Thursday, February 15, 2007

Should Baptists Adopt Episcopalian Logic?

Last week I was engaged in an online discussion with another Baptist about church polity. I was arguing that the pattern for church leadership we see in the NT is plural elder-led congregationalism.

[This is different from what is common in Baptist circles, which is typically some form of single pastor-led congregationalism, often in conjunction with a strange juxtaposition of diaconal leadership and the relegation of assistant or associate pastors to sub-diaconal levels of leadership. But that's another conversation.]

In any case, my conversation partner made this statement:
[P]lurality of elders is not mandated. In fact, I would suggest that when it comes to polity, any structure that produces faithful disciples is fine.
Obviously, I disagreed. But not long after, I encountered the exact same logic while reading Iain Murray's The Reformation of the Church: A Collection of Reformed and Puritan Documents on Church Issues. Murray reproduces in this compilation a Petition pleading for the preservation of the Episcopalian form of government, which was presented to the English Parliament in 1641. Among its several arguments, I found this one, which sounds strikingly similar to the Baptist comments noted above:
[T]he Government by Episcopacy is not only lawful, but convenient for edification, or as much, or more conducive to piety and devotion than any other, it appears because no modest man denies that the primitive times were most famous for piety, constancy, and perseverance in the faith, notwithstanding more frequent and more cruel persecutions, than ever have been since, and yet it is confessed, that the Church in those times was governed by Bishops

14 comments:

g-harmony said...

Ummm,

Haven't some Baptists already done so, de facto?

Ben said...

I think "some" is the understatement of the century.

Josh said...

Couldn't we also say that some Baptist churches have adopted a more Roman Catholic model by giving near-absolute authority to a single bishop, to whom they also attribute a kind of infallibility?

Ben: I think we're working through Dever's Polity book at about the same pace. I read Keach's "Glory of a True Church" last Saturday in preparation for this week's classes with Shawn Wright. What else is on the reading list for interns?

Josh said...

PS: I have Jonathan Pennington for Greek, and by Wednesday of each week I feel like my head is going to explode.

Ben said...

Josh,

Do you have someone in mind as the pope? Seems like Baptists are too splintered to agree on a single figure.

The reading list is more than I can remember (or muster the energy to type right now). I'll try to find a place to copy and paste it. It's roughly a dozen full books, several partials, a few pamphlets, and a few articles. I don't know anything about Pennington or almost any of the professors at SBTS outside of Schreiner, Ware, Whitney, and Moore. We just read Greg Wills' Democratic Religion last week. Great book.

Ben

Don Johnson said...

hey there Ben...

I think the topic is worthy of a good deal of thought and discussion. It seems to have fizzled out in the other spot, and I am glad to see you bring it up here.

I should mention that I run an e-mail list of independent Baptist pastors in Canada. We had a discussion on this topic at one point. I made a comment that in a way we ind. Baptists (and maybe all kinds of Baptists) actually have elements of all three polity positions either in our official structure, or in our actual practice.

I agree that many Baptists practice a localized episcopal model, i.e., the Preacher is pope. I don't follow that myself, but I do believe in pastoral authority. There are limitations, but shepherds were put in charge of the flock to do some shepherding.

I should also mention that I am not against the plurality of elders, per se. I just don't think the NT requires it.

Anyway, thanks for raising the issue again here. I do think these things are worth discussing and I hope to see a few others jump in here and add some light to the subject.

Regards,
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ben said...

Don,

Let me make sure I'm being clear here. I'm not saying that Baptists have adopted Episcopalian polity. Perhaps that is sometimes the case to a limited degree, but I see nothing that can be compared to the Episcopalian hierarchical structure above the church.

What I am saying is that Baptists have adopted Episcopalian reasoning. In this case, that reasoning is that Scripture doesn't really speak to church polity, so we can adopt whatever structure seems to make disciples most effectively. That's the argument the Episcopalians were making, and it's the argument the Baptist quote above is making.

Here's the ultimate significance of it all. If we say that the biblical pattern for church leadership and government isn't prescriptive, I don't see what biblical reasoning remains to oppose Episcopalian and Papal hierarchical authorities. Baptists might say, "But they're not in Scripture," but those protestations will ring hollow if Baptists themselves say we can use whatever polity we want as long as it's effective at making disciples.

I sympathize to a point with the arguments that Scripture isn't prescriptive on polity. (Although Paul seems to have been pretty prescriptive in Titus 1:5.) But we're supposed to be the Bible people, and I fear the logical ends of the thinking that implies that we can apply or discard the biblical pattern depending on whether or not we perceive it to be accomplishing our objectives.

Josh said...

Ben,
I meant those individual local churches where the pastor is the CEO and does as he pleases.

Yesterday in Baptist history, Shawn Wright said, "Baptists have historically believed that what the church does when it assembles together is not secondary in the mind of God. God cares what the church does and how it does it." Wright advocates the Regulative Principle.

Don Johnson said...

Hi Ben,

I would suggest that the argument against episcopal hierarchies is that, save for the authority of the apostles, we do see evidence that the churches of the New Testament operated independently and made independent decisions. And I would also submit that a hierarchical structure such as the Anglican/RC approach actually hinders the development of disciples by virtue of its top-down approach. The fact that some notable disciples have been produced in such organizations in the past is no argument for the organizational structure.

In Titus 1.5, Paul is exercising apostolic authority, but he is not necessarily prescribing a plurality of elders in every local church. It says 'every city', not 'every church'. One can argue that there was *probably* only one church per city, but you are adding in an assumption that isn't in the text.

Is there something else there that I am missing?

Regards,
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ben said...

Don,

But we also see evidence that NT churches were led by a plurality of elders. If you say that plurality isn't necessary because it isn't specifically mandated, you have to be consistent and admit that independence isn't necessary because it isn't specifically mandated. You can't reject the authority of descriptive narratives in some matters and use them for the grounds of your argument in others.

You may believe that Episcopalian or Roman Catholic forms of polity are ineffective, and you may be right. (I think you are.) But my point is that you're using the exact same arguments as the Episcopalian I quoted to defend your preferred view of polity. At best, your arguments are based on your awareness and experience.

And regarding the Titus passage, I can only think of your view as requiring substantial exegetical gymnastics, in which you are reading this text in light of your experience and traditions. Like many interpretations of Scripture, your view is theoretically possible but exegetically improbable in light of the wealth of NT evidence that churches (singular) had elders (plural), and particularly the evidence that Paul personally ordained elders (plural) in every church (singular).

Don Johnson said...

Hi Ben

I've been away all day... and more hours ahead yet tonight. Sometimes I wonder about my time management skills.

I am quite happy to admit that independence isn't necessary. There are many advantages to denominations. I choose to be independent because I believe it affords the best means to achieve my theological and ecclesiastical goals, but there are shortcomings. Sacrifices have to made. I have often pondered how some of the advantages of a denominational structure could be had while maintaining independence, but so far I have had no brain waves on that point.

As for the exegesis of the passages, I think we will end up just talking past each other on them. I think you have adopted a presupposition that plurality of elders is the default structure of biblical Christianity and are therefore reading that conclusion into the passages rather than simply let them say what they say. But you might well say the same of my view.

So can we agree on this? The passages in question are indicative passages, not imperatives. (Not even subjunctives!) Without imperatives, I am hesitant to insist that they represent a mandate. At best they represent a precedent, but is it a binding precedent?

Ok, I gotta quit. I have a feeling tonight and tomorrow night are going to be long ones!

Regards
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

g-harmony said...

Ben,

I just received an email from one of the missionaries we support: Bible translators with Bibles International. They just got back from India- here's a portion of their letter that made me think a little of this discussion:

We made many friends during our week there and the boys made quite an impression as the only "white children" to visit the village in over 60 years. Now, 3 years later, one of the __________ pastors who became a friend during that time was in __________ for a workshop this year just before we left. One evening he spent almost an hour talking to us about how we were doing and particularly the boys. He shared the following with us:


-------
My heart was so touched for your children. There is so much uncertainty and constant change in their lives. Our children cry and cry when we just move one village away; we all became very concerned for __________ and __________. I and my family have prayed faithfully for them ever since. Could I have a picture of them to show my family?
-------


It was humbling to have this pastor, who is raising his own children in the midst of violence and insurgency, who is grateful that his association cut back his pastoral load to just 5 churches so he could concentrate on doing their O.T. Bible translation, and whose faithfulness to his work often requires him to be gone from home for weeks at a time, burdened for the needs and difficulties of our children. Our children are truly blessed to have such amazing servants of God love and pray for them.


Aside from the challenges these dear Indian brothers face in their ministry (amkes me think twice about my own supposed "hardships," for sure), I do wonder- is this somewhat extra-ecclesiastical structure undesirable or patently unbiblical? Is it different in "pioneer" settings?

Hmmm.

Ben said...

Greg,

I think the easy thing to say is that it's less than ideal. But if there is a genuine trajectory (not just a theoretical intention) towards raising up elders in each church, then I wouldn't call it unbiblical. I think Titus may have been filling a role along these lines in Crete--working to raise up elders in each church. But if the denominational association is deliberately perpetuating this system, I would have real concerns. I think what I'm saying would be consistent with what Baptists of previous centuries would have advocated. Sorry, I can't point you to a particular source off the top of my head.

But I think I have similar concerns in these matters with churches that willfully exist in multiple campuses or [gasp] propagate multiple services. The principle is really the same, and perhaps worse. What exists de facto in these situations is one pastor leading multiple churches, even though these churches think of themselves as one church. I simply believe that a church is an organism that assembles together. With multiple services or campuses, that isn't even the intention.

Josh said...

Ben,
I'm with you on the multiple-campus churches. I was wondering yesterday how someone visits one of those churches (for example, Highview here in L-ville) and decides, "Yeah, this is the place for me. I want to be a member here." It's like joining a shopping mall. The people around you are there for the same reason you are, but you're not really joining them (a fellowship of Christians in covenant with one-another) you're joining it (The Big Church-North Campus).

PS: Met your cousin at Clifton last night.