Congregational Polity – that form of church governance wherein the general membership of the church participates in governance by voting.
Suppose First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Mississippi, gave one million dollars to the Southern Baptist Convention and that the Convention accepted this generous gift. Subsequently, First Presbyterian Jackson asked to cooperate officially with the Convention so that her members could be sent as messengers to the SBC and could serve as committee members or trustees within the SBC. Should the Convention receive First Presbyterian Jackson as a cooperating church and entitle her to messengership and service because of her financial gift to the Convention’s work?
Article III, Composition, of the SBC Constitution says, “The Convention shall consist of messengers who are members of Baptist churches in cooperation with the Convention.” In the above hypothetical scenario, though First Presbyterian Jackson gave a generous monetary gift to the work of the Convention, the church would neither be given official cooperating status nor the privilege to send messengers to the Convention because she is not a Baptist church.
Baptists believe certain and definite things that make them Baptist. For example, Baptists do not practice infant baptism and hold that only those who can repent and believe should be baptized and made members of the church.
Congregational governance under Christ’s Lordship is another distinguishing mark of a Baptist church. A church may be baptistic in every other aspect, but if she does not have a form of congregational governance, she cannot be counted as a Baptist church.
The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 is clear that the general membership of the church should participate in church governance by voting: “The way appointed by Christ for the calling of any person, fitted and gifted by the Holy Spirit, unto the office of bishop or elder in a church, is, that he be chosen thereunto by the common suffrage [i.e., voting] of the church itself.”
The Baptist Faith & Message 2000 upholds congregational governance: “Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes.” A “democratic” process must include the ability for the general church membership to vote; otherwise, the process cannot be described as “democratic.”
Unlike the hypothetical gift from First Presbyterian Jackson, Harvest Bible Chapel in Elgin, Illinois, actually does give to the work of the SBC and is listed in the SBC directory of cooperating churches. As a result, Harvest Bible Chapel is entitled to send messengers to the SBC and her members and leaders are eligible for election or appointment to various committee and trustee positions within the Convention. And while Harvest Bible Chapel is baptistic in various points of doctrine (she practices believer’s baptism and regenerate church membership), she does not practice a form of congregational governance.
The Harvest Bible Chapel Bylaws, Article 6.01, Membership, state, “Members of the church do not participate in governance by voting.” Only the elders vote; never the congregation. This extends even to the election of other elders and the senior pastor, as demonstrated by Article 8.04, Senior Pastor, which reads, “The Elder Board will then make a final consensus decision [i.e., vote] on the candidate and if approved shall then direct the Executive Committee to proceed with hiring the nominee as the new Senior Pastor.” The general membership of Harvest Bible Chapel can ask questions and offer feedback, but they never vote. In terms of church governance, Harvest Bible Chapel appears to practice a form of episcopal governance, which is in no way congregational. For this reason, Harvest Bible Chapel cannot and ought not be regarded as a Baptist church, which, based on SBC’s Constitution as cited above, ought to exclude Harvest Bible Chapel from formal affiliation and the from privilege of sending messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention.
Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville is another such church. She holds to some Baptist beliefs but does not practice a form of congregational governance, as stated in her membership packet: “…we are not congregational…” Although she, like Harvest Bible Chapel, cannot be characterized as a Baptist church, she is currently affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention and maintains the privileges of sending messengers to the Convention and having her members and leaders elected or appointed to various committee and trustee positions within the Convention.
In 1994, the Convention voted in favor of a resolution that began, “WHEREAS, As a people of God committed to congregational polity….” Is this still true? Currently, the Southern Baptist Convention has allowed affiliation by churches which clearly do not practice any form of congregational governance. Harvest Bible Chapel and Sovereign Grace Church are merely two recent examples.
If it is true that we Southern Baptists are “a people of God committed to congregational polity,” and historically we have been, why, then, do we receive churches who openly reject that form of governance which we hold to be intrinsically Baptist, and above all, biblical?
Let us test our commitment to congregational polity at this year’s Convention by asking the Credentials Committee not to seat as messengers members of non-congregationally-governed churches. If the Credentials Committee fails the test and will not uphold that form of polity to which we say we are committed, then let an appeal be made to the messengers and let the Convention’s commitment to congregational polity be put to the test.