A polity to avoid like the plague

I have been writing a lot about ecclesiology and polity lately. I didn’t intend to but one post became another and so it goes on. Every time I think I am done, something else crops up that seems worthy of comment. That should hardly be surprising (if you read my earlier comments) because almost everything that happens in our churches stems from our ecclesiology.

Evidently, then, I think ecclesiology is important and I am saddened that so many churches simply don’t seem to think so. In fact, so low on the list of priorities does it come that it barely gets a look in until that fateful day when the wheels start coming off. Only, at that point, it’s all too late isn’t it. The structures aren’t there, things go awry and the whole house of cards comes crashing down.

As important as I think ecclesiology and polity are (and they are important), I don’t think faulty ecclesiology is always a reason to avoid a church. But I do think there are forms of ecclesiology and polity that spring up that should cause us to think twice about joining the church in the first place. Much ecclesiology owes far more to pragmatism than anything we read in the Bible and, whilst any model relying on it isn’t to be commended, of itself I’m not sure I would refuse to join in fellowship unless that spoke to a pragmatic principle running through the rest of the church (which it may well do).

But there is a particular ecclesiological problem that is absolutely toxic. Actually, there are several. But there is one that rears its head frequently that, should you see it, I would counsel you to keep well away. That is the leader who surrounds himself with only with yes-men. It is the polity that puts one man above all others and then surrounds himself with an echo-chamber of his own thoughts.

This came to mind for a series of reasons. Most recently, it was reading Stephen McAlpine’s blog post on the downfall of yet another mega church pastor. This toxic, horribly familiar story was playing out yet again. He comments:

The recurring central theme to these scandals is the manner in which a concerned, godly eldership is first enervated by an increasingly toxic church leader, then replaced by that church leader, before finally being excoriated publicly by that church leader, with the new leadership on stage leading the tomato throwing exercise.

And who are these people who takes the place of such elders?  A board which governs at the whim of the leader.  A toothless tiger that is full of  “yes men” (occasionally, but rarely women), whose job it is to smooth the pathway for the leader, by first not speaking about or investigating wrongs being committed; then allowing that leader to call all of the shots; before finally closing ranks around the leader in his condemnation of those who stood against his sinful behaviour.

That’s the familiar pattern.   It would seem that the biblicists among such leaders baulk at that most biblical of requirements for church leadership; godly elders whose lives and whose teaching accords with the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.

It was a theme in another conversation with an Anglican friend. We like to chat about baptism and polity and the stuff we generally don’t agree on because we know we can without either one of us jumping down the other’s throat and making life entirely unpleasant. But, in one conversation, my friend noted that the Biblical model appeared to be multiple elders in one church whilst the Church of England appear to be pursuing a purposeful inverted policy of multiple churches per single elder. That alone accounts for a significant chunk of the decline therein.

But even beyond that, we had a good discussion of how episcopacy should work if it is working rightly. Now, obviously I don’t buy it as a model at all, but notwithstanding that it was interesting how the very toxic model that leads to churches falling is the model being actively encouraged in Anglican churches. There is, essentially, one guy at the top who runs the church like his own personal fiefdom. It is often not possible to surround oneself with yes-men – given the state of many of their churches – so they instead have one man without yes or no men.

My outsiders observation of that approach is that it tends to be the death knell for even the best of men. Man was not made to lead the church alone, and certainly not half a dozen churches on his own. But even if the guy leading does manage to hold it together, it often doesn’t end all that well for his church either. As my friend noted, there simply isn’t an effective system of discipline anymore because anybody confirmed anywhere is essentially ‘in’ and withholding the sacraments (at least, long-term) must be ratified by a bishop who is in no position to know the situation.

But this happens plenty in dissenting churches with a system of eldership. The pastor can very quickly become ‘senior pastor’ and the elders are soon relegated to little more than a sounding board. Those dissenters who, somewhat ironically, dissent are quickly brushed aside and replaced with those who will, indeed, toe the line and offer the requisite undying support. Whilst there may be elders in name, the question is whether anybody will let them be elders in practice.

Whatever your view on different systems of polity – congregational, presbyterian or episcopal (or something else) – most have some evident, in-built checks and balances. In congregational models, it is first the co-equal eldership and second the congregation itself. In presbyterian models, it is first the elders and second the presbytery. In episcopal systems, it is the PCC and the bishop. Whatever the merits and demerits of each system, there is are checks and balances at play.

But the leader who either has no eldership, or places himself above his elders, immediately removes the first check. The one who, in turn, fails to submit to the congregation, presbytery or bishop is removing the other. And if there is one thing to beware, it is a man who refuses to be under authority. If the authority of his church is irrelevant to him, chances are he will consider the Lord’s authority somewhat incidental too.

If poor ecclesiology leads to all manner of problems (and it always does), the worst of all ecclesiological positions is the leader who refuses to have any checks and balances on his unfettered authority. Such is the view of a man who would make himself God and cannot be somebody to whose authority anybody should submit. If you perceive such a structure in any church you are thinking of joining, save yourself a world of pain and keep well away.

The lesson as ever: ecclesiology and polity really matter.