Andy Hynes is the Director of Admissions and Dean of Men at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary and a PhD candidate there. Follow him @ABHYNES on Twitter.
We all get it that Jesus is the head of the Church and the Church is His beautiful bride. Paul speaks to us in Colossians about His position as the Head. But when you get to the daily functioning of the church, who is supposed to call the shots? Who gets to provide vision and direction to the body? Have you ever served in a local church that had a skewed view of church polity? If so, what do you do?
Who hasn’t been here?
Maybe you served in one of those churches that should be called “big momma’s” church. You know the one. They can often be found in a rural setting. There is generally one lady (and occasionally a man) who runs everything. They know best when it comes to the duties of the “preacher” as well as any staff you might have. Maybe you have even served in a deacon-led church. This is the church where the deacons have staged something of a slow-boil coup to assume responsibility from the pastor and/or staff to make sure their agenda is carried out. Then there are churches that are controlled by families of prominence. The pastor and/or staff privileged because they get to do whatever these groups demand; after all, they were “there before you got there, and they’ll be there after you are gone.” These types of churches generally call themselves “congregational,” however; they are far from being a biblical model.
So which is it? Is there a biblical expectation of church leadership structure? In theological circles we call this study “church polity”; the study of church leadership structure and hierarchy. While these humorous descriptions that I have described are seen in more than a few churches, on a global level there are predominantly three primary models of church government practiced; Episcopal, Presbyterian and Congregational.
The Episcopal model flows from the top down. Quite certainly the best known example of this is the Catholic Church.
The Presbyterian model is an “elder rule” model. The key thought here is that a board of elders governs the body. The congregation does not really have much, if any, ruling or governing authority in decision making. The elders make all decisions regarding church matters.
Finally, there is the Congregational model. In this version of church polity, which rests on the independence and autonomy of each local church and each individual believer, the church is governed by the body as a whole. The congregation has final authority over decisions including the calling of staff, establishment of an annual budget, church discipline, etc.
However, there are a few problems that this model can create. At times the Pastor or pastoral staff can become like “hired hands,” meaning the congregation sees itself as boss to them. On occasion the “charter members” may intentionally assert themselves as the leaders. Beyond that, Deacons often assume the role of leadership, instead of submissive servanthood.
So what do we do?
We know that we have not gotten to this point overnight. The condition of church leadership is not a problem that has a quick fix. We could engage in decades of shifting in the right direction, and there will still be problems. Much like turning a cruise ship, this will be tough. You have to be careful not come in and throw “biblical” authority around like a heavyweight boxer. Leading people to see the need for change is not something you can do anyway. It will have to be a movement of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the individuals. Here are some thoughts on what to do if you are in one of those unbiblical models.
LOVE PEOPLE – this cannot be stressed enough.
PREACH THE WORD – the only effective means of change comes through the word being systematically taught.
BE PATIENT – you may have to surrender some of your ideas for a while, and EARN the trust/respect of the people.
DO NOT TRY TO CHANGE TOO MUCH TO FAST – this is similar to being patient, but the emphasis is upon more than church government. The people are established in what they have done, and undoing it will not be easy.
FINALLY, PLANT A CHURCH – if you were in this situation, one quick way out would be to strike out and plant a new church. It may sound unspiritual, but it is one way to be removed from the difficulties of existing churches.
The New Kids on the Block
While the Congregational model has been the historical model for Southern Baptist churches there appears to be a surge toward a hybrid model. Mixing Congregational and Presbyterian models to make a new model has become pretty popular. This hybrid model is elder led but congregationally governed. One of the key questions to ask within this system would be, who are the elders? Are they paid ministerial staff, are they lay men elected from the congregation? Maybe some combination of both? Would this new system be bad, or could they actually be leading the churches back to a more biblical model of church government?
The other trend I see is a push to plant new churches. A simplistic way to avoid the above difficulties would be to start something new. This opportunity will come with other significant challenges, but the one of authority should not be an issue. You have the freedom to lead how you wish!
What do you think? Is polity tightly defined in scripture? Is there freedom to be different here? Is it heresy for a Baptist to even ask that question?