Tag Archives: Ecclesiology

Multi-Site Church Polity: Congregational or Episcopal?

Matthew Pinson

Recently my pastor and colleague at Welch College, Jesse Owens, texted me a tweet by the eminent Australian evangelical scholar Michael Bird, who tweeted the following about multi-site churches:

“Thesis: Multi-site churches are not congregational, they are episcopally governed, the senior minister is a de facto bishop, in fact, multisite churches are more centrally  controlled than any Catholic or Anglican diocese in church history.”

Bird also has written a blog post on this entitled, “Multi-Site Churches: An Evaluation” that is very insightful. While I have important disagreements with Bird on some basic issues of evangelical theology, I agree wholeheartedly with the statement above.

I first made an observation similar to his at an annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society many years ago. After a paper on Baptist-congregational church government, I remember standing in the hallway talking with Chad Owen Brand and Stan Norman saying basically the same thing: “Multi-site churches are a violation of the congregational church polity that is part and parcel of Baptist ecclesiology. They’re more like an episcopal diocese.”

There are many online resources that critique the multi-site movement from a Baptist perspective. Mark Dever and 9Marks have been at the forefront of raising awareness and concern over this development through a Baptist lens, from biblical, theological, historical, and practical vantage points. There is also an excellent treatment of the multi-site phenomenon by the president of Cedarville University, Thomas White, Franchising McChurch, which I discussed several years ago in ONE Magazine. Thus, I do not feel the need to give a full-orbed critique of the multi-site phenomenon here but only to focus on the very narrow question of whether it fits with historic Baptist polity.

I remember being on a panel discussion at Southern Seminary a few years ago with Orthodox Presbyterian pastor and professor Carl Trueman. He was surprised that the only other person on the panel who agreed with him on the ecclesiological problems with multi-site churches was an Arminian Baptist! Yet he and I agreed, on that panel, that a late-medieval phenomenon similar to the multi-site movement was responsible in large part for the anti-clerical fervor that led to the Protestant Reformation: pluralism and non-residency (i.e., congregations that had no preaching pastor [priest] to give them pastoral care, and priests that were assigned to more than one congregation). Trueman and I agreed that the multi-site thrust was a violation of both Presbyterian and Baptist-congregational polity.

This is a concern I have for our own Free Will Baptist Church. I frequently have ministers ask me what I think about having a Free Will Baptist multi-site church, from the vantage point of our faith and practice as Free Will Baptists. I always explain it in what I see as the only way one can explain it in terms of the Free Will Baptist Treastise of Faith and Practices, and that is in line with Bird’s comment above and people like Dever’s and Trueman’s approach: It is not in harmony with Free Will Baptist polity.

Now we must understand that Free Will Baptists have some important differences with the wider Baptist tradition of church government. We tend to give more power to the conference or association, e.g., the authority for presbyteries to examine and ordain ministers, so that churches in good standing with a Free Will Baptist conference or association cannot ordain their own ministers without the authority of the presbytery or ordaining council of a local conference or association.

However, on issues that touch this question of multi-site churches, we would be in agreement with Dever and other Baptists. Free Will Baptists have historically believed that local congregations should be self-governing. That means, among other things, that they must choose their own pastor(s) and deacons and their own officers and teachers, do their own discipline, have control of their own property, have the freedom to separate from one conference and unite with another, have control of their own finances, etc.

This self-governance principle has always opposed the episcopal and Presbyterian models of church government that give ecclesiastical bodies or individuals outside a local congregation control over the internal elements of governance of that congregation such as those things listed in the previous paragraph. So, whether it be a diocese or a bishop or a synod or a presbytery, these bodies/individuals cannot control the internal governance of a local congregation.

Again, historic Free Will Baptist polity, as I show in my pamphlet Free Will Baptists and Church Government, stipulates a stronger relationship between the conference or association and the local church than most Baptist polities. The conference or association has historically been responsible, for example, for the examination, ordination, and discipline of office bearers (ministers, and, the further back you go in our history, deacons). Furthermore, associations and conferences have the right to involve themselves in local church disputes, and often do so. But they have the right only to advise, never finally to arbitrate, in those disputes. Their ultimate recourse is only to remove fellowship from an erring congregation. So I do not wish to minimize the differences between historic Free Will Baptist polity and other Baptist polity.

However, all Baptists agree on the congregational governance of the local church: (1) It is the entire congregation, not the pastor(s) and deacons, who govern the local Baptist church; (2) It is the congregation, not a body outside that congregation, that governs the local Baptist church.

This is borne out in the Free Will Baptist Treatise, which places within the self-government of each local congregation “full authority to transact its business, choose its pastor and officers, receive, discipline, and dismiss members, hold free title to all its properties, and conduct all its internal affairs” (Part IV, Chapter I, Section I.B).

Sometimes ministers who’ve read a lot about multi-site churches and hope to experience growth in their ministries ask me, “Would there be a problem with me having a multi-site church?” I always tell them this: “If different congregations arise out of your church, and you can find a way to keep them together somehow without violating the Treatise (which Free Will Baptists believe is based on New Testament polity), then by all means do so!”

When they ask what this does and does not mean, I explain that each gathered body of believers needs to have the sole authority to do those things that lie within the power of the local church that are enumerated in the Treatise. So you need to ask the following eight questions:

  1. Will this gathered body of believers have sole authority to transact its own business?
  2. Will it have sole authority to elect, maintain, and dismiss its own preaching pastor(s) who leads, feeds, and cares for it (i.e., leadership, preaching, and pastoral care), and not be answerable to the preaching pastor of a higher authority or church outside itself, or any religious body outside itself?
  3. Will it have the sole authority to elect, maintain, and dismiss its own deacons chosen from within its own membership who serve it?
  4. Will it have the sole authority to receive its own members in the way it wishes to receive them, or will there be another higher authority outside it that determines how members are received or who is received?
  5. Will its pastor(s) and deacons have the sole authority to administer baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the washing of the saints’ feet, and other ordinances in the congregation?
  6. Will it have its own policy and process for disciplining, excommunicating, or dismissing members, administered solely by its own office bearers without control of an outside body?
  7. Will it have the sole authority to decide where to meet, and if it owns property, will it hold title to that property with full authority to sell it or to purchase additional property without permission from a higher authority outside itself?
  8. In short, will it have sole authority to conduct its own financial affairs and all other internal affairs, and not have a higher authority control the outcome of any of its internal affairs?

These are simply the eight questions that naturally arise from an examination of the Treatise. And, as I tell ministers who have asked me about this, if you can answer all these questions in the affirmative about the congregation of believers that you are spinning off from your main congregation, you will be in line with historic Free Will Baptist polity.

Yet an affirmative answer to the above eight questions is a direct violation of the whole point of the multi-site movement, as it is to other episcopal approaches to church government.

Then, often, a subsequent question comes up, “Well, President Pinson, if I have enough church growth to be able to spin off other congregations, is there anything I can do that would not be in violation of the Treatise and historic Free Will Baptist polity? My answer is always, “Yes! Plant churches!” This is the answer Jonathan Leeman gives in his 9Marks article “The Alternative: Why Don’t We Plant?”

That’s the answer that’s in line with New Testament polity and with historic Free Will Baptist polity as outlined in the Treatise: We plant churches! Of course, a church cedes power and control when it mothers a church and then encourages the church to go self-supporting, self-governing. But that is the New Testament model, and the model that fits our Free Will Baptist faith and practice.

Of course, there is a lot of room for variation in the church planting model. For example, just as Free Will Baptist North American Ministries often sponsors a mission for many years before it goes self-supporting and becomes its own self-governing church, so a local congregation that has the means to plant a church can do the same thing. A new local gathering can be a mission of the church that planted it for several years before it becomes self-supporting and self-governing. In these intervening years, there is room for differing models of control that still lie within the bounds of Free Will Baptist practice.

Another positive of planting a church is that it can be done with the advice, assistance, and accountability of a Church entity like Free Will Baptist North American Ministries (NAM)[1]. The church plant I am involved in currently, though a self-governing plant, is in cooperation with NAM. Its pastor, Jesse Owens, is an associate church planter who receives training, counsel, and prayer support from NAM, as well as the ability to raise non-salary financial support through NAM.

Furthermore, I have even had some ministers ask me, “Is there a way to have a network of these churches that grow out of my church?” I say, “Yes. That’s what we call an association or conference.” Of course, when at all possible, it’s healthy to unite with conferences or associations who can stretch us out of our comfort zone and help us experience the diversity of the body of Christ within our Free Will Baptist theological confines. So I encourage these ministers to be active in broader associations: We need Free Will Baptist conferences and associations, not cultural niche associations. We don’t need to divide ourselves up by our cultural preferences, where it’s almost like we’re in an association where everybody likes either sushi or fried chicken, or everybody likes either bluegrass or indie-folk, or everybody wears either skinny jeans or khakis to the ministers’ retreat.

However, that said, let’s pretend that a large Free Will Baptist church over a period of fifteen years planted ten successful Free Will Baptist congregations, and over an eight-to-ten-year period, each one of those churches became self-supporting and self-governing, and they all associated with the original church that planted them, meeting together for fellowship, encouragement, accountability, and other ministry, say, once a quarter. This would be much like what has happened throughout 400 years of Free Will Baptist and wider Baptist history. It’s called a conference or an association. But, in this concept, the original, larger congregation that planted all the other congregations would have no more power or sway over what happened in the association, or in the internal governance of each of the local planted congregations, than any of the planted congregations.

I think it is imperative that we Free Will Baptists be ourselves. This means drawing from our own rich biblical and historical resources of church polity rather than from trends that might seem successful at the moment, but really represent a departure from our Baptist faith and practice and an embrace of the faith and practice of non-Baptist religious bodies. And that is precisely what multi-site is: a move away from our historic Free Will Baptist and Baptist polity toward an embrace of episcopal church polity.

My prayer is that we will avoid this theological misstep and that we will do what we see in the New Testament and Free Will Baptist history and plant more New Testament churches!

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[1] Free Will Baptist North American Ministries is also sometimes still known as Free Will Baptist Home Missions.

Pastoral Theology and Change: Part 3

by Jackson Watts

Change is inherent to the nature of salvation; repentance itself implies real spiritual change. So it should be no surprise that the congregational life of saved persons also must undergo certain changes in its ministry sometimes in order to better foster growth, discipleship, worship, or evangelism. The challenge is to discern the right degree and type of trellises to support the vines, to use Marshall and Payne’s metaphor.[1]

So far we have established two important truisms concerning church change. First, change is often very difficult, frustrating, and sometimes elusive. It can lead to confusion, conflict, and unwanted departures of leaders and/or members. At its worst, it fractures a church, hindering its witness in the community.

Nevertheless, we’ve also established that not all change is the same. Change has many different faces, requiring different levels of reflection and effort to implement. Implicit in this is a conviction that I think most leaders share: Change doesn’t have to be a problem. It can be a healthy, exciting opportunity despite the challenges that come with it. Understanding the different types of change is an important first step for pastors and churches to work through transitions in a way which strengthens Christ’s church.

Change through Reform

The second type of change is innovation. While innovation is usually associated with a new invention, it doesn’t have to be something entirely new. Don’t think of it like the invention of electricity or the telephone. Innovation is more like going from the first light bulb to LED lighting. Light itself wasn’t invented. Rather, a better means to produce and diffuse light was. Moving from a landline phone to a cell phone would be an innovation within the field of electronic communication. Innovation then, as I am describing it, is the reformation of some aspect of the church’s life.

We know about “reformation” due to the tumultuous period known as the Protestant Reformation. Some would argue that the very nature of the faith was altered, or even recovered. But consider what remained: Churches, priests/pastors, the Lord’s Supper, belief in the Triune God, and other core aspects of Christianity.

Without question, much changed with both church teaching and practice! But I use this illustration to show that Christianity as a religion about Jesus Christ didn’t end or begin. However, significant innovations occurred that were thought of as reforms, returning the church to a pre-existing form (historians can debate the best terminology to be used).

Innovation is arguably the most common form of change, and thus most likely to be attempted. Changes within an existing church culture happen organically, in fact. Sometimes background checks on children’s ministry volunteers must be performed to satisfy the expectations of the church’s insurance company. It is a change, but largely accepted as unavoidable. People resign from ministries, and new people step into those leadership roles. Most members accept and understand that these changes happen, even if they don’t prefer them.

However, innovation happens whenever background checks lead to expectations of special training for children’s helpers. Innovation is when the church changes financial disclosure practices under a new treasurer, or when a new youth pastor stops taking students to a particular camp each year and instead goes to a different one. Financial stewardship and student ministry didn’t end. It isn’t a simple matter of addition or subtraction. Yet these ministries have been reformed in some way. To put it another way, the form (structure) of a ministry (substance) has been altered.

Tweaking or Tampering?  

Innovation and reformation are themselves contested terms. Depending on who you’re speaking to, these words summon different reactions. To Silicon Valley investors, innovation has an appealing ring to it. To those struggling to set up their voicemail, it doesn’t sound so good. Similarly, our Catholic friends may have something of a bitter taste in their mouths toward ‘reformation.’ To those with shelves full of Banner of Truth books, it just as well be ‘Gospel’!

This range of responses is also seen in the local church. Saying one is going to “tweak something” seems harmless enough. To others, it is heartless tampering designed to take control. Reform, in other words, doesn’t necessarily signal improvement, even if that is the goal. Healthy reform have growth in faithfulness as its ultimate aim, but it requires more than good intentions.

Thankfully, whenever leaders successfully improve an existing aspect of the ministry through some innovation, members usually appreciate it. In fact, it is quite rewarding whenever skeptics or even critical members become some of the most vocal supporters of a change once it has happened. The challenge is patiently waiting and praying for that reaction.

Naturally, leaders and lay members alike recognize that there is not just a range of feelings about changing certain features of the ministry. There is also a spectrum when it comes to the scope of the change. A church may have preaching in its worship service each week. But if in a week’s time, the pulpit has been replaced with a new one and the pastor has lost his necktie, this will likely be considered a significant innovation (fairly or unfairly!).

As a general rule, the degree of reflection, prayer, planning, communication, and implementation is proportionate to the extent of the reforms about to occur.[2] Bigger changes equal more preparation, in essence.

Innovation is not entirely unlike incorporation (change type #1). However, pastors usually learn that innovation and reform is most often easier to implement than actually introducing something new. With innovation, churches at least have the concept, structures, or other “raw materials” already in place. Being prepared to accept reforms then becomes the critical issue.

Leadership Insight

Why innovate? It has often been said that change for change-sake isn’t very healthy. People say this because they generally need to see a need for improvement in order to embrace change.

Ultimately, innovation is grounded in the conviction that God is calling his people to a deeper level of faithfulness. If the culture of a church is permeated by beliefs such as, “We are perfect,” “We are fine,” or “Everything is going well,” then any form of change will prove nearly impossible. However, whenever there is a growing sense that the church is imperfect or ineffective—as a whole, or in several areas—there is a greater openness for reform.

How does this awareness of imperfection or ineffectiveness occur? The primary means by which the church increases in awareness of the need for reform is 1) Preaching/teaching the doctrines of sin and sanctification, and 2) Regular observation and evaluation of the church’s ministry effectiveness.

The first of these is accomplished from the pulpit, the podium, the Sunday School classroom, and numerous other venues where believers intentionally meet for instruction. By learning that we are sinners as well as saints, they will be better able to connect the dots between their hearts and the ministry structures around them. In other words, if Christians still sometimes sin in thought, word, or deed—including inside the church—then this means that sometimes our ministries need sanctifying, so to speak.

Furthermore, the laws of physics tell us that things wear out: people, programs, buildings, etc. Sometimes a fresh coat of paint, new carpet, new chairs, and other tools are unavoidable if we are paying attention to this decaying world. Understanding the extent of the Fall helps us to see that every manmade thing won’t last.

When we take into account both the fallenness of our own natures, as well as the world itself, we know innovation will occasionally be needed as we address the flaws in our ministries. Naturally, this always begins with the heart, mind, and soul. But is an error to overlook the body, and thus the church’s material life. We are embodied souls who worship in places (e.g. buildings), in well-ordered ways (e.g. worship service times, order of services), with carefully-designed tools (e.g. curriculum). These trellises serve the vine best whenever innovation and reform is occasionally undertaken.

The second way to create a church culture that thinks in terms of improvement is to regularly inform members of the patterns of growth and decline of spiritual vitality over time. Church attendance is a valuable metric, but a very limited by itself. Church leaders must find biblical and practical means of observing, recording, and reporting how God is at work in the congregation. Some of these are easier to measure than others, but by developing multiple means of assessment of the church as a whole, and then specific areas of ministry, the congregation will be better positioned to understand what potential reforms may be needed.[3]

As a rule, this will be much more effective than saying, “We need to mix things up,” or “The church down the street is doing this, so let’s try it, too.” Members who are growing in maturity are doing so because they understand sin and sanctification, and they care deeply about the unfolding life of the church. It works it reverse as well: members being taught about sin and sanctification and who are helped to better see the ministry for what it is will grow in maturity. Such members become advocates of and partners in reform, not opponents.

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[1] Cf. Colin Marshall & Tony Payne’s The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mindset that Changes Everything. See a brief summary of their proposal here.

[2] This is why my illustration about the Protestant Reformation is intentional. Some would argue that we see the whole gamut of changes in this event: incorporation, innovation, and interruption (see forthcoming Part 4). This illustrates another facet of my argument, which is that once you begin ‘innovating’ or generally changing many things, at some point you begin having several different types of change all at once, which is more apt to lead to conflict than multiple changes of a single type in a single area of ministry.

[3] The concerns about the proper use of numbers or data are well-expressed in Kevin Hester’s recent post.

Pastoral Theology and Change: Part 2

by Jackson Watts

What’s in a change? We never truly know until we enter into the crucible which is change.

As I explained in my previous post, church leaders (especially pastors) face numerous challenges in the course of leading God’s flock. Among them is the difficult task of helping implement change. This change operates both on the level of personal spiritual sanctification, as well as the structural aspects of the church’s congregational life which are intended to foster spiritual renewal and progress. We might say that changes in the organism (individual believers’ lives) are inextricably connected to organizational changes (the programs, policies, and procedures of the church’s ministry).

Pastors, especially by virtue of their role as overseers or bishops (episkopoi), must wisely work together with other leaders and mature members to discern which changes will best accomplish the church’s mission.

However, many of us intuitively know that not all change is the same, though some may tend to associate all change with discomfort and hurt feelings. Part of why this is so often the case is because there has been a failure to consider the nature of specific changes. In other words, church change isn’t a monolithic category.

I would suggest that there are at least three main forms of change a church can experience. Each is difficult in its own way, but each is also sometimes necessary. Here we will consider the first of these three unique types of change.

What’s New?

The first type of change is when something new is introduced to the church’s life—what I call “incorporation.” This is the resourcing of the church’s ministry because a new practice or custom, artifact or object, or value or belief is introduced to improve or strengthen the church.[1] Sometimes the newness is associated with a pastor’s particular background or experience elsewhere, or perhaps an emerging trend among associated churches. The perception is that the pastor is “bringing this newness” or that all the other churches are doing this now. Regardless of the source, usually a pastor or group of leaders presents the idea, hoping to persuade members of its value, and then implement it as smoothly as possible.

The main obstacle with this type of change is that the newness in question seems like an unwanted intrusion on a church’s existing life. For members who aren’t in the habit of self-examination, there is usually an implicit assumption that everything is already fine. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” epitomizes this sentiment. Therefore, the default position is to reject anything new on this basis without further reflection.

Any number of other sensibilities can be attached to this reticence toward change. Members may be fearful of how something they deeply value may be negatively impacted by the intrusion of the new. New programs, practices or tools have a tendency to displace older programs, practices or tools that may be deeply cherished.

Another common reason towards resisting the new is that many churches have had a checkered history when it comes to implementing new things. More than likely, the frustrated pastor is unaware that some of the congregational resistance to change has been conditioned to be that way by prior, unsuccessful changes. If crossing Jordan posed its difficulties for the Israelites after they had the Red Sea crossing in their rearview mirror, then it’s no surprise that sometimes church members—especially those desiring peace—don’t want to retread old ground whenever things weren’t successful before.

In this way, our experiences tend to be hermeneutical in nature. If a church leader has had success with a particular change in a previous ministry situation, it conditions him to think that it could go well and work smoothly in other contexts equally well. Likewise, if people have had unpleasant experiences with various forms of “newness,” this will shape their perception and expectations concerning the impending change.

Expectations and Ends

An equally problematic pattern with incorporation can be when churches want to adopt anything and everything new simply because it is new. In this, the church reveals its captivity to the myth that whatever is new is inherently good, and whatever is old is inherently bad. Another aspect of this is the belief that this new thing will deliver to the church something needed or sought after, whether converts, improved finances, or any number of other positive things. In this respect, the modern notion of ‘technique’ (especially in its commercialized American form) is simply applied to ministry. If the right technique is applied, then this will engender the desired result.

Many people will recognize that the first reaction above by some lay members is problematic in that it out-of-hand rejects anything without careful spiritual reflection. But the second mindset is also problematic because it also lacks a certain level of essential biblical evaluation. Rejecting something new for the wrong reasons is, in the long run, just as detrimental as promoting or accepting something new for the wrong reasons.

Pastors must work diligently to make a reasoned case, from Scriptural principles, for why certain new additions to the church’s life should be pursued. Additionally, they must develop an understanding of the context into which such new changes are being proposed. This will not only help them gauge the reactions they will receive, but the likelihood of success even if the changes are adopted.

A second thing they must do is closely evaluate which problem they are trying to solve, or area of ministry they are trying to improve by such a change. What is the end, in other words, of this effort? What are we realistically expecting to happen as a result of this change? Will the evaluation of the change’s effectiveness continue even after its adoption? How, if at all, will the church tweak the change or even reverse course if things are not successful?

These questions demand more time, attention, and reflection than we sometimes want to give, even if we are well-intentioned throughout the process. But they are the reasonable extensions of any case for incorporating something new into an existing church ministry.

Leadership Insight

We must come to appreciate the unique ministry setting in which God has placed us. Certainly the principles of Scripture are truthful, valid, and beneficial in any place where God’s people are. Yet these can never be hastily abandoned in the name of cultural relevance, or even in a misplaced desire to give the illusion that the church is making progress simply because they are doing something new and different.

There are also no doubt trans-cultural principles that shape pastoral ministry in any context. However, one of these principles is, in fact, that all ministry is local! This means that the pastor must be an anthropologist and historian, in addition to being a theologian. They must be students of the people they are called to love and serve. They must explore the history which has shaped the church throughout the years, making it the unique congregation that it is. The church’s history itself is constituted not by random events that simply happened to the church; its history is the sum total of the decisions (good and bad), gifts, victories, defeats, and dreams of the people. An awareness of such history will facilitate pastors in all types of change, especially with incorporation.

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[1] More on these three ‘traditions’ will be shared in a later post.