polity

This past week in worship, I preached a sermon entitled, “Why Polity Matters.” Polity is simply the governing or guiding structures of an organization. Every organization (church) has a polity even if it is not clear or specific. Polity does matter.

As Jonathan Leeman points out in his assessment of the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast, polity is important for church health.

“When an organization is growing and prosperous, nobody cares much about its governing structures or polity. ‘If it ain’t broke, why fix it?’ People only care when things fall apart. Then they clamor, ‘Who has the power of discipline here? And who should be holding whom accountable?’ Discipline and accountability are the first things people wonder about when leaders fail. Why didn’t Driscoll keep himself accountable? Why didn’t the elders? Why didn’t an outside board? And so it goes… Polity is not essential for salvation, but it’s essential for helping the saved walk lovingly and peaceably together. It’s essential for passing the gospel to the next generation. It’s essential, finally, for biblical obedience.”[1]

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.

After months of praying, thinking, reading, and discussing with staff, deacons, and other church leaders, I shared with Wilkesboro Baptist Church a vision for rewriting our by-laws to include a plurality of elders.

What are elders? There are three interchangeable terms used in the New Testament for what we typically call the pastor. These terms are pastor, elder, overseer. They refer to the office of pastor. Pastor means shepherd and is used in Ephesians 4:11. Elder means an older male with a specific leadership role in the church and is used in Acts 20:17. Overseer means exactly what it suggests, someone who leads by overseeing the ministry of the church and is used in Acts 20:28 as well as described in 1 Timothy 3:1-7.

In this post and subsequent posts, I’m going to suggest several reasons why we should rewrite our by-laws to include a plurality of elders.

In this post, I’m just going to give one of several reasons for a plurality of elders: Biblical Warrant. There is not a didactic passage of Scripture that describes in detail exactly how a church should be structured. However, we do find evidence in both descriptive sections of Scripture (Acts) and prescriptive sections (the epistles) for a plurality of elders. Following are just a sample of Bible verses that reflect this topic. The emphasized words and phrases are mine.

When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them.

Acts 15:4

Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him.

Acts 20:17

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

Acts 20:28

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:

Philippians 1:1

Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. 

1 Timothy 4:14

There are other passages that suggest a similar picture: Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2-4, 22-23; 16:4; 1 Timothy 3:1-13; 5:17; Titus 1:5-9; Ephesians 4:11; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1-5; Hebrews 13:17.

With the highlighted words above, note that church is in the singular and elders or overseers is in the plural. Typically, at Wilkesboro Baptist, we’ve had a plurality of deacons. Currently, we have 21. And we do have a plurality of staff. But in terms of structured oversight of the congregation, we have had a Senior Pastor (with staff) and then deacons.

Given the passages above, I believe we need an organized plurality of elders (pastors) who are responsible for leading Wilkesboro Baptist Church.

In subsequent posts, I’ll offer more reasons for this change I’m proposing as well as what a plurality of elders might look like in our church. Here’s what I’m asking of you.

  • Pray for your church and its leaders. I did not embark upon this idea lightly. I do believe it is biblical, which is why I’m preaching on it and you’re reading about it here. Pray that we will be faithful to what God teaches and also wise and patient in how we approach this change.
  • Ask questions. I’ve been thinking on this subject for about 15 years as a minister, studying heavily on it for nearly a year, and having conversations with staff and deacons for that long. I realize some of you heard this for the first time on Sunday or are reading it for the first time here. Feel free to ask questions. I’ll be available personally. Also, our Wednesday night doctrine and devotion study provides an opportunity for you to ask questions about this topic.
  • Continue reading. Follow along in subsequent posts for more information about this subject.

[1] Jonathan Leeman, “An Ecclesiological Take on the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” https://www.9marks.org/article/an-ecclesiological-take-on-the-rise-and-fall-of-mars-hill/

Photo by Alexander Michl on Unsplash

I had the privilege this week of attending the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. I’ve been a Southern Baptist for my entire life and have been to denominational meetings since childhood. My education came from Southern Baptist schools, and my vocational ministry has been at Southern Baptist churches.

The 2021 annual meeting in Nashville, TN was memorable and important. Here are some of my reflections on the annual meeting.

Cooperation is vital to Southern Baptists. Southern Baptists are the largest evangelical denomination in the U.S. with 47,000 churches and 15 million members. The beauty of the denomination has been its commitment to cooperate together for the purpose of sending missionaries across the world and spreading the gospel to unbelievers. We can do more together than we can separately. In 1925, the denomination developed the Cooperative Program whereby churches can give through their Baptist State Conventions to the work of Southern Baptist entities in order to send missionaries (International Mission Board), plant churches (North American Mission Board), and support theological education and cultural engagement (6 Southern Baptist Seminaries and other denominational entities). The annual meeting this week reaffirmed the commitment of Southern Baptists to cooperate for the purpose of spreading the gospel.

SBC messengers demand transparency from its leaders. This year’s meeting was one of the largest of the denomination’s largest. In previous convention meetings, the SBC overwhelmingly affirmed measures to address sexual abuse among Southern Baptist churches. For example, churches that hire sexual abusers or cover up sexual abuse can be removed from the denomination. In recent weeks, critiques arose concerning how allegations of misconduct among churches have been handled. Going into the meeting, a plan had been put forward by the SBC Executive Committee to hire a firm for an independent investigation. While this move was welcomed by many, it carried an apparent conflict of interest (the Executive Committee would be hiring a firm to investigate itself). But in the meeting this week, a motion was presented to have the newly elected SBC president select a task force who would oversee how the independent investigation is to be handled. Overcoming a number of procedural hurdles, convention messengers overwhelmingly affirmed this motion to place the responsibility for the investigation outside the Executive Committee. This action by the messengers was a clear statement that rank and file Southern Baptists decry sexual abuse and demand transparency in how leadership will handle any and all allegations.

Southern Baptists are better in a room than some are on social media. The media and social media lead up to this annual meeting was considerable. Search media sites like The Washington Post for national media coverage on the meeting. If you are on twitter, you can search #sbc21 for more social commentary on the convention. One of the inherent problems with social media in general is that it is far easier to make an accusation or to post something vitriolic from a distance than it is to say something to someone’s face. As I read through twitter leading up to the convention, there was accusation, argument, and mischaracterization by individuals on different sides of the issues. This was disheartening. But that vitriol largely stayed on social media. The messengers in the room behaved themselves cordially, and there were no major divisive outbursts even though there were areas of stark disagreement. The lesson going forward is that Southern Baptists need to have more face to face conversations and guard their social media interactions with a demeanor of gentleness and respect.

Because Southern Baptists have great diversity, we don’t agree on every theological issue. The Baptist Faith and Message represents what Southern Baptists believe on key theological issues. But inside the framework of the Baptist Faith and Message, there is room for diversity of theological opinion. SBC ’21 in Nashville reflected this diversity through resolutions, motions, amendments, and various reports by denominational leaders. One issue that received a great amount of attention is CRT or Critical Race Theory due in part to a resolution made in the Birmingham meeting in 2019. At the 2021 convention, the messengers overwhelmingly affirmed resolution 2 on “The Sufficiency of Scripture for Race and Racial Reconciliation,” albeit after considerable discussion and amendment recommendations (see page 7 of the Tuesday daily bulletin ). The diversity of Southern Baptists precludes agreement on every issue. What I took away from the meeting, and what we need more of, is willingness to disagree agreeably when the issues are tertiary and not primary.

Southern Baptists remain theologically conservative. Another reason for the high attendance this year was election of the SBC president to follow J. D. Greear. The SBC President represents the denomination as a spokesperson, is responsible for appointing individuals to serve on committees that appoint entity trustees, and moderates the business sessions at the annual meeting. Four men were nominated, Albert Mohler, Mike Stone, Ed Litton, and Randy Adams. After the first vote did not see a candidate with more than 50% of the vote, Ed Litton was elected to serve as SBC president in a runoff with Mike Stone. Ed Litton is the pastor of Redemption Church in Mobile, Alabama. Mike Stone was the preferred candidate of a recently formed Conservative Baptist Network. While each of these candidates differ on theological issues, they each hold to the inerrancy, sufficiency, and authority of Scripture, the exclusivity of Christ for salvation, and the Baptist Faith and Message. Differences of application for handling racial, political, and interpersonal issues remain among Southern Baptists, but it is unfair and unhelpful to critique nuanced differences of theological application as liberal or moderate. After leaving the meeting, I’m convinced that our denomination remains theologically conservative. Some of you reading this may have preferred a different candidate or may think differently about some of the outcomes at the annual meeting. That’s ok. Reach out in the comments below. We’ll make time to talk.

The local church is the primary change agent for our denomination. Southern Baptist polity is congregational. Denominatioal leaders don’t dictate to the convention churches as in a hierarchical polity. Southern Baptists believe in the autonomy of local congregations. This is a blessing and was evident in the events of the business sessions. While Southern Baptists, like many other denominations are experiencing a decline, hope for change does not rest in denominational entities or leadership. Hope for change rests in the power of God working through local churches. Each local congregation is the body of Christ for its community and to the world. Denominatioal change begins with our local churches.

Here are a few of my favorite moments at the meeting. (1) I was greatly encouraged by the times of special prayer, especially seeing 13k messengers on their knees in prayer. (2) On Monday afternoon 64 missionaries were commissioned to the nations. One missionary left his dream job at NASA to take the gospel to the nations. May his example motivate each of us. (3) During extra sessions on Monday night and Tuesday night, I gathered at First Baptist Nashville for the 9 Marks at Nine Events. Before beginning the event, attenders sang congregational hymns acapella. The boisterous sound of a thousand Baptists singing praise to God was inspirational and worshipful.