Abandoning "Polity"

March 22, 2007

Jim Naughton, Canon for Communications and Advancement for Episcopal Diocese of Washington, has a post at the Daily Episcopalian that really has me thinking. He has this to say about the word "polity":

Don't use the word. Ever. It is tantamount to wearing a sign around your neck that says: ... "I enjoy using words the average person doesn't understand."
I must admit that I often use the word "polity" when talking about conflicts in Baptist life. I use it because I feel it accurately describes the situation, but I do usually have to explain what the word means so it clearly is not communicating as well as I would hope. Naughton's point, therefore, is very well taken because we must make sure we are getting our point across with the words we use.

However, I do not like the word that Naughton suggests should be used instead: "governance." While that might work for Episcopalians, it is not a good word for Baptists because the word carries connotations that suggest hierarchy and a top-down organizational structure. In fact, many of the problems in Baptist life have been because some have attempted to operate this way instead of the historic Baptist way of bottom-up with the churches in charge.

The final item Naughton offers on this point also got me thinking. He writes:
but what's really needed is a phrase that explains why "polity" is theology. A challenge to our polity is a challenge to "the way we discern and respond to the will of God"
This is a good point that I had not really considered. In fact, I have often said the problems in Baptist life are about "polity" so as to dispel the myth that it is about theology. I still think there is an important point to be made there (to dispel the false accusations of "liberal" theology made by some). However, it seems that there is an important point to make here: by trying to change our "polity," some Baptists are the ones that are really changing our theology. Naughton is right--we need a new word. I do not like "governance" and I am starting to dislike "polity." But is there a better option?

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