"Power to the People: Are We Abandoning Congregational Polity?

By Pastor Charles L. Dear, Editor

While we recognize the dangerous inroads of Reformed Theology in our circles and churches, there is yet an eerie silence as more of the decision-making power exercised in our local churches is gathered into fewer hands. This is a recipe for losing our Baptist heritage that was well understood by our spiritual forefathers. Make no mistake, Congregational Polity has been a hallmark among Baptist churches throughout our history and a principle reiterated in our lifetime. Consider the words of the late Dr. Paul R. Jackson in his classic work, The Doctrine and Administration of the Church (p35):

Baptists believe in democratic procedures that permit open discussion of problems and divergent views. This is right and Biblical. Please read Acts 15. Note that this is not a council as is often stated, but a business meeting of the local church in Jerusalem (v.22)....The conduct of the meeting is interesting. Acts 15 for all practical purposes, contains the minutes of that church meeting. The question was freely discussed by many in this big assembly...(and) James, who was obviously the moderator, summarized the discussion and stated the conclusion which had been reached by the "whole church" (vv. 13-22).

If that sounds strange to you, you might consider whether your church is forfeiting a vital process that maintains the accountability of church leadership to its members. Abandoning the exercise of such accountability will lead our churches further away from our Baptist heritage and bring us closer to Reformed Theology, with its hierarchical forms of church government, conventionism and even the authoritarian demagoguery of Romanism. Baptists thrive on openness in sharp contrast to church polities that keep their people in the dark and leaders that operate secretly. We have no time for Baptist "popes" who rule their ministries with an iron hand and can do no wrong, neither should we countenance heavy-handed Deacon Boards who usurp to themselves the leadership of a pastor and rob the membership of their informed consent. Such Pastor and Deacons have wrought untold damage in many local churches, usually just before they leave the scene of their crime and pass the responsibility to others to recover from the carnage.

Such high-handed leadership undermines a reasonable extension of the Baptist principle of Individual Soul Liberty. We frequently use this expression to describe the right of private judgment regarding the interpretation of Scripture and, I would hasten to add, our accountability before God to understand it and interpret it correctly. However, we may likewise extend that decision-making privilege to church members regarding the business matters of the local church. Indeed, the corollary of Informed Consent should be as true in the business of the church as it is in hearing the Word of God preached. That is, as we exercise the Berean mindset to weigh what is preached, so also we are sufficiently informed about church operations to draw reasonable and proper conclusions.

In fairness, not all of the responsibility for this problem falls on church leadership. Too many church members (please don't call them "laity" in a Baptist church) are also guilty of abdicating their rights to participate in local church decision making. Like Soul Liberty, our members need to learn that participating in church decision making is a responsibility as much as it is a privilege. We may squander other privileges and decide not to exercise them for various reasons, but church members have an accountability before the Lord to take an active role best described as Informed Consent. That is, the membership knows what is going on and either approves or disapproves the actions considered and exercises its right to vote on such matters together with the other members of their local church.

Part of the problem has been the preoccupation and laziness of church members. Our people have become so busy with mundane things that church business meetings are low on the list of priorities. Our society has also encouraged them to be passive and even disinterested in decisions made by others on their behalf. The problem, however, is compounded by the increasing parental spirit of church leaders that treats members more like dumb sheep than scrutinizing stockholders in the work of the church. Lest you protest their ability to make decisions, consider Paul's counsel in I Corinthians 6:4, about settling disputes between the brethren, "If then ye have judgments of things pertaining to this life, set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church."

Most of this has come about under the banner of expediency; an epitaph for local churches more absorbed in finding shortcuts and easier solutions rather than obeying the Word of God. The IBFNA has stood these many years for the equality of its members. May that stand reflect what we practice in our churches.