January 16, 2009

Church polity and authoritarianism

Pastor Wade Burleson runs a consistently outstanding blog. I highly recommend that you regularly visit Grace and Truth to You.

His post The Problem With Authoritarianism in the Conservative Pulpits of America is particularly good and addresses an issue that I've seen growing in our conservative churches—the idea that church pastors have the right and freedom to push their agenda on an unquestioning robotic congregation.

I am a Baptist and subscribe fully to the Baptist concept of church polity, in which Christ is the Head of the Church, the congregation is the local church, the pastor (and elder) serves at the pleasure of the congregation, and the deacons serve at the bottom of the totem pole. That puts the congregation over the pastor in many ways. Basically, the pastor is the spiritual leader but the congregation, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the boss.

Such a system can only work under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the fully submissive church members. The church members (congregation, pastors, elders, and deacons) are to submit fully to God, to His Word, and to each other. The pastor must then rely on the working of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the people to recognize that their involvement in the administration of the church is guided by God.

As I was growing up, my pastor regularly encouraged the congregation to search the scriptures and to hold him accountable if they found anything out of order in his exposition, his administration, his direction, etc. He often said that because he would have to answer to God for his leadership of the church, it was incumbent upon the congregation to hold him accountable and to help keep him from making errors in judgment.

The trend toward totalitarian church leadership seems to have come to a head with Mark Driscoll's recent statements to the New York Times about members of his congregation who he described as "sinning through questioning."

Read Wade's post.


  1. I read that whole article. I was interested because we used to know Mark Driscoll many years ago. He was a student of my husband's at my husband's first philosophy job. The church certainly doesn't sound like my cup of tea by a long shot. In fact, you know me--the person with big problems about swearing, which they seem to think is just fine and cool, including from the pulpit. But if I recall correctly, the article didn't say that Driscoll said that to the NYT magazine but rather was purporting to quote what he had said to the member: "You are sinning by questioning." Now, that's truly bizarre, completely off-base, and I'd have a conniption if my pastor did something like that. But it was _so_ bizarre that I almost wondered if there was some context or something the magazine was leaving out.

  2. It's interesting that you actually know Mark Driscoll, Lydia. I have had trouble coming to terms with his viewpoints and his ecclesiology for quite some time. My sister seems fully entrenched in Driscoll's camp, while remaining quite fundamentalist in her ways. I would probably be seen as liberal by most of my fundamentalist friends, and yet I have significant trouble with Driscoll's foul language and crude jesting from the pulpit. I have trouble with his consistent and frequent use of low-brow cultural references (movies, rock music, The Comedy Channel, etc.) in sermon illustrations. And I am bothered by the impact he has had in those areas on some of my favorite preachers.

    But these comments that he recently made hit another area that has caused me concern of late. I see conservative Evangelical local church leadership becoming more and more heavy-handed in their leadership style. I have witnessed abuse against church members and have even seen a common thread of particular types of abuse against church members in many churches.

    It concerns me that pastors seem to think that the congregation God has entrusted them with is their own personal social experimentation tank. I noticed it in Fundamentalist churches in the 80s, then saw it spread to other conservative churches outside the Fundamentalist camp and cross-denomination. Now I see it in Adventist, Holiness, Presbyterian, Baptist, and other churches.

    As the Baptist form of government moves toward this type of leadership, I see plurality of elders being instituted widely in as an apparent red herring to distract folks from the fact of a centralized super-authority other than scripture. I've seen elders defend their own even when their own have been involved in blatant public sin. And the method of defense is almost always excommunication over gossip and slander--simply because someone in the congregation questioned the behavior of the elder. I guess that's "sinning through questioning."

    It's a sad state of affairs and is not honoring to the head of the Church, Jesus Christ.

  3. I totally agree. I have problems with all of those same things that you do. And I only used to know him, for a few years. The only point I was raising is that I'd be curious as to whether he really said that to the church member. But I must say that it sounds like he did make that crack about "breaking noses" to the magazine. Ha, ha. A strange sense of humor.


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