Friday, September 10, 2010

BAPTISTS: Elder Rule or Congregational Government?

I was with a group of Baptist pastors recently where the question of "elder rule" came up.  Elder rule means that the pastor or pastors make the decisions in the church.  Elder rule is the opposite of congregational rule.  The question that was raised was whether or not this was true to Baptist church polity.

Nobody argued that most Baptist churches in North America have traditionally held to congregational rule.  On the other hand, everyone in this group knew that over the past 50 years many Baptists in North America have moved away from congregational polity and toward elder rule.  This evolution was not generally a matter of doctrinal conviction, but of pragmatic efficiencies.  It is easier to run a church when you don't have to get the whole church together to make decisions.

Some pastors said that while congregational rule is the norm in North America, Baptists in other countries and on other continents have other forms of church governance.  Someone suggested that church government probably reflects the civil government.  (I tend to doubt that.  Think about it - dictatorial governments, monarchies, etc.)

Someone pointed out that even Baptists in North America don't include congregational church government in the "B-A-P-T-I-S-T" acrostic that they use to teach the distinctive teachings of Baptists. (i.e., Biblical authority, Autonomy of the local church, Priesthood of all believers, Two ordinances - believer's baptism & the Lord's supper, Individual soul liberty, Separation of church and state, Two Offices - Pastor & Deacon.) 

Someone else said that congregational rule was much less important to Baptists than local church autonomy.  I think he was suggesting that autonomous churches allow other autonomous churches to tune their polity to suit themselves.  True enough.

It is absolutely true that individual autonomous churches will vary in their polity as laid out in their constitution and by-laws.  Constitutions and by-laws are not divinely inspired.  They are there to make sure we do things decently and in order.  Different churches will be slightly different.

It is impossible for churches to be completely congregational.  For an extreme example, a pastor is granted authority to preach and teach and counsel as he sees fit.  He doesn't need to have a vote of the church on every decision he makes.  Similarly, pastor's and deacons and other church leaders are granted some degree of authority for taking care of the business of the church.  Usually they can spend a limited amount of money for the church and make certain business decisions for the church without consulting the congregation.

The degree of delegated authority will vary greatly from church to church.  I have no problem with that.  But I have a big problem - a theological problem - with moving completely to full fledged ELDER RULE.

My concerns are centered under the "P" in the BAPTIST acrostic - the Priesthood of all believers.  We believe that all believers are on equal footing in Christ.  All believers have the indwelling Holy Spirit.  All believers have access to the word of God and the illumination of the Spirit of God.  All believers have access to God in prayer.  All believers have the same Mediator - Jesus Christ.
(1 Peter 2:9)But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light;
(Colossians 3:11) where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.
(Galatians 3:28) There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
(Romans 12:1) I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. (Note: "reasonable service of religious ministry.")
(1 Timothy 2:5) For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus,
The point is that there is no Christian leadership class that is somehow more spiritual or has better access to God than another class of believers.  Some believers are less mature.  Some believers are disobedient.  But all believers are on the same ground - disciples of Jesus Christ.  Congregational church government is an expression of this truth.

I have no problem with a Baptist church having multiple pastors, calling the multiple pastors "elders," or delegating various authority to the elders & deacons to achieve some pragmatic efficiencies in ministry - AS LONG AS THEY DON'T FORGET THAT THE CONGREGATION OWNS THE AUTHORITY DELEGATED TO THEM.

But when pastors and deacons and church boards operate as if they were self perpetuating leaders with a divine right to rule they are neglecting some important aspects of doctrine that Baptists have traditionally held dear.  Beyond that, they are in jeopardy of falling afoul of the caution given by Peter.
(1 Peter 5:2–3) Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly;  NOR AS BEING LORDS OVER THOSE ENTRUSTED TO YOU, but being examples to the flock;

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