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Things I Never Heard in Fundamentalism — Polity (4)


It was our first elder ordination. I knew the man being ordained. His little girl. And his wife. I don’t want to gush too much because I might embarrass her (she reads here occasionally), but she is the “salt of the Earth” kind of person. The kind of friend you hope to find in a new church. I’ve only known her for a few months, but I’m really thankful for her. She’s a gem.

So I felt invested in this ordination. I listened closer. And the pastor explained:

The elders are here to protect you from me.

Excuse me? Did he just say that himself or was I thinking it that loudly?

I mean, I know that in my head. But I’ve never heard any pastor admit it plainly and from the pulpit.

There are no more tired people than the regular lay people in independent fundamental Baptist(ic) churches. Tired of the sham leadership, tired of not being heard, tired of the flat-out abuse. It’s a total mess. It’s intended to be congregational polity — that’s the heart of the American Baptist tradition — but it’s developed into a rank feudalism. American Baptists used to be the stinkers who challenged corruption, but that’s pretty rare today. So that instead of hearing about an ecclesiastical checks and balances, all Baptists might hear from the pulpit, “Submit to your pastor! He’s your authority!”

Then I read about Presbyterian polity. That it’s not congregational or episcopal. It’s not a group of people leading like a democracy or a single leader like a monarchy or patriarchy. It’s a representative democracy.

Yeah, you read that right. Our founders modeled the American government after the Scottish Presbyterians.

Now I know enough about the American representative democracy to know that it’s pretty resilient. Randy Balmer argues that the first amendment’s “separation” clause puts James Madison’s “faction” fears to rest by containing zealotry within the (private) religious sphere. Now, if that’s true, could the same be argued for the Presbies? Is their ecclesiology more robust because it contains enthusiasm in another sphere? The political sphere perhaps? Do we end up with a dueling spheres? Both strong, both weathered, both fairly resistant to change?

Maybe. I don’t know. But I like being in a church body that’s built with some seismic resistance. It’s good for the laypeople. It’s good for the elders. It’s good for the Faith.

13 thoughts on “Things I Never Heard in Fundamentalism — Polity (4)

  1. Yes, yes, yes! That’s why Presbyterianism feels so safe, to me. I mean similar to the checks and balances that keep our country functioning, these checks and balances help lead to a healthy church body.

    I love this series, Camille!

  2. I don’t know why I feel the need to keep defending Baptist churches. It is probably futile, but I read these things and think – wait a minute. Here’s the things- I KNOW this stuff happens. I really do. However, my church does not have that feel to it. We have a very humble, transparent Pastor who is not into domineering leadership at all. I go to a Bible study at a different Baptist church. They also have a wonderful Pastor who is not at all into domineering leadership. My brother and sister in law are in another part of the country in a Baptist church with a wonderful pastor. My husband’s sister and her family are in a Baptist church with a very humble pastor. I could go on and on. And yes if you observed these churches you would most likely call them fundamental. The people there are not laboring under heavy burdens- I know them- they are happy, joyful people, thankful for God’s grace and showing it to others. Sure this stuff happens but to paint all Baptist churches with this brush is wrong.
    People disagree on church polity- that doesn’t make what they do or choose to sit under wrong. I go to a Baptist church but I don’t think Presbyterian have it wrong per say-they just see it different. I am willing to offer them— grace!

  3. Accountability…that’s the elephant in the room. All church lay leaders are there to protect the church from abuse. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens in a lot of churches.

  4. Dan, I would agree with you on the accountability part. I guess I would also have to admit that in a congregational type churches it is easy to have a dominant leader take over. I guess I just want it to be out there that not all Baptist churches are like that and it can work.

  5. People need to be led. They crave it. But, every leader needs people to hold them accountable for their actions. Interestingly enough, the churches that have direct democracy (which was intended to create more or better accountability), have less accountability. The churches that have representative government, even episcopal (bishop-led) churches, tend to have more accountability.

    Church government is very interesting. In the RCC, the pastor is sole authority for the congregation and can dictate or micromanage every policy. They’re also in charge of the money. When Henry VIII broke from the RCC, not much changed. When Scotland went Reformed, a lot of changes in polity happened. When the US Episcopal Church, split from the C of E, they put the Vestry (governing body) in charge of the money. When Bishops Coke and Asbury were formulating the Methodist church in the USA, they gave a little more power to the governing body. I think the history of church polity is very interesting.

  6. Truth be told, any for of church government, be it episcopal (e.g., Anglicans and Catholics), congregational (e.g., Baptists or Charismatics), presbyterian (our own PCA), or even none at all (Brethren, like Dr. DeWitt Jones’s church) will work if everyone involved, top to bottom, is walking in the Spirit. I think that’s why Scripture never gives an absolute mandate on church polity.

    The real question is which form is best at checking the harm that comes from people who aren’t doing right. There, I think the answer is the same as which form of national government does the same. The good old Scottish Presbyterians gave the same answer to both questions, and got them both right.

  7. @Bard —

    I am not entirely sure that I am yet convinced that all forms of polity would work if we all follow the Spirit’s leading. It sounds like that conclusion might come from the assumption that conflict is sinful or the result of sin. And I don’t agree with that per se. I think that in Heaven, for instance, there will be disagreement (what else will we all be talking about all that time up there? ;)) among us. I think disagreeing is human, not sinful.

    @stacy —

    ((((you)))) Everyone may be happy in those churches. Of course! But the test for the difference is what happens when someone changes. What happens when someone disagrees? What happens even when someone sins? Is everyone happy because they all agree or because they are all seemingly “pure”?

    I would have said the same thing a few years back. The exact same thing. Then God taught me a different perspective, and I was pushed out — even from my church.

  8. I can’t speak for all of the churches I mentioned on the questions you asked but I will speak to mine.
    If someone sins- well we all sin so that happens often. I would say the Pastor we have now is one of the most transparent I have had. And I thought the one before him was transparent. He is constantly reminding us that we all sin. We all need forgiveness and yes– Grace!!! I would say this is one of his themes- understanding that we all need grace. If you are referring to a big sin- in my entire years of going to this church I have never seen a “big” sin- which I hate to even refer to it that way- I am just not sure what you mean when you say sin, anyway I have never seen a “big” sin not be forgiven. I am not saying every situation has been handled perfectly- they haven’t been. What I can say is that forgiveness is always the goal.
    As far as when someone disagrees. I don’t agree with everything at my church. I don’t know that we are excpected to- it isn’t a dictatorship. Honestly, I don’t ever remember being told I had to agree with everything. However, if I hold a view different from the one the church holds I am not going to loudly preach my view. If I feel that strongly I will go elsewhere. People leave our church b/c they disagree- that is fine.
    I am just wondering even though your church is fine with disagreement- would they be fine with say me who doesn’t hold to the 5 points coming and passing out literature as to why they aren’t biblical or pulling people aside and trying to convince them that Calvinism is wrong? I think it is different to hold a different view quietly then to broadcast it or try to change the minds of other church members. I know I could go to church that held to reformed doctrine and learn every Sunday about God and love Him more. If I went, though, I would respect their views and not preach mine.
    I am beginning to think I am much more tolerant of different church polity than you are and that is fine- it just surprises me. I just don’t feel that strongly about it- other than that we need to go to church and it needs to be a church that believes in salvation through Christ Alone. I really think any church can be corrupted. And I know from experience not all Baptist churches are as you describe.

  9. However, if I hold a view different from the one the church holds I am not going to loudly preach my view. If I feel that strongly I will go elsewhere.

    This is what I’m talking about. In fundamentalism, what I am saying on this blog was suspect. Could you have a blog where you felt free to express positive things about N.T. Wright (a controversial guy) or how you liked The Shack (a controversial book)?

    I really think any church can be corrupted.

    I agree, stacy. Of course I do.

    I am beginning to think I am much more tolerant of different church polity than you are

    If this is what you’re hearing, then you’re not understanding me. And that’s fine. What I’m saying is similar to what Winston Church about democracy: “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

    It seems like you come here trying to convince yourself that I’m wrong or intolerant. Don’t worry if I am or not. Just try to see what I am saying. It’ll make for a much more interesting conversation. 🙂

  10. Wow- I can’t quote since I don’t know computers anymore than I know debate, but I think I need to back off. I really am just trying to show a different view, but if you are viewing my posts that way than I can stop posting for awhile. I think that although I can agree with you on a lot of stuff- probably a lot more than comes across- we genuinely have some different viewpoints. I just want to present mine. I understand that this is your blog and your platform, though. I really do respect your viewpoint and hope that you would return the same respect to mine. I think you probably do by the way- I just don’t have the ability to write and debate that you do. I guess that I am not quite able to carry on that “interesting conversation” Anyway, would love to discuss more, this really does all interest me and I have more I would like to say. I am not sure after that last response how to.

  11. Stacy. . . .

    We’re probably just not understanding each other more than anything else. This medium does get in the way since we have no nonverbals to rely on. I was trying to present a friendly tone with my smiley at the end, but I guess that didn’t work. 🙂 Oh well. . . .

    You’re more than welcome to keep posting and talking and thinking out loud and the like. No problemo. . . .

  12. I agree that we probably aren’t understanding each other and I apologize for my response. I am not terribly good with these things anyway. Really I think we would find much to agree on. I have grown up in fundamentalism- I went to Bob Jones from 2nd grade until graduation from college and then my hubby worked there for a couple of years- so I know it well. I have many frustrations with the system. We definitely didn’t have the difficult experience you guys did but there was some relief when we moved on. I guess I just don’t see eye to eye on everything, though, and like to present my opinion:) This past year, due to many circumstances, I have done a lot of soul searching on a lot of these issues and still am coming to different conclusions than you have come to. I don’t know that that will change but I do enjoy your blog and really do love a good discussion:)

  13. Camille:


    This is kind of a moot point, since no single person, let alone all people in a congregation, always walks in the Spirit. I don’t think all disagreement is sin or arises from sin, but I do think that if everyone really walked in the Spirit, the individual church, or the denomination itself, would work out their disagreements regardless of its polity. Reminds me of James Madison’s “if men were angels” quip about secular government.

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