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Final decision-making authority is key to polity debate

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Just mention the phrase “elder-led” polity in a business meeting at some Southern Baptist church, and you’ll likely get an array of responses — from support to confusion to outright hostility.

With the recent and highly publicized attempt by the leadership of Germantown Baptist Church, one of Tennessee’s largest SBC churches, to transition to an elder system of church government, the spotlight of discussion has again focused on the issue of church polity in Baptist life.

But Stan Norman, associate professor of theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and an expert on the theological distinctives of Baptists, said the debate about the role of elders in Baptist churches isn’t anything new to Southern Baptists. Norman is the co-editor of “Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity.” Chad Brand of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is the other editor.

“I remember discussing it when I was in college in the early 80s,” said Norman, director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Seminary. “The debate about this matter seems to have intensified over the last 10 years or so. But discussions about this subject have existed in Baptist life for the last 20 to 25 years.”

On May 7, Germantown Baptist, a 168-year-old church located just east of Memphis, voted by an almost three-fifths margin to defeat a motion to change its bylaws and constitution to move toward an elder system. Instead, the church decided to keep its congregational form of polity. Several weeks later, the senior pastor, Sam Shaw, announced his resignation.

The Germantown vote has brought the debate back to the forefront, but according to Norman, the presence of a “plurality of elders” in Southern Baptist life has existed in “some form as a minority position almost since our inception.”

Brand agreed.

“If you go back to older Baptist traditions among English Particular Baptists and also early Baptists in America, you’ll find diversity,” he said.


Although Norman doesn’t know how many SBC churches use the “elder-led” form of church polity, based on what he has heard from pastors and his students, Norman said there are several reasons for the rise in the discussion of plural elders in some Southern Baptist churches.

“One of the reasons is a lot of people are very frustrated with classic congregationalism and a lot of the abuses associated with it,” said Norman, also the author of “The Baptist Way: Distinctives of a Baptist Church”

“Many of us in SBC life can relate stories of business meetings becoming highly contentious. We’ve all heard of churches using their governance and simply voting a pastor out of his office of service for no biblical reason. These stories have contributed to a high level of frustration in polity practices in Southern Baptist churches.”

Another reason, Norman said, is the increased exposure to non-Southern Baptist writings on church polity.

“Many younger Baptist pastors are influenced by these writings and therefore incorporate other forms of church polity into Southern Baptist churches than the traditional understanding of congregationalism,” he said.

Some churches, he said, also abandon congregationalism to expedite decision making, especially as churches become larger in size and frequent meetings aren’t realistic, as is often the example in megachurches.

“Some perceive congregationalism to be cumbersome, almost too meticulous and tedious, so they adopt other kinds of polity structures,” he said.

The last reason, Norman lists, is the “decline of understanding for the biblical support for congregational polity. Many have simply not carefully investigated the historical, biblical arguments for congregationalism.”


According to Norman, writing in “The Baptist Way,” church polity is “the organization, or governing structure implemented within a local church.”

Southern Baptists historically have held to the autonomy of the local church, allowing each church to set and determine what it believes to be “the most faithful form of governance according to the New Testament,” Norman said.

“The issue is how the church best expresses its congregational autonomy,” he told Baptist Press. “Is a plurality of elders [or an] elder body the most biblical form of governance, or is a congregation biblically required to make all decisions?”

Generally speaking, the issue comes down to who has final decision-making authority -– the congregation as a whole, or a smaller group who has been delegated authority, such as a church council, deacon body or elder board.

“The key here, though, is that the congregation makes this decision and retains the prerogative to make those decisions the New Testament clearly grants the authority and responsibility to make,” he said.

Although Brand believes the New Testament does not specify one particular model — plural elder-led or pastor-led -– he said the final decision-making authority rests with the congregation and that their participation is “fundamental.”

“I think one of the big issues is that the congregation has to have a say on all the major issues that a church faces,” he said. “But the idea of delegated responsibilities to elders or pastors is also clearly taught.”

Norman says some of those decision-making responsibilities of a church congregation include: church discipline, receiving and removing members; the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper; calling and filling the offices of pastor and deacon; financial accountability that includes approving the budget and fiscal oversight; and other matters requiring legal action, such as purchasing or selling property, relocation of church complex and changes to the bylaws and constitution.


In “The Baptist Way,” Norman lists three major types of church government prevalent today within various denominations: “Episcopal,” which gives primary authority to a bishop, as seen in Roman Catholicism with the Pope; “Presbyterianism,” often called “elder rule,” which grants authority to a group of elders; and “Congregationalism,” the predominant Southern Baptist historical expression, in which “individual members share equally together in decision-making.”

Within the “congregational” category of government, Norman gives subcategories of its expression: the elder-led model and the pastor-led model.

“The elder-led [model] is similar but different than elder rule, which is the Presbyterian model,” he said. “In elder-led congregationalism, the congregation still retains certain decisions that it and it alone can make but it may invest some kind of elder body with certain administration responsibilities and oversight authority.”

The term “elder-led congregationalism” alone, he said, “evokes a visceral reaction among many Southern Baptists who are convinced that their expression of congregationalism is the only way it can be done. That’s not necessarily the case.”

Some prominent SBC churches, Norman said, have chosen to delegate authority on certain issues to groups or have some form of plural elder ministry.

“First Baptist Church of Dallas, for example, has invested significant decision-making authority within its deacon body for many years,” he said. “Although not using the language, other SBC churches function with a plurality of elders for pastoral ministry and preaching. First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Fla., for example, functioned and thrived under the preaching ministry of co-pastors Jerry Vines and Homer Lindsay.”

Additionally, according to Brand, many large churches have large staffs that function like an elder board, “they just don’t call it that.”

“Congregational polity permits diversity of expression and function,” Norman said.

Churches may charge these groups or leaders with certain responsibilities, but the ultimate authority in human terms remains with the congregation as it seeks to discern the will of God under the lordship of Jesus Christ, Brand said.

Norman said he believes the ideal expression of a New Testament church is one that is “congregationally governed, pastor-led and lay-ministry driven.”

The key for leading a congregational church, Norman said, is that the church has the authority of Scripture as its foundation, is composed of a regenerate church membership that practices church discipline, and performs its ministries in submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ.

“Congregational polity assumes all those prior tenets,” he said. “If any one or any of those prior planks are removed, congregational polity is going to suffer.”


Terry Wilder, associate professor of Greek and New Testament at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City,, Mo., said that although the terms translated “elder,” “overseer,” and “pastor” in the New Testament are different Greek words, they point to “different aspects of one office.”

An “overseer,” Wilder said, refers to one who has “spiritual oversight over a congregation,” an “elder” describes the office as a “more mature [person], one advanced in age,” and a “pastor” describes one “who shepherds and nurtures the flock.” All, though, combine to describe one particular office of leadership in the church, Wilder said.

“We should not be afraid to use the term ‘elder.’ The elder is an overseer or a pastor,” Wilder said. “The term we’re most familiar with is pastor. But a pastor is an elder.”

Wilder sees two church offices in the New Testament: elder-overseer-pastor, and deacon.

The deacons, he said, are primarily “a service-oriented office,” whereas elders “exercise spiritual oversight tasks,” such as prayer and the teaching of the Word of God.

The New Testament, Wilder said, does not specifically set an actual number of elders that each church must have.

“One should keep in mind that the early church in any given city was almost certainly composed of house churches. When a church began in a city, the believers would meet in a single home,” he said. “Then, as the church grew larger, more houses were required to accommodate the growth. Consequently, more leaders would be required.”

Wilder cites examples of churches in cities like Ephesus which had more than one elder, but he believes each church within the city had one single elder-overseer leading it.


The important distinction, however, is that an “elder” or pastor, be biblically qualified to hold that office, according to those listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, Wilder said.

“Number one, the elder must have impeccable moral character. He must manage his own family, or household, well. He must be experienced in the Christian life, that is, ‘not a new convert,’ and must have a good testimony and witness amongst unbelievers,” he said of the passages.

He added that an “elder” must also “be able to teach, which makes it difficult to maintain a distinction between ruling elders and teaching elders.”

Norman said the office of elder, or pastor, is also one of “servant leadership,” and that “the pastor must have the ability to cast a vision as well as the ability to render decisions and structure ministries that fulfill that God-given vision.”

Although Wilder said he favors the single elder-led congregational model of polity, he has also belonged to churches that practice both expressions of single and plural elder-led models of congregationalism.

“I don’t think he’s an autocrat, nor a dictator,” he said of the office of elder and pastor. “But I do think a pastor has a God-given authority as far as spiritual oversight where the congregation’s concerned. But even that authority is one of service in the midst of this community of priests — believers under the lordship of Christ.”

“A pastor can be wrong and he’s subject to the congregation as well.”

Brand said any discussion over church polity should be done in a Christ-like manner.

“Rather than sniping at each other, we ought to enter into serious conversation about these issues as Southern Baptists,” he said.

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  • Cory Miller