If there’s a lesson to learn: get in a church and make sure it has healthy polity

Let me say from the start, in what follows, I am not saying that the local church and proper polity will absolutely protect your church and its leaders from scandal. We all recognise that within the local church pastors still fall. What is more, within local churches with outstanding polity, pastors sin in serious ways. I am not going to be arguing here that a right view of the local church and healthy, biblical polity, means there is zero risk for your church or your leader.

However, what I am going to argue is that a right understanding of the local church and proper, biblical, healthy polity will go a long way to protecting your church and its leaders. Much like the COVID-19 vaccines, it’s not a guarantee, but it will give some considerable protection. It will minimally give you the appropriate structures and procedures to deal with issues of sin when they arise within the church, especially when they are flagrant, ministry-disqualifying ones. But it will also go further to protecting the church itself. It makes it less likely that your pastor will fall – not a guarantee against such things, but considerably less likely – because there is clear accountability in place and processes that mean your pastor is aware that he is not immune from sanction.

The reason I am writing this at all is because of the latest report regarding the scandal surrounding Ravi Zacharias. You can read the report here in Christianity Today. What seems apparent throughout the report are these key things: (1) Ravi Zacharias had no credible accountability; (2) The organisation – built around his name – and the structures and finances that went with it were actively used to cover up his sinful behaviour; (3) Power within the organisation was largely vested in the one man, his family and friends.

One of the major issues with parachurch ministry is that it lacks biblical accountability. That isn’t to say there are never any systems of accountability in place, but it is to say they are almost never biblical. The reason for this is obvious enough – the only means of spiritual accountability the Bible recognises is that of the local church. In parachurch ministry built around an individual, this is magnified further. The more powerful, well-funded and respected that individual becomes, the harder it is to insist on proper accountability structures if they were not there in the very beginning. It is hard to retrofit accountability to a man who has avoided it and grown powerful enough to get away with having done so.

This problem exists equally for those who would consider themselves evangelists but who tend to view the local church either as an inconvenience to their ‘real work’ of evangelism or as something to be endured purely because scripture says it is something Christians should be in. Those who would jettison the local church – regardless of the pseudo-spiritual sounding reasons for doing so – are placing themselves in serious danger. They are losing the accountability of elders and church members who are committed to helping them continue to walk worthily in Christ. If our particular local church is constantly short-changed and we are never there because there was another conference to speak at, or a rally I had to attend, no matter how often we insist that there are souls that need saving, we fail to recognise we are playing russian roulette with our own. One of the primary means the Lord has given to believers to ensure they remain faithful to Christ is the local church. We disregard it – for whatever apparently spiritual reason – at our peril.

Being a member of a local church, accountable to that local church, is key. That is not to say there are no reasons why we might ever be away from our church. It is to say, if we are away more than we are there, we are not making ourselves accountable. If we have organised our lives so that we are never around and nobody knows what is going on with us, no matter how spiritual the reasons might be, we are avoiding any credible accountability in practice and we are abandoning the local church to which Christ calls us to commit. Meaningfully belonging to a local church – actually ensuring we are there more than we are not, that we are properly known and we actually submit to the authority of the elders there – is vital.

But within the church itself, there needs to be church governance. Polity is considered the Cinderella of theological study. Far too many people think it doesn’t really matter, it’s not important. That is, of course, until the wheels start coming off. All of sudden, questions abound. What is a church and what are our priorities (and are these things them)? How should churches function properly and are we doing so? What is an elder and the reach of his authority and can he speak into this situation? What is a member and their role in the church, can they do anything? What process do we follow now some sin has come to light and needs addressing? All too often, these questions are only looked at when some fire arises that needs to be put out. Only, just as with a real fire, if you haven’t bothered sorting out your smoke alarms and sprinkler systems before there was a problem – and you think when a fire arises you can wait six months and have a few family meetings to determine what to do whilst you are surrounded by smoke and flames – you are going down along with your entire house. As I said here two years ago (and have said numerous times before and after), these things have to be addressed before the problems arise or we’re going to be in big trouble.

But merely being in a local church might not be enough. Proper consideration needs to be given to your polity and structures. So, what authority do elders have and what involvement do members have in the life of the church? Where do members go if issues of sin arise within either the congregation or amongst the eldership? What process is to be followed? Who has ultimate authority within the church to determine what happens? Are there any rights of appeal? These are just some of the questions that it bears asking and making sure everybody in your church understands and knows a clear answer to them.

As an independent committed to baptistic polity, I am convinced that the church is to be ruled by its members and led by a co-equal plurality of elders. There is a symbiotic relationship whereby the members elect their elders and then submit to their rule and are answerable to them. By the same token, the elders lead in the church yet are ultimately answerable to the members. The members are accountable to the elders and then, if needs be, the wider church. The same is true for the elders, who are also members of the church. Should either an elder or a member fall into sin, there is a clear process for removing them from office or the church as needs be. A majority of members may move that a person is disqualified from office or from church membership and then vote – in the same way as they voted them in – to remove them.

You may be convinced of some other form of polity. I don’t want to get into the whys and wherefores of the most biblical form here. But, whatever approach you think most faithfully reflects the biblical data, can you answer these questions?

  1. Where does authority lie within your church and how is it exercised?
  2. If a member falls into sin, is there a clear and consistent process for addressing it?
  3. If an elder falls into sin, is there a clear and consistent process for addressing it?
  4. How can your leaders be removed from office if they fall into unrepentant sin?
    1. Are those who decide external trustees who have been appointed by the elders?
    2. Are those who decide elders who have been appointed by the elders?
    3. Are your elders actually plural and meaningfully co-equal so that the decision is not ultimately vested in one man (potentially, the man being accused)?
  5. How does your polity ensure that decisions are meaningfully independent of the person accused of sin?
  6. How do you ensure authority is not vested in one man either in actuality (i.e. one-man at the top model with no internal or external balances) or functionally (plural eldership appointed by one elder to suit his preferences and/or first-among-equals model where co-equality is not actual equality)?
  7. What real-terms consequences exist for those who fall into unrepentant sin?

Submitting ourselves to a local church is vital, but similarly important is ensuring we are in a local church that takes seriously the need for proper polity. It is easy to ostensibly belong to a local church whilst not being held accountable to anything. It is easy to belong to a church that makes no demands on us or that has no interest in ensuring we are walking rightly with Christ. Indeed, should we fall into sin, we ought to want our church to make sure it tells us so and has processes in place that will help us lead to repentance. If we are happy to be somewhere with no interest in doing that, we are saying we have more interest in the church leaving me alone than I do in ensuring I remain faithful to Christ.

But this is all the more true for our leaders. Satan loves to attack those who are prominent so as to cause more damage to the cause of Christ. If our leaders are more prone to spiritual attack due to their prominence (and I think that is probably true), it means our processes that are vital for helping us remain faithful as members ought to be especially clear for our leaders. Any leader who does not want to submit himself to those structures – those who would avoid such accountability – are effectively saying they would rather be ‘efficient’, ‘free to lead’ or ‘not bogged down with this secondary matter’ than they would like to make sure they are faithful to Christ. If we have any understanding of the human heart and our propensity to sin, and we couple that with the tendency for Satan to attack prominent leaders in the church, a refusal to submit ourselves to credible accountability and church structures is as foolish as it is dangerous.

For the sake of Christ and his church, for the protection of the gospel, we should not look at the local church, accountability and biblical polity as some sort of stymying tertiary matter of indifference. We should look at the Ravi Zachariases of the world and be careful lest we fall. Ask yourself honestly whether you have avoided accountability. Maybe not so you can do exactly as he did – maybe your propensity to sin is different to his – but so that you can attempt to make sure whatever your sin happens to be it will not be found out. Rather than tut, feel sad and retweet our disapproval alone, we should go back and ask ourselves, do I really have the structures around me that can stop me heading down the same path? Have I insulated myself so the church cannot hold me to account? Have I set myself up knowing there aren’t really any structures in my church to ensure, if I do start to wander from Christ, anything can be done about it?

Take a look at your ministry. If you don’t belong to a local church, get in one. If you ostensibly do but you’re never there because of other ministry commitment, reorganise yourself so that you are known meaningfully by your church. If you are in a church with no meaningful structures, do what you are able to ensure that some credible ones are put in place. If you are an elder of a church but you know that your are beyond contradiction and your church has no means of addressing your sin, no mechanism to remove you if you won’t repent, think about how you can divest some of your authority so that you are not in that precarious position. Let’s not keep putting off the questions of polity. Let’s not just hand-wring about yet another ministry failure. Let’s organise ourselves as the Lord says we should and submit to the only institution scripture knows for accountability and the means he gives us of remaining faithful – properly ordered, healthy local churches.