The following is an excerpt from the recently released volume, Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age, edited by Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman. In his Introduction Leeman discusses the enduring importance of church polity.
The difference between a local church and a group of Christians is nothing more or less than church polity. To argue for polity is to argue for the existence of the local church. That is not to say that polity only references the local church—one must also account for the relationship between churches. But it is to say, no polity, no local church. It should hardly be surprising, therefore, that in an era in which we give little attention to polity, we also play fast and loose with the local church.
All organizations and social groups possess some type of polity, some governing structure that constitutes the group and organizes its members, even if that structure is fairly minimal. To be “a people” or “a group” in any sense whatsoever, formal or informal—whether a nation-state, an advertising agency, a chess club, or the high school coolkids’ clique—means that some criteria exist for distinguishing members from nonmembers and that some rule structure guides behavior within the group. Indeed, these rules constitute a group as a group, even though “the rules may be so basic, so elemental, that members of the group may be unaware of them.”
To put this another way: a “group” with no polity—no governing structure—is not in fact a group. Without criteria for membership, rules for governing behavior, a self-conscious sense of shared identity, a common purpose or guiding objective, there is no group. There is only a bunch of individuals. Social rules and social groups are inextricably connected: “Groups can only exist where they are constituted by social rules. But, conversely, social rules can only exist in the context of a social group, a group defined by—at minimum—their common acceptance of the rule, coupled with an awareness of their common acceptance.”
All this to say: every local church has some polity—some way to constitute itself, to maintain criteria for membership, and to make decisions—because its very existence depends in part upon that polity. Those who disavow the institutional church, or who profess disinterest in the topic of church polity altogether, are a bit like those who profess disinterest in God. It only means they prefer some other polity, or perhaps their own rule, rather than the one “on the books,” as the deniers of God actually prefer some other god. Polity is inevitable. The only question is whether one’s polity is coherent, orderly, and, most of all, biblical.
Traditionally, Christians have viewed church polity as addressing several areas of church life:
- A church’s polity establishes who possesses authority over the processes of membership and discipline and what role baptism and the Lord’s Supper play in signifying and constituting members as members and the church as a church.
- Polity creates leadership offices in the church, demarcates their responsibilities and jurisdictional boundaries, specifies who is eligible to serve in those offices, and stipulates the selection process.
- Polity dictates how significant decisions in the life of the church will be made.
- And polity delineates the nature of the relationship between a church and other churches or denominational structures, whether those ties are formal or informal, binding or nonbinding.
All these matters, typically, are laid out in what is variously referred to as a church constitution, book of church order, or book of discipline.
We will discover in this introduction that discipling other Christians and evangelizing non-Christians, too, are related to polity. Polity’s significance, in other words, reaches beyond the few bureaucratic matters that Christians force themselves to think about once a year in some church business meeting they attend out of a sense of duty. Rather it plays a crucial role in the Christian life. The present generation of Christians would do well to begin reconceiving their Christian discipleship in the institutional language of polity.
The purpose of this introduction, then, is not to argue for one form of polity over another but to provide an apologetic for the topic in general.
In the remainder of their Introduction, Dever and Leeman present four reasons polity is important:
- Polity Establishes the Local Church
- Polity Guards the Gospel What and Who
- Polity Gives Shape to Christian Discipleship
- Polity Strengthens a Church’s Witness
About the Editors:
Mark Dever is senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, president of 9Marks, and occasional adjunct professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Jonathan Leeman is editorial director of 9Marks, occasional lecturer at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and adjunct professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Download sample chapter here.