by Jonathan Leeman
Most evangelical Christians today, if pressed, will acknowledge that autonomous individualism is not the way of biblical Christianity. The vast majority would presumably acknowledge that Christians need some type of fellowship or community.
Yet most evangelical Christians, I suspect, are also indifferent toward the topic of church government or polity. And this suggests we might be more individualistic than we realize.
Individualism, that sociologist’s cuss word, is not rooted in being anti-community. Everyone loves the idea of community (except, maybe, the hermit). Rather, it roots in being anti-authority: I will gladly hang out with you, so long as you don’t tell me who I have to be or what I have to do.
To claim interest in Christian fellowship or even the church while paying little heed to church structures is like claiming to love family while paying no heed to the differences between parent and child or husband and wife. Part of what makes a family a family are those roles, and an important part of a church are its various roles or offices.
Church polity is a funny topic. People insist it’s not worth debating, then become frustrated when you question their polity. But it’s the frustration, not the indifference, that is appropriate. The topic is important. Church government is not essential for salvation like the gospel is. But it is essential for guarding that gospel from one generation to the next, as well as for growing a gospel people from immaturity to maturity. Just as the command to honor one’s parents comes with a promise, so the command to obey one’s church leaders promises to be profitable (Eph. 6:2; see Heb. 13:17).
Yet the importance of polity does not stop with the relationship between leader and member. In a congregationalist conception, to become a member is to be installed into an office. And the office of member just might be the most important office in a church because it’s essential to the existence of a local church. The offices of “pastor/elder” and “deacon” are necessary for a complete, orderly, and generally healthy church; but, strictly speaking, one can have a church without them (e.g., Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). One cannot have a church without members.
The question every Christian should therefore be interested in is, What are the tasks, responsibilities, and authorities that come with being a church member? If Jesus calls every Christian to be a part of a church, then those congregational responsibilities belong to basic Christian discipleship. Polity, rightly practiced, guards the gospel, matures the Christian disciple, strengthens the whole church, fortifies its holy integrity and witness, and equips the congregation to better love their neighbors in word and deed.
As I have argued at greater length elsewhere, evangelicals would therefore do well to recover a polity-shaped vision of discipling and discipleship.1 Christianity is church shaped, which means it is polity shaped. Learning to fulfill the obligations of polity is as elemental to Christianity as learning what it means to be a husband or wife, parent or child, is elemental to being part of a family. Some people today would smother all such distinctions, both in the church and home. But why choose the curses of disobedience when we could have the blessings of obedience?
Most of us who have studied, trusted, and practiced what the Bible says about roles in both church and home have discovered some of these blessings that come from God. None of us have practiced them perfectly. Authoritarianism is always a threat in one direction, abdication the threat in the other. The evil of authoritarianism shows itself almost immediately. The evil of abdication often shows itself only over time, long after crucial decisions were made and people have stopped looking. My own sense is that abdication is far more common in our individualistic and consumeristic age. But both errors should be avoided. That means church leaders should study to lead their members along this narrow path.
My prayer for this book, then, is that the Spirit of the Good Shepherd would guide me in the writing, even as he guides you in the reading, that we might both better follow that path toward obedience, freedom, and blessing.
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