23 May 2015

The Structure of Biblical Polity

New Testament Church Organization by Donald L Norbie
c.1977 Walterick Publishers

Covering a wide range of topics this volume by Donald Norbie concisely summarizes the New Testament's teaching on polity. He avoids labouring on unnecessary or obscure points but at the same time covers the salient ones.

Does the New Testament provide us enough data to construct a system of polity? Is it sufficient for this task? And if so, does it provide for all the necessary components or merely a foundation to build upon? Is this system simple or complex, exhaustive and sufficient, or incomplete and generalized? These aren't necessarily his terms but these are the ideas he's broaching and addressing as he wrestles with the nature of Church government.

These are but a few of the primary questions that must be asked and Norbie is right in demonstrating that both Episcopalian and Presbyterian forms of polity fall short and effectively reject the sufficiency of Scripture. Congregationalism follows the pattern of the New Testament but it is represented in neither the Savoy model nor the modern Evangelical-type congregation headed by an almost all-powerful pastor.

It was beyond the scope of his work but I will add that Presbyterianism attempts to escape this charge of extra-scripturalism by their particular application of 'good and necessary consequence'... a concept I believe they have grossly abused and in the end leads them to a denial of Sufficiency when it comes to the whole of their Ecclesiology. Again these points are beyond the scope of Norbie's work, but he hints at them which is why I think the work is helpful. Being only about 100 pages long it's accessible to someone new to the topic and yet the attentive reader will undoubtedly be exposed to new ideas and concepts and wish to pursue these matters further.

He deals with the background of the Jewish synagogue. Again more could be said and developed in this regard... how the Church in many ways emulated the synagogue and at the same time represented a fulfillment and annulment of the Temple order... and yet in other significantly modified aspects echoes it. Though it must eschew the form, the Church can still utilize some of the imagery and ideal. The Church is indeed the Temple of Christ, His body but on the other hand must not replicate the patterns already fulfilled. To do so is to suggest Christ's work is not complete.

Norbie is Plymouth Brethren and thus I cannot agree with him on every point and yet I am in general sympathetic to Brethren polity. While I must sharply disagree with their Dispensational system, the Brethren movement as a whole has been a positive one and a healthy corrective to denominationalism and state Christianity. They have generally speaking maintained a healthier testimony than the larger Evangelical sphere and I think their testimony in Europe is largely to be praised both in the 19th century and up to the present.

While the Plymouth Brethren are of a different origin than the whole of 'Brethren' Churches there is something of that spirit at work among them. Today most Brethren are theologically baptistic, but it has not always been so and I would certainly classify myself (if I must classify at all) as belonging to the non-baptistic variety, but still very much within the larger scope of what I would consider the Brethren sphere. The Exclusive wing of the Plymouth Brethren has received a lot of bad press in the UK and Australia and while I cannot agree with some of their tactics and ideas about separation, they interestingly adhere to Household Baptism and are thus distinguished from Open Brethren groups.

Norbie correctly argues that the New Testament teaches congregational autonomy and yet not isolation as well as a plurality of elders but not a cleric or pastor dominating the group. It avoids both the traps of institutionalization and the personality cult.

His discussions of the diaconate and gifts are also of value. It's a good introductory work and certainly one I would recommend to others.