Church Polity? Does It Matter?

I halfway jokingly tell people that I’m a theological half-breed. I was raised in a traditional Baptist church, went to a Baptist college, interned at a Reformed Baptist church, and now lead an Assemblies of God church. I’m an odd one for sure. To make matters worse, I’ve recently (within the last year or so) changed my understanding of ecclesiology, specifically concerning the leadership of the church. I have gone from growing up in a single pastor/deacon-led church as a child to a elder-led church to now leading a church that desires to be more like a Presbyterian church in leadership. In this post I want to explain why I am a Presbyterian in local church government.

Let me begin by laying out what I mean by a “Presbyterian in local church government”. To the best of my understanding, in the Presbyterian church polity, there are a plurality of elders. Within that group of elders are teaching elders and ruling elders. So some elders are more gifted in teaching, they share the bulk of the preaching and teaching (though all elders are apt and able to teach [1 Timothy 3:2]). Then there are those men who are extremely gifted in leading, making wise decisions, presiding over conflicts, and other administrative works. These men would be called “ruling elders”. Why? Because, simply put, they rule or exercise authority over the congregation.

This is important to me because I have almost no administrative ability in me. So I need someone to help me make wise decisions, to help me lead the church well. But is it biblical? That’s a great question to ask, because if its not a biblical model then we are just wasting time. Lets look at Scripture then, and see what God says about church polity.

In Ephesians 4:11 you will notice something peculiar. Paul distinguishes between a shepherd or pastor and a teacher. This is of much importance for us as we must now ask “Paul, what did you mean by splitting pastor and teacher up?” I believe that Paul is very precisely saying that these two positions are not one in the same, but rather are two distinct, even necessarily distinct, roles. Paul is showing us the need for more than one person in leadership. There needs to be men who watch over and care for the sheep and others who instruct or teach the Word.

Now look at Romans 12:8, here Paul writes about one who “leads”. Curiously, the word translated in the  ESV as “leads” is προΐστημι (proistēmi) and means “To stand before, preside, to be over, to rule”. I could be wrong, but that seems pretty straight forward to me. To further my case, notice the word in the text that is translated as “exhort”. In the KJV it is translated as “comfort” twenty-three times. It is also translated as “pray”, “entreat” and “call for”. It’s the idea of taking what is or has been taught (presumably the Gospel) and applying it to people’s lives. These elders pray for the church members and non-members alike. They regularly call for repentance for members and non-members. They entreat them “Come to Me (Christ) all who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

To make my last point before I drive all of this home, look back just a few words and you will see the word “teaches”. If you remember, in Ephesians 4:11 Paul says Christ gave “shepherds and teachers”. What is the primary responsibility of a teacher? Is it to rule and reside? No, it is to teach. So within a church context, what responsibility would this teacher have? Teaching the Word of God!

Now, I know that earlier I said that all elders are required to be able to teach, and they are, however Scripture does not say that every elder’s gifting is a teaching gift. Some are given the gift of wisdom or perhaps knowledge (1 Corinthians 12:8). It is the responsibility of the church to enable each elder to use his gifting in the best way possible and for the glory of God.

In conclusion, I am not only convinced that plural eldership is biblical, but that an eldership made up of elders entrusted with teaching the Scriptures and elders entrusted with ruling or leading the church is the most biblical model. I believe that establishing this model in your local church brings more health to it because it allows each elder to function within their gift setting. It frees up those who aren’t as strong in teaching from the burden of teaching, and it frees up those who aren’t strong in administration from having to do something they don’t feel strongly gifted in.

At the end of the day, church leadership is not as cut and dry as many of us try to make it out to be. The model I just described is my personal conviction, others differ from me but yet they still have a faithful plurality of elders who genuinely love and serve their local church. Make sure that whatever model you establish at your local church you are convinced by Scripture, and Scripture alone.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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Author: PastorDylanJustus

Elder/Lead Pastor of Teaching and Vision at Foundation Community Church in Columbus, NC

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