Who’s In Charge? Explicit and Implicit Polity

Who’s In Charge? Explicit and Implicit Polity

The Nick of Time by Nick Kersten, Librarian-historian

The junction of beliefs and how we live them out is the defining factor in our lives as Christians. The most common charge leveled at Christians today is centered on asymmetry between professed beliefs and embodied beliefs.

The media, with its brutal efficiency in exposing scandals, readily and frequently attest to the disjunction between Christian ideals and the activities of those who follow Christ. It has never been more important that Christians in general, and Seventh Day Baptists in particular, strive to match our behavior to our convictions.

One of the most obvious areas where our beliefs affect our practice is in our polity. Polity is simply a description of how we operate our local congregations.

In the broadest sense of the word, there are three types of polity: rule by one person (like the Catholic pope), rule by a group of people (as in Presbyterian congregations), or rule by the congregation (the SDB position). By “rule,” we do not and cannot mean that any of these people actually “rule” over the church—only Jesus can do that! The word “rule” in this context refers to where the responsibility falls to determine God’s will as it relates to the life of the congregation.

The SDB Statement of Belief about the church conveys our shared convictions about this:

We believe that the church of God is all believers gathered by the Holy Spirit and joined into one body, of which Christ is the Head. We believe that the local church is a community of believers organized in covenant relationship…

We believe in the priesthood of all believers and practice the autonomy of the local congregation, as we seek to work in association with others for more effective witness.

Does our behavior match these lofty statements? As it does so often, our history tells the story, and the story in this case is decidedly mixed.

Our history, unfortunately, highlights some instances where petty human squabbles clearly preempted the congregation’s responsibility to be the body of Christ. Without going into the gory details, there seem to be stories where an individual or individuals usurped Christ’s role as head of the church. Though the examples vary in time and place, the results are always the same: division, factions, rancor, and a lot of wounded people.

In some of these cases, parties used a favorable vote at a business meeting to justify their behavior as a proper decision of the whole body. The facts make it clear, however, that the decisions reached were nothing of the kind.

An individual or individuals, through various means, forced the church into a decision that reflected their own will—or, if we want to be charitable, their exclusive interpretation of God’s will. In other words, there was a difference between the explicit polity of the church (how they claimed to operate) and the implicit polity of the church (what they actually did in practice).

While claiming to be congregational, the congregations in these cases were operating as though they had a ruler other than Jesus. Thankfully, God can and does redeem such situations, but that is not an excuse for us to settle for less than Christ’s exclusive rule.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. It is much more than a question of semantics. We proclaim that our congregations are assemblies that Christ directs and guides for the sake of His kingdom. Covenants, the core of our congregational life, are built on the premise that we all serve the same King—the One and Only.

If our lived reality does not reflect that truth, we give false testimony about who Christ is and His mission on earth. It is apostasy for our congregations to serve our wills rather our King’s. Therefore, the question remains: Who really runs your church?

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