Excerpts from the Letter on the SGM Polity Committee

A letter was recently issued to the pastors of local SGM churches regarding the polity committee formed and commissioned by SGM Board of Directors.  I have included excerpts of the letter (in italics) with a few comments interspersed.

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As you were informed last week, the Board of Directors of Sovereign Grace Ministries has appointed a committee to propose a future governance structure and partnership agreement for our family of churches. The Board realizes that its present role is to lead SGM through significant changes in polity. The Board is working from some constraints of the existing polity and bylaws with a view to transitioning SGM to a different governmental structure that involves more participation by the pastors of its member churches. Our history together in Sovereign Grace has been characterized by much grace, but we have been aware for some time now of the pressing need for further ecclesiological definition. It is our intent that the changes we make be informed by our common history and involve the robust participation of our pastors, with sound doctrine as our ultimate guide. The Board has not yet determined whether the new polity proposal will be submitted to a formal vote of the pastors or a less formal process of affirmation.

We should duly note the same leader who led us into this disorder now chairs the polity committee. To my mind, the fact that the committee is chaired by CJ Mahaney, speaks the disingenuous posturing by both the Board and Mr. Mahaney himself.   Prior to his return to President, there was much posturing that this would be temporary and that the Board would quickly seek a new President.   From all appearances, this was not their intent.

Also note that this is furtherance of the elitist, top down control mentality that has pervaded the way SGM has run for years.  “We will figure it out and when we do, we’ll let you know”.   I don’t know about you but the “less formal process of affirmation” didn’t work so well in the appointment of the new Board.  The disregard of the input of approximately 20 churches stands as a stark reminder of the way the “process of affirmation” works in SGM-land.

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The bylaws of SGM state that any committee appointed by the Board of Directors must have two members from the Board. We have added to that three other pastors and two members of the Leadership Team. Here is the Polity Committee:

C.J. Mahaney, Co-Chairman (Leadership Team, President of SGM)        

Phil Sasser, Co-Chairman (Board Member, Pastor, Sovereign Grace Church, Apex, NC) 

Paul Buckley (Board Member, Pastor, King of Grace Church, Haverhill, MA)            

Matthew Wassink (Pastor, Providence Community Church, Lenexa, KS)  

Jared Mellinger (Pastor, Covenant Fellowship Church, Glen Mills, PA)      

Bruce Chick (Pastor,-Sovereign Grace Community Church, Roanoke, VA)                          

Jeff Purswell (Leadership Team, Dean of SGM Pastors College)

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Once again, this is what you call stacking the deck.  The omission of anyone from two of the largest and most influential churches in the network of churches is notable – why is neither CLC or SGC Fairfax represented on the committee?   Besides those two churches, there are other knowledgeable and wise pastors marginalized from this process – and that is disappointing.   Please read over the names of the polity committee again – do you believe these men, with their predisposition to maintain status quo and current power structure, will capably invent a polity structure that is consistent with biblically sound and common wise practices?   The following excerpt from the letter indicates their propensity to maintain current power structures.

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Let it be noted that SGM as a family of churches has enjoyed a rich history together. There are many doctrinal positions upon which there is widespread unity within SGM. As a result, the Board believes that there are some areas that should be preserved in our future polity. Here are the three important areas to be preserved.

a. SGM churches are elder-led. This has been taught and firmly established for decades. Of course there are many questions about the specific qualifications of those elders, how they are selected, how they are ordained, and the nature and scope of their authority, which will need to be examined.

b. Extra-local leadership has also been a part of our history. This will definitely inform our approach, but the Board of Directors realizes that there are many questions about extra-local ministry which must be answered. These include the nature of extra-local authority, the basis of that authority, the extent of that authority, and the means and methods by which that authority is exercised in the local church.

c. SGM as a family of churches has historically been committed to planting and caring for local churches. This mission is essential to all that we stand for; we are determined to continue in this mission. The Board also realizes that there is much to be discussed, determined, and defended concerning the mission of the church and the ecclesiological status of SGM.

Regarding (a) , Is the selection of local church elders, the purview of a organization outside the local church?   There is no warrant for SGM to exercise such authority over the local church.  In fact, any local eldership that surrenders that authority to an extra-local body is acting in out-of-step with biblical principle and abdicating governing responsibility.

Regarding (b), this is what you call self-interest/self-preservation.   Indeed, there are many questions to be answered including the relevance of a body that exist outside of the local church that seeks to exercise authority or leadership of the local church.

Regarding (c), local churches plant new churches – that is the biblical model.  What role does SGM play since they have no biblical right to exert authority over local churches?   Perhaps they could function in a similar way to a Missions Board but the scope of their function should be limited and under the direction of the local churches.

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There is much more to the document but I sincerely do not wish to further the analysis of their letter, especially in a negative tone or in a nit-picking manner. I merely wanted to call out relevant areas that signal the continuance of a top-down leadership style in the hands of insiders.  This my friends, is not reform, no matter how SGM seeks to package it.

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29 thoughts on “Excerpts from the Letter on the SGM Polity Committee

  1. Indeed. I was struck by point #2 under “Purposes”: “…what polity particulars should characterize local churches as members of SGM…” To me, this reads as if SGMHQ has a planned “local polity test” for being a SGM church.

    • I think it’s almost a foregone conclusion that a local polity test will be in place. I’m curious as to whether they will go through the motions of seeking public input/debate regarding polity or keep it under wraps to be “discussed” by insiders

      • I think there is strong enough wording in this letter to see that neither Fairfax’s nor CLC’s polity changes are welcome with any polity changes introduced by SGM. If these churches truly want to lead their congregations, they will confirm I understand that CLC, in particular wants to take every effort to make peace with the men who lead SGM but they are clearly walking down a one-way street.This is taking a toll on their members, as evidenced by their members’ comments on the blogs. Secondly, although neither CLC and Fairfax do not necessarily want to lead other churches, there can be no doubt that the smaller churches are waiting for the bigger churches to lead so they can follow. In all SGM churches, members are losing confidence in their pastors ability or willingness to lead through this crisis and inaction is causing them to leave. Your silence and inaction sends a message, whether you want it to or not. People cannot continue is a state where they see no clear path forward when they see the SGM leadership behaving the way they have. I can’t help but notice the increase of first time posters and people on the blogs saying they are leaving their SGM churches since the AoR report. These people are leaving hurt, damaged, and with an inability to trust leaders. Pastors are responsible for those sheep and will answer to God for how they cared for and led them. The chief responsibility for shepherds is their sheep, not SGM. These sheep see SGM leaders walking in disobedience and they are moved by the fear of the lord to flee, as Lot and his family fled Sodom and Gomorah. It is time, past time, for pastors to move. Pastors, you have been anxious to protect your congregation from a false gospel. Be equally as anxious to protect your congregation from a system that fosters spiritual and authoritarian abuse. Most of us are more concerned with how are local churches deal with the polity issues than we are SGM at this point. At the Pastors Conference in November, Dave Harvey stressed how he realized they had lost the trust of the local pastors and they needed to regain it. I believe Dave was sincere in those remarks and I believe that he did things to try to accomplish it but more has happened to undermine it than rebuild it and it does not appear that CJ shares Dave’s sentiments on this. He seems to assume it or demand it. Pastors, if you are waiting for something, tell your congregations specifically what it is. something measurable, realistic, tangible, credible….not some loosey-goosey goal like waiting for SGM to reform. But, whatever you, do LEAD!!!

      • Great analysis and you captured well the frustration of members in smaller churches led by men that don’t get it. I also think you’re right in this – the reality is that the smaller churches will NOT step out on their own – it’s too much to expect of them. I believe the idea of breaking rank is difficult even for CLC and SGC Fairfax so smaller churches are unlikely to do so on their own. Whether they want to acknowledge this or not, the pastors of CLC and Fairfax have a leadership role that extends beyond their local churches, if no more than to be an example and to possibly to lead in establishing a new association of churches. That leadership, though, is secondary to their responsibility to their local congregations.

  2. Sadly it all comes across more like they’re circling the wagons and will place elders (or lawyers) around the perimeter armed with all their fresh, new polity documentation (which is just a solidified version of what they’re currently doing in their current defensive posture). They will be there to fend off intruders, dissenters, victims, hurt former members and pastors, and any one else who might want to question them about their behavior. If you’re not on the list, don’t even bother asking. If you are, then welcome! And bring your family! And if you’re not a member in good standing, forget about it. They won’t even acknowledge your email.

    It’s really sad to witness though. What started off with a leader who appeared to be contrite and grieved about his sin and “failures in leadership”, disturbingly shifted to a defensive posture, playing the victim card on the conference circuit, and is now solidifying the current structure which only really serves him and upper leadership. I could be wrong in that assessment, but that’s certainly what it looks like. But then again, I suppose SGM top leadership feels they have a biblical basis for ignoring questions from the lowly folk on why their actions reek of hypocrisy.

    I’m grateful to the brave men (and women!) at SGC Fairfax, CLC and others who are asking the hard questions and graciously putting pressure on SGM. I’m grateful to see SGM pastors out there preaching messages that go against some of the longstanding and faulty teaching about mens and womens roles, parenting, and church government. I love seeing pastors of local churches make public apologies for how old teachings damaged families and individuals. SGM churches are being reformed at the local level, and that’s awesome! But I have to wonder at what point they just call it a day (since it appears that the desired reform is not coming) and bid SGM farewell.

    • I think your assessment is quite right, JM. It is sad and sobering as well. What is more sobering than seeing a leader who has explicitly taught humility exposed for his lack thereof. Here’s the fundamental philosophical framework SGM leadership operates under put in playground vernacular – It’s my ball and if I don’t like you, you’re not getting in the game… if I don’t like you challenging me on a call, I’m taking my ball and going home …or Louisville. If I can’t play with the ball, no one will. I urge members of the 20 churches who have identified as standing for reform, to please support and encourage their pastors, pray for them – there may come a time when separation is necessary… For members not in the 20 reformers, please ask hard questions and if the Lord leads you to do so, demand that they cease “feeding the SGM machine”

  3. SGM more and more reminds me of the emperor strutting around naked believing that he is wearing royal robes. They are blind to their own folly, while everyone around them is pointing and laughing. (Except of course for those who are so enamored, or blinded by fear of CJ, that they think they see the invisible royal garb.)

  4. Hi. I’m new here. I’ve read a good bit of what’s been posted and I appreciate your idea for the blog. I’ve found it neither pleasant nor profitable to post on the other SGM blogs, and it seems you are trying for a more congenial type of forum. Thanks.

    I have many thoughts, but let’s start with a minor one. I’m not sure I agree with this statement:

    “Regarding (a) , Is the selection of local church elders, the purview of a organization outside the local church? There is no warrant for SGM to exercise such authority over the local church. In fact, any local eldership that surrenders that authority to an extra-local body is acting in out-of-step with biblical principle and abdicating governing responsibility.”

    I have been doing a little study on this issue, and though you can find enough passages to piece together some notion of how the early church was governed (a plurality of elders seems to be the norm, but that doesn’t tell us much), I can’t find a single directive statement on how the church is supposed to be run. Not one imperative statement from Paul and certainly not from Jesus. The Bible pays careful attention to the qualification of elder/overseers and deacons, but doesn’t provide us any particular method for appointing them. In other words, I don’t find “warrant” for ANY particular method of appointing elders.

    Paul instructs Titus to appoint elders “in every city” (Titus 1:5), and he and Barnabas do it together (Acts 6:2-6). This is no “organization” of course, but these are two biblical examples of someone outside a congregation appointing elders, right? How is it therefore “out-of-step with biblical principle and abdicating governing responsibility” if an extra-local body appoints elders? Extra-local appointment seems perfectly biblical to me.

    • BarbaricYawp – welcome! First, I’m glad that you’ve looked into this – I would much rather folks explore this thoughtfully than to agree blindly with what I’m writing. I really respect your thoughtful response in this matter. As a matter of interest, I hope to do two posts in May – both around the the kind of reform that we’re seeking. First, regarding reforming polity. Second, reforming our cultural church practices.

      That said, let me share my premise in the form of a question – “what extra-local body” exactly are we talking about? In fact, there is no extra local authority biblically referenced other than the Apostles. No little “a” apostles, no para-church construct that sort of functions as an overseeing body by delegation of local church authority, etc… My point is that if we want to build a case for extra-local authority, we must root it in the original Apostolate or be logically/biblically inconsistent.

      So that leads us to this question – is there an apostolate that exists today with similar authority to the original Apostles? And, as a followup question, from where do these apostles derive their authority.

      Let us look at Paul’s instruction to Titus – is Titus an apostle? He is in fact not an apostle by most accounts. He is a “protege” of Paul, perhaps but Paul doesn’t address him as an apostle. Titus is functioning as a delegate of Paul… Paul is exercising Apostolic authority and whereas he is not one of the twelve. he is in fact an apostle because of direct commission from Jesus Christ and was recognized as such by the early church.

      I’ll try and dig into this some more in my future post around reforming polity.

  5. Interesting direction here from Nathan Sasser – http://ourbackpages.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/sgm-polity-the-cessation-of-the-apostolate-and-the-authority-question-in-our-local-churches/

    I believe this is consistent with the polity position paper that came out of Sasser’s church previously, by a different author. As such, there is a strong likelihood that Phil Sasser, at least, among the members of the SGM polity committee, intends to revert to advocating the continuation of apostolic authority among SGM churches.

    • yes – I’ve mentioned before – there is a segment of SGM leadership that has woken up to the fact that when they moved away from “apostles”, they ceded relevance and authority… which they are desperately seeking to recover.

  6. I actually agree with Nathan’s points in this post. Brent first wrote about it in his documents, page 116 (http://abrentdetwiler.squarespace.com/storage/edited-pdfs/Brent%27s%20Documents%20Parts%201-7.pdf). I believe it pertains to our view of the five-fold ministry altogether.

    It is part of our ongoing revisionist history to try to make our past more palatable to the Reformed power mongers. Along with the drift away from the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, what else has been discarded along the way.

    The problems with SGM became very evident to me when a regional leader preached on a Sunday AM about the centrality of preaching on Sunday AM (I believe in December 2010). My skin crawled as I though, “What ever happened to pursuing the glory of God on Sunday AM?” It can seem like I am nit-picking, but the implications in the shift are vast and I believe the man-focused centrality of preaching is symptomatic of our root problem in SGM: a culture of selfish ambition. Not to diminish the importance of preaching, all off what we do on Sunday AM should be in pursuit of the glory of God. We should not be building Sunday AM around preaching.

    • Jenncast – the emphasis on the primacy of preaching has no connection to apostolic authority… its evolution in SGM is a coincidental development. You know what’s worse than pastors lecturing on primacy of preaching? Apostles lecturing on the primacy of preaching. Also, Mr Sasser finds it untenable to have local church elders accountable to local churches but finds it ok to have them accountable to apostles… who themselves are not held accountable. Brilliant!

      • I see no Scriptural support for the cessation of the five-fold ministry. I have maintained that focusing polity alone is a mistake for SGMers pursuing reform. Sure, SGM’s polity problems complicated matters, but character issues were at the heart of the problem. Technically, we have accountability for the SGM leadership team now, it’s just that nobody buys it. The same can be true for any form of polity. Reform must begin with repentance in this case.The real questions should be, “Why did SGM abandon their beliefs on apostolic ministry?”, “Why does SGM now revise what it has believed in the past about apostolic ministry?” “Who is SGM trying to impress with their revised views?”

        The focus on the centrality of preaching is directly connected to the issue of selfish ambition in SGM, which I maintain, is SGM’s biggest problem. When preaching is central there is a subtle focus-shift towards man. This message wasn’t the only peer into this issue. Look at the people we are choosing for church planting now. We are no longer vetting men in our local churches for character and humility, we are taking recruits from the Southern Baptists. There may be godly men in those ranks, but they have not been evaluated and commended by SGM local churches. I might be dating myself here, but I can remember a day when character was the primary qualification for becoming a PDI pastor, not a person’s pedigree or dynamic personality, but servanthood.

        Until selfish ambition is dealt with, polity reform is nothing more than a band-aid. That being said, I believe that God could use polity reform to deal with selfish ambition.

      • Jenncast – I sincerely do respect your viewpoint. However, regarding apostolic ministry and the concept of 5-fold ministry, I would ask longtime SGM members to consider that almost the entire basis of 5-fold ministry rests on what I believe is a misreading of Eph 4:11. I believe most theologians reading 4:11 would concur that it refers specifically to the unique office of the Apostles in church history.

        I do agree polity reform is only part of the picture and perhaps not as big a piece as we perceive. I agree that repentance and a new heart is what’s needed…new eyes to see things differently – but polity is important precisely because when leaders do not operate in that way, we need a way to work through and adjudicate wrong behavior.

    • What do you mean exactly by the primacy of preaching? If I take those words at face value, it would mean that teaching is an important part of Sunday morning services probably the most important part. Given that most churches structure their services around the sermon, which would be compatible with this idea, I’m not sure I follow exactly what your concerns are. I’m sure I’m missing something or just haven’t thought about it enough. Thanks!

      • NickF – I didn’t mean to convey anything negative about the importance of preaching – sorry if I gave that impression. I happen to be in a church that has really great preaching so I definitely value its place in church life. However, i will also say that equating effective pastoring w Sunday morning preaching is maybe limited in view. Effective shepherds do a lot more than public preaching – they know the sheep, they care for the sheep and yes, they also feed the sheep.

      • I Corinthians 14:26 – “What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.” This passage seems to contraindicate a sermon centered service. When the pastors are the only ones sharing during our times together it becomes pastor-centric and causes the sheep to just sit back and not participate.

  7. Interesting points. I think the undercurrent of the letter really is focused around papal-like authority. It’s all top-down where pastors are again enter dialogue with the SGM overseers unilaterally – who will ultimately hear dissertations and go back to make their own decisions.

    Behind this call for the vigorous conversation, the ruling body is never taken out of the equation.

    I additionally find it interesting that their statement of SGM’s existence is that we have a history of it (as opposed to flat out saying that it’s a core value that is biblical). What a paradoxical situation – that the basis, nature, and extent are being evaluated but by those who are stood up by the inner circle to have the authority to make the decisions.

    It feels like we are going through the motions while the puppet master never relinquishes control of the strings. One must question whether or not that is contaminating the process. Especially in light of the flaws that have surfaced over the past year. The flipflopping on whether or not they label themselves as apostles, the concession made by the president that he ultimately is not gifted in that role (but has been reinstated, has not stepped down, and is now chairing the committee).

    It feels much too like smoke and mirrors when I really want to see SGM as a body of churches to enter into a forum and dialogue altogether. To hammer this out as a movement – not be handed down the tenets of SGM by a gathering of chief priests.

    • rorschechwatching – the composition of the committee concerns me… neutral observers would probably suggest that it was picked with the explicit goal of achieving the explicit goal of maintaining corporate SGM power.

      Here’s where I think this is going – they seek relevance and the only way they will retain that is through reasserting apostolic authority. What puzzles me is why reasonably intelligent guys like Sasser, even Mahaney can look us in the eye and assert that local churches need accountability from “apostles” but not see the logical dissonance that this SGM apostolic body is unaccountable.

  8. sgmnation, you still in the fight? honestly, we are getting weary, sad to be seeing long time, deeply faithful friends leaving our church. these are not rash folk, but humble, God-fearing dear ones. reasons to stay, reasons to go. know there’s no formula (never was!!!!), but this is hard.

    • Gotta say – if I’m honest, I’m getting weary myself. I think that a return to apostleship in SGM will kill the deal for me and a number of other folks. The primary players in the polity committee seem to have a position along those lines. In typical SGM style, it’s the “I know better” stance – ignore church history and what other denominations have long figured out.

      If the majority of SGM followers sign on to that, then they deserve the leadership they receive

  9. SGM Nation, you said, “If the majority of SGM followers sign on to that (I assume you are referring to a return to SGM apostleship), then they deserve the leadership they receive.”
    Please explain how SGM followers “sign on to that” when SGM members have no say one way or the other – except to vote by leaving. Do you think leaving is the only recourse for members if SGM returns to apostleship?

    • Dianne – very good point. I guess in churches that are led by men who “don’t get it” or are unwittingly acquiescing to a band of self appointed “apostles” rather than seeking help from within the local church…. yes, the only option may be to leave. That’s why all hard questions to pastors need to be asked NOW… all discussions should be had NOW. If you wait until SGM weighs in with a new polity, you’re pretty much cooked…especially in churches with leadership that may lack biblical discernment or necessary courage.

  10. I agree with Jenncast’s May 1 post, “I have maintained that focusing polity alone is a mistake for SGMers pursuing reform. Sure, SGM’s polity problems complicated matters, but character issues were at the heart of the problem. Technically, we have accountability for the SGM leadership team now, it’s just that nobody buys it. The same can be true for any form of polity. Reform must begin with repentance in this case.” In CovFel, they first mentioned that 1Tim 3 qualification does not apply to sitting pastors and elders. Then, the local leaders corrected themselves and said that 1Tim 3 is not the primary qualification requirement but only secondary. To sum it, they do not believe they can walk in sin if the team is in agreement. The leadership team was in agreement to coerce Larry and was in agreement that it was not sin for 14 years. Larry was coerced for leaving SGM based on his doctrinal differences but CJ is supported for leaving CLC based on his differences. If SGM and other churches apply the same rule, they would require CJ to stay at CLC and be evaluated by the local pastors before he be allowed to inflict more damage on the unsuspecting sheep in teh midwest and beyond. It seems like they selectively apply qualification requirements and the extent to which they will hold celebrity men accountable. If you are a lowly pastor from a small church and do not follow SGM line lock, stock, and barrel, you will be tarred, feathered, and run out of town on a donkey. You only have to look into how they handled situation of Larry Tomzac, Paul Palmer, other SGM staffers, other local pastors such as Benny Phillips, Bill Patton, Alan Redrup, Brent Detweiler, Don Shorey, Joe McMullen, and many others. Then look at how they are handling CJ’s situation. If you lay it all out side by side, can anyone tell me there is no partiality? Can anyone tell me that the leadership place themselves under the same teaching that they required so many pastors and members to adhere to. This is a group of leaders who do not want to be accountable. People must refuse to follow them and stop giving until real change is evident to all. We must not simply be satisfied with changes in documents. God calls for change of heart that reflects in ones living. Let us all seek and support where there is humility and a heart that yearns to glorify Jesus. He emptied himself, came down to earth, paid the price he did not owe, and ascended on high do that we can approach the throne of grace in boldness and without fear. He is our shepherd. He is our savior. He is our all in all. Not SGM. Not leaders who stand behind unrighteousness. Not leaders who keep silent when they need to speak up. Not those who stand with these men. Let us throw away all that encumbers us from following Christ including our own fear of the unknown so that we may follow Christ and step onto water. Jesus promises he will be there to care, support, and hold us. Let us not fear men but god who is able to destroy both the body and soul. SGM will not change unless the people in the local churches refuse to go along with their teaching and practice. They must show no deceit, duplicity, and blame it on bad communication. Their repentance and contrition must be evident to all. It must be very evident that they all hold themselves to the qualifications called for in the bible. If they will not, they should leave and find another job and let others who desires to place themselves under God’s word.

    • Bill – read the article last week and thought it was well written and balanced – not unlike what I’m trying to do here. However, not sure I conclude that polity won’t matter… It’s is possibly secondary to the bigger issue of duplicitous behavior and topdown dismissive leadership but polity does matter…quite a bit.

      Just like guardrails, road dividers and rules of the road matter when you drive your car. Bad drivers will still exist but it offers some level of protection and recourse in guiding all drivers. A poor analogy but aspects of it apply. Polity can create the forum for the truth to be brought to light. It limits the license that a big personality like CJ can wield…for instance not allowing him latitude to stack the deck on the board.

      • Totally agree. Where you have wise elders of good character, a healthy deaconate and a membership that lives the “one anothers” of the Christian faith, any polity can serve. But let one of those elements fail – and the protections of a sound polity will become obvious along with the dangers of a deficient polity. And the problems are all the more glaring when the failures are pronounced in the first category.

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