Category: SBC Issues

Democratic Congregationalism, A Seventh Baptist Distinctive in Peril (Part 2)

Today, we are pleased to present part two (click here for the entire essay) of this essay which will be presented in two parts. After part two is published, the entire essay will be available on the resource page in .pdf format, and a post dedicated to discussion of the issues raised by Dr. Yarnell will take its place on this page.

by Malcolm Yarnell, Ph.D., Associate Dean for Theological Studies, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord.

Why have most Baptists historically maintained democratic congregationalism? Because they understand that democratic congregationalism is the clear teaching of Scripture. We are not democratic congregationalists because we are historically Baptists, although countering our churches’ received tradition should always cause us to pause reflectively. Rather, we are democratic congregationalists because democratic congregationalism is scriptural. There are three aspects of this short statement from article VI that we should consider.

The first aspect to consider is scriptural congregationalism. The Baptist Faith and Message cites six biblical texts that are commonly utilized to defend democratic congregationalism. Recently, Southern Baptist theologians such as Danny Akin, James Leo Garrett, Paige Patterson, and Samuel Waldron have drawn upon the same biblical texts and add a few of their own in order to defend democratic congregationalism. The clearest texts regarding the establishment of democratic congregationalism in the New Testament churches include Matthew 18:15-20; Acts 6:1-7, 11:22, 13:2-3, 14:27, 15; 1 Corinthians 5:2; and 2 Corinthians 2:6. There are other supportive texts that imply democratic congregationalism, but these are the most important.

The reader is encouraged to read these and other texts with their local church praying for the Spirit’s illumination. In summary, it should be noted that in Matthew 18, Jesus Christ gave the authority of discipline and excommunication to the ekklesia (i.e. church or congregation) itself and not to any one person or small group within the ekklesia. (In Matthew 28, moreover, it should be noted that the Great Commission was given to the entire apostolic gathering.) In Acts 6 and 13, the ekklesia was the agent that elected its leaders. In Acts 11 and 14, it was the ekklesia that dispatched ministers and those ministers were responsible to report back to that ekklesia. In Acts 15, it is the entire ekklesia, whether the Jerusalem ekklesia (15:22) or the Antioch ekklesia (15:30-31), that was involved in decision-making. In 1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Corinthians 2, the apostle Paul instructs the local ekklesia that it is responsible for excommunicating and receiving members. The congregational nature of church government thus applies to both church members and church officers, whether receiving them or disciplining them.

Congregationalism is, as a result, correctly identified as the New Testament form of church polity. Conversely, Papalism, Patriarchalism, Episcopalianism, Erastianism, Presbyterianism, and Quakerism lack a substantive New Testament basis and must be rejected as deficient forms of ecclesiology. However, of late, there has been widespread interest among Baptist pastors in non-congregational or semi-congregational structures. The motivating factor behind this phenomenon seems to be experiential rather than exegetical. Having been mistreated or close to a pastor that has been mistreated by a disorderly diaconate or an unruly congregation, the siren song of Reformed church polity has become attractive.

The recent movement to combine Reformed polity with Baptist polity has manifested itself in two primary forms. In this discussion, it is important to make a distinction between unbiblical overlordship and biblical leadership, between Presbyterianism and congregationalism. Some have endangered our Baptist identity by uncritically melding Reformed ecclesiology with their inherited biblical ecclesiology. Perhaps they do not realize that when a Baptist church loses its congregationalism, it loses the biblical pattern. Consider the two different ways to apply the Reformed doctrine of multiple eldership; one form preserves Baptist identity while the other form compromises it.

On the one hand, some have intentionally retained their Baptist congregationalism while replacing the traditional leadership of the pastor and “the deacon board” with the leadership of multiple elders. (Usually, however, even in multiple-elder congregationalism, one elder tends to become the primary leader.) From the Baptist confessional perspective, while representing a minority position, multiple-elder leadership is still recognizably Baptist. It simply prefers a multiple-elder-led congregation rather than a single-elder-led congregation. While I am personally unconvinced regarding the need for multiple elders in a single church, there are solid Baptist pastors and theologians who have sincerely received the model.

On the other hand, some Baptists are compromising biblical congregationalism by adopting the Presbyterian distinction between “teaching elders” and “ruling elders.” This distinction, based on Calvin’s misreading of 1 Timothy 5:17 in contradiction to 1 Timothy 3:2, endangers congregationalism by placing final ecclesiastical authority in the hands of a small group of men in the church. Even if consulted, Reformed congregations function as little more than rubber stamps for the dictates of an unaccountable elite. The Reformed model “seemingly affords no means of correcting heresy or immorality within a majority of elders,” a truly monstrous situation (Perspectives on Church Government, 286).

A second aspect of the Baptist confession regarding democratic congregationalism that should be addressed is the concept of being “democratic.” The doctrine of democratic congregationalism reflects the biblical teaching that every Christian is a believer called by God, indwelt by the Spirit, and appointed as a participant in Christ’s royal priesthood. This is the theological basis of congregationalism and it works itself out in the consensus of the church regarding major decisions, especially those concerning the election of ministers and the acceptance or exclusion of members from communion. It also works itself out in the fact that every member of a church is called to Christian service. Patterson and Waldron have together carefully defined what true church democracy is as opposed to counterfeit democracy (Who Runs the Church, 210-12, 238).

A third and final aspect of the Baptist confession regarding democratic congregationalism that should be addressed is the concept of Lordship. Twice in these two short confessional sentences, article VI refers us back to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. In reality, there is only one ruler of the church, and that is Jesus Christ. He is the church’s only Savior, only Lord, and only authority. Gerald Cowen summarizes the situation thus: “Where does authority in the church lie? The obvious answer is that all authority is in Christ, the head of the church” (Who Rules the Church, 79). Thus, it should be remembered by all true Baptists: Christ is the only head and lawgiver of the church; the church itself may legislate nothing new, but must be faithful to execute all that her Lord legislated.

Democratic congregationalism under the Lordship of Jesus Christ is a Baptist church distinctive that is currently in peril. May the Lord grant Baptists remembrance that these ecclesiological distinctives were guideposts affirmed by our Baptist forefathers because they are pristinely biblical.

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Bibliographical note: There are seven essays in five books that may help renew your knowledge of the biblical thus Baptist doctrine of democratic congregationalism under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Gerald Cowen of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary staunchly advocates biblical church polity: Who Rules the Church? Examining Congregational Leadership and Church Government (Broadman & Holman, 2003).

Coordinate essays in a larger compilation by Paige Patterson and Samuel Waldron are worthy of readership, although Waldron’s essay suffers from the unjustifiable identification of single-eldership as both deficient yet non-sinful: Who Runs the Church? 4 Views on Church Government (Zondervan, 2004).

Coordinate essays in a similar compilation by Danny Akin and James Leo Garrett, Jr. are also worthy of readership. Unfortunately, James White’s contribution in the same book betrays a non-Baptist Reformed outlook by its ignorance of congregationalism: Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity (Broadman & Holman, 2004).

Finally, please consider two recent introductions to ecclesiology. The first is an extensive essay written by an accomplished pastor-theologian, Mark Dever, and the other is a condensed essay written by the current author. Both are found in collections: A Theology for the Church (Broadman & Holman, 2007) and The Baptist Faith and Message: Critical Issues in America’s Largest Protestant Denomination (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).

Dr. Russell Moore – What Are The Major Issues of Today? (Part 3)

In this third part of Dr. Moore’s presentation (click here for the audio), he continues with “Dangers to the SBC.” He states that we are turning from our roots which were based in rural or labor type people. We have the picture of the person we want to reach, and it does not match our humble historical past.

So, do you believe we have taken the focus off of reaching “embarrassing” people for those the culture says are cool and hip?

Has our ecclesiology become rootless?

Are we afraid of being red-neck? :-)

Dr. Russell Moore – What Are The Major Issues of Today? (Part 2)

In the second part of our six-part presentation (access the audio by clicking here), Dr. Moore gives a brief history lesson concerning Evangelicalism and the SBC. In it he says that there were some benefits from Evangelicalism that helped foster the conservative resurgence. But he also states this was filtered through pastors like W. A. Criswell.

After discussing how Evangelicalism was a benefit to the conservative resurgence in the SBC, Dr. Moore moves on to some of the dangers that Evangelicalism might pose to the SBC. One such danger is Christian Consumerism. He states that today’s pulpits are being bypassed by the Christian music industry and the self help/psychotherapy literature explosion.

Dr. Moore also states as a threat the need for cultural validation. Many are seeking to be accepted by the culture, to look cool/hip.

I will leave you with two questions:

1. Is Christian consumerism as defined by Dr. Moore a threat. If it is, how can we as pastors and church leaders prepare our people for the threat it poses?

2. Are we seeing Southern Baptist churches focusing more on being culturally validated, relevant, and cutting edge instead showing the difference Jesus makes in our lives?

Dr. Russell Moore – What Are The Major Issues of Today?

On July 9th, 2007, I had the awesome privilege to hear Dr. Russell Moore deliver a message on the major issues facing the Southern Baptist Convention, and now we have the privilege of sharing it with our readers. Dr. Moore is the Dean of the School of Theology and the Senior Vice President for Academic Administration at Southern Seminary at Louisville Kentucky.

Since the entire presentation spanned over two hours, we have decided to break the whole presentation down to 6 sessions. In this first session, Dr. Moore introduces his subject and then moves to asking, “What is evangelicalism?” and “Is it a danger for Southern Baptists to identify themselves as Evangelical?”

After you listen to the audio, feel free to return here and share your thoughts with us. We will be posting the remaining segments in the coming days. You can access the audio by clicking on “Audio Resources” on the resources page. Or, just click here.

Wives and the Homemaking Concentration

We are pleased to have published a piece by Terri Stovall, Ph. D., Dean of Women’s Programs at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, regarding their controversial undergraduate homemaking concentration. Click here to read Dr. Stovall’s piece, Teaching What is Good – The Homemaking Concentration at Southwestern.

In the fall of 2003 I received a phone call from a church inquiring about my availability to be their pastor. The conversation was going fine until we got to my wife. As indicated on my resume, she was a school teacher. The gentleman I was talking to said he noticed that my wife worked and wondered if she would continue to do that if the Lord led our family to their church. I said, “Of course. She considers what she does in the school as a ministry to the children she teaches.”

The response I received from the church was that they did not want the wife of the pastor to work outside the home and were willing to pay the pastor enough to make that happen. I told them that I appreciated their willingness to financially support their pastor and his family, but both my wife and I felt she was called to be a Christian witness in our public school system. Needless to say my family did not move there. I am not criticizing that church. I believe in congregational polity. I do not believe any church should dictate to a pastor that his wife should or should not work outside of the home.

The reason I tell this story is that many have mischaracterized the homemaking degree at Southwestern. The mischaracterization has led to images not representative of what Southwestern is trying to accomplish with this program. SBC Today supports this degree program. We feel it is desperately needed in a day when many Christians have taken their focus off the home. Southwestern is not trying to keep women in the kitchen, as some would suggest, but they are trying to provide an option for those who may or may not have been called to stay at home.

We are grateful that Dr. Stovall has given us a concise synopsis of what the degree is about. Below are some facts:

1. The degree is biblically rooted.

2. No woman will be forced to take any of the classes. In fact, women are allowed to enroll or not enroll in any program the seminary offers.

3. Southwestern has not said they are against women working outside of the home. What they are for is a renewed focus on the home that has been taken away by modern feminist philosophy.

4. The program will involve learning Greek or Latin. It is not solely based on how to bake. Women will learn various disciplines that will aid them in following God’s call, wherever that may lead.

I personally would hope that this program becomes the blue print for all of our seminaries. It is needed and it is biblical.