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Introduction to Polity

Polity, as the Oxford Dictionary puts it, is “a form or process of civil government or constitution”. In relation to the Church, polity refers to the very same processes of organisation, laws and government which determine and regulate how a church functions.

But why is it necessary to establish any particular form or processes of government in the Church? All who belong to Christ’s church recognise that He is the head of the church and so can we not be lead by His Spirit, even as our direction is revealed in His Word? Can’t we all just “get along” without all sorts of rules and regulations?

The Necessity of Polity

Theodore Beza, the direct successor of John Calvin, stated that good government in the church was vital in repelling Satan’s attack:

Satan “hopes that it is easier to overthrow [church government] than to overthrow the foundation which is doctrine.”[1]


What Beza means is that, while the gates of Hell cannot prevail against Christ’s church and, though also assaulted, the true doctrines of the Church are self-evident in the Word, founded on that rock-like point of faith which says that Jesus is the Christ (Matthew 16: 16-18), Satan finds it easiest to attack the way the Church handles and holds to the truths of the Word and how and when (and if) it administers discipline.[2] Beza experienced first hand the trouble inherent in formulating and administering functioning church government in Geneva, where the Reformed desire of a return to New Testament norms of government clashed with the remnants of Roman tradition and secular interference.[3] The effect of this lack of church government is apparent in some examples of where it is not established, or ignored in the New Testament: In Acts 6 there were complaints over the distribution of assets, and so the Diaconate was established; lack of government was very evident in the situation of the Corinthian’s libertarianism and even boasting in wickedness the case of the incestuous member of 1 Cor. 5, so Paul calls the church to order and demands that they censure the unrepentant sinner;[4] again, reproof of the Corinthians’ scandalous and unchecked behaviour at the Lord’s table in 1 Cor. 11 and a right administration established; and of the need for Paul to establish church leaders and governors in the Cypriot and Ephesian churches as models for all the Church.

Although it may seem a dry and uninteresting part of being an Elder, we need to have polity and rightly understand why we have it, where it comes from, and who administers it. It is vital to running the Church in a way that honours Christ and serves His people.  Joseph and David Hall, in their book Paradigms in Polity,

“are convinced that polity rightly understood will enhance civility and politeness as fruits of Christian love. [Their] understanding is that these ‘common rules of process’ will be tools in the keeping of the first and greatest commandment, as well as the second, which is to love our neighbour as ourself. The best polity will lead to that consideration of others, fairness, and open standards of etiquette. [Their book on polity is] as concerned with doxology as it is with mundane matters which all too often are lost in the shuffles of political movements.”[5]

Such sentiments should be in view as we commence a study of our church’s polity.

The Source of Polity

Of course, the Word is our ultimate guide in all things that relate to how the church is to be organised and run however, as the existence of Episcopacy and Congregationalism (see Historical Background) alongside Presbyterianism shows, there are different understandings of what this looks like. Even those whose creed is “no creed but the Bible”, who reject any form of written statements or formulas, they too will have a form of polity that they believe is the right way of doing things, even if they refuse to write it down. So then, why do we have polity in the church, how do we determine the right form of polity, and how does it begin to be made into a system? Who is to govern and how do they govern?

One basic and beloved statement of church polity, fundamental to Presbyterianism especially, is the instruction of Paul that all things be done “decently and in order” in the church[6] (1 Cor. 14:40)[7]. But the ability to enforce other rules of what to do in the wider church outside of the local gathering is founded on the power that Christ gives to His church, not just to Simon Peter (contra the Roman Church), to administer His rule. The Second Book of Discipline, a subordinate standard with the PCEA, was adopted by the Church of Scotland in 1578 and at its beginning states the reason why the Church has a form of polity and who administers it:

Of the Church and Polity thereof in general, and wherein it is different from the Civil Polity.
1. The Church of God is sometimes largely taken for all them that profess the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and so it is a company and fellowship not only of the godly, but also of hypocrites professing always outwardly a true religion. Other times it is taken for the godly and elect only; and sometimes for them that exercise spiritual functions among the congregation of them that profess the truth.
2. The Church in this last sense has a certain power granted by God, according to which it uses a proper jurisdiction and government, exercised to the comfort of the whole Church. This power ecclesiastical is an authority granted by God the Father, through the Mediator Jesus Christ, to His Church gathered, and having the ground in the Word of God: to be put in execution by them to whom the spiritual government of the Church by lawful calling is committed.
3. The Polity of the Church flowing from this power, is an order or form of spiritual government which is exercised by the members appointed thereto by the Word of God: and therefore is given immediately to the Office-bearers by whom it is exercised to the well-being (benefit) of the whole body. This power is diversely used: for, sometimes it is severally (individually) exercised, chiefly by the teachers, sometimes conjunctly by mutual consent of them that bear the office and charge, after the form of judgement. The former is commonly called potestas ordinis, and the other potestas jurisdictionis. These two kinds of power have both one authority, one ground, one final cause, but are different in the manner and form of execution, as is evident by the speaking of our Master in Mat. xvi. and xviii.[8]

Christ Jesus is the source of the power and authority of the Church and He delivers that to His Church through his written Word. So here we have the first principles of church government derived from the Word:
1. That Christ has given his church the authority to establish and administer rules, and
2. that there are office-bearers that are given authority to administer the rules that the church makes on Christ’s behalf.

Who administers Polity?

We have already seen in the Biblical Foundations and Historical Development section of the course that the Church has extraordinary and ordinary officers to administer the power of the keys given to it. The extra-ordinary officers of the Church are those who were put in place by the Lord for extraordinary times, especially in the establishment of the Church, the ordinary officers of the Church are those which we see ruling and governing under Christ today: The Pastor or Minister, the Elder, and the Deacon (the fourth office allowed but rarely used today is the Doctor).

[1] Quoted in {Hall 1994}, p. 3.
[2] “Beza is surely correct in his contention that laxity in applying biblical principles of church government leads eventually to the erosion of doctrine in the church.” {Hall 1994}, p.3:
[3] Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances began to establish a proper polity on the chaotic church in Geneva, and while there remained tests to its authority and disputes over the Ordinances for a number of years afterwards, by Beza’s time it had established a functioning system of church polity which became the prototype of effective Presbyterian and Reformed polity to this day. For further reading see {Rushdoony 1952}; also William G. Naphy, “Calvin’s Geneva” in {Mckim 2004}, p. 25; also another great book by {Manetsch 2012}; “Shortly before his death, Calvin looked back on the dismal condition of Geneva's church in the summer of 1536:  "When I first arrived in this church there was almost nothing.  They were preaching and that's all. They were good at seeking out idols and burning them, but there was no Reformation. Everything was in turmoil."[5] Accordingly, during the decade that followed, Calvin played a primary role in building a city church from the ground up:  he restructured Geneva's religious life to include three urban churches (St. Pierre's, the Madeleine, St. Gervais) and a dozen rural parishes; he recruited a pastoral team ranging from 15-20 ministers to serve these churches; he drafted a new church constitution to govern church ministry and daily Christian life; he wrote liturgies and catechisms to structure worship and enhance Christian instruction. In addition, Calvin established a number of church institutions to promote pastoral unity, accountability and collegiality, including the Company of Pastors, the Congrégation, the Quarterly Censure, and the Consistory. From an online article by Scott Manetsch “Pastoral Collegiality and Accountability in Calvin's Geneva” - See more at:
[4] Here is a great example of so-called “Spirit-filled” Christians needing proper guidance in the form of written polity.
[5] {Hall 1994}, p. xii
[6] In 1 Cor. 14, we have an example of polity at work: Paul actually lays out the order in which a service should proceed, who may speak, who is to keep silent, etc. At the very least, notwithstanding the charismatic gifts, even if this passage only refers to the church when gathered for worship this still provides the beginnings of universal principles of polity (cf. vs 33-34).
[7] 40 πάντα δὲ εὐσχημόνως καὶ κατὰ τάξιν γινέσθω. The greek words in verse 40 for “decently” and “in order” are εὐσχημόνως - euschemonos - being proper, or presentable, decorous, appropriate for display (BDAG); and τάξιν - taxin - arranging things in sequence, from which word we get our own word taxonomy - categorising and ordering items according to a scientific system.
[8] See {Kirk 1980} . This quote taken from PCA Victoria version found online at our website. In section 3 here, Matthew 16 refers to Matt. 16:18-19 particularly. 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, a“You are bthe Christ, cthe Son of dthe living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, e“Blessed are you, fSimon Bar-Jonah! For gflesh and blood has not revealed this to you, hbut my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, iyou are Peter, and jon this rock2 I will build my church, and kthe gates of lhell3 shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you mthe keys of the kingdom of heaven, and nwhatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed4 in heaven.”
a John 11:27
b See ch. 1:17
c See ch. 14:33
d Deut. 5:26; Josh. 3:10; Ps. 42:2; Jer. 10:10; Dan. 6:20; Hos. 1:10; Acts 14:15; 2 Cor. 3:3; 1 Tim. 4:10
e [ch. 13:16]
f [John 1:42; 21:15–17]
g 1 Cor. 15:50; Gal. 1:16 (Gk.); Eph. 6:12; Heb. 2:14
h 1 Cor. 2:10; 12:3; [ch. 11:25; John 6:45]
i [ch. 10:2; John 1:42]
j Eph. 2:20; Rev. 21:14; [ch. 7:24]
2 The Greek words for Peter and rock sound similar
k Job 38:17; Isa. 38:10
l See ch. 11:23
3 Greek the gates of Hades
m [Isa. 22:22; Rev. 1:18; 3:7]
n [ch. 18:18; John 20:23]
4 Or shall have been bound … shall have been loosed
Also, Matthew 18:18-20 -
18 Truly, I say to you, twhatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed6 in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you uagree on earth about anything they ask, vit will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are wgathered in my name, xthere am I among them.”
t [ch. 16:19; John 20:23]
6 Or shall have been bound … shall have been loosed
u [Acts 12:5, 12; Philem. 22]
v See ch. 7:7
w [Acts 4:30, 31; 1 Cor. 5:4]
x [ch. 28:20; John 12:26; 20:20, 26]

A Sketch of the Eldership in History
Family Camp 2017
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