Church Polity: Is the Form Vital or Just Important?

Recently, my wife and I vacationed in the Colorado Mountains. Colorado is our home state. While having breakfast on an outdoor patio, watching a deer scamper up a flower-covered slope nearby, we also noticed a man take a seat at a large table near us. He placed a basket of Bibles in front of him as more adults and children joined him. The group finally was composed of three couples plus some children. We could easily overhear their conversation which centered on Ephesians 2. It became apparent this was a regular meeting at the same time in the same place on Sunday morning, and they were studying Scripture. Was this, then, a church? Did they have a pastor? Did they have a constituted membership? Were they able to exercise church discipline in any sense of the idea? Or any of the other ministries a church should have?

These questions all came to mind since I had already read most of the book, Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity [1], of which this article constitutes a review. The subject is not a peripheral area even though most would probably agree it is not a fundamental in the historic sense. Church polity does matter, as evidenced by the SI article, The Integrated Church Movement: Viable Church Polity or False Teaching? posted on July 12, 2006.

Church polity has everything to do with the nature of the local assembly, how ministry is conducted, and how churches relate to one another. But now to the book.

While this book is published by Broadman and Holman, Zondervan has several titles in the same genre addressing subjects such as sanctification, law and the gospel, salvation, hell, etc. The format allows various writers to advocate a particular position, then responses follow from the other authors. The result is a great deal of information in one place pertaining to the disjunctive views without having to read in other publications. The conclusions reached vary, yet all writers claim a biblical and historical basis. The writing is lively and easily read.

The five authors writing in this volume (and their positions) are the following:

  • Daniel Akin, President and Professor of Preaching and Theology, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Southern Baptist), Wake Forest, North Carolina. Akin presents the Single Elder-led Congregational model.
  • James Leo Garrett, Jr., Professor of Theology Emeritus, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Southern Baptist), Forth Worth, Texas. Garrett advocates a Democratic Congregational model.
  • Robert L. Reymond, Professor of Systematic Theology, Knox Theological Seminary (the chancellor is D. James Kennedy), Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Reymond holds three degrees from BJU, including a Ph.D. Reymond promotes the Presbyterian model.
  • James R. White, President of Alpha and Omega Ministries, an apologetic and theological organization. He is an elder in the Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church. White argues for a Plural Elder-led Congregational model.
  • Paul Zahl, President and Dean of Trinity Episcopal School of Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania. Zahl believes the Episcopal (Anglican) format is to be preferred.

The affiliations of these men are mentioned to more readily understand (or question) why they advocate the positions they do. Due to the length of the book, this article will only review the chapter by Daniel Akin since it is probably the predominant position of most SI readers. Some overall comments are in order first. All of the writers offered cogent, well-reasoned arguments supporting their respective views with an occasional “jump over the chasm” reasoning without crossing the bridge. With the exception of White, all are academics so the documentation is complete, sometimes even overly so. In the responses, the tone was mostly irenic, usually complementing the other on the thoroughness of writing while disagreeing on the eventual conclusion. It was refreshing to see men differing without being difficult.

All of the articles include a scriptural basis for the position–interesting in light of the eventual conclusions. Can the Bible teach five divergent views of the same concept? With the exception of Reymond (p. 138), the others admitted to a great deal of latitude in understanding what the Bible says about how a church should be constituted. Zahl even goes as far as saying he could argue any of the positions from a biblical basis, but he lands where he does because he believes it is the strongest (p. 212).

In presenting the single-elder concept, Akin admits the Bible is not a precise manual on church government. From a biblical perspective, conclusions are reached from an amalgam of Scriptures plus inferred concepts from observable patterns (p. 26). He begins with a survey of 10 passages or individual verses that speak to the matter, always coming to the conclusion that congregationalism is evident.

After the biblical data is surveyed, theological considerations are examined. Of several offered, I will only mention two. Akin maintains the New Testament letters were written to churches, thus implying they were the ultimate “authority” with congregationalism best expressing that. While his point is well taken, he also says, “In fact, not one letter is addressed to a bishop, elder, a group of elders, or the deacons” (p. 33). What about 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus? Missing this does seem to weaken his argument somewhat.

Rightly so, however, he makes a great deal of the priesthood of the believer as it relates to congregational polity. Properly understood, this Baptist distinctive does not mean the individual church member should not submit to pastoral authority, nor does it ignore individual gifts. It does mean there is individual responsibility to engage in church ministry and to serve the other “priests” (p. 37). Each believer is (or at least should be) a functional part of a congregation.

Finally, in advancing congregational polity, a historical argument is made by drawing support from The Didache. [2] Giving a picture of early church life within 50 years of the closing of the scriptural canon, it presents two offices chosen by the congregation, thus supporting congregationalism. Such evidence, while heavy, is to be understood as extra-biblical. Another caution should be mentioned also. The Didache also allows baptism by sprinkling if immersion is inconvenient. Arguments from history are not always the best unless they support your conclusions. Then they are determinative!

With congregationalism established, Akin engages the single-elder leadership model for that congregation. The time-honored (and biblically defensible) understanding that elder/bishop/pastor are coterminous is based on 1 Peter 5:1-4, among other passages. After surveying all other important New Testament passages directed at church leadership, he agrees with John MacArthur’s conclusion: elder emphasizes who the man is, bishop speaks of what he does, while pastor deals with how he ministers (p. 50).

The final area I will consider is how Akin deals with the plurality of elders versus a single elder. He concedes that nowhere does the New Testament specify the number of elders required for a church, but there is a reason the term is found the majority of the time as a plural. As part of the argument, he also points out there are no references to churches (plural) in any city, even Jerusalem. Putting these two ideas together, Akin asserts that the church in any particular city was divided into smaller house churches, only occasionally coming together as a larger body. So the deduction is that the plural elder references address these individual house churches. It is up to the reader to determine if he has carried the burden of proof.

Having said that, there is room for a plurality of elders in any single church with a “senior pastor” leading. The basis for his argument, however, comes primarily from Moses and the apostolic band, neither fitting within the biblical literature that addresses church leadership.

In concluding his arguments for a single elder model, with allowances for a plurality of elders, Akin writes, “I am defending a particular and definite form of the model, one that sees the necessity of and demand for mutual submission, respect and accountability. There is no biblical defense for a dictatorial, autocratic, CEO model for ministry leadership” (p. 69). It was refreshing (to this reviewer, at least) to read this statement.

The other authors offer thought-provoking critiques that cause the reader to evaluate not only Akin’s position but also his own. That is the real benefit of this book. Church polity is more than just important; it is vital.

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1. Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity, Chad Owen Brand and R. Stanton Norman, (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2004).
2. The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis and Commentary, translated by Aaron Milavec, (Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN, 2003.


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Jerry Hamilton is assistant pastor at Red Rocks Baptist Church (Lakewood, CO). His responsibilities include adult education, facilities and transportation management, and men’s ministries. He has been married to Karen for 43 years, and God has blessed the Hamiltons with four children. Jerry is a graduate of Baptist Bible College (Clarks Summit) and Bob Jones University. He is pursuing a D.Min. degree from Northland Baptist Bible College. Outside interests include flyfishing and following the open road on a Harley Sportster.

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