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 [emphasis added] 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.
“We must just go to men, no matter how rich they are, no matter how fashionable they are, no matter how deeply intrenched in custom and tradition their evil courses are—we must go to them and say, ‘There is no compromise between the religion of Jesus Christ and what you do. One must die. We do not shake hands at all. We do not lie down in the same bed. We do not rest under the shadow of the same tree. We do not sing the same songs. We do not camp on the same grounds. It is war, truceless war, that is never to know an interval until victory or death comes to end the contest.’
“And given a little church, just a handful of brethren and sisters who believe the Bible—I mean believe it—who believe what it says about death and hell and heaven and the judgment; who believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, in omnipotent power, is with his people and standing right by them, having his presence with them, never stopping to ask which shall win and which shall not, but saying as he said to us, ‘Stand up and testify; he did not send us as philosophers; he sent us as witnesses to stand before the door of the heart and testify that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only hope of salvation. We bear witness to that fact. God did not put it upon us to go back and give any philosophical reasons for it at all. We come as witnesses to a fact, and a fact which has touched our own hearts and filled our own souls with peace that we hold up before you, and invite you in God’s name to stand upon the same platform.’
“Given such a church, it will turn the world upside down. Do that and let alone apologies; quit putting your weak shoulder to the granite of God’s revelation, as if without your prop it would turn over. You let it stand. It will stand. Do not defend it. Preach it! Bear witness to it, and rely upon him that sent you, and you will conquer.”
B. H. Carroll