Why we need to think about ecclesiology and polity more than we care to admit

One of the problems with our lack of thought on ecclesiology is that things are usually fine until they start going wrong. We don’t like to think too hard about polity but, if we don’t, the systems that scripture puts in place to protect the church simply aren’t there when issues arise.

One of the big problems is that, without prior thought on polity and ecclesiology, when we are faced with issues we fall into a thoroughly unhealthy pragmatism. We end up searching the scriptures for what to do in the situation but, having not put in place the structures it demands, we find what it calls us to do may not make much sense.

The other problem is that much of what goes wrong within the church stems from bad ecclesiology. If we are dealing with issues of serious sin, but have no set process or structures for dealing with such things, folk end up feeling rightly aggrieved when, despite their sin, discipline feels somewhat ad hoc with no evident consistency applied.

But more frequently, when people begin to get dissatisfied with the church, it almost always stems from poor ecclesiology and polity. They feel the church, or the elders (or the guy at the top, depending on how far you’ve thought these things through) ought to be doing this, that or the other. The problem is that they’ve never spent much time thinking through what the church is supposed to do, how it is to be led, what is its mission or how it reaches decisions regarding its priorities. Without such thought, we do end up falling back (at least a bit) on what we feel ought to happen.

When members become unhappy that the church isn’t doing enough X or seems to be prioritising Y, that stems from one’s ecclesiology. When they sense the pastor, or elders, or whoever should or shouldn’t be doing things differently, that stems from their view of ecclesiology and polity. When members have concerns with other members – for example, the church isn’t friendly enough, some people aren’t serving as they ought, all the work is falling on me, etc, etc – these are all questions of ecclesiology.

What is the church and who are its members? Is there only ever one church minister, are the elders the ministers or is it all the members? How does one belong to the church and what is required of those that do? What are the priorities of the church? How does the church determine what it does in its meetings, what evangelistic strategy to pursue, whom the Lord has called it to reach and how? All these questions will be answered with ecclesiology and polity.

The overwhelming majority of issues in our churches stem from a lack of thinking on ecclesiology. If we don’t get our doctrine of the church right, if we don’t understand the structures and processes the church is called to institute, we are storing up problems for ourselves when our members all bring their different views, ideas (and, let’s be honest) feelings into the conversation. Who we are, what we’re about, how we should be about it and how we address things when they go wrong are some of the most basic questions a church must be able to answer clearly.

In short, we need to think longer and harder about ecclesiology and polity than many of us are willing to admit.