Polity Is Spiritual

By Job Dalomba | July 3, 2023

Image by Romaset via Adobe Stock

I no longer believe myself to be a young minister, but my time as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is still in its early days. Four years ago, I entered the PCA after serving as a Baptist pastor for nine years. I came into my new church with a love for Presbyterian doctrine, worship, the denominational emphasis on the means of grace, the connection to other local churches that make up one national Church, and various other biblical distinctives. My affection has only increased in my time in the PCA, but one thing I have come to appreciate even more is Presbyterian polity, and particularly the spiritual nature of our polity.

When I first began studying for licensure and ordination, the exams on the Book of Church Order (BCO) were most daunting. While I was comfortable explaining the biblical foundation of Presbyterian polity, I was a bit taken aback when having to study the intricacies of the BCO. At first, I assumed I would need a lawyer to help me discern some of the language and cadence; but as time has elapsed, I have grown to understand more, and I am growing more adept at navigating through the BCO.

But much more than learning simply how to navigate the BCO, I am growing more appreciative of the BCO’s clear intention to promote godliness. In its preface, the PCA BCO says in Preliminary Principle 4, “Godliness is founded on truth. A test of truth is its power to promote holiness according to our Savior’s rule, ‘By their fruit ye shall know them’ (Matthew 7:20).” The BCO continues, “On the contrary, there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or embrace it.” From the outset, the polity of the BCO is framed such that the PCA would be a church ordered in a biblically faithful and wise manner, so that God may be glorified, and for His people’s blessing. In short, I am growing to appreciate Presbyterian polity more because polity is not inherently legal, but is inherently spiritual.

Polity is essentially an organized way to put biblical convictions and principles into practice. It is how we as a branch of the Body of Christ may best be faithful to our Lord and His Word in particular parts of the church. We seek to be organized in this way because of our convictions that Presbyterian polity is the prescribed polity of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. I do not intend to defend this conviction, but rather to show that polity is inherently spiritual because it is attempting to be as faithful to the Scriptures as a connectional Church can be. It is seeking to be faithful to God’s Word for the good of the Church, which glorifies God, and this is why polity is neither legal nor bureaucratic, but spiritual in nature. Polity can be made too legal or bureaucratic and lose its spiritual potency, but when polity is based upon God’s Word and seeking His glory and our good (as we are called to do in Scripture), then polity will remain spiritual.

Consider some situations that a church of any kind will inevitably face in its existence: How must a church be organized? Who may pastor a church in its first days? What type of training must he have? What are the expectations of his character? Who can call this man to be the pastor? Who will approve and oversee his work? Who can give him wisdom and council? Who will oversee this new church? We will need ruling elders and deacons: How do we determine who they are? Who can settle disputes in our church? Suppose we can’t find a resolution: Is there anyone to intervene and rule? What if our pastor, or one of our elders or deacons, demonstrates sins that are potentially disqualifying? How should we determine this? How can we do all of this in a just and merciful way? What if one of our members needs correction? How do we go from loving concern to the grievous moment of excommunication?

What if one of our young men wants to consider pastoral ministry? How can we lead him best? What if our church is no longer viable, or our membership and leaders want to close? How do we do this? What happens to the resources? What if our pastor resigns, but we do not want him to, or sense he should not; is there anything that can be done, or anyone to help? How can we have due diligence to make sure we are keeping our church in order?

There are also questions which confront the wider church: If we are bound together as a connectional church, how should we organize locally, regionally and nationally? What should we cooperate in? How can we have checks and balances to ensure the rights of minorities from the bottom to the top, and the top to the bottom? A connected church needs wise answers to these questions, and such a church must have a BCO that not only considers spiritual issues, but also is composed with the whole man and the whole church in mind.

An honest question of good faith push-back might look something like this: Yes, the Bible would lead us, even if only by good and necessary consequence to have some order, but do we need it to the degree the Presbyterians have developed? I would ask the questioner to consider the book of Deuteronomy. Much of Deuteronomy consists of calling Israel to covenantal faithfulness to the Lord, to keeping all His holy Law. Christ summarizes the Law as loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. In Deuteronomy, the Law is wide-ranging and includes many areas of life. It would be accurate to say these Laws are applying the moral Law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, to the life of the covenant people, both individually and communally.

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul sent Titus to Crete to put what remained in order by appointing elders in every town. Appointing elders was the result of Titus putting things in order, and they would be expected to keep the order that had been established. Elsewhere, the New Testament speaks of taking up offerings, dispensing those gifts, caring for orphans and widows, directions to pastors on faithful shepherding, discipling, planting churches, etc.

We should also consider the potential consequences of not having sound, biblical polity, or having a polity merely for order rather than promoting godliness in all parts of the church. A truncated of unbiblical polity leaves the church in a condition of being liable to stray from its doctrine and mission, resulting in the dishonor of her Lord. It leaves the church more vulnerable to pastoral sins such as harsh leading, manipulation, or incorrect or heretical teaching with no way of recourse. It opens the door for ungodly practices in the worship of God. It places the local church in a very vulnerable place where leadership in the congregation, or potentially from the presbytery and General Assembly, could run over the congregation, maliciously defrock godly ministers, or rashly defrock innocent men prematurely (bringing shame upon Christ), meddle where the Scripture does not allow, or worse, dissolve a local church prematurely or in an unwise or ungodly manner for ungodly reasons.

When any of these abuses take place, the awful effect is the injury of the individuals and families involved in the church. But where there is sound, healthy, and biblical polity that is honored and obeyed, a congregation, a presbytery, and an entire denomination – though imperfect – is better able to grow in its love for God and neighbor. It is better able to do what the church is called to do. God’s people are in a better place for shepherding, teaching, and maturity. God’s worship is more glorifying to Him than it might otherwise be, and His people are blessed. God’s elect are called and His church increased.

Sadly, no church polity is immune from sin. Christians are being sanctified, but are not yet glorified. This means that biblical polity’s careful implementation in the local church will not result in glorification. Wolves still enter in sheep’s clothing. The reality of sin is always with us, and in a bit of irony, that is precisely why we need church polity, and why polity is spiritual. Biblical polity does not take into account only that people are sinners, but it works to see that sin will not take its deepest possible root. But for the sad times when sin does take root, biblical polity is a powerful instrument to properly deal with sin as God’s Word requires.

Polity is inherently spiritual, and it seeks to serve the good of the church. May we keep this in mind in how we think, talk, and work towards godly biblical polity.

Job Dalomba is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of Christ Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Woodstock GA.

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