No one will ever mistake the sgmNation blog as being the leader in late breaking SGM news. Weeks after the SGM polity document was released, I have finally read through it with sufficient attention to detail so as to provide conclusive feedback.
It is a paper with many flaws, yet difficult to parse and point out because of its length and structure. Rather than parse out sections in order to add commentary or draw attention to numerous overstatements/inconsistencies contained therein, I want to state three primary reasons why this proposed polity should not be accepted by any biblically minded local SGM church.
First, let us be clear that this paper outlines the kind of connectional association that impinges on the authority and autonomy of the local church. Through the proposed structure, it seeks to establish an extra local body that extends its ecclesiastical jurisdiction into the life of the local church. There is simply no biblical warrant for an ecclesiastical body outside of the local church to exert authority over the local church. None.
One of the main supporting points for this position rests on Acts 15. It is claimed in the paper that it evidences “governmental inter-dependency between local churches”. Please pick up your Bibles for this one. When you do, you will see the church at Antioch seeking clarity on a doctrinal matter – a convening of elders and apostles to discuss an important doctrinal point together. What you will not see is any authoritative oversight by the Jerusalem church, It does not appear that Paul, Barnabas or the Antioch church sensed any obligation to submit to the Jerusalem church, Rather it demonstrated inter-church collaboration – the kind that could be had in SGM if the right attitude and polity prevailed. Most importantly, the Jerusalem church did not function as an ecclesiastical body over and above any of the affairs of the Antioch church. It would take significant imagination and poor handling of scripture to reach that conclusion. Let me re-assert this point – there is no NT warrant to establish an extra local authority over the local church.
Second notable problem in the paper is the omission of any role of the congregation in the governing affairs of the church. If your pastor is an SGM company man, he may try to convince you that this form of church government is presbyterian in nature. I am no expert in presbyterianism but let me say this – every presbyterian denomination I know (and there are actually quite a few) allows for congregational affirmation of elders by vote. Here is what SGM has done – having made a mess of polity over the past 30 years by creating their own blended version – they are now seeking to create their own brand of presbyterian polity by taking out parts that they don’t prefer – like the fundamental principle within the presbyterian representative model that the congregant has the right to vote to affirm their leaders. It takes ignorance to make that polity mistake once, it takes arrogance to repeat it again.
Third issue with the paper? Simply put -“why so convoluted?” Do you notice how many levels of indirection are at play in getting to vote on the leadership team? Let’s see – local ordained elders get to select Regional Leaders ….who in turn to affirm by vote the Governing Board…. but only after the Board candidates have been first nominated by the Nominating Committee, which the elders don’t have a say in selecting… the Governing Board will then select the Leadership team…blah, blah, blah” There are a hundred different ways to make it simpler and more effective – so when you see a team work so hard to make it confusing, it does lead you to ask “why?” Here’s my very subjective answer based on my observation. I think in great part, SGM power brokers are struggling with balancing two opposing forces that create a tension. The first is the need to stop the bleeding – of churches losing confidence in their leadership and possibly splintering off. The second is the desire to hold onto relevance and power. You see, opening up the election of elders to general membership or allowing pastors to vote in a Board and Leadership team directly may risk current players losing power or influence. The levels of indirection help diffuse the power of the “popular vote” which allows for more maneuvering and posturing. I may be wrong but I cannot help thinking that this is part of their internal struggle, especially in view of how closed they have been and how hard they have worked to preserve CJ’s position as President.
Now that Ive covered the three issues that are most problematic, I will note other problems with the paper. Without going into detail on each, let me list them quickly
– Continued harping on the necessity of “gifted men” overseeing and guiding churches. In taking that position, the SGM paper make reference to 1st century apostles fulfilling that role, drawing from it parallels to justify the need for “gifted men”. Yet, apart from a brief mention, this paper fails to fully recognize the unique qualification and role of the NT apostles – there are no modern day parallel. If apostle Paul were to critique this position, he might say – ” I know apostles…some apostles are even friends of mine… you, SGM have no apostles…no matter what you call them”.
– Lack of acceptance of bi-vocational elders – even going so far as asserting that the NT “standard” is for paid elders. Really, a standard? Did anyone tell Paul that he was violating the “standard”? Never mind, he was an apostle – I guess elders got paid but apostles got jibbed! Friends, the NT didn’t establish a standard that elders are paid – it merely established that it was acceptable to pay elders.
The sympathetic pleas for unity, that are ill founded and self serving. Don’t be duped – almost every NT admonition for unity pertains to unity within the local body, not for a unity that extends beyond the local congregation. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to be united with other believers in other churches but that there is no biblical obligation to maintain a binding unity in a modern day association other than the fact that we serve the same Savior and should exhibit this by loving each other. If that were not so, SGM itself would be in violation of the spirit of unity because they are disunited from Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Anglicans, etc…
Finally, the stringent language tied to separating from SGM is disturbing. It bears testimony to some of the heavy handed ways that underly how SGM operates. I won’t belabor that point.
I’ll finish my comments with this – if I were pastor of a local SGM church (which I am not), I could not, in good conscience, lead my church toward affirming this polity document. It would certainly be pastorally irresponsible to sign onto this document without first gaining formal affirmation (read: vote) from the congregation. This document binds the church in many ways that are significantly stricter from a contractual basis and no church should be signing this lightly. As a member, I would not support a pastoral team that would unilaterally adopt this polity without seeking congregational approval. It would be either ignorance or arrogance and both are not acceptable at this point.