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Thursday, January 10, 2019

Church Polity

I wonder sometimes. If, say, Paul or Peter were to show up in the 21st century (with the capacity to speak English), would they recognize our churches? I'm not talking about the buildings; I'm talking about church polity, about the way we run our churches, their government and their services and way of operating. I ask because what I see in Scripture doesn't seem to correlate very well with what I see in our churches.

There is the obvious discrepancy between the first church and today. Luke describes them in Acts. They "were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer" (Acts 2:42). "All those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people" (Acts 2:44-47). That is not a description of today's churches, at least not in my experience. But, hang on. Luke's descriptions are just that -- descriptions. There is nothing prescriptive about it. Nothing there says, "This is how it should be." That's just how it was.

After that, however, it doesn't get better. Take, for instance, church government. The biblical description is "elders" or "overseers" or "bishops" (pick your favorite translation). Always plural. (I've been in a lot of churches run by a single pastor.) "Elders" (1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9) and "deacons" (1 Tim 3:8-13). Many, even most churches seem to have deacons, but there are quite a few that don't have "elders". At best, they classify their staff as elders (even if not all the staff qualifies biblically). The problem is this seems to be a prescription, not a description in Scripture.

Many (most?) churches these days have a professional pastor. A pastor as a central figure in a church is almost inescapable today. In Scripture, on the other hand, pastors are almost never mentioned. There are pastor/teachers (Eph 4:11) and shepherds (1 Peter 5:1-4) (synonymous with "elders"), but not the singular office that we currently associate with "pastor". No professional clergy. In a lot of churches these days Peter and Paul would not qualify as church leadership, lacking the proper seminary or bible college training. Scripture does allow for paying church leadership (1 Tim 5:17-18), but nothing at all about a clergy sort of arrangement.

Most puzzling, however, is Paul's description in his letter to the church at Corinth.
What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. (1 Cor 14:26-33)
We can discuss all of the previous stuff and that's all fine, but this passage looks nothing at all like the churches I've seen and been a part of. This description (actually, prescription) is 180° out of sync with our normal mode of going to church. We show up to be fed. This passage says we show up with something -- a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, whatever. This text seems to say that every member comes with something to share. "Let all things be done for edification," Paul says. Let's face it; we don't show up for edification. We show up to be edified. We show up to be fed. We don't go to give. We can disagree or negotiate over the whole "tongues" issue. Not the point. The bottom line notion in that text is that Paul commands the Corinthians to assemble with something ready to give to each other. We don't do that. I'm pretty sure we wouldn't even tolerate that. We're supposed to sing when we're told to and not speak when we're not supposed to and primarily get fed. Scripture, on the other hand, looks completely different.

I don't know. I can't even imagine what that would look like. Included in that thought is "God is not a God of confusion but of peace," and imagining a service where everyone contributes doesn't seem very ... peaceful. Nonetheless, there is a radical disconnect between what we have and what Scripture describes and I'm not at all sure what to do with that.


David said...

I wonder if we struggle with type of "structure" because we imagine those early churches with the same amount of people as we have in our current churches. Can you imagine 50 to 100 people coming with something to "add" to the service? I think some of our smallest churches would be considered mega-churches to the first church. And with how biblically illiterate the Church is today, I wouldn't want that kind of setting, at least not one that not been going for a while and the whole group is well versed in Scripture, and heresy would be minimized by the accountability. I would'nt mind seeing a church like that, but it would probably have to be no larger than 30 people. Plus, we don't really experience prophecy anymore, so that part is out.

Stan said...

I think you're right about that. A church with, say, 100 people -- even mature, biblical Christians -- would be chaotic in a description like this. Too much stuff to add. Scripture speaks of churches in homes, where 50-100 wouldn't be feasible. I wonder if 30 might be too much.

Marshal Art said...

"Nonetheless, there is a radical disconnect between what we have and what Scripture describes and I'm not at all sure what to do with that."

I'd say there's nothing that need be done. If your church is biblically sound in your mind, then to gather for corporate prayer and worship is a congregation bringing their praise of God to join with the praise of others. Also, if you come willing to bring insights to a congregation should you feel it needed, then you're still bringing something even if you've no reason to deliver that specific...uh...thing.

It's a different time, and for a Bible believing congregation of today, I don't think there's any reason to fret that it doesn't seem to match those Biblical descriptions perfectly.

Interesting wonderment nonetheless.

Unknown said...

We haven't been earnestly contending for the faith anyway close t the earlychurch.... vows are just words on paper- not upheld as divinely inspired with Almighty Power& GLORY. Lukewarm Laodicia Losers. Pride! & Perilous times are here. Hold Fast& let no man decieve you by any means...