Crisis in Church of Christ Polity

I recently attended a meeting of Church of Christ ministers in Dallas in which a lawyer gave a lengthy report on the several litigation cases across the country, from Florida to California, involving Churches of Christ. Most of these cases have to do with the role of elders and the general question of authority in a Church of Christ.

While the lawyer, himself a member of the Church of Christ, did not use the word crisis, he indicated that the church is destined to face some difficult times if it cannot find a more workable form of church government. Even during this meeting a call came to the lawyer informing him of a U.S. Supreme Court decision relative to a Church of Christ in Florida. The Court upheld a lower court's ruling that in these four areas an eldership cannot act arbitrarily but must consult the congregation: (1) in the control of property, (2) in the handling of finances, (3) in the hiring of personnel, (4) in the selection or election of elders. In the Florida case the congregation, amidst a prolonged dispute, voted the elders out of office. The elders sued, claiming their authority precluded such action. The courts upheld the congregation.

In legal terms this is the issue: Is the Church of Christ congregational or hierarchical in government? The law recognized no other options. Our churches must answer this question without equivocation, not only in view of possible lawsuits but for their own understanding as to who they are and how they do things. While all these years we have insisted that we are congregational, we have leaders among us who are prepared to testify in court that in terms of the eldership we are hierarchical, which means that the final authority is with the elders.

The classic example of hierarchical polity is the Roman Catholic Church, where the pope elects the cardinals and the cardinals elect the pope. The lowly member of the Roman Catholic congregation has no voice whatever as to who serves as parish priest, has no control of the church's property or funds. The bishop is the absolute authority, and above him is the archbishop, the cardinals, and finally the pope. Do we in Churches of Christ have anything like that in our local congregations? If the "eldership" has the final say, with no recourse on the part of the congregation, in reference to finances, property, hiring and firing the preacher, and even selecting other elders, creating a self perpetuating board, then we have something akin to Roman Catholic polity.

The Methodist Church is also hierarchical in that it is ruled by bishops, who can do as they please, apart from the will of the congregation. A local Methodist Church is owned by the Conference, which is ruled by bishops, so that the people themselves have no control of the property they paid for, and once the money is deposited in the bank it belongs to "the Church," not to the local people. Is the Church of Christ like this? Or are we congregational, which means that the final authority lies in the congregation itself?.

From the days of Stone and Campbell our people have believed: (1) the people elect the elders in some manner, not the elders; (2) the people can remove a sitting elder if need be; (3) the elders are to consult the congregation in the decision-making process and are not to rule arbitrarily or dogmatically; (4) the property belongs to the people, not the elders; (5) the congregation has the right to be informed as to how money is spent and has a voice in how it is spent.

The present crisis exists because we have allowed these democratic values to slip from us. In ensuing essays we intend to enlarge upon the concepts, both from the Scriptures and from our leading thinkers through the years, so that we might see what Churches of Christ are supposed to be. -- Restoration Review.