The Connection Between Church Polity and Civil Engagement

For many years I have been a strong supporter of Christians being involved in the civil sphere (for example, see my post published on Dr. Ken Gentry’s website). Simultaneously, I have argued that church members should be very involved in the government of the local church―a position that many church leaders may approve of in theory, but not in practice (for a sample of my view, listen to a recent sermon from Matthew 23:8-10). For the most part, I have argued these views in isolation from each other. However, while reading a sermon from 1856, I was struck with the argument that church polity (government) has a direct affect on how Christians view their responsibility in the civil sphere.

Joshua Wyman Wellman preached a sermon on December 21, 1856 in Massachusetts. The sermon was titled, “The Church Polity of the Pilgrims.” He gives a biblical defense for congregationalism―the form of church government which the Pilgrims espoused and one in which every voting member is truly equal when it comes to governing the church. (This form of church government is not often practiced today, even among churches that claim to be “governed by the members”―many of these churches give lip-service to congregationalism but in reality are governed by a lead pastor, a board of elders, or an inner circle of people.) Nevertheless, Wellman gives an excellent definition and defense of congregationalism. He also gives several points of application. As it relates to the connection between congregationalism and civil engagement, he notes:

The polity of the Pilgrims in the church is preeminently congenial with, and tends to promote, republicanism in the state. This form of church government is purely democratic. It intimates to the people their right to govern themselves, and at the same time convinces them that self-government in the state, as well as in the church, is possible. It also tends to prepare them to use the rights and privileges secured in civil freedom, intelligently and properly; and so its whole influence and tendency, in this regard, is towards a democratic or republican form of civil government…If [people] perceive that the interests of a spiritual society are best promoted by encouraging all the members to understand and feel their personal responsibility in the transaction of ecclesiastical business, they will be led to infer that the form of civil government which provides for a like sense of responsibility by allowing the people generally to exercise the rights of freeman, cannot be wrong. Habituated to self-government in the one department, they will desire the same principles in another.

If people are encouraged and empowered to be independent, responsible, critical thinkers in the church, they are more prone to be independent, responsible, critical thinkers in the state. On the other hand, if church members are in a system where they are governed from the top-down, they are far more likely to be disengaged in the civil sphere, abdicating their responsibility to those “over” them. Wellman elaborates:

Such as live under the prelatic [non-congregational] system, where the clergy are sent to them without their wishes being consulted or the nature of their wants studied, and where they are exempted, to a large extent, from the exercise of independent thought, will more readily acquiesce in a constitution under which they possess a like exemption.

In other words, people who are taught to be passive in church government, will likely be passive in civil government as well. Those who are taught to quietly acquiesce to the church being governed by the religious leaders, will also acquiesce to their state being governed by political leaders, quite apart of the will of the common man. Even in churches where the members “vote,” many people simply vote as the pastor recommends, without thinking deeply about the matter themselves (sometimes to even vote against the pastor’s recommendation is viewed as divisive). This corresponds to uncritical voting in the civil sphere along “party lines,” regardless of the blatant inconsistency between a candidate’s position and biblical law.

I’ve experienced it on multiple occasions: a church where the members are inculcated with the view that they are dependent on their religious leaders to govern and direct them. This leads to stagnancy in spiritual life, unquestioning submission to the “wisdom” of the leaders, and disdain for anything that questions the status quo. Based on Wellman’s analysis, it should come as no surprise that a land full of churches such as that will lead to a nation where people are inculcated with the view that they are dependent of their political leaders to solve their problems―a view that has led to civil stagnancy among Christians, unquestioning submission to the “wisdom” of big government, and disdain for anything that questions the status quo.

Would to God that men will free themselves from the prelatic shackles that immobilize them. As Wellman says, “Men who are entrusted with a weighty commission in things spiritual will not be so easily satisfied with the passiveness of a condition where the few shut them out from the exercise of rights belonging to every subject of a free government.”

In fact, if church government impacts civil government, we could take it to another level and examine the connection of family government to church government. The way family government is viewed will also impact how church government is viewed. If the family is a place where children are discouraged from thinking deeply about doctrine, then why would they do so when in church? I have been in churches where it would be frowned upon to critically evaluate the doctrine presented in the pastor’s sermon during the fellowship meal. (After all, to question the pastor’s know-how would be disrespectful―or so the argument goes!) This type of environment favors those who simply listen to the sermon and then go on about their day―never evaluating the message, comparing it with Scripture and church history, and critically thinking about the doctrine presented.

Religious leaders who endorse (explicitly or implicitly) this type of environment remind me of a father who conducts family worship and then does not want his children to think critically about the truth that was taught. As for me, it would be a delight to my soul to find my children sitting around the table a few hours after family worship, asking each other, “Daddy said this about this passage, but the Bible says this over here and I think we need to consider what he said in light of this passage as well.” Of course, while my children are young, this sort of thing does not happen frequently (although it is already happening with my eight-year-old!). However, as children grow to maturity (the goal of parenting) this should be the norm―ideally, the father would then join in on the discussion and dig into Scripture himself (sometimes even realizing he was wrong about something!). Many church leaders, however, do not encourage such a practice among the members because such an “unsafe” practice could lead to questioning of the pastor’s “authority.” However, maturity is undoubtedly the goal in true Christian ministry and leaders should be greatly desirous for church members to judge, analyze, and critique their doctrine. I hear the Bereans praised by nearly every modern church leader, but I hardly ever see their practice encouraged.

I encourage you to consider these things and look to the Bible and church history for confirmation. Wellman notes, “This natural and inevitable tendency of Congregationalism to promote civil and religious freedom is manifest throughout the entire history of this church order in England.” A church where people are taught and empowered to think for themselves leads to great blessings―it leads to, in Wellman’s words, an “increased mental culture and elevation of character in the church, [which] goes out [as] a mighty influence, reaching through all the community around, and promoting generally intelligence and virtue.”

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