In his wonderful book, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, George Hunter describes the way Irish monks brought the gospel to Ireland, and then much of Western Europe. They did it by forming small communities in or near local villages, and demonstrating a life together of peace, justice, and equality in Christ. The heart of evangelism was their example of loving community life. From these local bases of authentic witness, missionaries would plant the gospel in the lives of the common people.
Their strategy was rooted in the approach of Jesus. When sending his disciples out he instructs them to live with the people, staying in one place in a village, and exemplifying the new community, the Kingdom of God, that is the heart of his proclamation. Indeed, he personally embodies this message in his own life.
The Christian life is first lived in community.
And the word we use to talk about the guidelines and wisdom we share
concerning how to live well together in community
Church polity gets a bad rap. Too often we think of it as a collection of repressive rules of judicial governance, a way to stifle change and enforce conformity, an arcane tool for insiders to manipulate, or a bureaucratic roadblock to effective mission. That is an aberration we have allowed to fester among us, largely as a by-product of the church’s capitulation to worldly power. Hopefully, those days are over.
Authentic polity looks at how disciples best come together
to discern and follow the will of the Lord Jesus.
It has to do with the nuts-and-bolts, on-the-ground,
day-to-day dynamics of community-creation, maintenance, and inclusion.
Polity concerns communication, honesty,
the balancing of different interests and concerns,
and the discovery of our unity in mission.
Any community that can provide living, embodied, examples
of how to work well together for the common good,
has immense value for people.
In short, simply being together as the beloved community
is the foundation of the church’s mission,
and polity is the way we do that.
Ours is a culture seeing a comprehensive breakdown in community values, processes, and institutions. While the obvious examples include the nauseating dysfunction of the U.S. Congress, the mercenary corruption at the core of business corporations, and the ruthless exercise in cynicism to which our judicial system has been reduced, this crisis extends all the way down to neighborhoods and families. Groups from bowling leagues to the Masons to the Boy Scouts are in trouble, along with churches, of course. Increasingly, people are finding many organized social groups to be irrelevant.
Yet we humans are inherently social beings and gathering together for mutual exchanges of experiences and decision-making concerning the common good is necessary for a healthy community. As this breaks down we fall into silos of disconnected and even antagonistic interests, gated communities, and a hyper-individualism that denies our connection to each other. Communities degenerate into hierarchies, the final demonic form of which is when a vast gulf opens between the few at the top — the owners, the privileged, the powerful, the wealthy — and the rest of us — subordinates, workers, debtors, slaves.
We Presbyterians have always been known for our concern for good order when meeting together. It is in our very name, which describes a way of gathering. “Presbyterian”, of course, means that our church is organized around elders/presbyters, gathered in councils.
Emerging in the 16th century as a counter to a corrupt and tyrannical system that invested power in human leaders —monarchs and bishops —
Presbyterian polity, done well, gives us an
way of decision-making.
Our polity is based on the recognition that we have no leader but Jesus Christ,
and we gather primarily to discern and follow his will together in the Spirit.
The people of God have always been best guided by God’s Spirit by means of elders gathered in councils.
Unfortunately, the church has been continually tempted to abandon or ignore the principles of our polity, and slide towards elevating some “leaders” above everyone else. To do this we habitually and reflexively import structures from the secular society and impose them on the church. We allow the church to be given, as the Declaration of Barmen warns, “special leaders vested with ruling powers” (Book of Confessions, 8.20-8.21) with titles and job descriptions appropriated from business, government, or even the military.
Presbyterian polity recognizes no leader except the one Head of the Church, Jesus Christ. And he himself gives us the example of servant leadership to the point of sacrificing his life for his friends. Therefore, in our gatherings we have nothing more grandiose than a Moderator and a Clerk, whose main functions involve ensuring the openness, inclusion, order and fairness, and accurately recording what we do together. There is in the Presbyterian system no office higher than that of elder, which means that when elders gather in councils all have equal voice.
When we fall into the pit where we start imitating secular models by elevating chosen leaders and paying them handsomely, we fall out of our Presbyterian way and away from the Head of the Church. We place a strata of bureaucracy between the people and God. And we generate a black hole that sucks up our resources, reducing our ability to do ministry. Thus it is when we are dumping money into excessive salaries for leaders that we are really doing administration at the expense of our mission.
I submit this as a counter to the current language coming from some leaders who defame polity itself as being inherently “regulatory” and somehow constrictive to the creativity and relevance of the church’s work. We are told that we have to move away from a concern for polity — which they reduce to “governance” — and towards mission, as if the two were mutually exclusive. As if polity were repressive and inward-looking, and mission is when we reach out and engage the world.
In reality, the way we gather to discern the will of Christ,
reflect on our progress in discipleship,
and advise each other concerning how better and more effectively
to witness to God’s saving presence in the world,
is integral to our mission.
It is in fact the indispensable inward dimension of our mission.
We cannot with any integrity reach out and engage the world with Christ’s love
if we do not embody Christ’s love in the way we gather together.
We cannot reach a good goal by a bad process. The process is itself the goal. Thus we cannot become more inclusive, open, welcoming, diverse, and empowering, by adopting processes that are exclusive, closed, and allow power to accrue to a few highly paid leaders. It doesn’t matter what those leaders say; if in fact they are managing decision-making by manipulation, secrecy, playing favorites, excluding key people from conversations, and generally protecting their own lucrative positions, they are part of the problem.
One of the organizations in our society that actually does work is A.A. In addition to modeling decentralized, leaderless processes based on a common need, they have a motto that we Presbyterians would do well to embrace: “It works if you work it.” Presbyterian polity works if we work it as well. And working it, that is, recovering the practices of openness, fairness, equality, honesty, and mutuality in our gatherings, recognizing that only Jesus Christ is our Head, and our main reason for gathering at all is to discern his will in this time and place, is part of our mission. It is part of what we display and offer to the world as an alternative to the power-driven, cut-throat, rat-race we are otherwise presented with.
In short, we cannot move authentically outward in mission
if our inward life is out of balance and even contradictory to our message.
In the churches I serve we regularly sing as a response the last verse of a hymn many of us know. It ends with the words, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” The first place we show that love is in the way we treat each other especially in our gathering together for discernment and decision-making. If we can witness to a model that is open, fair, welcoming, and responsive, we will be revealing something to the world that it sees almost nowhere else: a gathering that works well for healing, liberation, justice, and spiritual growth.