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 Center for Faith and Culture and Oxford

Every Tuesday morning at Between the Times we highlight the work of Southeastern’s Center for Faith and Culture (CFC). Directed by Dr. Ken Keathley, Professor of Theology at Southeastern, the Center seeks to bring the Christian faith to bear upon all areas of life through helping others to think and to act Christianly in both private and public discourse. To this end, the Center hosts numerous conferences, guest lectures, debates and study tours throughout the year. Recently, Dr. Keathley and others completed the annual Oxford Study Tour. Here is the first of several posts on their time in England. 

Regents Park is a Baptist college in the Oxford University system. This year Dr Malcolm Yarnell (Professor of Theology at SWBTS, and my very good friend) and I have taken a study group from Southwestern Seminary and Southeastern Seminary on a 18-day tour of England and Scotland. Regents Park has been gracious enough to let us once again stay with them. They have welcomed Southern Baptist students every summer for more than two decades, and they are wonderful hosts. We challenged their hospitality by bringing a group of over 70 students, faculty, and others. They rose to the task above and beyond expectations. David Harper, the college’s bursar, has moved heaven and earth to provide us with excellent accommodations. Some of us are staying at St. Johns College which is across the street from Regents Park.

Regent's ParkOxford has more history per square inch than any other place I know. Want to see where Latimer and Ridley were burned at the stake for the sake of the Gospel? That’s about a quarter of mile from where we’re staying. Want to buy something from the candy store where Alice (as in the Alice of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland) used to get her candy? About a mile from here. In between St. John’s and Regents Park is a pub called The Eagle and the Child. For decades a literary group call The Inklings met there. J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were members. On Thursdays Tolkien would read to C. S. Lewis and the other attendees portions of a little tale he was writing called Lord of the Rings.

Michael Travers is teaching on the apologetics of C. S. Lewis, David Allen on British Preaching, and Nathan Finn and Malcolm Yarnell are team-teaching on Baptist History. What’s not to love?

For Dr. Keathley’s full series of posts on the tour, and more on the CFC, check out his blog here

Preparing SEBTS Students for the SBC Annual Meeting

As many readers will know, the SBC Annual Meeting will gather in Houston on June 11–12, 2013. In conjunction with the Convention, I teach an elective travel course at Southeastern Seminary titled The Southern Baptist Convention. The course is divided into three components. First, we meet on campus for one full day to discuss Southern Baptist history, theology, and polity, as well as specific information related to the upcoming annual meeting. Second, the students read several books and articles and listen to numerous audio resources related to these themes. Finally, the students attend the SBC Annual Meeting itself. While at the Convention, the students attend most of the proceedings, meet a couple of times with key SBC leaders, hobnob at the SEBTS booth, and attend the SEBTS Friends and Alumni Luncheon. Most also attend auxiliary events such as the Pastor’s Conference, Baptist 21 Luncheon, and 9 Marks at 9 events, among others.

I thought I would pass on to you some of the resources I use to prepare students for the SBC Annual Meeting. Obviously, we spend quite a bit of time walking through the Convention program, which, along with numerous other helpful resources, is available online. In addition to my lectures and guided class discussions, the students also watch or listen to several lectures, sermons, and panel discussions. This year, I’ve required them to watch the various Baptist 21 panel discussions from previous years (available at the B21 website), which are a helpful gauge of the “hot topics” in the SBC in recent years. I also required the students to watch one of the panels from last year’s 9 Marks at 9. The panel, which included Mark Dever, Al Mohler, and Danny Akin, discussed Fred Luter’s presidential election, the nature of SBC cooperation, and Calvinism, all of which remain important topics a year later.

I also point the students to four lectures or sermons. They watch David Dockery’s fine sermon “Participants and Partners in the Gospel,” which was preached in SEBTS chapel back in February. The sermon is vintage Dockery, calling for denominational unity around the gospel and basic Baptist orthodoxy for the sake of the Great Commission. Students also listen to Dockery’s lecture “The Southern Baptist Convention since 1979,” which helps to orient them to recent Baptist history. The final two lectures are Timothy George’s “The Future of Baptist Identity in a post-Denominational World,” which remains a timely topic, and Al Mohler’s “The Future of the Southern Baptist Convention,” an address that every Southern Baptist needs to listen to at least once.
The students read two books and over a dozen journal articles or book chapters. The first book is Roger Richards’ History of Southern Baptists (Crossbooks, 2012), which is the most recent history of the SBC. The second book is a helpful collection of essays titled The Great Commission Resurgence: Fulfilling God’s Mandate in Our Time (B&H Academic, 2010), edited by Chuck Lawless and Adam Greenway. The latter volume touches upon most of the current tension points in the SBC from a perspective that advocates unity for the sake of gospel advance.

Unfortunately, for reasons of copyright I can’t make most of the additional essays I require available outside of the class. The students read chapters, articles, and booklets written by SBC leaders and thinkers such as Danny Akin (on the Great Commission Resurgence), David Dockery (on Baptist theology), Nathan Finn (on Baptist identity, Calvinism, and the future of the SBC), Timothy George (on Baptist theology), John Hammett (on regenerate church membership and the ordinances), Chuck Lawless (on Calvinism), Al Mohler (on Baptist identity), Paige Patterson (on the Conservative Resurgence), Ed Stetzer (on missional churches), and Malcolm Yarnell (on the priesthood of all believers).

One resource that I can make available to you is Dr. Patterson’s e-booklet “The Southern Baptist Conservative Resurgence: The History, the Plan, the Assessment ” (Seminary Hill, 2012). In this booklet, was which was originally published as three separate articles in The Southwestern Journal of Theology, Dr. Patterson offers a first-hand account of the Conservative Resurgence. It is a helpful look at recent Baptist history from one of the most important shapers of that history. It is also a reminder that Dr. Patterson needs to publish a volume that brings together his collected articles and essays, a topic I have pestered him about in the past. (And again, now, on a public blog . . .)

Anyway, I hope you find these resources helpful. And I hope that many of you will consider attending the 2013 SBC Annual Meeting in Houston. Perhaps I will see many of you there.

(Note: This post was cross-published at Christian Thought & Tradition)online game car