Does the Bible Prescribe Church Polity?

This Spring 2016 I hope to be at Together for the Gospel. That is, I hope to be worshiping and being equipped with my Presbyterian, Anglican, Bible church, and Baptist brothers and sisters in Christ (among others). I am glad that we can rejoice in and come together for the gospel that is of “first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3). But just because a matter is of secondary importance, does not relegate it to the status of unimportance. Such is church polity. And I confess that I have often ignored and dismissed church governance as being unimportant (and maybe even unspiritual!). Thankfully, Bobby Jamieson’s Why New Testament Polity is Prescriptive gives a helpful corrective to such anti-authoritarian and post-modern thought by bringing us back to the Bible.

His argument is clear and winsome, so I’ll simply seek to address one potential objection that he only briefly deals with. There is a critique that the Bible provides no ‘systematic’ and ‘logically propounded’ form of government in any one passage or even book of the New Testament. Put another way, if God wanted to communicate a prescriptive church polity, why did he not lay it down in detail somewhere? Surely one of Paul’s epistles would do. Yet as Jamieson notes, this an unrealistic burden to bear. The New Testament is not laid out like a systematic theology textbook. Instead, most of it is occasional epistolary literature that is directed at particular controversies. And as William Williams note, we do not even receive something as important the gospel in such a way. Instead, by searching diligently, we come to a composite of the whole testimony of Scripture. And as Jamieson notes, even the Trinity is not a elucidated in any one passage of the New Testament!

Furthermore, I believe this critique wrongly understands the nature of the Scriptures. As 2 Timothy 3:16 states, “All Scripture is breathed out by God…that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work”. Which implies that should certain portions of Scripture be removed, there would be certain good works that would be impossible to do. God has sovereignly orchestrated the components of the Bible because they are all necessary.

The Bible presents a variety of witnesses to a variety of events (or sometimes, to the same events). And God has given us this “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) to inform our faith. And our view of God would be deficient if we only had the Pentateuch. Or the prophets. Or the epistles. Nowhere is this more clear than in the fourfold Gospel witness! We have four accounts because they each have unique emphases and stresses that are important to the divine revelation. The Bible includes a plurality of witnesses because there is a plurality of lessons and truths to be learned. Applied to church polity, it is unhelpful to pit the letters to the Corinthians against the Pastoral Epistles. Looking for every book to be identical is naive and dangerous—indeed, if that was the expectation, then we would only need one book in the New Testament! Instead, we should view the Gospels, Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation as being complementary in their contribution the the New Testament’s whole witness to elder-led, congregational polity.

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