The art of godly church politics?

Can church politics be played Christianly?

We cannot have any truck with the holy height from which some direct their sneers at the business of church politics. Politics is just a reality of the polis: of the city of God as much as the city of man. Authority and power are not of themselves tainted, but given to be exercised with due judgement. As in the state, so in the church: human judgements are imperfect. Their imperfectability does not make them any less necessary. Calling the arrangement and distribution of power and authority in the church ‘politics’ allows us to notice the humanity of the process and so to reckon with its fallibility. The most dangerous and tyrannical regimes in the church arise when the existence of politics is denied and the exercise of power is coated with pious language. The piety of ‘comprehensiveness’ is oftentimes used in this way with world-wide Anglicanism. It gives the appearance of disinterest and balance and conceals the interests that it really serves.

There ought to be no embarrassment then at the existence of groups like the Anglican Church League (of which I am a council member) and Anglicans Together. They can and have played their part in the good operation of the fellowship of churches in Sydney. They have often done the hard work of convincing people they need to be involved in diocesan affairs in order to ensure its proper, open and effective management. Whereas in other dioceses, power congeals in a mysterious way around the bishop, encouraging active participation in the political workings of the Sydney diocese aids in the distribution of power and the involvement of the laity.

Even conceding that politics is a necessity within denominational structures, it is imperative that those who engage in such a process act in such a way that the name of Jesus Christ is honoured. How could this be done? I offer seven principles as a beginning:

First: a godly church politics proceeds on the basis that the quality of the means matter more than the delivery of the ends. It refuses to accept the Graham Richardson-style ‘whatever it takes’ mentality of politics in the secular sphere. This is because church politicians ought to recognise the sovereignty of God in practice as well as in theory. The Christian life itself is not about managing outcomes, but about conducting oneself in a manner that testifies to the God in whose hand those outcomes lie. The principles for conducting church politics can surely not differ markedly from this. This principle relates especially to a view of time. Christians understand time itself as being in God’s hands, and so are not concerned when a certain decision takes decades to get right. I have heard people complain: ‘we’ve been discussing this issue since the 1970s!’. To which I feel like replying: ‘Is that all?’ The Anglo-American apologist Os Guiness writes:

Means either serve our ends or subvert our... ends. I often hear the little phrase, "Whatever it takes . . ." The pragmatic comes before the principled and that is always counter-productive. Principled ways of doing things are more effective in the long run. They are not only right. They are wise.

Second, sanctified Christians are still weak and still sin, and so godly politics ought to pursue mutual accountability as a matter of priority. The trouble with having a great cause is that it is too easy to imagine that the sanctity of the cause transfers onto those who share in it. The child abuse scandals in churches across the denominational divides have spread because of this naivety. But a properly Biblical theology of sin recognises that Christians still share in the weakness of the flesh. Article XIX of the Thirty-Nine Articles is quite clear on this:
And this infection of nature doth remain, yea, in them that are regenerated, whereby the lust of the flesh…is not subject to the law of God.

Proceeding on the basis that everyone ought to be answerable takes a good deal of effort and slows down the process. But people become addicted to power like they become addicted to pornography; and the consequences can be just as devastating, even when there is no malevolence of intent.

Third, a godly church politics ought to seek the inclusion of women as well as men, and the young as well as the old. The worldly tendency is for denominational structures to be dominated by older laymen and the predominantly male clergy who have a professional interest. The process becomes profoundly alienating to women and to the under 30s simply by dint of their reduced numbers. And yet, even evangelicals with a complementarian view of gender relations do not have a hierarchical view of Christian fellowship. By not reflecting its own diversity of membership in these decision-making bodies, the denomination is only operating on half its cylinder power. The response to this is not tokenism or the introduction of quotas, but rather a determination to change among those who operate with the church-political sphere. It's harder than it looks, of course: people - especially women - are very busy. 

Fourth, a godly church politics should seek to make structures and processes accessible to those who are disadvantaged by: lack of mates, lack of legal knowledge, lack of rhetorical skill, or ethnic background. The elaborate legal structures and procedures of the synodical process in Sydney are legendary. I have spoken with intelligent professionals who have been on the synod for a number of years and who still feel completely alienated by the process. It may not be possible to simplify the process itself. But the unwieldy process clearly disadvantages those who have to engage with it but do not understand it. What’s more, the process disadvantages those who are alienated from the clusters of friendships that have naturally developed over many years.

Fifth, a godly church politics ought to seek to overcome the paradigm of winners and losers. Our system is set up, like most democratic and legal structures, and like most Protestant churches, to promote adversarialism. This is preferable to episcopal despotism. But synods of several hundred people can only express themselves by saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – and inevitably more people will say one as opposed to the other. Christians ought to be able to see themselves and their fellowship as not governed by or framed by such a process. But the adversarial process produces wounds in the losers that take years to heal, if at all. It also may promote in the victors a vulgar triumphalism - that those who opposed this or that decision are suspect, or disloyal. But the political process isn’t the basis for our union – Christ is.

Sixth, a godly church politics ought to prioritise persuasion over results. It would be possible, with sufficient numbers, simply to steamroll the synodical process with only a token amount of debate and airing of views. The gospel itself is a gospel of persuasion, no coercion; this ought to be reflected in the manner in which we conduct our church politics, even if it is more inefficient to do so.

Seventh, a godly church politics ought to beware the temptation to use spiritual language as an instrument of coercion. Spiritualised and quasi-pious language can be used as a means to silence dissent or to manipulate the church political process. By calling the decisions of synodical governments ‘Spirit-led’ in effect bludgeons those who disagreed with by implying that they countered the Spirit. Interestingly, it was through the Spirit in Acts 21:4 that the Tyrean disciples urged Paul not to go to Jerusalem – something he felt his divine calling had compelled him to do – which is to say, the Spirit may come down on both sides of a question!


Michael Jensen is rector of St Mark's Darling Point and is the author of the book My God, My God: Is it Possible to Believe Anymore? He's on twitter: @mpjensen

Comments (34)

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  • Michael Kellahan
    August 22, 11 - 10:45pm
    But synods of several hundred people can only express themselves by saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’

    I don't think this is quite right. Synod is a parlimentary process but not necessarily an adversarial yes/no one. In fact much of its work is not adversarial - members raise questions, draft legislation is debated and amended and so on.
    Even where it is adversarial it needn't produce scarred losers and vulgar winners. I've been on the losing side of plenty of debates where Godly brothers and sisters have been 'winners'. I remember for instance the debate on the use of alcohol on parish property a couple of synods back - brilliant debate with lots of passion and speakers on both sides I admired greatly.
    I think a lot of the character of synod comes down to the way it is chaired. People on both sides of an issue must be given the chance to speak and be heard. A good chair needs to keep the lawyers in check and go to matters of substance rather than get bogged down in process. A bit of humour and much grace is also needed.
    A bigger problem is the unwieldy size of synod. It is hard to get things done with hundreds of people. Inevitably, it can be the usual suspects on the floor who dominate proceedings.
  • Philip Griffin
    August 22, 11 - 11:07pm
    a godly church politics ought to prioritise persuasion over results. It would be possible, with sufficient numbers, simply to steamroll the synodical process with only a token amount of debate and airing of views.

    This is a real problem when a Synod is dealing with lots of business. Add to that the increase in the number of presentations to Synod in the last few years and there is a real risk that important debates are curtailed far too early.

    For example, a few years ago there was an important debate on a suggested reform to the rite of Confirmation. The mover spoke, then those with amendments, the the mover replied, and then the motion was put. Thus the issue was never properly discussed and there was no time for godly persuasion.

    Those of us who serve on Synod need to ensure the sheer busyness of Synod does undermine proper Synodical process.
  • Allan Dowthwaite
    August 23, 11 - 12:03am
    Phillip, I assume you meant to write "...does NOT undermine the proper Synodical process." :-)
  • Ernest Burgess
    August 23, 11 - 12:33am
    From where I stand any form of church politics makes me want to vomit. Jesus set out the principles in Matthew 20, 25-28. The politics of whatever it takes and the ends justifies the means is alive and well and you have to have your head in the sand not to see it especially if your a member of ACL or Anglicans together. It is right to quote the article X1X as councils do err. But you should also quote Matthew 25 31-46. and Matthew 18 1-6. for they both contain warnings to the users and abusers within. Politics are for the survival of a "structure" and when that becomes more important than following the founder we have lost it all.
  • Philip Griffin
    August 23, 11 - 1:04am
    @ Thanks Allan, yes, you assume correctly.
  • Philip Griffin
    August 23, 11 - 1:19am
    @ Ernest, thanks for your thoughts, but I cannot agree with them
    Matthew 20:25-28 warns us against the abuse of power over those we should lead to serve their best interests. Matthew 25:41ff is a condemnation of those who claim to follow the LOrd but do nothing to support the disciples of Jesus Christ. Matthew 18: 1-6 teaches us the necessity of humility as we depend on our LOrd Jesus Christ.

    Not all politics is about the survival of the 'structure' at the expense of following the Saviour.

    In fact, godly politics is about persuading others to remain true to our Saviour. It's about being wise as we encourage others to elect people who love the Lord Jesus and are faithful to his word to serve on various councils and committees. It's about providing information about candidates so as to inform others why we may wish to commend them.

    The alternative is to be uninformed about candidates for such positions, and to act unwisely in electing people as a consequence.

    But all that said, thank you Ernest for reminding us that politics can become something rather more sordid. I don't see any evidence at all that ACL is behaving poorly (I was previous Vice President, but I'm not currently on the council), but it's good to be reminded that we need to avoid any ungodly ways in the business of politics.
  • Ernest Burgess
    August 23, 11 - 2:47am
    Thanks Philip for your kindly words, but the issue can be who provides information about candidates I am sure there are many churches that would not have call a particular man had they know all the information and not "filtered truth" they received. I wonder how the people of the Federal seat of Dobell feel now some interesting information has come out about their sitting member. Having said that God is sovereign and as I have already mentioned in #4 the warnings are plainly in scripture for all of us to take note.
  • Andrew Reid
    August 23, 11 - 11:59am
    Hi Michael,
    Thanks for your helpful words on this issue. I'm wondering if you or
    someone else can do a follow up on this article focused more on the
    local church rather than the Synod. We're just fresh from leaving an
    Anglican chuch (not in Australia) where we tried for 5 years to
    participate in the activities and structures of the parish but were
    blocked at every turn by the vicar. It was a mildly liberal parish, in
    which we were trying to provide some more evangelical input and
    perspectives. We really struggled to know how much to involve others
    in the parish or the bishop to overcome the barriers. The vicar
    basically chose the vestry and used the AGM as a rubber stamp, and
    there were no canonical framework to hold him accountable.
  • Michael Jensen
    August 23, 11 - 7:20pm
    @Andrew - thanks for that. I am not sure that my list of points needs that much adaptation to apply to the local church. Local churches within different dominations are of course political entities - any group of human beings is at some level.
  • Michael Wells
    August 23, 11 - 10:02pm
    Hi Mike,
    great post (again)
    how would you get around the 'lack of mates'? It seems fairly basic to the way we do church politics.
  • Michael Jensen
    August 23, 11 - 10:27pm
    @Mike - dunno. It is a good thing of which no-one should be ashamed that people have friendships and that they trust those with whom they are friends more than not. But it can be exclusionary. It's just a sociological reality.

    It takes effort on the part of people to make friendships - which transcend structured relationships. Any ideas?
  • Robert James Elliott
    August 23, 11 - 11:10pm
    I am not comfortable with the idea of church “politics”, even at risk of being labelled naive. Disagreements should be on the basis of Scripture and ideas, not based on faction and in particular “Mates”. I realise that this has plagued us ever since the Jews left Egypt and started complaining and falling out among themselves. However I would be interested in any model that can eliminate factions, groups and the hackery of “us” versus “them”, as opposed to right versus wrong or correct versus incorrect. Again I may be naive but I bristle at any mention of politics in churches.
  • Michael Jensen
    August 24, 11 - 12:47am
    That's because you have accepted a definition of 'politics' as inherently negative. The word is used like that today, certainly.

    But 'politics' is actually a neutral word which simply refers to the way human beings organise themselves in groups/communities. We do this because we want to avoid the evils of tyranny and anarchy. We can do it well or badly.
  • Robert James Elliott
    August 24, 11 - 5:04am
    Perhaps another word is necessary then? Other previously normal words (eg "gay") have been retired because of their connotations. Perhaps politics is the wrong word and something else should be used instead to describe the activity?
  • Ernest Burgess
    August 24, 11 - 5:07am
    "it takes an effort on the part of people to make friendships -which transcend structured relationships" Try Andrew Cameron's book "joined up for life" part part six chapter 39 as a start. Andrew 8# Sorry to hear about the struggles you are having overseas and your eventual decision you made after the years you put into the place to leave I pray that the Father will bless your new ministry as you serve Him. I was even more saddened by the way in which you were censored remember at these times Psalm 1 "Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers" and as J C Ryle once wrote " stand fast in the freedom in which Christ has set free turn not aside to right nor left. And I guess you can ponder Michael's words "politics is a neutral word ...... We do it because we want to avoid the evils of tyranny and anarchy.
  • Michael Canaris
    August 24, 11 - 5:15am
    Perhaps another word is necessary then? Other previously normal words (eg "gay") have been retired because of their connotations.
    Trouble is: in the case of 'politics', those negative connotations in common parlance date back centuries; moreover, most suggested alternatives reek of artifice.
  • Robert James Elliott
    August 24, 11 - 7:38am
    I realise I am whining here about what is an essentially constant aspect of human nature. However, I detest the factionalism and hackery of civil politics. I hate to see any of this culture infect the church. Most of the modern movements that have, in my view, corrupted Christianity, such as gay/women's ordination or Scriptural liberalism, have resulted from the agenda of avowedly political groups, unwilling to accept the Bible's clear meaning. One aspect I find increasingly appealing about the RCs is that the Papacy resists all these idiocies that have found themselves a home in democratic, Protestant churches. Catholics seem unafraid to speak clearly about who are the shepherds and who are the sheep, and who are the wolves in these doctrinal issues.
  • Robert James Elliott
    August 24, 11 - 7:39am
    I am not by any means defending the appalling sex abuse scandals in the RC church which I think also stem from abuses of the authority structures. However I do think Christ's church needs vigilant guardians, not leaders of pressure groups pushing modern agendas.
  • Michael Jensen
    August 24, 11 - 7:47am
    @That is possibly the most naive view of Roman Catholicism I have ever heard, with respect. It is riddled with politics!
  • Grant Hayes
    August 24, 11 - 9:24am
    Robert James Elliott @ #18,
    I realise I am whining here about what is an essentially constant aspect of human nature. However, I detest the factionalism and hackery of civil politics. I hate to see any of this culture infect the church.

    Without politics of some sort, the ecumenical councils of the church would never have thrashed out a trinitarian, dyophysite orthodoxy. And there would certainly be no Pope!
  • Michael Canaris
    August 24, 11 - 11:20am
    On a lighter note than his magnum opus On the Constitution of the Church and State, S.T. Coleridge also penned a few lines concerning this French cleric/statesman.
  • Robert James Elliott
    August 24, 11 - 10:18pm
    I am not sure that either Talleyrand or Richelieu (or Woolsey!) are the sort of Church leadership I was referring to! But thanks Michael.

    Michael: I am sure the RCs are riddled with politics but it does not seem to me that in the RC church the dissenters get to vote in and lobby for their agendas. There is no structure there to subvert doctrine from ‘below’. This can of course lead to weaknesses but I do quite admire the way the official RC church shuns their dissentients and basically forces them to leave. There is not enough of this, especially given the weakness of what I call "Rowanism".
  • Craig Bennett
    August 25, 11 - 11:59am
    It's not a simple matter for Synod to say yes or no. Synod has said many times yes to lay presidency...but its been overridden.
  • Karin Nicole Sowada
    August 26, 11 - 12:02am
    Michael - thanks for your comment about the engagement of more women in the Synod and on its boards and committees. We need to work alot harder to improve the current situation, including the encouragement of female deacons operating at this level. As you rightly point out, women have alot ot offer and bring a very different perspective and way of working to bear on operational and strategic matters, which is different to that of men. We can and should be doing a whole lot better in this area. Appointments need to be more than just tokenistic; there is some external thinking which suggests that the appointment of at least three women is needed to change the culture of a board. We are a long way from this on many of our Diocesan organisations.
  • Michael Jensen
    August 26, 11 - 4:03am
    @Karin - thanks for this. Have you got any way to help the process along? You know how these things work - a space appears on a board or council, people scrabble around to get someone to fill it... there's more chaos and improvisation in the system then people think.
  • Karin Nicole Sowada
    August 26, 11 - 6:27am
    @Michael - one does have to be quite intentional about looking for suitable candidates beyond the standard gene pool. However the most important thing is for key people - especially those who are making decisions about these matters within groups like the ACL and Anglicans Together - to recognise that the current state of affairs is unacceptable and take action. This may take more than one Synod election cycle as people retire from their roles and are replaced with new candidates. Also, there are always vacancies to various bodies between Synod meetings which are filled by Standing Committee - again it is a case here of using every opportunity to cast the net wider.
  • Michael Jensen
    August 26, 11 - 6:30am
    What would encourage women to put their names forward?
  • Karin Nicole Sowada
    August 26, 11 - 7:08am
    Firstly, having more women involved in the first place encourages other women to nominate. It can be very intimidating to be the only woman in a meeting full of men. Having only one woman on a board looks and feels tokenistic (even if her opinions are respected around the room). It is easier to recruit women if, when looking at the exisiting board composition, they are not alone.

    Secondly, men who are the gatekeepers of the processes need to champion the greater inclusion of women. Complementatians need to walk the walk in addition to talking the talk. Women and men are in partnership in ministry together. The role of 'champions' is also recognised in the wider business community: while women have been talking up greater engagement for a long time, it is only now the Federal Government has intervened with manadatory reporting of female appointments AND the cause has been strongly supoprted by key male business leaders, that change has started to happen.

    Thirdly, a greater number of women just need to be asked, and appointments made more strategically. Rather than finding one woman and putting her on alot of boards, appointments need to be more strategic so that especially those women 'in the tunnel' of child-rearing who want to contribute in this way can find the time. Greater thought needs to be given to looking for the best people of either gender for a particular role rather than asking the usual suspects.
  • Philip Griffin
    August 26, 11 - 7:19am
    @Karin and Michael, I was very grateful when you, Karin, first brought this matter to my attention when I was promoting various people to boards and committees. In that sense I was one of those 'gatekeepers'. After talking with you I realised just how important it is to consult with godly women more intentionally to work towards a greater representation of women.

    Michael is right, the 'chaos and improvisation' that sometimes marks the manner in which we promote people needs to stop. We need to do more preparation before nominating people to various positions, and a big part of that is to talk with more women. In my view, organisations like ACL can really help here, as ACL is committed to an ordered process in making recommendations about appropriate people to serve.
  • Philip Griffin
    August 26, 11 - 7:19am
    I should add that I am a complimentarian.
  • Grant Hayes
    August 28, 11 - 11:44pm
    Does that mean you're ideologically committed to giving compliments, Philip?
  • Philip Griffin
    August 29, 11 - 12:02am
    Indeed Grant. And to complementarianism, when I learn to spell.
  • Donna Green
    September 3, 11 - 9:50am
    Actually Robert Elliott's view is not naive at all. Whilst there may be some dissidents (much less within then say in the 70s and 80s) they never gain much traction. The modernist push has well and truly lost its steam. Thanks to great men like John Paul and Joseph Ratzinger, the Catholic Church is experiencing a new evangelisation. I find it quite exciting to be part of a Church so diverse yet so unified in its teaching. WYD is a testament to this.
    Over the years we have seen the push for women's ordination. John Paul stated that he did not have the authority to ordain women because Jesus Himself did not ordain it, nor give women the authority to be priests. He said the matter was settled and was not to rear its ugly head again. It seems all is quiet on that front.

    We have seen the push for gay unions. We saw in Melbourne the "sash parade" who provocatively presented themselves at the Cathedral and tested Cardinal Pell when they fronted for communion. He gently blessed them and refused them communion. We don't hear much more about that minority group anymore. And on and on it goes.

    Robert - give up. You will never be satisfied in a disjointed church. Join the Catholic Church. You will not regret it. Chesteron said that as soon as you stop hating the Catholic Church, you start loving it. You seem like you are on your way.

    Now I'm ducking for cover
  • Michael Jensen
    September 4, 11 - 7:48pm
    @Donna - you do tend to join discussion when they have already gone a bit stale!

    In my postgraduate studies I encountered a number of Roman Catholics, some of whom became my very good friends. A couple were priests. The theological differences even amongst this small group of people I knew were quite vast. The illusion of unity is... an illusion. It's a disjointed as the rest of us are.