Church Government & Polity as Means of Grace

Continuing our discussion of leadership based on the Historic Examination for Full Connection. This month we look at Questions 10-13:

10.    Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity?
11.    Do you approve our Church government and polity?
12.    Will you support and maintain them?
13.    Will you exercise the ministry of compassion?

“Nothing can be more simple, nothing more rational, than the Methodist discipline: it is entirely founded on common sense, particularly applying the general rules of Scripture. Any person determined to save his soul may be united (this is the only condition required) with them. But this desire must be evidenced by three marks: avoiding all known sin, doing good after his power, and attending all the ordinances of God. He is then placed in such a class as is convenient for him, where he spends about an hour in a week. And the next quarter, if nothing is objected to him, he is admitted into the Society. And therein he may continue as long as he continues to meet his brethren and walks according to his profession.” John Wesley, Sermon 107: “On God’s Vineyard,” § III.1.

Before I discuss the implications of these questions about polity and discipline, I will point out their position in the list. They are more than half way down the list. Why? I think John Wesley gives us a clue in the following lines from a letter he wrote on June 25, 1746:

“What is the end of all ecclesiastical order? Is it not to bring souls from the power of Satan to God; and to build them up in his fear and love? Order, then, is so far valuable, as it answers these ends; and if it answers them not, it is nothing worth.”

Mr. Wesley was certainly one who valued the importance of ecclesial order. He believed that the polity of the Church of England was the best in all of Europe and America. The Methodist societies were highly ordered and disciplined communities. This quote tells us that Wesley believed the purpose of ecclesial order must always be mission. When it does not support the church’s work of participating in God’s mission in and for the world, then the polity must change.

If Mr. Wesley thought the first task of leadership was to support and maintain church order, I think questions 10-12 would have been at the top of the list. But they’re not. This does not mean that he believed polity is not important. Rather, placing these questions in the second half of the list tells me that church governance is important but it is always secondary to mission. The order also tells me that faith in Christ, holiness, and clear understanding of doctrine come first. Polity is important but it is secondary. It must always be subordinate to holiness and mission. Its purpose is to provide the organization and discipline the community needs for growth in holiness of heart and life and to participate in God’s mission for the world.

Leaders who are clear about the church’s mission will be conversant with the church’s polity. They utilize polity as a means to mission’s end: people formed as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ participating in his work of preparing the world for the coming reign of God. Leaders do not use polity as a means of coercion or domination. Rather, they employ it as a means of grace.

Polity as a means of grace is evident in Question 13: “Will you exercise the ministry of compassion?” I suspect this question is placed here to make the point the church governance and polity is to be a means of grace and compassion and not an instrument of domination and coercion. This question also indicates that leaders must be willing to change the polity when it becomes an obstacle to compassion.

Leaders in the Wesleyan tradition help to focus the church upon its mission in the world. They understand that the church exists to participate in God’s mission for the world. Its polity, therefore, must support the mission and help its members with the discipline that promotes growth in holiness of heart and life.

Questions for discussion and reflection:

  • How familiar are you with The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church?
  • How does The Book of Discipline promote growth in holiness of heart and life for the members of your congregation?
  • How does The Book of Discipline function as a means of grace?
  • How does The Book of Discipline help the local church participate in God’s mission in the world?
  • How does The Book of Discipline help the global United Methodist Church participate in God’s mission in the world?
  • What part(s) of The Book of Discipline would you change because they do not promote the exercise of the ministry of compassion?

It’s not too late, but time is running out to register for the Wesleyan Leadership Conference, October 14-16 in Nashville, Tennessee. Register today at http://www.gbod.org/wesleyanleadership.

If you bring a group of 3 or more, each person can register at the $95 “early bird” rate! Please contact Nancy Dunlap at 877-899-2780, ext. 7141.

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