Persecution and the Wisdom of Church Polity
Polity. Not exactly a word that evokes images of the gospel spreading to the darkest reaches of the globe as the Lord’s church faithfully proclaims the good news no matter the opposition.
In fact, I’d venture to say most of us assume that the parts of the world where the church is most persecuted are exactly the places where the church simply doesn’t have time to talk about theoretical issues of church order. Only a church in relative safety and comfort has the time to talk about polity.
More than that, isn’t polity one of the most divisive topics within evangelicalism? More than one respected theologian has eschewed discussing polity, seeing it as an area that simply fosters disunity with little to show for it.
Shouldn’t we, therefore, be slow to spread our beliefs about polity to other portions of the globe? When churches in China are fighting for survival and trying to avoid government oppression, what room is there for discussions of elder-rule versus elder-led? When family members are actively seeking to kill your church members, why spend time distinguishing between the roles of elders and deacons? When you’re marginalized and attacked by a syncretistic Roman Catholicism, who cares whether you’re a Baptist, a Presbyterian, or a Methodist?
Yet these scenarios where we’re quickest to discount the relevancy of polity actually reveal the wisdom of God in giving the church a particular structure and order. Let’s think about two simple examples: a plurality of elders and local church autonomy.
One note before we go further. Though the following arguments are for specific polity practices that I believe are right, these illustrations aren’t foundational reasons as to why we should practice them. That sort of pragmatism is dangerous because it cuts both ways. As in every other area of Christian obedience, we obey first because our Lord has decreed it; at the same time, we can recognize the goodness and wisdom of his commands, and so be strengthened to continue in them.
THE WISDOM OF PLURALITY IN LEADERSHIP
The biblical norm of a plurality of elders is among the clearest examples of God’s wisdom in polity (Acts 14:23; Phil. 1:1; Jas. 5:14). Any pastor who has felt the strain of difficult and unclear situations either knows or longs for the value of having the wisdom and support of other shepherds. So it should be no surprised that the value of plural leadership in the midst of persecution is that much greater.
Practically speaking, it’s a statistical advantage for a persecuted church to have more than one spiritual leader in the church. What happens to a church with one elder when that man is imprisoned or killed? That church might not be destroyed, but it will certainly be discouraged, and historically such churches are often paralyzed after such trauma.
This is the reason why anti-Christian governments have always targeted the church’s visible leaders. In ancient Persia, a presbyter named Qayuma accepted the role of Bishop of Susa only because he was old and would die soon anyway. To be appointed the sole leader of the church was understood to be given a death warrant precisely because that government understood the best way to kill a snake is to cut off its head.
But in reality, the head is Jesus Christ, and in his wisdom he ordinarily gives each local church many under-shepherds. In appointing this as the normal structure of local church leadership, the Lord has given us a structure that helps ensure that no one man becomes essential to the life and health of a local church, which becomes dramatically more important in the face of persecution.
THE WISDOM OF LOCAL AUTONOMY
A slightly more contended aspect of polity is the autonomy of the local church. In brief, local church autonomy entails that the final earthly court of arbitration for conflict between believers is the local church (Matt. 18:17). In other words, there’s no authority higher than the local congregation in the matters of the life of the church.
When denominations strengthen the authority of bodies outside and above local churches, they intend both to protect churches from lone ranger-ism and to build unity between churches. The unintended consequence, however, is that the local church is undermined in its ability to proceed with the responsibilities entrusted to it by Jesus. Inter-dependence can lead to codependence can lead to abdication.
In the face of persecution, the erosion of local church autonomy threatens the very health of the church. There are churches filled with brothers and sisters who are so severely isolated by persecution that they deprive themselves of the Lord’s Supper as they wait for an outside authority to authorize their pastors to preside at the Table. To be sure, extra-local authorities may help to enforce doctrinal unity, but they may also paralyze local churches who’ve been functionally cut off. By contrast, a church that rightly understands its autonomy may be lonely, but its authorization to preach, raise up new elders, and observe the ordinances remains intact even under persecution.
On this earth, the ways the Lord has designed his church look less like a monolith and more like the cockroaches living under the monolith. We may not present an immovable edifice, but once we enter an area, we pervade it—and we’re exceptionally difficult to eradicate.
Polity doesn’t restrict the church growth. In fact, in the Lord’s wisdom it actually serves to preserve and promote it. Even, and perhaps especially, in the face of persecution, polity is for the church’s profit.
We certainly need wisdom for how to remain faithful to the principles God has given us, but at the end of the day, our posture toward the biblical norms Christ has given for his church should be the same as our posture towards God’s wisdom in general: his ways are not our ways, and his wisdom makes foolish the wisdom of the world.
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 For example, Craig Bartholomew in The Futures of Evangelicalism, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2004), p52ff.
 Samuel Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia: Volume 1 Beginnings to 1500 (New York: Orbis, 1992, rev. 1998), 144.