What is polity?
Polity is kind of what it sounds like – politics.
That got everyone who’s in ministry to laugh.
Polity is the church governing structure.
Protestant and Catholic churches have what’s called a “clergy/Laity” polity – there is a division in the class between the people in the pew and the pulpit. The Reverend/Priest/Father/etc. serves as Christ’s replacement while the Lord is away.
Baptists have a “pastoral” polity – there is no division between pulpit and pew. The pastor serves as Christ’s steward on earth, overseeing the church for the Lord while He is away.
Protestant and Catholic polity is further divided into groups. There is the clergy overseeing that church body, there is a over-clergy who watches over them (“Bishop” is the usual term), and they report to higher authorities, sometimes geographical (city, state, nation, hemisphere, world, and the head of that organization, such as Pope).
Among Protestants, there’s sometimes a over-laity just as there’s an over-clergy. This is the presbyers, or elders. Most Calvinist churches have boards of “elders” who represent the congregation.
I’ve used quote marks around certain terms, as Biblically Elder, Pastor, Bishop are all synonymous terms for the same office. There’s no Biblical support for a prebytery or “board of elders”.
Before Baptists can be smug, allow me to make the same statement about Deacon Boards overseeing pastors. It’s not Biblical, and it has a great deal of potential issues concerning the Believer’s judgment. What is the head of a Southern Baptist Deacon Board going to say to the Lord when the Lord asks pointed questions about an unBiblical “deacon board ordering pastors to do something/not do something” situation? Deacons are servants of the church, and not an appointed group to oversee a pastor.
So, how is Church polity supposed to be, Biblically?
“And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them.” (Acts 15:4, KJV)
Church – Apostle – Elder.
To understand the designation Apostle, we need to know that it is the Greek counterpart to “shluchim” or “Shaliach” in Hebrew, meaning “sent one”. To be an Apostle, one has to be personally trained and sent by the Lord Jesus Christ. This doesn’t mean by Bible reading and studying in your apartment or home office – this means walking physically with Jesus Christ, living with Him day to Day, and finally being Commissioned and sent by Him.
Since the Ascension of Jesus Christ into Heaven at the beginning of Acts, it is impossible to be an Apostle. The only Exception was Paul, and Paul spent years in the Arabian desert with Jesus Christ, learning. Why? I can guess, but let’s leave that one to “we’ll ask Him when we see Him face to face.”
Further study of the epistles show us that Apostles plant churches, train up pastors, and move on, serving only as a guide for churches. Only if things went drastically wrong with a church doctrinally did any Apostle interfere, and it seems to be limited to Corinth and Galatia.
Since the office of Apostle is gone (limited to the twelve and Paul), there’s no replacement for it today. With no apologies to the hordes of Pentecostal pastors who’ve ordained themselves as “apostle” ever since Fred Price did it first – you’re not apostles. You can’t be.
So, the polity of the church Biblically is limited to Pastor/Elder/Bishop (technically, Bishop is the most common Biblical term), and congregation. The pastor is not “clergy”, a different class of Christian, but rather, a Christian (at least, one hopes). The congregation is not “laity”, a lower class of Christian, but Christians (again, one hopes). Deacons are part of the congregation.
See why I say Polity is the same as “politics”? Everyone who’s not an Independent Baptist is pretty much offended by everything I just wrote!