Why Books on Church Polity Belong in the “Ethics” Section of a Christian Library

Does the New Testament prescribe a particular form of church government for all times and places? “No,” many Christian academics have long believed. The New Testament’s materials on church polity are characterized by “irreconcilable diversity,” says Ernst Käsemann. Millard Erickson agrees, and then remarks that, even if the New Testament offered a unitary pattern, “It might be merely the pattern which was, not the pattern which must be.”

As a result, pastors and Christians today treat church structure pragmatically or–the more respectable word–as a matter of prudence.

While many day-to-day decisions in a church’s life surely depend upon prudence, the New Testament does prescribe a particular polity. Part of the reason we have difficulty seeing this fact is that we fail to recognize that the topic of “Church Polity” belongs in the “Ethics” section of the Christian library. That’s not to deny the topic also belongs in the “Theology” section and the “Ecclesiology” section specifically. Yet open the average “Introduction to Christian Ethics” book today and you’ll find nary a word on church polity. And when was the last time the ethics section at ETS compared congregational, presbyterian, and episcopalian church structures? Or offered a panel on the biblical viability of multi-site churches? Or even debated whether church membership is biblical? This paper will argue that these are unfortunate omissions, rooted in both our deep-seated individualism as well as the failure to reckon with the biblical data.

The rules of ethics concern the governance of behavior, which makes politics, governance, and polity generally a subcategory of ethics—call it social ethics. Institutions, including institutions of government, are nothing more or less than a set of moral evaluations that govern relationships. Not surprisingly, Aristotle turns in the final chapter of Ethics to the topic of legislations and constitutions as a segue to his next book, Politics. There’s an inevitability to that progression.

Christian ethicists excel in discussing the social norms that bind Christians in their capacity as individuals. They tend to overlook how Scripture also binds Christians as corporate entities–that is, how it binds Christians together as members in local churches united by a shared governance. Consider a few New Testament instructions: “let him be to you as a Gentile and or tax collector” (Matt. 18:17); “you are to deliver this man…” (1 Cor. 5:5); “an overseer must be…” (1 Tim. 3:2); “obey your leaders…” (Heb. 13:17). The grammar is corporate and imperatival. Even more foundational, however, is Jesus’s teaching on the keys of the kingdom, whose powers include binding believers together as a corporate entity (Matt. 16:19; 18:18).

So, again, does the New Testament prescribe a particular form of church government for all times and places? Yes, if one adheres to a biblical ethics. Contrary to Erickson, if we want to argue that New Testament ethics apply in general, we should say that Scripture’s instruction on church government applies, too. Church polity is ethics.