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.
“Baptists should be a pre-eminently devoted people. Our profession and practice are peculiar. We deem it our special mission to plead for personal obedience to the will of the Lord. For this we have always contended. We reject hereditary membership, holding that men are not born Christians, but that they become Christians when they are born again, and that, until then, they have no right to Christian ordinances, because they cannot enjoy Christian blessings. We deny sacramental power, maintaining that the soul is renewed and sanctified, not by any outward act performed upon us or by us, but by the truth of the gospel and the grace of the Holy Spirit. We gather from the teachings of the apostles that a man should be a Christian before he avows himself to be one; and, in full accordance, as we believe, with the instructions of the New Testament, we admit none to our fellowship without a profession of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Their baptism is at the same time a declaration of their sole reliance on the Saviour, and a symbol of their union with him in his death and his resurrection—a spiritual, vital union. Our churches, so constituted, profess to be societies of believers, congregations of saints.
“Membership in Baptist churches, therefore, implies piety. The object of our union is to nurture godliness in each other, and to diffuse it abroad to the greatest extent possible. Abjuring all attempts at mere outward attraction, our efforts tend exclusively to the advancement of personal religion. We invite men to the faith and holiness of the primitive churches. Our desire is first to call them to God, and then to train them for heaven by a course of spiritual education. All this cannot be accomplished but by a truly spiritual community, nor can such efforts be long sustained unless there be a continued spiritual progress. Orthodoxy is necessary, and order is necessary; but neither orthodoxy nor order will ensure prosperity without a living likeness to Christ. How earnestly should we aspire after that blessing! How diligently should we labor to obtain it, and in increasing measure! With what ardor should we adopt all scriptural means to promote communion with the Redeemer, and to enkindle sympathy and love among his servants! The extent and saving efficacy of our influence must depend on the amount of our spiritual attainments. There are sects which can prosper without those attainments, because of the worldliness, that is inherent in their constitutions, and the connection of church privileges with natural descent; but the Baptists depend altogether for success and enlargement on the prevalence of true godliness among their members. Our churches will be fit asylums for those who shall escape from the perils of cold and torpid formality only as they shall exemplify the “work of faith, and labor of love, and patience of hope,” by which the early followers of the Lord were distinguished. If these be wanting or notably deficient, inquirers will go where there is more power, though the form and order maybe less agreeable to the apostolic pattern, and our “future” will be darkened by clouds of disgrace and failure.
“With what eagerness, then, should we engage in all endeavors by which earnest Christian piety and zeal may be promoted among us! How closely should we cling to evangelical truth, watching against all tendency to lower the standard or to substitute the elegant essay for biblical teaching and fervent appeal! How carefully should the spirit of the gospel be cherished! How diligently should all opportunities for furthering mutual progress in piety be improved! How numerous and well sustained should be the efforts of benevolence and zeal, thus establish the connection between Christian activity and spiritual-mindedness, and “proving what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God.” And with what vigilant observance should the laws of discipline be honored, so that, the purity of the churches being maintained, their members may be “epistles of Christ, known and read of all men.” If by these methods a vigorous and fruitful godliness becomes characteristic of our denomination, the force of the attraction will be felt by all around us; union with our churches will be regarded as not merely a duty, but a privilege, and thousands will say, “We will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.” Men will perceive that our profession of adherence to primitive simplicity and purity is warranted by fact—that our devotedness to the Saviour’s cause is not impulsive, but habitual—and that in joining our ranks they will not only obey the dictates of scriptural conscientiousness, but also secure a large measure of Christian enjoyment, and a fuller unfolding of the Christian life.
“‘There is a future for the Baptist,’ and it is our duty to prepare for it. Thousands of souls, just looking out of obscurity and “feeling after God,” ask our guidance in the search for truth and life. Freedom, outraged and down-trodden by earthly tyrants, calls upon us to assert the rights of conscience and its entire immunity from human control; and, while it beckons us to the holy war, reminds us that it is our glory—a glory in which most Protestant communities have no share—to wield the sword of the Spirit with hands that have never been reddened by a brother’s blood. Our martyrs—burnt, beheaded, strangled, or drowned, in every European country at the era of the Reformation, and as yet unknown to fame, although their Christian heroism was right noble—expect us, in the diffusion and defence of the truths for which they suffered, to display a zeal befitting the privileges we enjoy. A great work is before us, both at home and abroad, demanding ardent love, enterprising boldness, and indomitable perseverance.”
J. M. Cramp
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. Psalm 23 KJV
Yahweh—Yahweh is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in faithful love and truth, maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving wrongdoing, rebellion, and sin. But He will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ wrongdoing on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation. Genesis 34:6-7 HCSB
“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
Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, so that you obey its desires. And do not offer any parts of it to sin as weapons for unrighteousness. But as those who are alive from the dead, offer yourselves to God, and all the parts of yourselves to God as weapons for righteousness. For sin will not rule over you, because you are not under law but under grace. Romans 6:12-14 HCSB
This is how we are sure that we have come to know Him: by keeping His commands. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” yet doesn’t keep His commands, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly in him the love of God is perfected. This is how we know we are in Him: The one who says he remains in Him should walk just as He walked. 1 John 2:3-6 HCSB