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.
I want to hear your voice. That’s why feedback is always welcome.
Sharing is what friends do.
Image from Vencer, A. (2004), DAWN Vision and Strategy (DAWN Ministries Leadership Development).