In last week’s post, I shared some of the biblical reasoning for church polity being elder-led congregationalism. Today’s post continues the conversation. I’m going to reference the history of Wilkesboro Baptist Church as well as church health as two important reasons for considering a change in our church structure.
Wilkesboro Baptist Church began in 1880 as a missionary church (church plant) from a sister congregation. The text below is the historical account of our church’s beginning.
On the first Saturday (7th) in August 1880 a presbytery consisting of Elders W.R. Gwaltney, John Adams, James D. Tinsley, and I.T. Prevette met in the Court House in Wilkesboro, N.C. for the purpose of organizing a Missionary Baptist Church. Elder Gwaltney was moderator, and Elder Prevette Clerk, after devotional exercises conducted by the moderator, the presbytery was received by the brethren, The following brethren and sisters presented letters, John Bowlin, Jane E. Bowlin, S.R. Bowlin, B.E. Bowlin, J.R. Bowlin, Ann Eller, W.H. Brown, Mary Brown, Deliah White, G.W. Green and Dora M. Green from Cub Creek Church, E. Staley, Martha Staley, John W. Staley, Nelia Staley from Oak Forest Church, A.M. Church, Susan Church, A.V. Church, L.C. Church and E.S. Church of Mt. Pleasant Church; the clerk read the letters, and the presbytery was satisfied. The New Hampshire Confession of Faith, and Church Covenant were read and adopted by the brethren and sisters. The presbytery then agreed to reorganize these brethren and sisters as the Wilkesboro Baptist Church. A charge was delivered by the moderator and the hand of fellowship given by the presbytery.Organization for Wilkesboro Baptist Church, Presbytery consisting of W.R. Gwaltney, John Adams, James D. Tinsley, and I.T. Prevette
Presbytery is the theological term for a group of elders. So when a presbytery of elders came together to form Wilkesboro Baptist Church, the church at its founding had a plurality of elders.
Wilkesboro Baptist over the years shifted from a plurality of elders to a pastor-led congregation with strong deacon leadership. While all the reasons for this shift are not clear (not just for WBC but for a great many Baptist churches with similar polity shifts), the most obvious reason is practical. Even with our history of long-tenured pastors, the typical pattern for pastoral ministry at WBC has been for a pastor to come, preach, lead, and then leave for another congregation. In fact, that’s typical of most Baptist churches. So who leads in the transition times? In the case of many churches the deacons, or the second office in the church, were entrusted to make decisions and to lead in the absence of a pastor. Over the years, deacon influence grew and the pastor-deacons-congregation model became more firmly established.
While moving back to a plurality of elders might be a reset to our church history, it also aims at securing a firm grasp on church health.
One might ask, “If our structure wasn’t as biblical as it could be, how has Wilkesboro Baptist experienced stability and health over the past several decades?” That’s a good question.
I would venture this argument. Church health is contingent on at least two factors: godly leadership and biblical structure. Biblical structure is church polity reflected in biblical teaching. Think of these two factors as a spectrum.
When a church has godly leadership (the right people leading, serving, making decisions), it has a great chance of being healthy, being on mission, and experiencing stability. Personally, I believe this is why churches with leadership structures that lack biblical precedent (hierarchical or a CEO model or a board of directors, etc.) can sometimes still experience stability, health, and growth. God works through godly people. I can attest that at Wilkesboro Baptist Church we have godly leadership among deacons, staff, and other church leaders. I believe this has been true of our church for decades.
The question arises, “How do we retain and replicate godly leaders?” This is where biblical structure is vital. It is apparent to me that the Bible warrants a plurality of pastors (elders) leading a church. See polity, pt. 1. If I am correct in affirming the biblical structure of elder-led congregationalism, then a plurality of godly pastors/elders is best suited to make disciples and replicate leaders in the life of a church. (In a future post, I’m going to connect biblical polity directly to our church’s mission).
So in my view, the healthiest church is the one with both godly leaders and biblical structure. It is the church with godly leaders in the right places in ministry, whether that’s in a biblical office (elder or deacon), staff position, or lay leadership in the church.
In last week’s post regarding unhealthy churches I wrote:
Too many churches crumble because of internal wars of preference and power. Too many churches falter because of an unwillingness to hold onto theological fidelity. Too many churches are crushed because of leadership failure rooted in pride, a desire for power, or immorality. A failure in leadership is often preceded by a failure in church polity. I don’t believe a church’s structures can protect against all sin (internal or external), but I have grown to believe that the biblical picture of elder-led congregationalism does offer a healthy and protective framework for pastoral leadership in the life of the church.Chris Hefner, polity, pt. 1.
At the risk of becoming a discernment blog for a paragraph, let’s observe a few high level illustrations. Consider the sexual abuse scandals and cover-up within the Roman Catholic Church as reported by the Boston Globe. Consider the rise and fall of Mars Hill Church and its leadership failures both in godliness and organization. Consider the all too many Baptist churches that fuss and fight, split and sever over power and control. Consider the theological divisions arising in mainline denominations where biblical fidelity is no longer valued and cultural values are openly embraced (see the United Methodist Church as an example). Consider a Baptist church in our state where the polity was essentially that a single pastor made all the decisions (the church grew under his quality as a speaker, struggled because he did not act above reproach, gave himself a pay raise and almost bankrupted the church).
I could go on, but there is no need. Some of you reading will have your own stories. And while I’m not naive enough to think that godly leadership plus a biblical structure (elder-led congregationalism) will solve all church tensions and end all church divisions, I do believe in the authority of the Bible and the supreme wisdom of the Bible’s Author. The biblical pattern for protecting the church’s spiritual health and mission appears to be a plurality of godly men serving as elders who are above reproach and seek the glory of Christ and the spread of the gospel.
In future posts, we’ll touch on why a plurality of elders is wise relating biblical polity to issues like the weight of pastoral ministry, elder accountability, and the church’s mission.
Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash