Five key questions to ask of your church polity

Tony Benn famously said there are five essential questions to ask of anybody in positions of social, economic or political power:

“What power have you got?”

“Where did you get it from?”

“In whose interests do you use it?”

“To whom are you accountable?”

“How do we get rid of you?”

As a raging Bennite socialist, with the same small ‘d’ democrat disposition, I love this set of questions. I think they are political dynamite. But as a big ‘c’ Christian, of the Reformed Evangelical kind, I think these are a remarkably helpful set of questions to ask of your church polity too.

Now, I appreciate the answer to the first two questions might differ depending on our understanding of scripture. But the latter three, I think, are of absolutely vital importance for the health of the local church. Let’s look briefly at each one.

What power?

I wonder how you would answer this one? Exactly what power does an elder or church leader hold? Depending on your polity, the particular amount of power you hold might be lesser or greater.

In an ultra-congregational format that isn’t elder-led (maybe elder or deacon managed in some way – maybe no elders or deacons at all), the answer will probably be ‘not much’. In a church that is both Independent but with internal Anglican polity i.e. a pastor-cum-vicar leading the church with no congregational involvement, potentially no elders and no external bishops, the answer is probably something close to ‘far too much’. Most churches would sit somewhere on a spectrum between those two positions.

But, at heart, the power we hold in the church ought to be only those that scripture gives us the right to exercise. We do not have the power to compel or to bind; we have the role of servants there to lead by example, just as Jesus did. If we are ever in a position to force conformity we have overstepped our God-given leadership bounds. We may encourage by example and counsel with the scriptures; we are not enforcers and spiritual whips.

Where from?

If you have a strong view of divine calling, specifically regarding pastoral ministry, you will probably argue that your authority comes from the Lord. In the most extreme cases, people will use the language of ‘anointing’ and try to take on the mantle of a modern day Moses (or, let’s be honest, Jesus). If, like me, you believe we’re all called – under God’s sovereignty – to whatever we happen to be doing, calling to pastoral ministry is primarily wrested in the church (notwithstanding that the Lord will orchestrate things in his sovereignty and, yes, on some level there must be a desire to do the job, usually manifest in saying ‘yes’ to an offer or sending in applications).

Both views have ramifications for the previous question of what power you happen to hold. If you are ‘The Lord’s anointed’ – and your authority comes directly from him – your power will be vastly more than the guy who believes he is granted his authority by the church. If you are put in place yourself – perhaps as a self-appointed planter or something – you will have a far greater leeway than if you were elected to office by your members.

Whose interest?

Some would want to argue that they exercise their authority in the Lord’s interest. On one level, I guess that is right, though it probably speaks to a misunderstanding of the role. The Lord has ultimate authority in the church altogether and doesn’t particularly need us to exercise anything in his interests. Rather, he lends his under shepherds his authority as the Chief Shepherd to watch over the flock that he has entrusted to our care.

Whether we see our authority as coming directly and wholly from the Lord, or we tend to see it coming principally from the recognition of the church, scripture is clear that we exercise our authority for the good of the church. If we believe that the purpose of human existence is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, then the best interests of the church are all directed towards that goal. It is in the interest of the church to glorify God and enjoy him, so our power must be exercised in their best interest to help them attain to that purpose for which they were created.

Accountable to whom?

In many ways, the answer to our second question often ends up being the de facto answer to this one. If our authority comes only, and directly, from the Lord then we are wont to insist that we are only accountable to him. If we believe that we have been appointed to our role by the church, we are likely to see ourselves as accountable to them.

In the independent, elder-led, congregational polity that I regard as properly biblical, the answer is kind of both. We are ultimately accountable to the Lord and will give an account for how we have cared for the souls of those entrusted to our care. At the same time, we are temporally accountable to the church who called us. It was the church who appointed us to office and it is the church who may remove us from post. Whilst we will all have to account finally to the Lord – whether in leadership or not – we are called, granted our authority and held accountable for our ministry by the church itself. This means we are accountable to our fellow elders and to the wider congregation.

Of course, if you don’t hold to congregational polity, you may argue that you are held accountable by the elders first and, as a second line of defence, the presbytery. Or, perhaps, the PCC and then the bishop. Maybe you have some other setup. But if you are neither accountable to your elders, your congregation nor any external authority, not only is your setup entirely unbiblical (on the reckoning of any mainline polity) you are an unaccountable leader with ultimate authority; a highly dangerous place to be for you and your church.

Getting rid?

For congregationalists like me, the answer is simple enough. The same vote of the membership that brought you into office can be the same vote that removed you. If the church believe you have departed the gospel, your lifestyle has undermined the gospel or you have disqualified yourself from leadership, they may move to remove you from post. The same people who called you and affirmed your authority may rescind their call and affirmation. In the member-ruled, elder-led congregational model I think is right, the elders lead with the consent of their members. The church as a whole have the ability to elect and remove their leaders and the same mechanism that brings them in may take them out.

In other forms of polity, there will no doubt be mechanisms built in too. For many, the same means of appointment is the same means of removal. That is to say, whoever affirmed the person to office (the church, the elders, the bishop, whomever) may rescind their ongoing affirmation and remove leaders from post using whatever built-in mechanism they have.

So what?

The important thing here is not specifically how you answer those questions. Obviously, most of us will answer those questions and assert that our polity is the Biblically faithful one. That’s cool – we have to do what we do based on our scriptural convictions. We may see strengths and weaknesses in all these things. But the important thing is that we have clear and credible answers to these five questions.

Far too many of us – regardless of whatever model we claim to favour – simply can’t answer these questions well. We claim to be accountable to our members but we give our members no mechanism to actually remove us from post. We claim to be accountable to elders but we insist on creating a setup where it is impossible for elders to disagree with us (and, if we appoint them, we just bump off whoever doesn’t toe the line). We may claim to serve the interests of our people, but we happily use our power to trample over them and treat them as ‘resources’ to achieve our ministry aims.

If we don’t have solid answers to each of these questions, we are asking for trouble. We may well be creating the conditions for narcissistic leaders to thrive. Men who cannot be assailed, whose authority cannot be challenged and who cannot be removed from office. Otherwise, we are setting up the church for a world of pain when the sadly all too common fall of yet another pastor cannot be dealt with apart from on the abusive leader’s terms because we simply do not have the mechanisms in place to do anything about it.

It is often said that ecclesiology is the Cinderella of theology. Nobody really cares until something goes badly wrong and we suddenly realise the key questions we should have been asking when we first planted our church have never really been asked. At a minimum, go and get some credible, biblical answers to the five questions above. Do it before it is too late. The church is too precious, and the Lord’s people far too valuable, to let it slide.