Reflections on Church Polity

Copyright January 2001, by Tim Arensmeier

  Biographical Overview
  Denominational Impressions
  Some Biblical passages
Voting in the Church
The Polity

Reading the New Testament, and thinking of how God ideally might want His Church to be run presents one with some interesting fodder for thought, especially if one has a bit of an eclectic background.

Having been raised in a Christ centered home, where the scriptures were read through in my hearing several times as a young boy, and having been raised during the war WWII, as there have been a few in recent decades by a family who took the scriptures seriously, and attempted to inculcate them into my brother and me, but who also weren't necessarily committed to any particular denomination, I was a part of nine denominations by the time I left home at age 17.

It took me several years to figure out why my parents were not denominationally particular.  It was as a result of their primary commitment to Jesus Christ, as their personal Lord and Savior, and their secondary commitment to the ministry of the Gideons.  The Gideons are over 100 years old now, and have passed out literally millions and millions of bibles and New Testaments around the world.  One of their primary commitments is to Isaiah 55:11 KJV,

"So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth:  it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it."

That commitment very simply stated suggests that the distribution of the bible will be blessed by God to affect the salvation of men, women, boys and girls.

Early in my adult life, while my dad (Ralph Arensmeier) was state president of the Oregon Gideons, I had the privilege of attending as a visitor (in the uniform of the US Army), a State President's Convention of the Gideons, in Chicago, IllinoisChicago was the site of the International Headquarters of The Gideons at the time.  It has since moved to Nashville, Tennessee.

While dad was attending one of the business sessions, I was permitted to visit the "Returns" file room.  That was a room approximately 9 feet by 12, which was literally filled with filing cabinets filled with "Returns."  Meaning, letters from people who had come to faith in Jesus Christ as a result of reading a portion of scripture from a Gideon bible or New Testament.

I had heard of these, and there is a periodical published by The Gideons by that name, and to personally see that room, read through many of the files, totally thrilled my heart, and my recall of that event blesses my soul to this day.

However, the fascination with that moves me to continue attempting to explain why we were a part of so many different denominations during my childhood.  It seems that my parents, like so many good Gideons, were committed to Christ, the distribution of His Word (the bible), and then the local church.  Sort of in that order.  As Gideons permit no ordained ministers to be a part of their organization, based as it was in its origin on business and professional men who are committed to Jesus Christ, they rather assiduously insist on some basics which are quite fascinating to me.  For starters, they discourage their members from discussing their local church doctrines or denominational distinctives, as those issues tend to be more divisive than inclusive.

Consequently, The Gideons tend to be one of the more positive and early movements of Christ centered people who were truly ecumenical, while maintaining the respect for the inspiration of the scriptures by the Spirit of God, the essential simplicity of scripture; the authority and clarity of the Word of God.

The point being, if you have the scriptures, and read them, eventually God will both convict you or anyone of the nature of sin, the necessity of our accepting the faith He provides by which we learn to trust Jesus Christ to be our Savior and our Lord.

Denominational distinctives and doctrinal matters which frequently become divisive just aren't a part of a Gideon's life or concerns.

Therefore, during the war years, while moving up and down the west coast so that my mother (Carol Arensmeier) and brother (Dan) and I could be close to dad who elected to serve in the US Navy, we naturally found our family attending virtually whatever church was closest and most convenient to attend.  Remember, it was not every family who even owned a car during some of those years.

So, I attended Nazarene churches, Baptist churches, Methodist, Presbyterian, Evangelical United Brethren, even at least one Church of God (Anderson, IN), which movement I eventually became a part of and pastored in for seven years.

In each of the different churches we attended, it didn't matter to my parents what their particular distinctives were, as long as the Word of God was honored, believed in and proclaimed with authority.  Mom and Dad regularly taught Sunday school classes, and dad regularly served as Sunday school superintendent.  Mom played the piano, and many a pastor and his wife were truly sorry to see them leave when a move became necessary.

As a young person, I observed churches which were "autonomous" in their polity (or how they were governed), and where the pastor was essentially the person who was pretty clearly understood to be "in charge."

I also observed systems in which there was a "bishop" overseeing several churches, to include a state or two of that particular denomination.  In one of those, our pastors would attend their annual "camp meeting," not knowing whether they would return to their church and parsonage to continue ministering, or whether the bishop would send them to fill another church and responsibility even in another state.

Some churches appeared to have a governing "board of deacons" or "board of elders."  Some had a group of "trustees."  There were "church councils" which appeared to have some authority dealing with the spiritual matters of the church and another group of people who seemed to be in charge of the physical facilities and the collection and distribution of finances.

From time to time, we witnessed a pastor who loved his people and the church loved him and his family, only to have them "disappear," at what seemed the whim of the "district superintendent."

We observed situations in which a pastor would become a virtual tyrant, only to discover that we, the church, seemed to have no recourse.  There was no one to appeal to for assistance in helping an overbearing pastor get the kind of help which would allow him to once again truly minister to a flock of God's people.

Later in life, I found myself working with the Christian Conciliation Service, Inc.  That organization was founded by the Christian Legal Society back in the late 1970's and existed to help churchmen of all persuasions resolve legal conflicts out of court.  We offered biblical counseling, mediation, up to and including binding arbitration in an effort to assist God's people in obeying God's injunction through the apostle Paul, that we not sue each other in public court.

Time and again during those years, I found myself working with congregations and pastors, and church boards, going over matters which dealt with "who is in charge here?"  Is it the pastor?  Is it the board?  Is it the elders?  What place does the congregation have in working with and/or trying to govern itself?

In other words, what is the governance of the church?  And, what, if anything, does the bible have to say on the subject?  Or, does it matter in the final analysis?

As one friend, and respected Sunday School teacher of yesteryear once stated, "It doesn't really matter what you call the people in charge, as long as they govern in a biblical fashion."

Not a bad thought.  And, one which probably has a good deal of merit going for it, but...I wondered, if it really doesn't matter that much what they're called, why does it appear (to me) that there are guidelines in the scriptures?

Reading the New Testament you can't help but run onto:

"To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the bishops and deacons."

Or, Paul's warnings to the elders in Acts 20:28,

"Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.  Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood."

The apostle Peter, who could have pulled rank, and spoken with apostolic authority, seems to have learned something from our Savior, when he speaks to the elders as a fellow elder,

"To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ's sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed:  Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers--not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock."

 I Peter 5:1 - 3 NIV

Then this wonderful insight,

"And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away."

I Peter 5:4 NIV

It is from the last phrase that the insight is drawn that pastors, who are elders, or bishops or overseers, are also "under shepherds" of the Lord.

    For a fuller treatment on my understanding of this subject, please click on Eldership

It has always been in the mind of God that His people are the sheep of His pasture, a not overwhelmingly positive commentary on His people.

It has also been quite consistent that God's desire for His people include the idea that they have overseers, or "under shepherds." Jeremiah 3:15 (NIV) states,

"Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding."

If you have participated in an episcopal church, not limited to the Episcopal denomination, or the Anglo-Catholic Church of England, you are aware of the "hierarchical" nature of that style of church order.  Meaning specifically that there is a bishop over the local pastors.

The ultimate episcopal church would pretty easily be the Roman Catholic Church.  The Western Church has the Pope.  As opposed to the Eastern Church, which rather than a Pope, has a "Metropolitan," which is the "overseer" of the priests of the Eastern Orthodox Church, or the Syrian Orthodox, or Russian Orthodox churches.

As you observe various church governance systems you're bound to encounter the more American "congregational" polity.  Again, not limited to the Congregational Church denomination, but having a distinctly "American" flavor, i.e., a rather democratically run or organized system of governance.  Essentially, every "member" or constituent having a vote.  In fact, the "congregational" form of church polity actually contributed to the development of our democratically organized form of our Constitutional government.

Within that distinctly American format, the "voters" frequently do what our United States Constitution provides for at a "polity" level, they elect "representatives" of the congregation who in turn carry out the wishes of the congregation so that the congregation does not need to "vote" on every issue, be those issues spiritual or secular.

Within the "congregational" form of church polity, the congregation essentially "rules" through their elected representatives and all too frequently the pastor is not permitted very much leverage to "rule" as an elder, or bishop might otherwise be expected to "rule."

A look into the "pastoral" epistles, I & II Timothy and Titus, appears to me to give some insights which while certainly not being politically correct in the year 2001, in the United States of America, nonetheless look pretty much like an unfolding of how God might actually want His church to be organized.

Before looking into this further, a word on "voting," in the church.

A prejudice of mine is that voting in the church, while very democratic and American, is not a biblical norm.  I know.  There is the voting in Acts 1 to select Judas Iscariot's replacement.  Or, you might argue that it wasn't a vote, per se, as much as an election, via the casting of lots.

An evaluation of that incident could be distilled down to the following:

On the day our Savior ascended into heaven, he told the apostles to return to Jerusalem and "wait" until they were empowered from on high with the Holy Spirit Whom He would send.  You'll note that He did not say, "Go back to Jerusalem and select a replacement for Judas."  What followed was Peter, before the Spirit of God was given in power to them on the day of Pentecost, apparently got antsy, or tired of "waiting" and decided to whip up a replacement for Judas.

The text reveals that they generated a "profile of an apostle," and while there were apparently several men who met that profile, the assembled apostles and other followers of Jesus Christ "waiting," narrowed the list down to two people, Justus and Matthias.  In verse 24 of Acts 1, it says,

"Then they prayed, 'Lord, you know everyone's heart.  Show us which of these two you have chosen.'"

Interesting.  After the establishment of an apostolic profile and the narrowing down to the two they figured most qualified, they finally prayed, and asked the Lord to rubber stamp one of them to fill Judas' place.

They subsequently cast lots [rolled the dice!] and the lot fell to Mathias.  Ipso facto, we now have a new apostle to fill Judas' place.

Am I saying that Peter did something wrong?  Dare I suggest that he might have gotten ahead of the Lord?  Don't you find it interesting in scripture that God doesn't paint His special people with only a wonderfully consistent brush?  Remember David?  King of Israel?  "A man after God's own heart"?  He committed adultery with Bathsheba and subsequently murdered her husband, Uriah the Hittite and several other men at the same time in order to cover his tail!  It reveals that God does forgive sin, and does love His own, and will use even their mistakes, may we say sins?, in the process of showing us that He is sovereign anyhow!

Yes, I'd like to submit that while wonderfully sincere in his intentions, Peter's action of doing anything other than "waiting" caused serious problems for the apostle whom I submit was Judas' replacement, namely the apostle Paul!

Read Galatians 1:1 (NIV),

"Paul, an apostle -- sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead --"

Paul's apostleship has been questioned from that day to this.  The liberal church questions Paul's authority and challenges his inspiration.  I believe that Peter set an awful precedent which has become a serious problem, especially in a democratically oriented culture of egalitarianism.  In the American culture, we have developed an attitude which seriously challenges whether anybody has any authority over anyone else, in virtually any situation.

Churches are regularly filled with people who feel that they run their business, they can run their church, and, "Who are you to tell me how I should run my life, pastor?"

And the egalitarian mentality elevates itself to a place where a pastor is essentially reduced to merely being a nice guy who is supposed to "entertain" the people and deliver "nice" sermons which will bring in the people and fill the church so that the church may have a growing and better reputation in the community.

It appears to me that the polity of the church, whether anyone happens to like it or not, has our Risen Savior, Jesus Christ as the Head of the Church.  He is the Chief Shepherd.  It is His Bride about which we are talking, and He is jealous about and over her.

As the Head of His Body, the church, He has ordained that there be "under shepherds" who exercise leadership as overseers of His Church.  If you please, there is an hierarchy.  Christ is at the top of that "pyramid."  Or, think "organizational chart," and you have Christ at the top, with ultimate authority over the Church or His flock.  Then, think of a level of leadership immediately below Him, called elders, who are simultaneously bishops, overseers, pastors, "under shepherds."

Unlike the Roman Catholic model, however, this "level" is not a priesthood in the sense that the church (at level, or line item number three) must go through the elders in order to get to God.  The individual members of the Body of Christ, may go directly to and or through Christ, in their prayers and petitions to God the Father.

The elders are intentioned by our Savior to both lead and "rule."

In an ideal situation, and we may certainly work towards that, the scriptures teach that there should be a plurality of elders in the local church.  That would mean that each elder, while exercising leadership and ruling in the church, individually see themselves as members of the congregation, and voluntarily they submit themselves to the authority of the other elders, much the same as the other members of that congregation which are viewed by our Savior as His flock.

Of further interest seems to be whether or not within a local church does one elder hold, or exercise, authority over the other elders?  In I Timothy 5:17 the apparent answer to the question is Yes.  In that all men are not created equal, but different, with differing gifts and abilities, all supposedly intended by God to blend together and work to the common good of the Body of Christ, so within the body of elders, there are some who ought to be deemed worthy of a "double honor," or economic support, while others are what we would call bi-vocational, or volunteer.

This raises the question of how elders are selected.  It is frequently feared that a pastor will "select" elders who will be in his circle of buddies such that they all may run things and people in violation of the injunction previously cited by Peter.

The apostle Paul outlined very clearly in both I Timothy 3 and Titus 1, what the process is by which a maturing church not only should identify those qualified, but should then "ordain" or publicly identify those whom they prayerfully have observed as qualifying according to God's list.

Thinking in the above organizational chart, you then have Christ as the Head of His Church, with a group of elders immediately under Him, discharging truly while not perfectly the role and responsibility of "shepherding" Christ's flock.

I know.  Dangerous word.  That it has been abused is true.  That it will be abused is equally true.  But, does that then mean that we should turn the system upside down and just forget God's structure of how He would like His Church to be organized and run?

It is fascinating to me that the truly growing churches across our land are not the ones with a "congregational" leadership model.  The concept of majority rule finds little scriptural support.  That was a nice way of saying that there is none.

Churches across America as well as around the world that are truly growing are most frequently churches where no one has any question as to who holds and is discharging biblical authority and responsibility.

For certain there are some cultural models which lend themselves to both growth as well as, yes, abuse, but must we throw the baby out with the bath water?

Look at the largest churches in the world.  I believe that there are several churches in Korea which number in the hundreds of thousands.  Does the Korean social culture contribute to this phenomena?  I believe that it most certainly does.  Koreans have a very specific hierarchical social and family society and God has certainly blessed the church in Korea among other reasons, because the churches in Korea frequently end up looking pretty biblical in their polity.

The Black churches in America more often than not are pastored by leaders whom no one questions as to whether or not that pastor (or those pastors) have the authority to operate and lead in the church.  Are there examples of abuse?  Of course!  But, the growing churches in that culture have no questions as to who is in charge in the church.

The Hispanic churches frequently follow a more biblical model of church polity, among other reasons because of an often observable social pattern which lends itself to the biblical model.

For reasons which I trust are perfectly clear, I am interested in serving a church which adheres to the biblical model of an elder rule polity.  A church which is at least interested in investigating that model would be an option provided the commitment is to biblical obedience.  If a church is firmly committed to a congregational model, I would not be interested in anything other than a discussion of their history and why they would not be responsive to what I see as the more biblical model of church polity.

These "reflections" on church polity are the result of several years of observing churches in various levels of frustration as to how they will operate and function; how their functioning reflects the biblical concepts as opposed to how American they are in their operation.

These "reflections" are offered with the prayer that Jesus Christ, as the Head of His Church, which is His Bride, might increasingly be granted to govern in His Church in the manner and fashion which He has revealed in His Word, to His ultimate glory.  To say that, will, I'm sure be misunderstood.  However, Christ has certainly granted His people the latitude of demonstrating their faith with their obedience, or the obverse, permitting us to demonstrate our disobedience by our lack of submission to His revealed will.

Soli Deo Gloria!


Rev. Tim Arensmeier, is currently pastor of the Sonoma Valley Community Church, Sonoma, California.  The SVCC is a member congregation of the Reformed Church in America.

Web posted:  January 29, 2001
Updated:  August 15, 2001
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