The Value of Church Authority and Polity

The Value of Church Authority and Polity

Have you heard the latest church scandal? Sadly, the question is too broad and too evergreen to signal what situation is in mind. Ask that question any time in the last decade and it will be relevant.

No church that is comprised of sinners is perfect, which is to say that there is no perfect church. Yet, Jesus has given us clear instructions to deal with sin in a church. If biblical church polity and authority were better appreciated and exercised, many of the scandalous sins and crimes that have plagued churches over the last ten years would have been far better handled than they were.

When church membership is taken seriously and both formative and corrective discipline are implemented carefully there can still be sinful things (even egregiously sinful and sometimes criminal) things done in a congregation. But when such sins and/or crimes occur, both the victims and perpetrators will be better loved and cared for than would otherwise be the case.

Faithful church leaders will lead a church to recognize the supreme authority of Jesus Christ.

Such a church, though not impervious to wolves coming among them (see Acts 20:29-30) will be a less attractive target for evil people. The elders of such churches recognize that no small part of their shepherding work includes defending the flock from wicked people. These men must be qualified & determined to “rebuke those who contradict” the faith and practice that Christ has given to His church (Titus 1:9). Elders must also be willing and able to “silence” anyone in the church who becomes insubordinate or deceitful (Titus 1:10-11). Commenting on these verses, John Calvin wisely said, “A pastor needs two voices, one for gathering the sheep and the other for driving away wolves and thieves.”

Faithful church leaders will lead a church to recognize the supreme authority of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18) and to appreciate His delegation of specific authority to people and institutions in His world. This includes the authority that magistrates (the state, executives, legislators, judges, police, etc.) have in the civil realm. They specifically have been made responsible by Christ to punish evil, or as the Apostle Paul puts it, to be “the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). In other words, Christ has ordained the state to deal with crimes.

He has similarly ordained the church to deal with sins. Matthew 18:15-120 is quite clear about what is to be done if a church member becomes recalcitrant in offensive sin and “refuses to listen even to the church” and repent. Such a person is to be regarded “as a Gentile and a tax collector,” or as an outsider. In other words, he is to be excommunicated. Where the sin is both scandalous and public, the steps Jesus outlines are to be compressed into immediate excommunication, as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 5.

Were churches to understand and follow these clear teachings of Scripture then sin would not be tolerated but would be lovingly corrected in the power of the risen Christ (1 Corinthians 5:4) with a view to helping the wayward brother repent and make things right. When such correction is rejected, then the church will exercise the authority Christ has delegated to it and the perpetrator would no longer be allowed to be a member.

In the same way when a crime is committed in the church (as has sadly and too often happened) the police should be called. Those government officials should exercise the authority Christ has vested in them and pursue justice, including vindication for any victims and punishment for any criminals. The church should cooperate with this process to see this outcome.

If you want to see the weak and the vulnerable loved and protected in churches, then pray and work for a renewal of biblical church authority and polity.

Think of the various scandals that have plagued churches over the last decade. We have heard horrific stories of children being preyed on by sexual perverts, women being abused by leaders, and money being wickedly misappropriated. How many of these situations do you know that were handled according to the instructions of God’s Word that I outlined above? Very few, if any at all. Had those churches been well-ordered and followed the instructions of Scripture, the stories would be much different.

That does not mean that there would have been no perpetrators nor victims. Again, no church is without sin. But it does mean that both the sinners and those who were sinned against would have been afforded the provisions that God has made in His church and world. I know of many such situations where this has been the case. Churches exercised the keys of the kingdom through excommunication and civil municipalities did not “bear the sword in vain” but prosecuted criminals. These cases tend not to make the headlines the way that the mishandled ones do. The sins are no less wicked and the crimes are no less heinous, but the grace and justice that Jesus has provided through His life, death, and resurrection were more readily and effectively applied as His Word was obeyed.

God’s ways are not only right, they are good. If you want to see the weak and the vulnerable loved and protected in churches, then pray and work for a renewal of biblical church authority and polity.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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