Monday, April 11, 2005

Polity Matters

I've read, heard, or participated in more discussions about church polity in the past two years of my life than I had in the previous 29.25. Whether that is a reflection of a trend that spans conservative evangelicalism or simply my own experience, I do not know. Regardless, I am convinced that Baptist churches that intend to model their ministry after the pattern of Scripture must re-examine and reform the extra-biblical (at best) model of polity that has become the norm.

Luke Akins at Eden Baptist Church in Savage, MN, has been a great friend for a long time. We were roommates during staff training at Northland Camp almost 10 years ago--the week that God saved me. A couple weeks later I sent him home for most of the summer by breaking his arm while arm-wrestling. (Had to sneak that tidbit in there.) Luke recently wrote an article for his church newsletter about what Scripture teaches about the role of deacons. He writes,
God has purposely designed the church to include two offices, each with distinct roles. The elders seek to provide guidance and spiritual nurture for the benefit of the assembly, while the deacons seek to serve the body by freeing the elders to function most effectively through prayer and the ministry of the Word.
The model of polity Akins describes is certainly not new or unique since it seems to be the model used by the NT church. What is unusual about it is its rarity among 21st century Baptist churches. In many of these churches, the deacons are the primary decision-making body and often possess direct authority over the pastor. I believe we are seeing the leading edge of a movement back to the biblical model. One of the primary driving forces in this movement is Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and its daughter ministry, 9 Marks. This name is taken from Pastor Dever's book, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, which I recommend wholeheartedly. If you want a free 54-page preview of the 255-page book, you can get it here. His book, Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life, traces polity in Baptist history. To the particular issue Akins addresses about the blurring of the offices of elder and deacon, Dever has this to say:
Many modern churches have tended to confuse elders with either the church staff or the deacons. Deacons, too, fill a New Testament office, one rooted in Acts 6. While any absolute distinction between the two offices is difficult, the
concerns of the deacons are the practical details of church life: administration, maintenance, and the care of church members with physical needs. In many churches today, deacons have taken some spiritual role; but much has simply been left to the pastor. It would be to the benefit of the church to again distinguish the role of elder from that of deacon.
Some might react negatively to the concept of multiple elders, assuming that it is a manifestation of Presbyterian elder rule or John MacArthur's version of it. Not true. Dever is quite clear that the congregation is the final decision-making body of the church. His Leadership Interview with MacArthur clarifies this distinction when Dever asks MacArthur if there is any scenario in which the congregation could overrule the elders at Grace Community Church. His answer is essentially no, except in the event that an elder nominated by the elders is known by a member of the congregation to be unqualified. This answer draws a clear line between Dever's congregational rule and MacArthur's elder rule.

Since that last link refers to a Leadership Interview, let me provide a link to the LI main page, from which dozens of fascinating interviews are available, including several on polity, one of which was conducted just a few days ago. You can listen online or, for you iPod owners, download the MP3s.

1 comment:

Dave said...

Sovereign Grace Ministries has published a good book on church polity. It is free in pdf at:

http://www.sovgracemin.org/books/