The Reform We Need in SGM – Polity

It’s been a quiet end to the summer for SGM.   The SGM polity committee “co-chaired” by Phil Sasser and CJ Mahaney held court in the middle of summer – with various churches participating by presenting polity papers.   By all accounts via various sources, it was conducted with civility and thoughtful interaction – which is encouraging.   What is less certain is what will transpire from all that input.  More importantly, we are now approaching what I believe to be a pivot point in the SGM debacle.   Polity decisions that will affect the future of SGM will be unveiled soon – likely around the time of the SGM Pastor’s Conference.   Will SGM grow up and morph into a maturing denomination or will it continue as CJ Mahaney’s personal ministry masquerading as a true equal partnership of local churches?  The coming months will bear the answer but I thought it would be a good time to outline some of the reforms that need to take place (at least in the mind of this member) so that SGM can actually move forward in a positive, God honoring direction.

There are two types of reform that are essential for this troubled family of churches.   The first area of reform is in polity.   The second is cultural and ethical in nature.  Although both are equally important, I will tackle the issue of polity first in this post and save discussion on the latter for another time.   I do apologize in advance for the length of this post – it is “Brent-like” in its length, if not style.

Regarding polity, there are six biblically founded principles that must be embraced and implemented in SGM as part of a “get well” plan.

1.  Jesus Christ as Head of the Church, Exercising His Authority Through His Word. (Colossians 1:18)  I hear some of you saying – “duh, how long did it take you to think of this point?”.   But it’s important not to assume this vital biblical principle and I believe among the ranks of SGM, we have, in fact, forgotten this.   The emphasis of human leadership has obscured this vital truth and the symptoms of this neglect is evident in many cultural practices and ethical issues within SGM.   I will cover them in greater depth in the next post.   Suffice it to say that the most egregious mistake we make in polity is when we look past the exercise of Christ’s authority through His Word.   When we think of polity, we too often start with governing structures and people, when we should actually start with God’s word.   Make no mistake about this – God actively exercises his authority in the life of His church through His word, and does so not dependent on human leadership.   Does God use human leadership?  Yes, unquestionably so but when fellow believers study the Bible together, God speaks to them through His Word and brings His authority to bear on their lives directly.

2. Local Church Autonomy.    Let’s clear up what I mean by autonomy. I understand that the term may raise the hackles of some SGM old-timers.  Autonomy is simply the right for self-government and it stems from the idea that a local church community is ontologically, the church of Jesus Christ in a given locale.  There is no biblical warrant for any authority outside of the local (read: apostle) exerting authority over the local church.  I’ll speak plainly – SGM has no right to exert any authority over any local church in its association unless the local church abdicates its local authority.  No apostolic person or function, no matter how gifted, has any biblical right to exert authority in spiritual matters over any local church.  (Please read Biblical Eldership by Alexander Strauch and my prior posts on apostles for scripturally based explanation).   Henceforth, any extralocal association must be non-authoritative, limited in scope and should involve representation from local churches.

3.  Defined Role of the Congregational in Governance.   The loose polity historically practiced by SGM is notable because there is no defined role for congregation in local church governance.   In each of the primary polity models, the congregation has a role to play in influencing how the church is governed.   For specifics on how different church polity structures make room for congregational participation, please refer to Who Runs the Church – 4 Views of Church Government.  The point is simply this – no matter what polity is decided on, no proven polity disregards the role of the congregation in the manner historically practiced by SGM.

4.  Established Rights and Responsibilities of the Church Body. What follows from (2) and (3) is that the entire church, defined by both congregation and leaders, has rights and responsibilities.   These include the responsibility to – a) recognize and confirm elders in the church.  b) exercise church discipline  c) receive new members into the church  d) assess doctrine (and to reject false doctrine).  Here are some scriptures to check out and consider – in 1 Cor 5, Paul urges the church (not just elders) to discipline a wayward believer;   similarly in 2 Thess 3, the responsibility to exercise discipline falls upon the church, not the pastors;  Acts 6 – the church selects leaders to tackle a problem related to congregational care;  Galatians 1:8, Paul makes it clear to the church (not just elders) that it is their responsibility to assess and if necessary reject unbiblical teaching – even if he himself were to preach it to them.

5.  Plurality of Eldership – in most of the New Testament, a clear pattern regarding elders emerge.   There is notable absence of the primary “senior” pastor as the top dog.  Instead, the elders are often described as a group and presumably functioned as a team.   In view of the prevailing influence of indwelling sin, the principle of plurality is meant to serve the pastoral team, rather than hinder it.

6. Non-professional Elders.   By this I mean that the definition of eldership should be completely and wholly biblical.   The standard for eldership should be biblical but should not preclude those who may make a living outside of the church.   In fact, this inclusion of non-professional/non-staff elders may be not only permissible – it may in fact be desirable and a blessing to strengthen church life.

I don’t pretend that the aforementioned principles are in any way comprehensive, nor the definitive word on polity but I humbly submit that adopting them would lend to a much healthier SGM association.

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6 thoughts on “The Reform We Need in SGM – Polity

  1. Good post and I can agree with most of it, though I am not convinced one way or the other about local church autonomy. Looking forward to the second post. It is hard to separate polity and culture because they are so interconnected. I have been thinking about the very nature of transparency and congregational involvement in decision-making. It boils down to this: the way SGM leaders view feedback and participation from the congregation is really a reflection on how they view God. If they believed Scripture about the many parts one body principle, and took to heart the numerous non-leaders God used to direct history, they would see that congregational participation is a benefit. It is like diversity. When a company implements a diversity policy so that it will be legally compliant and to protect themselves from a lawsuit, it is evident. They do the minimum to fulfill the spirit and intent of the law. When a company understands the benefits they can reap from genuine diversity, they pursue it to that end. I think the really stumbling block to this lies in culture. In SGM, everthing is pastor-centric. They like to think they are gospel centric, but they are not. Look at the post put up last week calling on 30 days of prayer for the pastor’s conference. Do I think that praying for the pastor’s conference is bad? Of course not. I will pray for it and pray the Lord speak to these men. However, it is just the latest example of how the pastor is first in everything. Mondays, their day off is the sacred cow of SGM. Don’t mess with their Mondays. The martyr syndrome – CJ has these guys and their wives convinced that they sacrifice greater than other people. Really? What about firefighters who sometimes have to work more than 24 hours without sleep, or doctors who work copious amounts of hours, or the military, or police officers, or even Joe member who works 70-80 hours a week to provide for his family (BTW: Joe member would be accused of idolatry or selfish ambition for such a schedule)? How does this pastor-centric culture lead back to transparency? It’s simple – because the church’s identity is strongly connected to the the pastors, any criticism of how things are going or done in the church becomes a personal attack and they cannot hear it objectively. I had a conversation with an SGM pastor about 3 years ago about the concept of congregational feedback and this particular guy was completely overwhelmed at just the thought of involving the congregation more. Why? Because it would be so hard, personally, for him to hear the critiques. I give this guy credit for at least being honest, but it was a major “Ah-ha!” moment for me to see what was at the root of SGM’s lack of transparency.

  2. 2sam127, Ruth – thank you for the encouragement. The next post will be coming sometime in next couple of weeks.
    Jenn – I appreciate your comments and the sentiment that what is really needed is a change in culture. I think you’re right in saying that they are intertwined. From reading other blogs, I know that some think that polity is secondary or even irrelevant – everything will be fine if only we had leaders that were courageous, ethical, Christ-centered, etc… Of course, it will – just like life is better with political leaders that are honest, ethical, God-honoring, etc… but we know that the real world with fallen men & women don’t operate that way. Political systems and structures do make a difference – some forms of government promote freedom, prosperity and the rule of just laws, while others lead to captivity, poverty and corruption.

    In the case of SGM, both are needed – polity reform as well as cultural/ethical reform. Some pastors still need a wake up call to see the error of their ways but I believe many, maybe even up to 50% understand that they need to change and have started on the journey. Not all of them are courageous or strong enough to make a stand, some don’t know what to do and yet others are struggling with their own internal questions and congregational confusion. They need help and prayer – I, for one, plan to extend them grace and an opportunity to lead in a better way.

    The other clueless 50%? Well, maybe they will never get it – at least not in the near future.

  3. Polity is a good place to start but what about the problem of CJ? If he continues to lead SGM with the SGM Board supporting him how can anyone in good conscience stay in SGM?

  4. Pingback: The Reform We Need in SGM – Ethics and Culture | sgmnation

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