Polity and Ecclesiology

It is a very human trait, one from which even theologians are not immune: the tendency to make ourselves the default reference point for everything. We do it without realising it, because it is built into our subconscious. But it happens nonetheless.

One particular locus of theology where this becomes repeatedly obvious is in our understanding of the church. Christians generally and ministers/theologians in particular can unwittingly emphasise their own particular church polity over against the larger ecclesiology from it which by definition it must be drawn.

The labels that have traditionally become attached to specific church groupings speak for themselves: Roman, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Baptist, Independent, Pentecostal and the list goes on. The problem is that the adjective ends up becoming more important than the noun.

For confessional churches, it is wise to remind ourselves that our denominational confessions are underpinned by the catholic creeds of the Ancient Church. They not only predate the confessions of faith and catechisms that articulate the detail of what we believe, they provide the larger context we must always bear in mind as we uphold particular details.

When it comes to understanding the church, our belief in ‘the holy catholic church’ (Apostles Creed) and ‘one holy and apostolic church’ (Nicene Creed) is foundational.

This is not to say that the range of interpretations and the convictions bound up with them are not important. They are. But the Bible does not provide unequivocal grounds for every detail of particular expressions of church. Issues of government [polity] and even of sacrament do not lie at the heart of what constitutes a true church. As George Whitefield once said, ‘There will be no Presbyterians in heaven!’

What, then, is non-negotiable? At the most basic level, the fact the church belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ. In his very first use of ecclesia during his earthly ministry, Jesus told the disciples at Caesarea Philippi, ‘I will build my church’ (Mt 16.18). He used the personal possessive pronoun, not the definite article.

This has to be the prime point of reference. The church is never ‘my church’ in the first instance. This can only be true in a secondary sense. It belongs primarily to Christ. It was purchased by his blood and indwelt and superintended by his Spirit (Ac 20.28). It is his body (1Co 12.27) and bride (Eph 5.25-30).

This is fleshed out further as we remember it is also the ‘apostolic church’. It is ‘built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone’ (Eph 2.20). That is, the final arbiter in questions of particular detail of our doctrine of the church is Scripture. And the history of interpretation of this particular strand of the Bible’s teaching speaks for itself when it comes to certain details. It does not allow for sweeping dogmatism over every aspect of what we may believe concerning the church.

This should temper how we hold some of these details and how we relate to other Christians who hold to alternative interpretations. The unity we enjoy by virtue of our shared union and communion with Christ should not be clouded by the diversity that exists between differing views of church order and practice. (This same principle, however, also serves as a safeguard against views that are indefensible in light of Scripture: Unitarianism being an obvious example.)

Perhaps the most significant implication of holding our understanding of polity in proper tension with a larger ecclesiology is the necessity of interacting with the wider church. It is not just that we should guard our own denominational churches as well as our congregations from being ghettoised; we should see it as our Christ-given obligation to relate to his wider body.

This may take on many forms. Many churches consciously provide for inter-church relationships with other churches and denominations within doctrinally defined parameters. But, even beyond this, there are organisations and structures which, while they possess no formal ecclesiastical authority, can serve as useful facilitators for constructive debate and dialogue between churches.

Too often churches (and Christians) shy away from this responsibility because it is deemed ‘too risky’. However, the alternative is no less risky. The Westminster Confession of Faith wisely reminds us, ‘the purest churches under heaven are subject to mixture and to error’ (25.5). We do not safeguard the church by retreating into ourselves, but by thoughtfully interacting with those who name the Name of Christ. In some cases this may well mean challenging them in light of Scripture. But it may equally mean our being challenged by them in light of the very same Scriptures too.

If we lose sight of the primacy of the one holy apostolic church over the particular expressions of church to which we belong, our churches will be the poorer for it and our view of the global church will be myopic at best. But if we joyfully confess our ecclesiology above our polity each time we recite the creed, it will surely cause us to ‘lift up our eyes’ to better appreciate what the Lord of the church and the Lord of the harvest is doing throughout the world.

Mark Johnston