From non-denominational to Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Reformed etc. churches! What to make of it all? Where does one even begin? Second in our SFL ‘leaving Fundamentalism’ series …
2. Denominations think and act in different ways and categories.
Denominations have church polities. If lengthy, this discussion is needed. Polity is simply critical to church life. And what is church polity, you ask?
Polity refers to principles and rules adopted by a denomination to organize work and relationships — with other denominations, with churches in the denomination, with churches of your denomination in your region, with your local church, its officers, pastors and councils, and members.
Polity nurtures cooperation. It coordinates congregations, boards and church agencies for more effective ministry. This makes for a more united witness to Christ. Ideally, it makes many aspects of church life better.
Polity is required by seminary curriculum. Prospective ministers must pass polity courses to graduate and be ordained. But denominational polity [Church Order, Book of Church Order, Church Discipline, etc.] is available to members also. That is a key point. And there’s more.
Polity experts [as seminary professors who teach church polity] produce manuals explaining church order with case studies, church decisions and commentary on their biblical grounds. A church that understands and can use its polity has a powerful tool. Polity eliminates many procedural mistakes that often acerbate problems in the church. Mistakes can still happen. But polity gives you a procedure and framework to address them.
An Hypothetical, Church Polity Primer
Suppose a young woman believes that an elder, pastor or other church leader has acted indecently toward her. On her church bulletin board is displayed prominently four names [two women, two men] from her congregation to contact in such situations. She contacts one of the women.
Immediately, this woman contacts the regional response team. The offended woman is assigned a woman advocate to come along side her. She is no longer isolated. Her advocate can help her speak her story. If necessary, she can speak in her place. If the accused is a male, a man is assigned to come alongside and support the church leader at this time.
The regional response team will meet with the woman and her advocate. Another meeting is arranged with the church leader and his advocate. This committee is composed of people from churches of this denomination in the region. They have no tie to the woman, leader or their church. If this committee, a balance of women and men, believes that questions need answering, it can require the church leader to arrange a time to meet a panel of women and men trained to make inquiry into such cases.
If issues are not resolved, findings and recommendations are recorded and sent to the council of the original church. A copy is sent to the regional executive officers. The council takes such actions as it deems appropriate. The regional executive can make available someone [as a retired minister with time and wisdom] to assist this church council and to ensure that all is done properly and according to church order.
This woman’s case won’t vanish quietly. Review and oversight are woven into this process. When regional church officers meet, reports on work performed are discussed to see that matters are faithful resolved to honor Scripture and the church order. This entire process follows the procedure for resolving allegations of abuse as proscribed by the church order.
This example shows one way Fundamentalist sects could benefit greatly from such church polity. Polity matters because it can prevent and redress much church-related sorrow for the benefit of people and Jesus’ honor.
Polity differs between denominations. Some polities work more effectively in some areas than others. Yet this realistic, hypothetical example shows that a solidly Biblical polity can strengthen a church greatly.
Among many other things, polity empowers congregations to take action against abuses and to hold accountable those who perpetrate it. Too often, the absence of IFB church polity is used to conceal wrongful relationships. Believers are called to live in mutual submission to each other. This includes IFB pastors. Church polity provides a way of upholding this.
Where Polity Isn’t
Independent pastors argue that there is no Biblical basis for inter-church associations. Others feel that independence fails to express the unity of the body of Christ. But — never let this point of disagreement obscure the need of accountability and mutual submission. Let Heb 13:17 be held together with and be balanced by Eph 5:21.
Sects with no polity are responsible to write, adopt and make available to the whole membership transparent procedures for resolving issues that arise in church life. These must reflect truth, grace, justice, protect the vulnerable and hold all accountable. To require this is not disrespectful, rebellious or extreme. It is to ensure that justice issues are not resolved on the basis of who is related to who, appeals to authority, and secrecy.
Sects that refuse so to protect people thereby give members very grave grounds for leaving. It is entirely appropriate to ask church officers at a prospective church home about the policy and procedures by which the church operates, and whether this is readily available to all members. Church members have a right to know how their church is governed.
Denominational agencies include things such as world missions, home missions and outreach, social justice, diaconal issues, church education, publications, and more. Unless the denomination is small, expect at least one denominational seminary and possibly some liberal arts colleges. At times, representatives visit to give an overview of their work. This is tied to appeals to support that agency, its work, programs or some campaign. Periodically, deacons schedule offerings for an agency or campaign.
Non-denominational churches can do all these things; but they are not challenged to do so. And they’re on their own in terms of finding such works. They have no say in the standards maintained by independent agencies other than what support they can offer or retain as a church. Churches can always support ministries outside the denomination. But local churches are encouraged to support denominational causes first.
The Church Yearbook
The annual, denominational yearbook publishes the names, numbers and addresses of denominational officials, agencies, ministries, schools, regional executives, local church pastors and officers. This facilitates communication in the denomination for cooperation on many projects and ministries. A church embarking on a new ministry can contact churches known for that ministry to learn from them. Your local church can also contact the agency related to the ministry for more expertise.
Congregations elect officers to church council. Council is responsible for the oversight of all aspects of church life. Program leaders report to council. The pastor also reports to council, which supervises her/his work in preaching, visiting, teaching and whatever else belongs to the job description. If a pastor refuses to cooperate with church officers and all efforts to mend this relationship fail, council goes to the appropriate section of church order and takes this up at the regional meeting.