined according to Scripture. The number of offices, their functions, roles and responsibilities have also been discussed and looked at. With this, it is hoped that all of us would meditate on the Word of God regarding this issue so as to work towards the purity of the churches.


[1] Brand & Norman, ed., 2004, Perspectives on Church Government: Five views of Church Polity, B & H Publishing Group