Why I Preached on Biblical Polity, pt. 1

This past week in worship, I preached a sermon entitled, “Why Polity Matters.” Polity is simply the governing or guiding structures of an organization. Every organization (church) has a polity even if it is not clear or specific. Polity does matter.

As Jonathan Leeman points out in his assessment of the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast, polity is important for church health.

“When an organization is growing and prosperous, nobody cares much about its governing structures or polity. ‘If it ain’t broke, why fix it?’ People only care when things fall apart. Then they clamor, ‘Who has the power of discipline here? And who should be holding whom accountable?’ Discipline and accountability are the first things people wonder about when leaders fail. Why didn’t Driscoll keep himself accountable? Why didn’t the elders? Why didn’t an outside board? And so it goes… Polity is not essential for salvation, but it’s essential for helping the saved walk lovingly and peaceably together. It’s essential for passing the gospel to the next generation. It’s essential, finally, for biblical obedience.”[1]

Too many churches crumble because of internal wars of preference and power. Too many churches falter because of an unwillingness to hold onto theological fidelity. Too many churches are crushed because of leadership failure rooted in pride, a desire for power, or immorality.

A failure in leadership is often preceded by a failure in church polity. I don’t believe a church’s structures can protect against all sin (internal or external), but I have grown to believe that the biblical picture of elder-led congregationalism does offer a healthy and protective framework for pastoral leadership in the life of the church.

After months of praying, thinking, reading, and discussing with staff, deacons, and other church leaders, I shared with Wilkesboro Baptist Church a vision for rewriting our by-laws to include a plurality of elders.

What are elders? There are three interchangeable terms used in the New Testament for what we typically call the pastor. These terms are pastor, elder, overseer. They refer to the office of pastor. Pastor means shepherd and is used in Ephesians 4:11. Elder means an older male with a specific leadership role in the church and is used in Acts 20:17. Overseer means exactly what it suggests, someone who leads by overseeing the ministry of the church and is used in Acts 20:28 as well as described in 1 Timothy 3:1-7.

In this post and subsequent posts, I’m going to suggest several reasons why we should rewrite our by-laws to include a plurality of elders.

In this post, I’m just going to give one of several reasons for a plurality of elders: Biblical Warrant. There is not a didactic passage of Scripture that describes in detail exactly how a church should be structured. However, we do find evidence in both descriptive sections of Scripture (Acts) and prescriptive sections (the epistles) for a plurality of elders. Following are just a sample of Bible verses that reflect this topic. The emphasized words and phrases are mine.

When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them.

Acts 15:4

Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him.

Acts 20:17

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

Acts 20:28

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:

Philippians 1:1

Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. 

1 Timothy 4:14

There are other passages that suggest a similar picture: Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2-4, 22-23; 16:4; 1 Timothy 3:1-13; 5:17; Titus 1:5-9; Ephesians 4:11; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1-5; Hebrews 13:17.

With the highlighted words above, note that church is in the singular and elders or overseers is in the plural. Typically, at Wilkesboro Baptist, we’ve had a plurality of deacons. Currently, we have 21. And we do have a plurality of staff. But in terms of structured oversight of the congregation, we have had a Senior Pastor (with staff) and then deacons.

Given the passages above, I believe we need an organized plurality of elders (pastors) who are responsible for leading Wilkesboro Baptist Church.

In subsequent posts, I’ll offer more reasons for this change I’m proposing as well as what a plurality of elders might look like in our church. Here’s what I’m asking of you.

  • Pray for your church and its leaders. I did not embark upon this idea lightly. I do believe it is biblical, which is why I’m preaching on it and you’re reading about it here. Pray that we will be faithful to what God teaches and also wise and patient in how we approach this change.
  • Ask questions. I’ve been thinking on this subject for about 15 years as a minister, studying heavily on it for nearly a year, and having conversations with staff and deacons for that long. I realize some of you heard this for the first time on Sunday or are reading it for the first time here. Feel free to ask questions. I’ll be available personally. Also, our Wednesday night doctrine and devotion study provides an opportunity for you to ask questions about this topic.
  • Continue reading. Follow along in subsequent posts for more information about this subject.

[1] Jonathan Leeman, “An Ecclesiological Take on the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” https://www.9marks.org/article/an-ecclesiological-take-on-the-rise-and-fall-of-mars-hill/

Photo by Alexander Michl on Unsplash

8 thoughts on “Why I Preached on Biblical Polity, pt. 1

  1. I’d also suggest an administrator to represent the daily coordination of staff activity and member needs in some way when 4 Pastors or more. I do not mention this as Biblical but for cohesiveness in function of so many roles in leadership Between leaders with opportunity to coordinate with members and staff. Just some ideas! I suggest a women’s ministry and senior ministry pastor for the growing needs of the aged and a full time minister in music for the growing needs of music ministry to children and families. Thanks. I appreciate you allowing comments. I Humbly submit mine.

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