Is It Time to Re-think Congregational Polity?

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Church polity is kind of like the transmission in your car: you only really think about it when it doesn’t work. If you can’t defrock an atheist pastor, if you can’t share information about sexual predators, if you can’t reign in an out of control elder or disfellowship a church that has rejected the Bible’s teaching on human sexuality, then all of the sudden you are very interested in having a conversation about church polity.

As a convictional Baptist, I am particularly interested in having a conversation about congregational polity. I don’t want to start from scratch but I would like to see the model grow and develop in at least the following ways:

With Respect To The Local Church:

(1) Greater emphasis on plurality

With respect to how congregational polity works out at the level of the individual congregation, I’d like to see a greater emphasis on plurality in leadership. A pastor who wants to wield 51% of the decision making power makes me very nervous indeed.

I recently had a conversation with a new member about my “concerning lack of actual authority”. In our polity structure, I am just one voice at the table and cannot formally vote on any matter pertaining to our finances as a corporation. Having come out of a single elder model he wondered whether or not it was wise for the pastor to surrender effective control of the ministry to a group of men who’ve never been to seminary. He was surprised to hear that far from being concerned about this system, I saw it as one of our greatest strengths as a congregation. For me to do anything; for me to make any serious changes; I have to convince 10 men who love Jesus and who take his Word seriously that such changes would be in the best interests of our church.

In order to do that I have to be right, I have to be researched and I have to be willing to wait for 10 men around a table to see it.

That’s a very useful safeguard and I have never found it to be a hindrance. There have been several occasions where I wanted to make a turn and I couldn’t convince the board to come along. On a few of those occasions I felt that an opportunity had been lost, but on an equal number of occasions, six months later, I was happy to have been restrained. As the Scriptures say:

in an abundance of counselors there is safety. (Proverbs 11:14 ESV)

In addition to the obvious safeguards, a plurality of elders ensures a plurality of perspectives on important issues and concerns. No one pastor or leader has all the gifts or all the passions necessary to lead a healthy and balanced local church. Many pastors are community builders and will advocate at the board table for fellowship, family and a variety of counseling and caregiving concerns. Other pastors are preachers and authoritative truth tellers and will advocate for Word ministry and Small Groups and leadership development opportunities. Some pastors are evangelists and will want to see door to door ministries as well as a consistent investment in overseas missions.

Good.

All of that is helpful and necessary and no one pastor is likely to have steam and vision for each and every one of those things. Therefore a plurality of elders and pastors will ensure that all of those concerns are represented in the budget and the strategic plan and will keep the church from adopting wholesale the personality and short-comings of a single dominant leader.

(2) More commitment to transparency

In most congregational models there are some things that are known to the pastors or to the elders that are not shared with the congregation as a whole. In most congregations for example, a fair bit of church discipline is handled entirely within the Board of Elders and is only shared with the congregation should “serious discipline” be required. Our by-laws for example, dictate that the Board must disclose to the congregation the reasons why a person is “excommunicated” via a written statement at the Annual General Meeting.

By and large, I think this is a very wise and humane approach. Most discipline is “sub serious” and should be handled in as tight a circle as possible to avoid undue embarrassment and shame. A young man who has confessed an addiction to pornography, for example, and who has been counseled for 3 months by his elder and who has shown significant growth and progress need not be “outed” to the congregation. As the Scriptures say:

love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8 ESV)

Wayne Grudem comments helpfully here saying:

Where love abounds in a fellowship of Christians, many small offences, and even some large ones, are readily overlooked and forgotten.[1]

That is true and wonderful BUT I think it is time for us to think through some reasonable limits and exceptions to this practice.

What sins should be disclosed to the congregation, even if repented of?

What sins, even if repented of, should disqualify a person from serving in a vulnerable sector? For how long? What steps would need to be in place before such a person could return to that area of ministry?

These are conversations we cannot afford not to have. The church needs to be a place of mercy and wisdom and some of these issues need to be rebalanced in favour of the safety of the little ones.

Another area in need of adjustment relates to finance. Most churches in Canada have already made this adjustment under pressure from CRA.

Good.

Donors need to be assured that moneys are being dealt with according to the laws of the land and the agreed upon priorities of the congregation. If there are churches that have not come into compliance with the new CRA regulations for registered charities, they should be pressured by their membership to do so.

(3) Deeper and wider leadership structure

I believe that the Bible teaches a complementary approach to leadership in the home and in the church; meaning that I believe that both men and women are ruling creatures, though they exercise that leadership in different and complementary ways. However, as the conservative evangelical (now often called reformed evangelical) wing of the church has reacted to the sweeping changes made by the progressive wing of the church, many congregations have become exclusively and unhelpfully male in their leadership structures.

While it seems clear that passages like 1 Timothy 2 and 3 and 1 Corinthians 14 advocate for a male eldership with authority over the doctrine and official proclamation of the church, it seems equally clear that women have and should occupy prominent places in the leadership culture of local congregations.

The Apostle Paul refers to Phoebe as both a deacon and a patron of the church in Cenchreae in Romans 16. He says:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well. (Romans 16:1–2 ESV)

Her role at the church is described using two Greek words that probably warrant a brief explanation.

The first word is the Greek word diakonos which is translated in the ESV as “servant”. The 2011 NIV translation renders that same word as “deacon” as in the citation below:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. (Romans 16:1 NIV11-GK)

It is unclear how far the office of deacon had evolved by this time in church history but on balance, it does seem that Paul intends us to understand Phoebe as in some sense an official representative of the church at Cenchreae. Thomas Schreiner for example writes:

“it is likely that she held the office of deacon… for this is the only occasion in which the term diakonos is linked with a particular local church.”[2]

Schreiner goes on to caution us against reading our own understanding of the office of “deacon” back into this first century text. The word “deacon” in some churches today means roughly what the word “elder” means in others; but this is a 20th century evolution in the use of the term. For most of Christian history the office of “deacon” was understood as distinct from the office of elder/pastor/bishop and had to do with organizing and overseeing the benevolence ministries of the church.

If Christian history is clear about anything, it is clear that there were many women deacons in the church in the first several centuries. In AD 111 Pliny the Younger wrote to the Emperor Trajan seeking instruction on how to deal with the growing number of Christians in Bithynia and Pontus. In order to get some first hand information on the habits and practices of the early church he says that he:

“thought it the more necessary to extract the real truth, with the assistance of torture from two female slaves, who were called deaconesses: but I could discover nothing more than depraved and excessive superstition.”[3]

Clearly there were many female deaconesses operating within the church in the first several centuries. They appear to have come from all social classes; these women mentioned by Pliny the Younger were slaves whereas Phoebe, mentioned in Romans 16 was evidently a woman of considerable means; Paul refers to her as a patron of the church, using the Greek word prostatis. Scholars generally agree that this word likely refers to her financial assistance given to the church generally and to Christian missionaries like Paul specifically.

To state the obvious, women were very involved in mission and benevolence in the early church and there is very little reason to understand why they shouldn’t be again today. By confusing the categories of deacon and elder as many Baptist churches have in the last 100 years and by over reacting to the excesses of the progressive movement we have unhelpfully narrowed and flattened the leadership culture of the church and left no legitimate place for female leaders.

This needs to change.

There is no biblical reason not to have women serving in a variety of critical positions within the church. This would broaden out the base of input for decision makers and would help to check the tendency of exclusively male leadership cultures toward arrogance, crassness and incivility.

With Respect To Our Wider Associations:

Most congregational churches balance their belief in the autonomy of each local congregation with the belief that it is also wise and prudent to partner broadly with a group of other like minded churches, but how is this to be done? How much autonomy should be sacrificed in order to partner with other congregations?

Every congregational church has to wrestle with those questions, as does every wider association. In response to some of the challenges mentioned above, I propose the following modest adjustments with respect to our free will associations:

(1) Smaller and more geographical

In my denomination, small local associations have gradually given way to massive, national bodies with complicated and often overlapping structures and responsibilities.

This is not an improvement.

If the purpose of free will association is fellowship, consultation and ministry partnership, as John Owen in the Savoy Declaration originally suggested that it was, it is difficult to see how this can be done by churches in different provinces, speaking different languages and facing very different situations on the ground. There is such a thing as economy of scale and the drive towards bigger and wider that characterized the 20th century needs to be revisited in favour of associations that are local and personal in nature. If pastors cannot meet with each other personally on a monthly or at least quarterly basis, in what sense are they experiencing meaningful fellowship? How precisely are they able to consult on issues of pastoral or theological difficulty? How can they partner in reaching their various communities?

If the answer to all of those questions is “the internet” then heaven help us.

If the internet has proven anything it is that the internet has not been good for personal and pastoral relationships.

The larger, wider and less personal an association is the more cracks there are in which dangerous and evil things inevitably grow. The scandal presently unfolding in the Southern Baptist Association should be all the proof we need of that. In what sense can 47,000 churches be said to be in meaningful fellowship with one another? What does that even mean and why is it necessary? It only took 5 Particular Baptist Churches to launch the modern missionary movement in the 18th century so why do we need 47,000 churches pretending to be in meaningful association in the 21st century? At some point you can become too big to succeed and it may well be past time for us to reconsider the effectiveness of these massive and inefficient organizations.

I’d like to see us move towards smaller and more geographically limited associations. 20-30 churches within a 4 hour driving radius would seem to make the most sense given the stated objectives of free will association for most congregational churches.

(2) Higher threshold of theological agreement

In addition to being too wide geographically many denominations have become too broad theologically. In my own denomination there is now so much theological diversity that it is almost impossible for us to do anything of substance. Keeping everyone together has become the driving focus, putting pressure on the leadership to keep the bar as low as possible with respect to doctrine and theology.

But why is it important to “keep everyone together”?

Surely we can be one in Christ and surely we can credit each other as brothers and sisters without attempting to maintain an increasingly meaningless and emaciated formal association. Unity need not be formal and it need not be structural. I can love you and credit you as a believer without buying a house and sharing a budget with you. It may be time for some of these large, unwieldy and impossibly diverse denominations to undergo a process of controlled decoupling. They should be replaced by smaller, more geographically and theologically defined associations.

To be effective a free will association requires authentic relationships and far reaching theological agreement. In today’s cultural context it is hard to see how those things can be maintained over massive distance and intense external pressure. The next generation of denominations should be smaller, closer, and more aligned with respect to values, doctrine and theology.

(3) Clearer process for disfellowshipping churches

The minutes from Canadian Baptist association meetings in the 19th century reveal that it was once fairly common practice for them to disfellowship individual churches that were no longer operating in harmony with their common beliefs and practices. This was not understood as an infringement upon the principle of autonomy; such churches were free to be and do whatever they wished, but if they continued to do and be those things then they could no longer partner authentically with the rest of the association. Somehow along the way we appear to have lost sight of this crucial distinction.

For associations to have any value there needs to be a simple mechanism for ensuring that agreed upon doctrines, beliefs and convictions are maintained by all participating churches. If a church moves away from these agreed upon principles, then they have decided to move away from the free will association. If discussion and dialogue does not close whatever gap has opened then the reality of non-alignment should be recognized by all parties and the change in status should be ratified at the next scheduled gathering. This shouldn’t be nearly as complicated as it appears to some people to be.

Free will associations should be easy to join and easy to leave; easy to build and easy to dissolve. What we believe about the foundational nature of the local church should make this self-evident.

Summary, Conclusions and Disclaimers:

Many of the suggestions above may already be represented within existing associations. Whether you feel this to be a call for reformation or a statement of the obvious probably depends upon the specifics of your present ministry context. Be that is it may, it does seem that a fairly broad conversation about the evolution of congregational polity is needed within the wider evangelical community.

There are too many lone wolves, too many Alpha Males and too many sexual predators on the loose within our churches.

Something has to change.

And something has to change with respect to the way we associate with one another. As presently constituted our denominations are too wide, too shallow and too inefficient.

For the glory of God, for the progress of the mission and for the safety of the little ones, let’s a find a way to do better.

Even still, come Lord Jesus!

 

SDG,

Pastor Paul Carter


To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes.

 

 

 

[1]Wayne A. Grudem, 1 Peter: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 6 of Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. IVP/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 181.

[2] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary On The New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 787.

[3] Pliny the Younger as cited by Peter J. Williams in Can We Trust The Gospels? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 26.

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