Polity Protects the Pulpit

by Zachary Groff | July 7, 2023

Image Use: Konstantin Yuganov via Adobe Stock; modified with text

After the 50th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), I had the unique privilege to spend 8.5 hours in my car with a founding father of the denomination. Dr. Joseph A. Pipa, Jr. and I made the long drive from Memphis to Greenville with much to talk about. We discussed our various interactions with friends, former classmates and (his) students, and the business of the Assembly.

At some point before I introduced my travel companion to Buc-ee’s for the first time, Dr. Pipa reflected on a felicitous feature of denominational health evidenced at this year’s Assembly. He remarked upon the impressive competencies and capabilities of many of the young pastors who took to the microphone to make floor speeches. He celebrated the rising generation’s knowledgeable, confident, and effective engagement with church polity and deliberation.

However, he did not stop there in his reflection. What he said next stuck in my mind as we made the trek home. The best I can do at this point is a paraphrase because I was driving, and not taking notes, at the time. Dr. Pipa said something along the lines of, “As happy as I am about how competent these men are in their polity, I certainly hope that they are at least as competent and adequately prepared to preach effectively as we all get back to the real work of ministry.” There is profound wisdom here for those of us who are increasingly interested and engaged in matters of polity.

I believe that Dr. Pipa’s point was that church government is subordinate to the worship of God. Rightly regulated church government exists for the sake of rightly regulated corporate worship. Because the ministry of the Word is a necessary part of corporate worship (a matter discussed at one point during the deliberations of the Assembly), our polity exists for the sake of preaching. In other words, polity serves preaching and is subordinate to it. How so? Specifically, polity protects the pulpit, and it does so in at least two ways.

In the first place, polity protects the pulpit from those who would otherwise abuse the God-ordained means of grace for their own advantage. The Apostle Paul pointedly charged the elders in Ephesus, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). Why would Paul be so urgent and emphatic in his last words to these beloved brothers and co-laborers in the gospel ministry? The immediately following verses give to us the answer. “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert” (Acts 20:29-31a). The office of Elder is one that is eminently concerned with protecting the pulpit from abusers, characterized by Paul in Acts 20:29 as “savage wolves,” echoing Christ’s warning against “false prophets” as “ravenous wolves” dressed “in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15). Thus, the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO) is primarily concerned with thoroughly examining and trying men for gospel ministry (in Part I – Form of Government) and especially concerned with the proper administration of church discipline (Part II – The Rules of Discipline).

In the second place, polity protects the pulpit from those who would otherwise abuse God-ordained ministers who fill the pulpit. One of the ringing themes of Christ’s teaching in His earthly ministry is the inevitability of religious persecution. The disciples received from Christ in the Sermon on the Mount the following assurances of both blessedness and persecution, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12). Later in the same discourse, Christ cautioned His disciples, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces” (Matthew 7:6).

Christ Himself experienced such verbal assaults shortly after the Sermon on the Mount as the Pharisees accused Him of performing exorcisms “by the ruler of the demons” (Matthew 9:34; see also, 12:24). His later sentence of death by crucifixion was formally due to a false accusation of blasphemy and an attempt by religious authorities to silence His prophetic witness, deny His royal rights, and squelch His spiritual following.

The same opposition faced by our Lord and Savior in His earthly ministry confronts faithful gospel ministers today. When that opposition manifests itself in the visible church, it is the function of polity to protect our pulpits and the men who fill them.

The court of public opinion provides no comparable recourse to us when we are falsely accused of being disqualified from ordained ministry. Likewise, the court of public opinion provides no certain help to us for the unmasking of wolves in sheep’s clothing. One danger of appealing to the court of public opinion in either situation is that such appeals severely (and sometimes irreversibly) damage the credibility of those who make them.

One much more reliable instrument (among several) which God has appointed for the protection of the pulpit is biblically regulated and sincerely administered polity.[1] Note that polity is an instrument. Polity is not an end in itself. The proper end toward which biblical polity is aimed is the worship of God. Worship comprises the reading and preaching of God’s Word, along with various other indispensable elements. Thus, polity protects preaching.

We must pursue biblically faithful, confessionally true, and missionally obedient polity for the sake of God’s glory in worship and preaching. May our polity be for our preaching. Let us not forget to order rightly (and decently) our ecclesiastical pursuits.

Zachary Groff is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of Antioch Presbyterian Church in Woodruff, SC.

[1] This is to be understood as qualitatively different than the perverted polity used to persecute Christ in the early First Century, His true servants and Christian martyrs throughout the history of the church, and more recent historical figures such as J. Gresham Machen and Walter Wynne Kenyon in the PCUSA of the Twentieth Century.

5 thoughts on “Polity Protects the Pulpit

Comments are closed.