Ecclesiology: Polity, Church Offices, and Church and State

by John Ellis

(This is the slightly edited manuscript for the Equipping Hour – Sunday school – class I taught last week. It was written with the intention of being spoken and heard. Also, as I told the class last Sunday, I didn’t say everything that could be said about these topics. I was strategic in what aspects of each topic I touched on.)

To begin, we’re going to look at a portion of Jesus’ prayer in John 17. So, go ahead and turn there, if you’d like, specifically verses 20-23.

John 17:20-23

20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. 

John 17 is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible. I mean, how can it not be? It’s our Creator’s, our King’s, our Savior’s very words to the Father about us, for us.

And the prayer thematically tells the story of Redemption. It includes Jesus’ obedience to the Father. The Father’s glorification through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The revelation of God in Jesus. Choosing a people out of this world. As his people, our mission to the world. The unity we have in Christ because of the unity between the Father and the Son. And our final destiny.

We could teach a whole ten-week series on Jesus’ prayer recorded in John 17. This is a class on ecclesiology, though, so, for just a couple of minutes, I want us to look and rejoice at the unity we have in Christ. And to do that, and to make sure we keep it brief, I’m going to home in on verses 21-23.

I love how D.A. Carson refers to these verses in his commentary as, “breathtakingly extravagant.”[1]

And in these verses, Jesus’ petition is two-fold: 1. for us – his Church – to grasp that the love the Father has for the Son is the same love the Father has for us because we are in Christ. Do y’all get how awesome that is? How “breathtakingly extravagant”, to use D.A. Carson’s words?

I’m afraid we fail to truly grasp this. Too often, we look into our heart, we think back over the week, about all the idols we worshipped, all the times we loved ourselves over others, the deceit we operated with, our failure to walk in the Spirit, and we punish ourselves.

We tell ourselves, “I know God loves me, but he can’t really want me right now. He doesn’t like me at the moment. I’m too dirty. I’m too sinful. He’s likely mad at me. I’m just going to stay out of his way for a while.”

But that’s the exact opposite of what’s true. The Father loves us the way he loves the Son. He wants us. He desires us. Brothers and sisters in Christ, no matter what you’re struggling with, no matter how unlovely you may believe yourself to be, it’s not true. God wants you. He loves you like he loves the Son because you’re his son or daughter, too.

And this is true because of our union with Christ.

38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39

In the introduction to his book on our union with Christ, Robert Letham points out that, “The unity of believers for which Jesus prays is also grounded in the union the church has with Christ himself. … Furthermore, it is founded on the fact that the Son is in them.” Letham then adds, “Jesus’ prayer for his church centers in the fact of his indwelling it and its consequent introduction into the life of God himself.”[2]

Jesus desires for us to know how much the Father loves us and how we’re unified to Christ in that love.

Secondly, Jesus petitions the Father that we’ll understand how our unity with him and our unity to one another demonstrates to the world the love of the Father. Our unity is a testimony to who God is. The church offers a living counterpoint to the world’s disunity, selfishness, hatred, and chaos. Theologian Herman Ridderbos talks about how the Father’s love working in and through us, as those in Christ, serves as an expression of the gospel of Jesus Christ to an unbelieving world.

This is one of the reasons why the notion that we can have Jesus without the church is wrong and harmful. The church was instituted by Jesus, is sustained and empowered through the Holy Spirit, and is a means through which the Father intends to call people to Himself. And it’s also a means through which he glorifies himself. Intentionally separating ourselves from the church is a denial of our unity in Christ and is a refusal to participate in a means God uses to reach a lost and dying world and bring glory to himself.

There is much more that can be said about these verses. My goal with this short devotional has been not only to offer a brief word of encouragement for us, but also to provide a biblical foundation for today’s class. And today’s class is on polity, church offices, and church and state. A look at the nuts and bolts of the organization of the church. That’s often how it’s viewed. Except, I don’t like that description. Because while in a certain sense it’s true, it unfortunately steers us into the Herman Bavinck quote, “Protestantism is in danger of losing sight of the importance of the church as a divine institution.”[3]

Our context of corporate structures, things like Robert’s Rules of Order, and overall lack of transcendence in our modern Western worldview tempts us to drag Christ’s Church into the mundane. We can be tempted to view polity and the church offices as like an org chart listed on the company’s website. And when that happens, we lose sight of Jesus. We also lose sight of one another and can easily begin to view the church from the perspective of a consumer.

And it’s so easy for that to happen because consumerism is how we’re trained to view the world and interact with it. If we’re not careful – if we don’t deliberately fight against it – we run the high risk of bringing that into the church. Losing sight of the fact that the church is a divine institution is one of the causes of tension between fellow members and members and their pastors.

This is why I thought it important to open today’s class with a too brief look at John 17.

Our unity is in Christ as the head of the Church and through the work of the Spirit. So, Ephesians 4:4-6, after Paul mentions some ethics in verses 1-3 – ways of demonstrating who God is to an unbelieving world – you know, walking with humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, because, verse 4, “There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all in all.”

The church is not a group of individuals who got together to form a society or institution based on our similarities, shared values, and unified objectives. Michael Horton describes the church as, “summoned, gathered, and called out by God’s electing, redeeming, justifying, and renewing grace. … the gospel itself, as God’s saving speech act, generates a community called the church. The attributes, marks, and mission of the church therefore form the threads of a single bolt of fabric that is woven by the Spirit through the gospel as it is delivered through Christ’s appointed means.”[4]

We don’t own Orlando Grace Church. We don’t determine how it operates. Some of the most devasting problems in churches happen because people try to exercise improper ownership over it.

The church is called into being by the Word, is directed by the Spirit, and is unified in Christ. The church is a divine institution. And it’s important to cling to that truth in all things related to ecclesiology but especially to things like polity and church offices, which we turn to now.


What does polity mean? Church governance/government.

What is Orlando Grace Church’s polity? Congregationalism.

This quote from Jonathan Leeman is important: “Church order should fit together with the promises of the new covenant, the work of the Spirit, the doctrines of sin and sola fide, the lordship of Christ, the priestly regency of believers, the already-no-yet realities of inaugurated eschatology, and more.”[5]

In other words, our church polity should naturally derive from a faithfully held and understood systematic theology.

Now, I want to say something, and Leeman says something similar after that quote in his book: there are faithful Christians, some probably in this room, who agree that polity should derive from systematic theology yet who disagree with OGC that congregationalism is the polity best derived from theology.

We want to make sure that we hold to our positions on things like polity with humility and charity, and in ways that don’t demean or disdain the work of the Spirit in churches we disagree with.

That being said, I am a congregationalist, and am so for reasons.

So, let’s look at congregationalism.

Authors Michael Haykin, Kirk Wellum, and Stephen Wellum point out that evangelicals in this country have a tendency of conflating congregationalism with direct democracy. I think they’re correct. Among other problems, this has helped create the unfortunately predominant belief in Baptist churches across the country that view the deacon board and the pastor as two branches of government. Or they view the deacon board as a type of corporate board that the pastor answers to. In both types of structures, the deacon board is elected by the congregation and represents them in the governance of the church.

I saw this firsthand growing up. My dad pastored a church in Pensacola in which the deacons viewed him as their employee. Business meetings – member’s meetings – were usually contentious. Some of them devolved into shouting. I remember at least one meeting where all of us kids were quickly ushered out after one of the deacons began screaming at my dad. The deacons had been there before my dad arrived and they were going to be there long after my dad was gone. And that perspective was held by a large percentage of the members who looked to the deacon board to be their representatives and make sure the pastor did what he was supposed to do.

Ask me one day how that affected a kid who had a front row seat to all that and who already doubted the existence of God.

So, it’s a mentality that pats the pastor on the head when he does what’s right and spanks his bottom when he steps out of line, including if he says something from the pulpit you don’t like.

On a somewhat humorous note, one year, during the annual Christmas Cantata – y’all remember those – the choir did one that included a song titled “We Ain’t Never Done It That Way Before.” It was about disunity caused by resistance to any change. I don’t think I knew the definition of irony at the time, but I understood the concept and I rolled my eyes as I thought, “How do y’all not get it?”

Anyway, I realize my dad’s old church is likely an extreme, but that basic view of congregationalism is unfortunately the status quo for many Baptist churches. And I’m not saying pastors shouldn’t be held accountable, but we’ll talk about that when we get to church offices.

So, as opposed to that, and again quoting the three theologians from earlier, they “defend the view that churches should be led and directed by biblically qualified elders, who in turn are accountable to the church as a whole.” They point out, though, that, “Ultimately, the congregation as a whole is accountable to the Word of Christ, ensuring that a faithful gospel ministry endures in that place.”[6]

An important point to keep in mind is that the church is centered on Jesus, not the church as institution. Roman Catholics center the church on the church as institution – remember sacerdotalism from the church history class?

As opposed to that extreme side of church polity, we – OGC – believe that Jesus as the risen Lord is head of his church. Salvation is only through him and not the church as institution.

Think of it this way: let’s say that you’re a passenger on a plane that crashes on a remote, uninhabited island. There are only two survivors: you and a stranger. You have been mortally wounded, so much so, that you have minutes to live. In your remaining minutes, you share the gospel with your fellow survivor. Thankfully, she hears the good news of salvation in Jesus, repents of her sins, and places her faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As she utters “amen,” you die.

Will you be reunited with her in heaven one day? Of course!

But she will never be baptized, never take communion, never join a church (she never gets rescued in this hypothetical).

Our salvation is through Christ alone, no matter how important ecclesiology is.

So, why are we a congregationalist church? Well, for the same systematic theological reasons we’re a credobaptist church – why we practice believer’s baptism and not infant baptism.

Just to provide some categorical distinctions via generalities, as reformed Baptists we believe that Presbyterians see too much continuity between the old and new covenants and that the dispensationalists (the majority of Baptist and non-denominational evangelical churches in this country) see too much discontinuity between the old and new covenants.

Sidenote: this is why I believe so many congregationalist churches struggle with the proper view of the church institution – why the cultural meme of church business meetings includes hostility and disunity. Because dispensationalists see such a sharp divide between the old covenant and the new covenant – according to dispensationalism we’re in a parenthetical age, the church age. A type of plan B for God after the nation of Israel failed to obey. Because of that, they don’t really have theological touchstones for their congregationalism. As a result, their church polity is largely a product of our society’s views on direct democracy and expressive individualism.

If any of what I just said about dispensationalism bothers you, please talk to me after class. We have a church picnic, so I’ll be around. Just maybe give me enough time to run home so I can get my Scofield Study Bible and Ryrie’s Systematic Theology.

Alright, so I realize there’s a lot in my statement about too much continuity and too much discontinuity, but bear with me. I hope I can helpfully unpack it.

In a nutshell, the church is made up of regenerate believers.

The famous passage in Jeremiah 31:31-34 is instructive:

31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

And also, Romans 9:6-8: “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring … this means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.”

John 1:12-13: “To all who did receive [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

And this is the context in which John 3 sits – Jesus’ claim that to enter the Kingdom of Heaven you must be born again.

While there is continuity between the old and new covenants, a distinction is the physical seed versus the spiritual seed. Under the old covenant, the sign of the covenant – circumcision – was applied universally – universally corporately speaking, all the males received it. But as God’s Story of Redemption progresses, we learn that God’s true children are not born of the flesh but of the Spirit. Moses told the people they needed their heart circumcised. Entrance into God’s covenant community is through Christ alone. Always has been, to be clear.

Because of that, we believe that the covenant sign in the new covenant – baptism – is applied only to those who enter the covenant community because of their union with Christ. To be part of the new covenant requires being born again in the Spirit.  

Now, this isn’t a class on the sacraments. That’s coming. And there’s more that can and will be said about that. My purpose is to set the stage for congregationalism by establishing that we – OGC – confessionally believe that the church is made up of regenerated Believers. Of course, there are tares among the wheat. But we operate under the belief that if you are a member of OGC, you are placing your faith in Jesus as your only hope in life and death – you have been born again.

As the Wellum brothers assert, “The church, therefore, should be viewed as new, constituted as believing, regenerate people, not a ‘mixed’ community.”[7]

One of the things this all means is that in the new covenant, every believer, every member, has immediate access to God the Father through the Spirit because of their union with Christ. The priesthood of the believer. And congregationalism focuses on that identity. Or, better, congregationalism derives from that point of theology.

Again quoting from this book, because I couldn’t figure out how to say it any better, “Congregationalism presents a picture of each local church governing its own affairs, under the lordship of Christ, and living out what it means to be the full manifestation of the one, true, heavenly, eschatological church.”[8]

Remember sacerdotalism. During the series on church history, I explained it with the illustration of me serving communion, and so you go to Jim’s table because you believe there will be extra grace in it since he’s a pastor and I’m not.

That’s wrong, of course. In the new covenant, grace isn’t mediated nor doled out by the church officers. Think back to my plane crash example from earlier. Jesus is the only head and mediator of the new covenant church. Because Jesus is the only head of his church and because all believers have the same access to the Throne of Grace, it stands to reason that the church as a whole has a responsibility before Jesus for the church.

When Paul writes in Galatians 1:8, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed,” he’s not writing to pastors. He’s writing to the entire church.

So, if next Sunday, Easter Sunday, if Jim gets up and says that Jesus only figuratively rose from the dead, that he didn’t actually physically come back to life, well, it’s our responsibility – the members of OGC – to remove him from the office of pastor.

We’re also given the responsibility of exercising church discipline. Paul communicates this in 1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Corinthians 2. The elders don’t excommunicate a member on their own and then tell us about it.

This all raises the question, then, why the need for church offices? Why not have a polity similar to the Quakers?

Well, the short answer is because Paul commanded us to appoint deacons and elders.

The long answer is our transition to church offices.

Church Offices

To begin, are there are other church offices besides deacons and elders?

Is there a distinction between elder and pastor?

There are debates about the relationship between the word elder and the words overseer and pastor. Sometimes, the New Testament writers just use the word leader.

It’s helpful to note that the words elder, overseer, and pastor are used interchangeably by Paul in Titus 1:5 and 7 in the list of qualifications for elders. Verse 5 says elders, and verse 7 says overseer. Peter does the same thing in 1 Peter 5:1-2, a passage we’re going to look at in a minute, when he interchangeably uses the words elders and shepherd (the Greek word is where our word for pastor comes from), and overseers to refer to the same people/office. What’s more, elders and pastors are never given separate qualifications, and throughout the New Testament, as we see in 1 Peter, elders, overseers, and pastors have the same function.

So, here at OGC, we believe that there is no distinction between pastor and elder. Jim is an elder. The lay elders are pastors. That may be new to some of you, but I was authorized to say that. In fact I was kind of told to say that (to be clear, I agree with it 100%).

Think of Hebrews 13:17, where the writer, whomever that may be, reveals that elders will give account before Jesus one day for how they led the flock entrusted to them. And that applies as much to Ryan as it does Jim. This, and other passages, suggest that vocational pastors and lay pastors share the same responsibilities.

You may know this, but the PCA has a distinction between teaching elders and ruling elders. They get that from 1 Timothy 5:17: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”

There are a few arguments that claim that Paul is speaking about the same office here. 1. Paul is making a distinction related to time. This is where we get the vocational and lay elders/pastors distinction. The church is paying Jim to prepare a sermon during the week. We’re not paying Ryan to prepare a sermon during the week (although I personally benefit and appreciate it when our lay pastors preach). Ryan has another vocation than that as pastor. Pastoring is not how he provides for his family. So, the argument is that Paul is recognizing that some pastors have other jobs that prevent them from doing most of the teaching and preaching.

The second and third arguments involve the distinction between talent and type of teaching. I find those less compelling than the first argument. And what I do find compelling about them can be folded back into Paul’s distinction in the first argument about time, so I’m not going to flesh them out.

Something else to note, the Greek word “malista” translated “especially” in the ESV could be translated “namely.” The verse could read, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, namely those who labor in preaching and teaching.”

One final thing on this, using the hermeneutical principle of having the clear help interpret the less clear, the New Testament writers, as we’ve already seen, most often write in ways that put forward a single office. When I read the passages about elders, overseers, and shepherds as a whole, it seems clear that there is one office. Whether you want to call it pastor or elder or overseer, they all refer to the same office.

Earlier, I made the claim that congregationalism is not to be conflated with direct democracy. But the opposite extreme is possible, too.

We’re an elder led church – not elder ruled, and that distinction is important. There are limits to the pastors’ authority, and that authority is derived from the Word of God and can be seen in what the Bible teaches is their responsibility.

So, what are those responsibilities?

To begin, I think it’s important to hear Peter’s exhortation to elders in 1 Peter 5:1-3: So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 

The metaphor of shepherd is instructive. Paul’s final words of instruction to the overseers of the church in Ephesus recorded in Acts 20, specifically verses 28-31, uses the metaphor by referencing “fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.”

One of the primary roles of pastors is protecting the flock, and they do that by protecting, in a sense, by guarding the theology that is preached and taught here at OGC. That protection also extends to caring for sheep who’ve been wounded and are hurting. That protection is also found in the concern for the spiritual growth of all of us. Fostering an environment that encourages discipling is an important part of protecting the flock.

We know from the qualifications for elders, as well as Paul’s words to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:13 to, “Give your attention to public reading, exhortation, and teaching,” not to mention many other passages, that the ministry of teaching and preaching is an important role for pastors. A large part of our shepherding is done via preaching and teaching.

 A final important takeaway from 1 Peter 5:1-3 is the concept of servant leadership. Peter is very direct that elders are not to be domineering. Our King humbled himself to the point of dying. During his earthly ministry, he washed the disciples’ feet. Jesus is the perfect example of servant leadership. And we’re all supposed to model Jesus. And our pastors, according to Peter in verse 3, are to model Jesus in ways that are for our benefit and our instruction. In 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul writes, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

I didn’t go through the qualifications for elders, and I’m not going to. I will point out this, though. What’s extraordinary about the qualifications is how ordinary they are. That saying is not unique to me. I’ve heard it so many times, I have no idea who to credit it to. But it’s true.

I remember the first time I sat through a sermon on the qualifications for elders. I was a new Christian, and I wrongly thought, “I’m glad I’m not going to be an elder.” I was quickly convicted by the Holy Spirit because, apart from the gift of teaching, all the other qualifications are the marks of holiness. We’re all called to be like Jesus, and the elders are called to be a living model (imperfectly, of course) to what it looks like to live and serve faithfully among God’s covenant people and in this fallen world.

Let’s talk about deacons.

Most of us have been in church long enough to know that the Greek word translated deacon normally means servant or helper.

In Acts 6, a need arose in the church because the church was growing. As churches grow, it’s only natural that more spiritual and physical needs will pop up. The specific problem in Jerusalem was that the needs of the widows of the Hellenistic Jews weren’t being met. The widows of the Hebraic Jews were part of the daily distribution, presumably of food and other necessities. When the problem was brought to the apostles attention, the apostles instructed the church to select seven to serve.

Already, we can see how the office of deacon not only originated to meet the needs of the body but to also foster unity. Not only were needs not being met, but the church was divided. The service of the deacons not only solved the problem but modeled the unity they all had in Jesus.

Unfortunately, the office of deacon is often misunderstood in evangelical churches in this country. Many times, deacons operate as de facto elders, like in my dad’s church. Correcting that, Benjamin Merkle explains, “Deacons are needed in the church to provide logistical and material support so that the elders can concentrate their effort on the Word of God and prayer.”[9]

However, that being said, the qualifications for deacons found in 1Timothy 3:8-13 include “must be dignified, not double-tongued,” “they must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience; let them be tested first,” and “blameless.” The qualifications for deacons include the weight of being mature in the faith because deacons presumably interact with the body in ways that also would naturally involve discipleship. Merkle argues, “that some of the requirements could have been given to counter the characteristics of false teachers.”[10]

So, for example, and referencing Acts 6, if the deacons are the ones primarily tasked with taking the widows food, it stands to reason that the church wants and needs deacons who are able to listen, answer questions, provide biblical counsel, and pray with the various members they interact with as they perform their diaconal duties. While material service is their primary function; mature discipling will often go hand in hand with that service.

Here at OGC, many of y’all serve graciously and joyfully by putting out coffee or collecting and taking the trash out after the services and in other ways that are largely unseen. Your point person is a deacon, right? It’s important for y’all’s sake and OGC’s sake that your primary point person is a mature believer who can provide mature discipling.

That’s an overview of the two offices.

I hope you see something in them: Both offices perform functions that are part of the very essence of church life – the ministry of the Word and practical service for God’s people. I think that’s obvious. What often isn’t obvious, and I mentioned this in regards to the elders, they are performing functions that are ordinary in the sense that they exhibit Christlikeness within the church and as a testimony to those outside of it. The offices display our union with Christ and the love the Father has for us.

This is why it’s vital that only men who are already eldering should be nominated to be an elder. By that I mean, if a man isn’t actively demonstrating humble service for the sake of the body, he’s not qualified. If he’s not loving God’s people in ways that communicate God’s love, he’s not qualified. Same thing with being a deacon.

At our church in Arlington, we had a deaconess of childcare. If someone had tried to nominate a lady who never served in the nursery, never taught children’s Sunday school, rarely engaged the children and parents of the church, there’s no way the elder board would’ve let that nomination go through. We shouldn’t entrust someone with the office if they’re not already demonstrating a desire to do the functions of the office. The best evidence of a humble desire is quietly serving already.

An important aspect of both offices is the function of serving others as Christ has served us. Pastor Mark Dever believes, “Both offices lead us toward Christ, foster unity, and teach us to love one another.”[11]

Any questions before we conclude with a brief discussion of church and state.

Church and State

Okay. Church and State, here we go.

Y’all know that the concept of the separation of church and state is part and parcel of our Baptist heritage, right? We can set aside in this class whatever we think about the U.S. Constitution and what the First Amendment says or doesn’t say, what the Founders intended or didn’t intend. Because this is an ecclesiology class not an American government class. And historically, Baptists have advocated for the separation of church and state.

Now, I wish I could leave it at that, but there’s not a lot of applicable content in that statement, not to mention that just because our Baptists ancestors advocated for it that doesn’t mean they were correct. I mean, I believe they were correct. The tricky part is making that argument in the time we have left.

For starters, historically when the church and state have been intertwined, Baptists tended to get the short end of the stick. And by short end of the stick, I mean burned at the stake.

In this country, it was the Baptist preacher John Leland who played the largest role in getting Madison and Jefferson to work on disestablishing the Anglican Church in the Commonwealth of VA, which then translated into the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. For those who love history, later today look up Leland’s gift of an over 1,200 pound wheel of cheese to Jefferson in 1802.

That’s all well and good, but, again, historical precedent doesn’t equal correct political theology.

So, to begin requires recognizing that government as an institution is good. It’s a gift from God. Rightly used, its authority reflects who God is.

We see this in Romans 13:1-7. In that passage, we also see that we are to submit to the governing authorities. Now, one of the great mysteries is how Paul, under divine inspiration, could write, starting in verse 3, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God.”

Do you know why I say it’s a mystery (from our perspective) why Paul wrote that? Because when he wrote it, Nero was the emperor. Nero was the “he” in “he is God’s servant for your good.”

In his commentary on Romans, Douglas Moo dryly points out, “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the history of the interpretation of Romans 13:1-7 is the history of attempts to avoid what seems to be its plain meaning.”[12]

To cut to the chase, here’s what I believe the plain meaning is (Moo agrees with me, for what it’s worth): the word “subject,” as in, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,” is often confused with obey. This is what creates the condition for Moo’s claim about attempts to avoid the plain meaning. Because of it, some like to teach that Paul only means it if the ruling authorities conform to God’s definitions of justice and holiness. In other words, if the government doesn’t act the way we believe they should, Romans 13 no longer applies. To be frank, that is one of the most dominant interpretations in evangelicalism in this country today. And it’s wrong, I believe.

The word “subject” also means submit. We see this modeled by Paul and the other apostles and early Christians. In Acts 4, when Peter and John are arrested and commanded to stop preaching, how did they respond?

Acts 4:19, “But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”

They boldly declared that they would continue to obey God rather than man but in a way that still reflected their submission to the ruling authorities. They obeyed God, accepted their punishment, and left the rightness or wrongness of the ruling authority’s actions in God’s hands. We see this modeled throughout the New Testament and the early church up until Constantine married the Church to cultural power and prestige.

I like Jonathan Leeman’s use of the metaphor of churches as embassies for the Kingdom and Christians as ambassadors for our King.

We are not to disengage from the community our King has sent us to. We’re not to cloister ourselves away. We’re to joyfully engage those around us, participating in the life of the community. And we do so with the primary goal of being faithful witnesses to the Resurrection and calling people to repentance and faith. But we never do so through force and coercion.

If King Jesus has sent us, like he did the early church, to a community that is outright hostile to us, we are to respond as Peter and John did. As Paul did. As our brothers and sisters in Christ who went to their death singing God’s praises did.

Our job is not to force the state to conform to God’s laws. And that doesn’t mean don’t vote. But it means vote in ways that honors God. Vote in ways that seek to enact God’s justice in the here and now. But vote and participate in the community with the understanding that if things don’t go the way we would prefer, our King is still the same and our mission hasn’t changed.

There’s much more I could say about this. There’s much more I want to say about this. But we don’t have time.

Please, seek me out at the picnic. I’ll meet you for coffee or a beer to discuss any of this. Just, please talk to me if I’ve confused you or said something that bothers you. I’m a nice guy, I promise.  

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John TPNTC ed. D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 569.

[2] Robert Letham, Union With Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2011), 5.

[3] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation vol. 4 ed. John Bolt, trans John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 274.

[4] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 828.

[5] Jonathan Leeman, “Introduction – Why Polity?” Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age ed. Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015), 6.

[6] Haykin, Wellum, and Wellum, “Congregationalism” Baptist Foundations, 25.

[7] Wellum and Wellum, “The Biblical and Theological Case for Congregationalism” Baptist Foundation, 56.

[8] Wellum and Wellum, “The Biblical and Theological Case for Congregationalisms” Baptist Foundations, 62.

[9] Merkle, “The Office of Deacon” Baptist Foundation, 319.

[10] Merkle, “The Office of Deacon” Baptist Foundation, 320.

[11] Andrew Davis, Mark Dever, and Benjamin Merkle, “Elders and Deacons” Baptist Foundations, 227.

[12] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans ed. Gordon Fee, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996),806.

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