This brief survey has demonstrated that the scriptures teach a form of government for the church of Jesus Christ. Biblical church government includes rule by a plurality of scripturally qualified elders. These elders convene in ecclesiastical courts where they settle disputes, adjudicate disciplinary and doctrinal cases, and handle normal administrative matters of the church. In making decisions, the church courts are to pass judgment based upon biblical law. The decisions of the courts, and their confessional formulations, have a binding governmental authority in the church.
The failure of American churches to abide by these principles of church polity has resulted in a multitude of practical problems. For example, a breakdown of ecclesiastical discipline may be traced to this disregard of biblical church government.
Church discipline rarely exists where presbyterian polity is absent. Within modern American evangelical churches, discipline is almost nonexistent. In the rare cases when discipline is attempted, it is often applied in an arbitrary or sporadic manner.
This breakdown of church discipline is a by-product of the highly independent and individualistic mentality which pervades the contemporary American religious scene. Local churches militantly assert their independence, and pastors assume their callings in an independent fashion, teaching and leading others according to their own private inclinations.
In presbyterian and reformed churches, the setting is better than the system of independency. Nevertheless, there is room for much improvement. Presbyterians need to embrace their heritage with greater appreciation. They must apply their principles with renewed vigor, and not be afraid to emphasize the distinctive elements of presbyterian polity.
In a related vein, recently there have been intense efforts to restore to America a proper recognition of biblical principles of civil government. While this goal is a worthy aim, the attempt has often come from ecclesiastical anarchists or those who regard church government with relative indifference. It is questionable whether these efforts will ever succeed unless the church puts her own house in order. After all, judgment begins with the house of God (1 Pet. 4:17). How can the civil government be expected to conform to scriptural principles when the church does not bother to adhere to biblical polity? May the era soon come when both the church and the state are ordered according to scriptural principles of government.
Once we recognize the importance of ecclesiastical polity, we must work to restore biblical church government. This endeavor will require considerable time and effort. Local congregations, as well as their denominations, are obliged to reform their practices, bringing their government into conformity with Christs word. On an individual level, Christians should press their churches to make necessary amendments.
In some cases, believers will need to reassess their ecclesiastical connections; they should not remain unequally yoked to churches that openly disregard the word of God congregations which make a mockery of the gospel, the sacraments, and church discipline.
Christians who live near a true church should unite with the congregation, provided that the congregations terms of membership are lawful. In the present era of widespread apostasy, a problem often arises because Reformed families are scattered throughout the country, in small numbers, isolated by hundreds of miles from other families of like faith.
In this situation, many families should consider relocating, to join with other Christians. Of course, if they are unable to move, they must preserve true religion within their homes, until more ordinary church ties can be formed. They should pray and labor to form a true church of Christ in their locality, without allowing discouragement to lead them into compromising ecclesiastical connections.
A genuine reformation, along with the mature institutions of church government, may take a while to develop. Even in the heartland of Presbyterianism the nation of Scotland the church did not spring up fully organized overnight. When John Knox arrived in Edinburgh in 1559, Protestant congregations were meeting in homes, and there were only six known Protestant ministers to serve the needs of the whole nation.
Eventually, the regular structures of church government were adopted in Scotland, with the result that the Scottish church possessed ruling elders, deacons, sessions, presbyteries, and the general assembly. Still, these ecclesiastical institutions did not spring up instantly, ex nihilo, the moment Knox set foot upon the shore of his native land. The Scots labored many years to establish the more mature institutions of biblical church government. Much of the groundwork was laid during the earlier days, when the faithful worshipped in homes, without the benefit of a regular ministry. No one should discount the importance of a regular ministry; but neither should we despise the day of small beginnings which may lead to greater things.
The foregoing discussion demonstrates the practical importance of church government. Yet, we have obtained only a cursory glance at the far-reaching ramifications of the subject. Christians must realize that, far from being classified with secondary issues of minor importance, church government is a vital issue which affects the overall health and strength of the church. In an era when the church is plagued by a multitude of problems which render her weak and ineffective, the situation calls loudly for a return to biblical church government. Will that call be heeded?
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Copyright ©1983, 1994 by Kevin Reed
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