The Spurgeon Center: Critical Abilities (John Ewart)

Editor’s Note: Every Thursday morning at Between the Times we highlight the work of Southeastern’s Spurgeon Center for Pastoral Leadership and Preaching. Directed by John H. Ewart, who also serves as Associate Vice President for Global Theological Initiatives at Southeastern, the Spurgeon Center exists to equip and encourage pastors to lead healthy, disciple-making churches for the glory of God around the world. In the effort to accomplish this mission, through the board of advisors and others the center will be offering assistance, resources and training to our students, as well as to pastors and churches, to further equip them to serve well in the crucible of real life ministry. This week Dr. Ewart introduces the work of the Spurgeon Center with a series on Critical Abilities in pastoral leadership.

Years ago, while serving in the Philippines with the then Foreign Mission Board, my supervisor and I were scheduled to attend a church planting strategy meeting on a nearby island. We drove to the coast, but due to delays missed the last automobile ferry for the day. A man overheard our problem and led us to a smaller ferry designed to carry people only. The craft had no ramp for vehicles, only a gangplank for people to walk on board. We explained we would need our car on the island to drive to our meeting. The captain just smiled and said, “No problem, we can put your car onboard.”

The gangplank was removed and the crew proceeded to lay two large boards between the edge of the dock and the edge of the boat. When the boards were in place the captain smiled and calmly said, “Drive on.” My supervisor, who had been driving and to whom the car was assigned, quickly handed me the keys and less calmly said, “Drive on.” Seeing we had no other option, I sat down behind the wheel of our mission board’s vehicle, released the clutch slowly and drove toward the end of the dock.

When I reached the edge, I realized I had a major problem. The dock was higher than the boat and the boards slanted downward. I could not see the boards! I had no idea which way to move. Recognizing the look of panic on my face, the captain hopped out on the boards and began to direct me with hand signals. I was totally dependent upon him. I focused intensely upon his every direction. He motioned me to the right, and to the left, and at one point frantically motioned for me to stop. Needless to say, I stopped!

I will never forget that moment, feeling the boards bending, listening to them creak, going up and down with the waves. One wrong move and I would plunge into the ocean. Finally I was able to creep forward, clutch and all, moving up and down with the tide, and inched my way toward the boat.

I learned much about life that day. It is full of deep water and unseen challenges. Each day holds uncertainty and the unknown. We cannot see what the next minute contains. We must move forward yet we cannot see the “boards” ahead of us. We need a guide. We need someone who can see the “boards” to direct us. We need the one who put the “boards” into place and knows them perfectly to show us the way. We must focus intensely upon his every direction. We must intentionally adjust our movement, or stop our movement, according to his command.

Graciously, God has created and set into place certain “boards” upon which His people are to intentionally move forward. These “boards” are the biblical principles and practices for our lives and His church. We must intentionally adjust our movement, or stop our movement, according to these principles. We must trust the One who has put them into place to guide us. When properly followed and fulfilled, His “boards” will lead us to accomplish His Mission.

Over the next few weeks I am going to write a series of posts discussing what I believe to be specific, critical abilities leaders in the church must possess to not only acknowledge but to stay “on the boards.”

Leadership and ministry skills development should be an intentional part of every local church ministry. They are necessary aspects of discipleship. That is why we have created an intentional bridge between the local church and seminary called the C. H. Spurgeon Center for Pastoral Leadership and Preaching. It exists to equip and encourage pastors to lead healthy, disciple-making churches for the glory of God around the world. Check it out on our website. And check back next Thursday for the next installment in the Critical Abilities series.

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Practicing the Gospel in Community: Congregational Church Polity

[Editor’s Note: This summer we at BtT are featuring old but good posts for your reading enjoyment. Look out for an all new BtT in August 2014. This post originally appeared on August 29, 2008.]

This is the sixth article in a series that explores the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity. Congregational church polity (or government) is the belief that the highest earthly authority within a local church is the congregation itself. Positively, congregationalism argues that a majority of the church’s membership determines the agenda of the congregation. Negatively, congregationalism contends that no pastor/elder, deacon, or committee can dictate policy to a church or assert absolute control over a congregation. Congregationalism assumes a regenerate church membership, and when exercised responsibly, is nothing more than the corporate living out of the gospel within the community created by the gospel.

Congregationalism makes some contemporary Baptists nervous; many of us have horror stories of contentious church business meetings. Others want to safeguard pastoral authority, arguing that congregationalism sometimes undermines the leadership of pastors/elders. While I am sympathetic to these concerns about how congregationalism is practiced in some churches, spurrious application of biblical principles should not lead to a rejection of those principles. In the New Testament, whether its the setting apart of church leadership (in the absence of apostles) or the exercise of church discipline, the final decision-making authority resides with the congregation itself.

It is important to understand that an affirmation of congregationalism does not necessitate the tyranny of the majority. Presumably, a church is attempting to submit to the lordship of Christ and is pursuing his will in all matters brought before the body. Furthermore, congregationalism does not mean that the church must meet in conference for every decision that is to be made. Presumably, every church invests decision-making authority in some leaders, whether they be pastors, other staff members, deacons, or certain committees. While both of these scenarios sometimes occur, we must remember that a divisive or ineffective congregationalism is evidence of a spiritually unhealthy church. To say it another way, troubled churches are often characterized (plagued?) by a corrupt congregationalism.

We must also understand that congregational church polity does not negate the authority of pastors/elders as they lead the church. Rather, congregationalism argues that pastoral authority is a derived authority, exercised under the lordship of Christ, in accountability to the whole church. Furthermore, healthy pastoral leadership should result in spiritual maturity among the members of the congregation, which should in turn result in a Christ-centered congregationalism. Biblically healthy churches must be willing to follow the (godly) leadership of their pastors, while godly pastors must be willing to lead in a manner that is consistent with the will of the (biblically healthy) congregation. Congregationalism reminds us both that pastors are not dictators and that churches are not ochlocracies.

As a closing note, congregationalism is closely tied to the reformational doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. The priesthood of all believers affirms two realities. First, the doctrine argues that every believer has direct access to God because of the high priestly ministry of Jesus Christ. Or, to say it another way, we do not need an earthly priest to serve as our mediator with God because we are in union with the one mediator between God and man, the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5).

Second, Baptists and most other Protestants argue against the existence of any special priestly class of Christians. Instead, we contend that all believers are spiritually equipped for the work of the gospel ministry within their unique vocations. To affirm the priesthood of all believers is to embrace an “every member ministry,” even as we set apart some God-called individuals to serve as pastors (and deacons).

It is this aspect of the priesthood of all believers that intersects with congregationalism. Baptists argue that congregational polity is simply the most consistent application of the priesthood of all believers. Our priesthood is practiced within the context of the gospel community, under the lordship of Christ, in accountability to one another, following the leadership of our pastors. This whole process has the gospel at its center, and it is only when congregationalism is untethered from the gospel that things get dicey. So let us labor for a gospel-centered, Christ-exalting, balanced congregationalism in our churches.

[Note: For more information about how Baptists have understood and applied the priesthood of all believers, I recommend Malcolm Yarnell’s fine essay “The Priesthood of Believers: Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Royal Priesthood,” in Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches (Kregel, 2007).

The New Between the Times

As has been hinted at throughout the summer, we are pleased to introduce a new Between the Times. You’ve likely already noticed the new look, but beginning today you will discern a new approach with new content from Southeastern faculty, staff, students, and alumni. At times, we will also point you to other worthwhile blogs or essays that we think will serve our readers well. New posts will appear daily, sometimes twice a day, on topics that serve, equip, and encourage the church as she makes disciples of Jesus Christ. Also, we want to hear from you as you read so that we might strengthen our efforts to serve you.

Additionally, Grant Taylor will be joining our team as editor of Between the Times.

In sum, this is the Great Commission blog of a Great Commission seminary. So check in with Between the Times every day to join us as we go.