Did you know that church polity is more a reflection of political realities than some kind of biblical prescription? Did you also know that in the grand scheme of things it really isn’t a big deal what your church’s polity is?

Have you ever thought about your preferred form of church polity? Church polity basically means the ways church organise themselves. There are four main types of church polity: Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregational, and Hybrid.

Episcopal. This word is derived from the the Greek word episkopos, which basically means overseers or bishops. As you might have guessed, these churches often have people serving in the role of Bishops. Churches in this tradition include Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Methodist. They find biblical support in Acts 6:6; 14:23; and Galatians 1:19; 2:9. They claim connection to the biblical Apostles because of Apostolic succession.

Reformed. The picture at the top identifies this as “Reformed” but a better term might be Presbyterian, derived from the Greek word presbuteros, which means basically elders. Presbyterian, Lutheran and Reformed churches all have this polity. The find biblical support in Acts 20:17; 1 Tim 5:17; and Titus 1:5. They claim connection to the biblical Apostles because they follow Apostolic teaching.

Congregational. Congregational churches put the congregation at the top of any organisational chart because it is the congregation that makes the decisions for the church. Churches in this tradition include Baptist, Mennonite, Evangelical Free, Congregational. They find biblical support in Acts 15:12, 22-25; Colossians 1:18; and 1 Peter 2:9. Like the Presbyterian system above, they claim connection to the biblical Apostles because they follow Apostolic teaching.

Hybrid. A blending of the above three. Churches in this tradition include many Pentecostal and charismatic groups. Because they are a blend, they find biblical support in the verses used by the other three traditions. They claim connection to the biblical Apostles because they exhibit the Apostolic signs.

As we can see, each of these systems has a series of biblical supports that they use to prove that theirs is the true biblical way. Of course that means that, if each of them has biblical proof, each one of them is biblical! It also means that none of them is actually prescribed by the Bible.

My missions professor in seminary, Dr. Vern Middleton, made an observation about church polity that has stayed with me until today. According to his observations a church’s polity is more a reflection of the political situation at the time the church was initially formed than it is of any biblical influence. Thus the Episcopal system was developed largely when Emperors, Kings, and Queens ruled; the Presbyterian system was developed largely when city and state councils ruled; the Congregational system was developed largely when democratic systems ruled; and Hybrid systems have developed only in the past 100 years or so. For example, in the Philippines many evangelical churches — even while being from a congregational tradition — often incorporate features from Episcopal systems because of the country’s long relationship with the Roman Catholic church.

More to the point, the term “New Testament church” should actually be the “New Testament churches because there was more than one of them. We often assume that the New Testament church is the one in Jerusalem as described in Acts. But what then about the other churches — in Corinth, Rome, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, etc? Are they not also New Testament churches? What also of the 7 churches in Revelation 2-3? Are they not also New Testament churches?

More importantly, does polity really matter? We often argue and act against other ways of doing things regardless of whether they matter or not. Oftentimes it’s merely an issue of preference or habit.

What really matters is functionality. Functionality is one of the main organising frameworks that I use in this blog so it shouldn’t be strange to us. In a nutshell, we propose that a church begin measuring its functionality using the fourfold matrix of kerygma, koinonia, diakonia, and marturia. Here is an example of what this looks like in real life.

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Image from Vencer, A. (2004), DAWN Vision and Strategy (DAWN Ministries Leadership Development).

Changing ways of approaching truth: When “West” sometimes means “North” (but still really means “West”)

Truth and its discovery has taken a beating of late. The above photo was taken while I was facing North and is often laughed at by the local kids who pass by daily on the schoolbus. “How can it be ‘Highway 31 West‘ when the road goes North?” they scoff. This is compounded by the fact that the arrow under ‘West’ on the sign does actually point North. How can this be? The answer is actually quite simple but it does take some extra knowledge in order to figure it out. We need to know that Highway 31 only heads north for another couple of kilometres before turning West once again. In addition, we need to know that the general trend of Highway 31 is East-West and not North-South. Finally we need to realise that the sign is on another road and the arrows simply indicate the direction one needs to travel in order to go either East or West. Once we know this additional information we realise that the sign makes perfect sense and that the sign speaks the truth.

It reminds me of the meme that circulates from time to time on social media where two people are looking at a number lying on the ground. From one’s perspective it is the number 6 but from the other’s perspective it’s the number 9. The meme is presented as a way of showing that truth is governed by our perspectives. What the meme doesn’t point out, however, is that a 6 is a 6 and a 9 is a 9. In fact on some playing cards where the context is not able to immediately determine which number is intended, a line is placed under the number to show us the proper intent. We can’t just change a 6 to a 9 or a 9 to a 6 willy-nilly depending on our perspectives. So then how can we figure these kinds of things out?

The process of knowing the truth is called epistemology and it is more complex than we might think. [For more on whether we can actually know truth, see my posts here, here, here, and here].

Luke’s prologue in Luke-Acts shows us the complex nature of the epistemology used it writing the book when he says “many have attempted to write,” receiving information from “eyewitnesses” and “servants of God,” that he himself has “followed everything from the beginning,” and all of this confirms as true “what you have been told.”

Just like Luke, we also use a rather complex process in determining whether something is true or not. This process often includes five factors: Ancient source, family, expert, frameworks and institutions, and self.

1. Ancient source. Sometimes this is the Bible. Even the textual criticism of the Bible is partially based on “the earliest and most reliable mansuscripts.” I like how the Manga Messiah says that Jesus’ stories are “Adapted from the Ancient Texts.” Other times it’s the older of two documents making truth claims about the same topic. For example, in the property disputes in the Philippines are often determined based upon whose documents are older. Regardless, we tend to prioritise older sources over newer sources, perhaps because they are tried and tested.

2. Family members. Family members are instrumental in both setting the stage for how we know if something is true or not and in how we negotiate truth on a day by day basis. The faiths that we follow, the truths that we believe, and the traditions that we hold dear are largely because of the family members who have helped shape our reality. Our family is also significant in helping guide us as we change our truths from one to another.

3. Experts and Guides. We often look to experts and guides when trying to determine truth. But sometimes our understandings of who fits this category change. For example, medical doctors used to be people that were listened to without question. Lately it seems that this is no longer the case. The speed of changes that have happened during the pandemic have opened the scientific process to scrutiny in ways that are unprecedented. Any change in official responses to or understandings of COVID-19 are viewed with suspicion because the general populace is largely unaware of how the scientific process works.

Of course none of this is news for people in science or in the medical profession as a whole. My wife Eva likes to recount her experience as a Public Health Nurse. She did it long enough for the advice she was giving to come full circle. She started out saying one thing, then that changed to something else, which then changed back to the original thing after a few years. Rather than this being evidence that medical experts don’t know anything, it is actually reflection on how the process of scientific discovery takes place. Each and every truth claim is constantly being tested and retested through a process that includes peer review, re-experimentation to try and duplicate results, other researchers discovering new things about old topics, and changes in the frameworks and perspectives behind the science.

Those who claim persecution [“I have been fired from my position for taking this perspective”] or censorship [“read this before it gets taken down!”] are often touted among some circles as experts because they are going against the flow. These outliers have assumed the role of new experts among some segments of the population. What is important to notice here is that there is also lots of evidence of manipulation taking place on this level, especially through the use of social media and big data. There is a complex system of networked disinformation that through an elaborate system of levels create a buzz on social media that seems to change political outcomes. See the Cambridge Analytica scandal for how this works. What this means is that a mere claim of persecution or censorship may be merely one of the cogs in the misinformation or fake news system.

4. Institutions and Doctrines. Many times our beliefs line up with the institutions or the agreed set of rules that those institutions espouse. Whether it is signing a code of conduct, a statement of faith, or a contract, these rules govern to a certain extent the way in which we interpret truth. Take for example the arguments churches have over the minute details of the church constitution when there is a problem.

There has been a growing mistrust of institutions over the years. From the concept of “the Man,” it has grown to distrust and sometimes anger towards the government, the church, etc. And for good reason — sometimes institutions get it wrong. Sometimes they only prioritise one perspective at the expense of the Other. Sometimes they have an agenda that may or may not be opposed to the interests of the majority. Examples abound.

Doctrines are undergoing deconstruction largely because people are dissatisfied with them. I like this quote from Zachary Wagner: “A huge percentage of people who ‘deconstruct’ are trying to save their faith, not abandon it. They’re reevaluating the relationship between the Christian culture and Christianity itself because they *don’t* want to lose faith in Jesus.” To this I would add, deconstruction is okay for the Christian, as long as it follows Jesus’ path of redemption, rebirth & resurrection.

5. Personal experience. Ultimately it all boils down to this. All of the above sources of truth are filtered through our own understandings and frameworks. Are we skilled enough at this? In reality it has always come down to this. But since our personal experiences have led to mistrust in the other parts of epistemology, our final decisions will be different than past generations.

This complex epistemological process is why it is difficult to change the way people think and act; why it’s nearly impossible to change how someone views the truth because even if we are able to change one of these factors there are four others ready and willing to keep on keeping on the way it has always been.

What do you think of all of this? Do you find these are also your go-to sources when determining truth?

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Image taken in Herschel, Saskatchewan, Canada is mine.