Where Do We Begin?
Most serious Christians would venture to say that the issue of Church polity like
any area should be first approached with the Bible as the ultimate authority. Agreed. My
methodology in this study will be to use Holy Scripture, the Church’s law book, the final
authority of faith and life. I will not use Church history as a primary authority, although
there is a place for historical studies, particularly since they unanimously point to an
Episcopal form of government. From the First Century, key disciples of the Apostles,
such as Ignatius (A.D. 50-120) and Irenaeus (A.D.150), speak of the Episcopal structure
as the system of government handed down by the Apostles. This form of government was
not challenged in Eastern or Western Churches until the Sixteenth Century, meaning the
Bible was consistently applied pretty much the same way when it came to polity in East
and West. Such a fact should not be thought of as a minor observation, considering how
few issues in the history of Church of which this could be said, not even the very doctrine
of salvation. This confirming historical fact should not be taken lightly. We should
remember that Biblical Christianity is not traditionless. Scripture produced its own
traditions, and so the Scriptural traditions are invaluable in all studies of the church. But
first, we must approach the issue of Church government with the final authority, the
Word of God, leading us to a basic interpretative question.
Where do we begin in the Bible? Do we start with the New Testament and only
the New Testament? And, if we are agreed that Church polity is a New Testament issue
only, then where do we begin even in this part of scripture: the Gospels, the Epistles,
Acts, or the Book of Revelation? Already we begin to face certain problems. Some would
say that a group of people called a Session, even though this word is not mentioned in the
Bible, ran the New Testament local churches, pointing to the plural use of the word Elder
in certain references (Acts 14; James 5). But then others would note places where the
churches clearly had one Presbyter to whom the rest of a particular local congregation
was responsible, indicated by the giving of the Book of Revelation to one representative
in local churches Revelation 2:lff.). The “angel,” or more accurately from the Greek,
“messenger,” was human, historically called a Bishop. This would mean that oversight of
a Church was not given to a Board, Session, Consistory, or Presbytery. As we begin to
see already, there is development even within the pages of the New Testament regarding our subject.
And if we start with only the New Testament, we will not receive a complete picture, and
certainly not the answers to the questions that these various portions of the New
So, where do we start in the Bible if not the New Testament? I believe the correct
method of interpretation in any area is to begin where God does, at the beginning,
meaning the Old Testament. But, I know that this raises questions, so allow me to explain
why our method of interpretation (hermeneutics) is from the front to the back of the Bible
and not the back to the front.
Whole Bible Hermeneutics
First, the Scriptures have a fulfillment character to them, everything in Scripture
fulfilling what precedes it in the text. Very simply put: the New Testament fulfills the
Old Testament. How? The New Testament builds on the Old Testament through Christ.
He said that He did not do away with or abolish the Old Testament, rather, He fulfilled
everything in it (Matthew 5:17-19). The Greek word for fulfill does not mean static
maintenance. It conveys the idea of bring to completion or fullest possible expression.
This fulfillment of the Old Testament in the New Testament requires that the Old
Testament be understood first in order to know what is fulfilled in the New Testament.
God revealed Scripture from beginning to end, making the Old Testament the foundation
to all; it is the beginning and should be studied from the beginning. God does not expect
the Bible to be approached apart from the foundation, requiring us to start where He does
if we truly take His Word seriously. If God says something first, then this needs to be
first considered, taking an ordered priority over everything that follows.
For example, when I was a child, my mother would often say to me, “Son, I want
to tell you a couple of things, first . . . then second, I want you to . . . “ I know for certain
that she would have been upset with me if I had left out either the first or second
instruction. If she had said, “But, second what I’m about to tell you nullifies the first,” I
would have thought, “Then why tell me the first point at all.” This is the issue. God
preserves the Old Testament because the New Testament builds on it.
Further, the fulfillment of the Old Testament in the New Testament implies that
the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament is like an acorn to a tree.
Everything in the New Testament, including the Church (Acts 7:38), is found in seed or seedling form in the Old Testament. Stephen casually mentions the “Church [ekklesia in Greek] in the wilderness,” referring to the nation of Israel. Neither he nor Luke stop to explain. They assume that the reader realizes a covenantally organic1 relationship between Old and New such that no explanation is needed. Therefore, in our study of the Ecclesiastical government of the New Testament, we shall begin with the Ecclesiastical government of the Old Testament. If the New fulfills the Old, then we cannot accurately understand the New apart from the Old. And, if the New Testament fulfills the Old, an organic relationship exists that requires us to examine the seed form of Ecclesiastical government in the Old Testament. This organic relationship between Old Testament and New Testament implies the next hermeneutical point, the progressive character of the Bible.
Second, because there is a fulfillment relationship between Old and New Testaments, Scripture is progressive. It has a sameness about it from the Old Testament to the New Testament while at the time developing critical changes. Its sameness reflects a historic progression; its difference indicates a processional development through the direct work of the Holy Spirit. This historical and processional sense of progress in Scripture is best understood in and through the Incarnation of Christ. He is in one sense a product of the Old Covenant, being born of man and therefore historical. He also comes from eternity, Heaven; He is God, becoming man through the impregnation of a virgin by the Holy Spirit. He is distinct from any man who had ever lived: Very God of Very God and Very Man of Very Man. He bears the old in the new explaining why the changes in the New Testament are not something totally new and always bear the markings of the old. The Scriptures reflect the same historical and processional aspects. They are historical. There may be and are changes to be sure, but the changes do not destroy the foundations of the Old Testament. If they do, then the character of Holy Scripture so radically changes that it means God Himself has changed. This was the issue with the early Church heretic, Marcion, who argued that the Old Testament was so abrogated that it was to be excluded from the canon of Scripture. The early Church fathers opposed him, maintaining in one of their more famous statements, “The New Testament is in the Old Testament concealed and the Old Testament is in the New Testament revealed.”
The differences from the Old to the New do not appear out of nowhere. They progress from within the old structures to something new. Yet, the differences are so profoundly produced by the Holy Spirit that the Old Covenant structures have to be transformed, even though they are not done away. They are likened to wineskins containing the new wine, Jesus Christ. They are broken but not thrown away. They are transfigured into the new skin, Christ Himself. Thus, the old is recast in the new, meaning the traces of the old are still there but in the new form of the old structure.
For example, Israel itself is an example of how the progressive development is historic, growing out of the old, and yet processional, becoming something new. It was predominantly a Jewish nation prior to Christ. They had always been told that their “Israelness” was not in blood, being commanded to be circumcised in heart (Deuteronomy 6). They were reminded of this repeatedly through Christ, who told them that their father was the devil and not Abraham (John 8). After Christ’s death, they were told that they were no longer the true Israel of God. They were ethnic Israel (Romans 9:lff.). They were no longer true covenantal Israel; they had broken the covenant and later in history would be included again. In the interim, another took their place, being called the New Israel of God, which is the Church (Galatians 6:16). As Israel was called the Church in the wilderness, the Church is called the Israel of God in the New Covenant. In this situation, the Old Testament structure, Covenantal Israel, continues but it moves forward in a transformed sense: Covenantal Israel of the Old Testament, which was primarily Jewish, becomes the New Covenantal Israel, primarily Gentile including the Jews. The progress of the New Testament is in terms of this changed Old Testament structure. So it is with everything in the Old Testament, even the ecclesiastical polity of the Old Testament.
Thus, our approach to the study of ecclesiastical polity should begin with the Old Testament, from the front of the Bible to the back, where we find all of the foundational structures of the old confirmed and coming to full bloom in the New Testament. One of these structures is the hierarchy of the royal priesthood of the Old Testament. It sets the stage for New Testament Church government, as we shall see.