Contact
Search

 Subscribe by Email

Brent Detwiler's Tweets
Saturday
Mar232013

The Church Is Not a Religious Institution or Denomination

“God by his Word and Spirit creates the Church, calling sinful men out of the whole human race into the fellowship of Christ’s Body.  By the same Word and Spirit, he guides and preserves that new redeemed humanity.  The Church is not a religious institution or denomination.  Rather, the Church universal is made up of those who have become genuine followers of Christ and personally appropriated the Gospel…. All members of the Church universal are to be a vital and committed part of a local church.” 

This definition is found in the Statement of Faith for Sovereign Grace Ministries.  It affirms the Church universal and the local church.  It repudiates the formation of local churches into a religious institution or denomination as something not found in the New Testament.  

Nevertheless, the “provisional” Council of Elders for SGM votes on whether or not to ratify the Book of Church Order on April 12.  If approved, Sovereign Grace Ministries becomes a denomination but such a development is expressly prohibited by the Statement of Faith.  In the words of Apollo 13 Commander, James A. Lovell, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”  

Phil Sasser chaired the Polity Committee that wrote the Book of Church Order (aka the Polity Proposal).  Listen to his words. 

“Some folks in our churches who have read the Polity Proposal have expressed the opinion that it is too complicated and hence confusing.  I understand that concern.  Part of that thinking is due to the fact that the Book of Church Order was written in a rather bare-bones style with a minimum of explanation and part of it is due to the nomenclature used to describe the polity structures.  Regional Assemblies, Judicial Review Committees, Council of Elders, Court of Appeals, and such are terms that befit (gasp!) denominations.  Well folks, we are a denomination whether we think of ourselves that way or not.  To ‘denominate’ things is merely to describe them with a common name.  We are called Sovereign Grace churches…. It really isn’t too complicated.  We can do this…. It is our hope that if we live with this polity for awhile, the confusion will go away.” (Phil Sasser, SGM RPP, p. 5) 

I’ve read the 112 page “Sovereign Grace Ministries Revised Polity Proposal” (SGM RPP) three times and it is still confusing to me.  I finally had to sit down and make a chart in order to figure out how it is supposed to work.  Some parts still baffle me.  Reading the Book of Leviticus is child’s play compared to reading the Book of Church Order.  Maybe if I live with it long enough the confusion will go away but I doubt it!  I think it is more likely I will learn to live with my confusion.  That aside, I want to talk about some important ways in which the Book of Church Order fails to adhere to the Statement of Faith.  It’s not only hard to understand, it is hard to stomach. 

The Bible and the Statement of Faith 

Every pastor in SGM must sign the Partnership Agreement which is part of the Book of Church Order.  It includes this statement. 

“I declare sincerely before God that I believe that all the articles and points of doctrine contained in the SG Statement of Faith fully agree with the Scriptures, and I own that Statement as the statement and confession of my faith.  I promise to teach and defend these doctrines in public and private.  I promise further that if in the future I come to have reservations about any of these doctrines, I will share these reservations with my eldership and the Regional Assembly of Elders.” (SGM RPP, p. 90) 

Under the heading “Subscribing to the Statement of Faith” in the Book of Church Order we find this explanation of meaning.   

“This sober pledge leaves no room for disagreement.  The Formula says that ‘I believe that all the articles and points of doctrine contained in the SG Statement of Faith fully agree with the Scriptures.’  This simply means that the Bible teaches these doctrines; these doctrines are not only consistent with, but supported by, the Bible.  The denial of the doctrines in the Statement of Faith is inconsistent with and unsupported by the Bible…. The point is just that what the Statement of Faith teaches, is what the Bible teaches…. At every point, a congregant can be confident that her church teaches, and her pastor believes, every sentence she reads in the Statement of Faith.... The Book of Church Order sets a much higher bar for subscription to the Statement of Faith than it does for submission to the Book of Church Order…. Sovereign Grace’s current Statement of Faith has historically served the purpose of signaling that we are, as the website has it, “evangelical, Reformed, and charismatic.”  But by and large the Statement of Faith has not carried a heavy load in the life of our churches.  Our pastors have had little reason to closely examine the Statement of Faith and compare it with their own beliefs in order to determine whether they are fit for service in Sovereign Grace.  But in our new polity, the Statement of Faith not only constitutes our public testimony, it also provides the only standard whereby we can judge the orthodoxy and heterodoxy of our pastors.” (SGM RPP, pp. 30-32) 

Folks, I put the Statement of Faith together, so I happen to like it, but this is over the top!  No human document should be invested with this kind of authority.  The Statement of Faith is treated as though it were Scripture.  “Every point” and “every sentence” is “what the Bible teaches.”  I beg to differ.  Every point and every sentence is what I think the Bible teaches.  No one should claim divine inerrancy for their interpretation of Scripture.  The Bible is without error.  My understanding of the Bible is not.  It is one thing for SGM to say the Statement of Faith is what we believe and we require it of our pastors.  It is another thing to say what we believe is inerrant and infallible.  I am troubled when SGM claims “all the articles and points of doctrine…fully agree with the Scriptures” and therefore “leaves no room for disagreement.”  For this singular reason, I could never sign the Partnership Agreement with a clear conscience.   

But there is another problem.  Let me illustrate.  The Bible alone is inspired, inerrant and infallible.  That is the common confession of evangelicals.  But we must go further.  We must ask what does each book in the Sacred Book teach us?  What is its meaning?  What did each writer have in mind as the Holy Spirit inspired their thoughts and guided their writings?  The Bible must be interpreted and the key to biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) is understanding the original intent of its authors.  What did each human writer mean in their own words and in their own literary and historical context? 

Well, the Statement of Faith also needs to be interpreted.  I imagine Commander Mahaney saying, “Uh-oh!  We have another problem NASA!  Brent is the one who composed and wrote the Statement of Faith.  I guess we better ask him what he had in mind so we don’t distort its original meaning.”  (Note to C.J. – lets negotiate a retainer fee for theological consultation on the Statement of Faith.  I need the money.) 

The Church Is Not a Religious Institution or Denomination 

This is a perfect case in point.  When I put together the section on “The Church” in the Statement of Faith, I purposely broke it up into two paragraphs.  The first paragraph defined the Church universal.  The second defined the local church.  I also spelled out the relationship between the Church universal and the local church.  Why?  Because these are the only two ways in which the Bible talks about the nature of the church.     

Local churches in the New Testament were never joined together as a “unified ecclesiastical body [a denomination]…under a common government [a religious institution].”  That kind of polity is foreign to Paul the apostle and all his apostolic associates.  

“The Sovereign Grace churches together voluntarily form a unified ecclesiastical body to glorify God as an expression of the bride of Christ.  The churches share spiritual and material resources for the furtherance of our common mission, under a common government which guards our fidelity to our common Statement of Faith and standards of corporate holiness.  A local church joins itself to the Sovereign Grace body of churches when its elders, representing the church, enter into this partnership agreement with all the other Sovereign Grace churches.” (SGM RPP, p. 27) 

That is why I wrote “the church is not a religious institution or denomination.”  In other words, local churches were never formed into hierarchical institutions.  The relationship between the churches in the New Testament was non-institutional and non-denominational.  You find no official “body of churches” formed into “an expression of the body of Christ.”  

There are just two expressions of the body of Christ in the New Testament.  The Church universal and the local church.  There are no institutional or denominational in betweens according to Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, James and Jude.  Jesus referred to the Church universal (Matt 16:18) and the local church (Matt 18:17).  That’s it.  And yet the Book of Church Order now says, “SG local churches seek to give their spiritual unity in Christ as much concrete institutional expression as is practical.” (SGM RPP, p. 44) 

I constructed the Statement of Faith but went over it very carefully with C.J., Dave Harvey and Steve Shank.  I explained its meaning in detail and we discussed its substance at length.  I pointed out why I worded things a certain way and the theological significance for doing so.  We talked about the doctrinal positions I included and excluded in the statement.  We agreed there was no“denominational” arrangement of churches in the New Testament.  We wanted to be true to the Book of Acts.  We were an apostolic team planting and building churches with the gospel for the glory of God. The Statement of Faith was approved by all of us on July 28, 1998. 

The Institutional Emphasis 

I am shocked how much emphasis is placed on the “institutional” nature of Sovereign Grace Ministries in the Book of Church Order when no such emphasis is found the New Testament or in our history.  For instance, the word “office” is used 138 times in the Revised Polity Proposal but it is never used in like fashion in the New Testament. 

The only passage of any relevance where the word “office” is used is found in some translations of 1 Timothy 3:1 (though cf. Acts 1:20, 25).  I quote from the ESV and NIV for the sake of comparison. 

1 Tim 3:1 (ESV) The saying is  trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 

1 Tim 3:1 (NIV) Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. 

The Greek word episkope refers to the role or ministry of an overseer (“being an overseer”) not to an official position (“the office of overseer”).  This passage is talking about someone who is interested in becoming an overseer.  He “aspires” to the role because he “desires” the work (“a noble task”).  It is the work of an overseer that a prospective candidate desires (not an official position).  The emphasis is on sacrificial service, not vain glory.  In the early history of the church, willingness to serve as an overseer often meant a willingness to suffer persecution for the sake of the gospel. 

The Book of Church Order totally misrepresents the nature of leadership in the New Testament when it puts the emphasis on “office” instead of on “charisma.”  Herman Ridderbos points out this error in his classic work, Paul - An Outline of His Theology.  

“It is no doubt true and it has significance that in the enumerations in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4 it is not the institutional, but the qualitative aspect in these charisma that comes to the fore.  It is not presbyters, bishops, or deacons who are spoken of there, but the charisma of giving leadership, helping, showing mercy.  This points to the fact that even if some of the charisma mentioned here are denotations of specific offices, yet it is not the official-institutional as such, but the material significance of the office that is brought to the forefront.” (Ridderbos, Paul, 444) 

That is why the following statement regarding apostolic gifting, function and office makes absolutely no sense. 

“By at least 2008, there developed a growing uncertainty about whether the office of apostle continued at all after the first century…. While the office of apostle was not completely jettisoned, the emphasis shifted to the missiological leadership role that the NT apostles played and the ecclesiological (authoritative) role was deemphasized. The Leadership Team met and re-evaluated apostolic ministry in 2009-2010 and included the Extended Team (Regional Leaders) in their discussions.  They labored to maintain the functional apostolic component. The distinction between an apostolic function (i.e., the ongoing leadership of the church’s mission by men gifted for this task) and the office of apostle was presented by Jeff Purswell in his teaching to SG pastors as they gathered in Louisville, KY, the night before the Together for the Gospel conference in April 2010…. You may ask what place does apostolic ministry have in our Revised Polity Proposal?  It has a place but it is limited to gifting and function and does not include any office of apostle.” (Phil Sasser, SGM Revised Polity Proposal, p. 3) 

A False Dichotomy

This is a false dichotomy.  If you are gifted as an apostle, you function as an apostle, which means you are an apostle!  If you have the “gifting” and the “function” then you have the “office.”  Denying “office” while affirming “gifting” and “function” is a bunch of theological hooey.  

The Book of Church Order rules out the “higher office” of apostle.  It only affirms the lower “office” of elder.  But in the New Testament, elders were not “endowed with a range of gifts to provide leadership to the church in its broader mission.”  That’s what apostles were called and gifted to do.  The responsibilities of an elder/overseer/pastor were limited to the local church.  They did not have extra-local responsibilities unless they were also recognized as apostles. 

“Therefore, an Executive Committee and Leadership Team will play a critical role in extra-local leadership in the central aspects of SG in order to facilitate the pursuit of our mission together.  Members of the Executive Committee and Leadership Team occupy no higher office than that of an elder.  They have no special authority in the churches beyond the limited authority that has been delegated to them by the elders of SG to carry out their specified functions.” (SGM RPP, p. 38) 

“Its Executive Committee, Leadership Team, and employees occupy no higher or different church office than any other elders.  As men endowed with a range of gifts to provide leadership to the church in its broader mission, the Directors and members of the Executive Committee are commissioned to such unique tasks by the Sovereign Grace elders to whom they are accountable.  They have no special authority in the churches other than that which has been specifically delegated to them by the elders.” (SGM RPP, p. 46) 

“Regional Leaders do not occupy a special ‘office’ in addition to that of an elder, but rather are elders whose gifting for broader leadership is recognized by the Regional Assembly of Elders.” (SGM RPP, p. 78) 

“Members of the Leadership Team do not occupy a special office in addition to that of an elder, but rather are elders (or men of similar qualification) whose gifting for these types of broader leadership is recognized by other elders.” (SGM RPP, p. 85) 

According to these statements there are no apostles in SGM, only elders.  Phil Sasser adds to the confusion. 

“You may ask what place does apostolic ministry have in our Revised Polity Proposal?  It has a place but it is limited to gifting and function and does not include any office of apostle.  It is most evident in the place that we have made for gifted leaders to express that leadership in areas of extra-local ministry. First, I would point out that we have proposed a Regional Leader in every Regional Assembly of Elders (RAE)…. Second, room is made for gifted leaders to lead us in the central, extra-local components of our ecclesiology i.e., the Leadership Team. These are the men that lead important aspects of our common mission bridging across all of the Regions. The Director of Church Care, the Director of Church Planting, the Director of Theology, and the Executive Director are all roles for gifted leaders." (SGM RRP, pp. 3-4) 

This is so senseless and confusing.  “Apostolic ministry” supposedly has a place because the gifting and function of the apostle continues.  The only thing that does not continue is the “office of apostle.”  What a faulty construction.  This is theological dishonesty designed for one purpose.  Rule out the word “apostle” because it does not fly in evangelical and Reformed circles.  

“The Director of Church Care, the Director of Church Planting, the Director of Theology, and the Executive Director are all roles for gifted leaders.  But again, while room is made to recognize gifted men and to release them to ministry, they do not have the authority of an apostolic office…. these leaders have no apostolic office…. they occupy no higher ecclesiastical office than that of an elder.” (SGM RPP, p. 4) 

Extra-local apostles had greater authority than local elders because of their differing function which was due to the extent and strength of their charismatic gifting.  Local elders recognized this gifting and embraced apostolic ministry as a result.  Apostles did not “occupy [a] higher ecclesiastical office” per se.  That is not the language or approach of Scripture.  

Let me illustrate further.  If you had the gift of teaching, you were recognized as a teacher.  A gift of helps, a deacon.  A gift of leadership, an elder.  A gift of exhortation, a preacher.  If you had the gift of prophecy, you regularly prophesied with depth, power and accuracy and were thereby recognized as a prophet.  

Apostle, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers are not offices.  They are gift ministries.  They are roles that people fulfill by the grace of God.  That is why none of these descriptions are ever used as titles.  It is never the Apostle Paul.  It is always Paul an apostle.  No one in the New Testament was called Pastor Peter or Elder Ed.  That’s because the emphasis is on function not ecclesiastical office like you find in religious institutions.  

A Full Blown Charismatic Theology

The Statement of Faith affirms a full blown charismatic theology.  Under the heading, “Empowered by the Holy Spirit” it says, 

“The Holy Spirit desires to fill each believer continually with increased power for Christian life and witness, and imparts his supernatural gifts for the edification of the Body and for various works of ministry in the world.  All the gifts of the Holy Spirit at work in the church of the first-century are available today, are vital for the mission of the church, and are to be earnestly desired and practiced.” 

There is a lot packed into these two sentences.  All the gifts, not some of the gifts, operational in the early church are available today.  But not only are they available, they are vital!  That means they are of great importance!  

The charismata are critical “for the edification of the Body and for various works of ministry in the world.”  They are vital in relation to “the mission of the church.”  The church cannot fulfill its mission without all the gifts and gift ministries given by Christ being fully embraced.  For this reason, all the gifts must be “earnestly desired and practiced.”  

For instance, the gift of prophesy must be earnestly desired (1 Cor 14:1).  Even more, it must be faithfully used in the church because it brings edification (14:3-5).  Recognizing, pursuing, and exercising this gift produces prophets.  C.J. has all but shut down prophecy in SGM.  

When I wrote these two sentences in the Statement of Faith, I had in mind passages like 1 Corinthians 12:27-31. 

[27] Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. [28] And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. [29] Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? [30] Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? [31] But eagerly desire the greater gifts. 

The Greek word for “gifts” in these verses is charismata.  I also had in mind, Ephesians 4:7-16. 

[7] But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. [8] Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” [9] (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? [10] He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) [11] And he gave the  apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, [12] to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, [13] until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, [14] so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in  deceitful schemes. [15] Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, [16] from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. 

I wrote the following in the Statement of Faith under the subsection entitled “Church” based upon this passage.  A commitment to the fivefold ministry of Ephesian 4:11 has been part and parcel of Sovereign Grace polity from the beginning.  

“The ascended Christ has given gift ministries to the church (including apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers) for the equipping of Christ’s body that it might mature and grow.  Through the gift ministries all members of the Church are to be nurtured and equipped for the work of ministry.” 

That is why Phil Sasser wrote the following in his “Introduction to the Second Edition” of the Book of Order.   

“Along with this revival of the gifts of the Spirit, there was also in the 1970s a reexamination of the cessation of the gift ministries to the church: apostles and prophets in particular.  From its very beginnings the leaders and elders of Sovereign Grace believed and accepted that these gift ministries were a blessing to the church, taught that they were for today, recognized such gifted men, and gave them commensurate offices from which they served in both ecclesial and missional roles.” (SGM RPP, p. 1) 

He is correct, “From its very beginning the leaders and elders of Sovereign Grace believed and accepted these gift ministries.”  That’s why they were included in the Statement of Faith.  As a result, “these gift ministries” were given “commensurate offices from which they served in both ecclesial and missional roles.“  That is a proper reading and application of the Statement of Faith although we never referred to the “office” of an apostle.  

The Gift Ministry of the Apostle Fully Endorsed in Statement of Faith

Why is this so important?  What we believed, affirmed and practiced regarding the gift ministries was incorporated into the Statement of Faith and the Statement of Faith has not changed.  SGM has changed but the Statement of Faith has not changed.  

Every elder in SGM must believe without reservation what the Statement of Faith teaches about the gift ministries.  He is permitted no disagreement.  Leaders in SGM cannot accept the “office” of pastor and teacher but reject the “office” of apostle, prophet, and evangelist because all the gift ministries are affirmed as vital and necessary “for the equipping of Christ’s body that it might mature and grow.”  This fivefold ministry encompasses a biblical polity and it is explicitly taught by the Statement of Faith.  SGM can’t “mature and grow” without fully functioning apostles and prophets.  Therefore, the Book of Church Order clearly contradicts the Statement of Faith.  For example. 

“Apostles and elders governed the churches of the NT.  SG churches allow for the belief in modern-day apostles or apostolic leadership without requiring it or explicitly featuring it in their polity.  SG churches recognize the office of elder as continuing today.  The office of deacon continues as well, but is not a governing office.  Some of the non-authoritative functions of apostles are carried out by Regional Leaders and the members of the Leadership Team.” (SGM RPP, pp. 43-44) 

These is utterly unacceptable according to the Statement of Faith.  Belief in apostles must be required of all elders and it must be explicitly featured in the Book of Church Order.  Instead, the Book of Church Order exclusively features elders (a.k.a., pastors or overseers.)  It gives no place to apostles, prophets or evangelists.  

Remember, every elder that remains with SGM must sign the following subscription. 

“I declare sincerely before God that I believe that all the articles and points of doctrine contained in the SG Statement of Faith fully agree with the Scriptures, and I own that Statement as the statement and confession of my faith.  I promise to teach and defend these doctrines in public and private.  I promise further that if in the future I come to have reservations about any of these doctrines, I will share these reservations with my eldership and the Regional Assembly of Elders.” (SGM RPP, p. 90) 

The Polity Committee further explains. 

“This simply means that the Bible teaches these doctrines; these doctrines are not only consistent with, but supported by, the Bible.  The denial of the doctrines in the Statement of Faith is inconsistent with and unsupported by the Bible…. The point is just that what the Statement of Faith teaches, is what the Bible teaches.” (SGM RPP, pp. 30-32)

There you have it in black and white.  You cannot deny the doctrines in the Statement of Faith.  That means you cannot deny apostles and prophets.  In fact, if you have any reservation about apostles and prophets you must make them known to the Regional Assembly of Elders for examination.  It can result in your dismissal. 

In addition, every elder in SGM must “promise to teach and defend these doctrines in public and private.”  That includes C.J. (President), Paul Buckley (Chairman of the Board), Phil Sasser (Chairman of the Polity Committee), and Jeff Purswell (Dean of the Pastors College).  All of these men are required to teach and defend without reservation in private and public the fully orbed functioning of apostles and prophets because that is what the Statement of Faith requires.  They may not deny or disagree with this proposition.  

In the section titled “Appeal for Ecclesiastical Union,” the Polity Committee asserts the following about apostles.  This thinking is reflected in the Statement of Faith. 

“Scripture supports not only a “spiritual” unity but also a unity of governance and mission as is demonstrated by the gifts that Christ gives to the church.  He gave gifted men and officers (including elders and apostles) to the church universal (Eph. 4:11; 1 Cor. 12:28), which suggests that the church universal has a visible social and organizational structure.” (SGM RPP, p. 10) 

But on the next page, in the same section, they reverse course and add a new wrinkle.  (FYI, I hate wrinkles, especially theological ones.)     

 “Additionally the extra-local unity, cooperation, and government of the NT churches is especially apparent in the ministry of the apostles.  Although contemporary apostles do not function explicitly in the proposed polity of SG, the ministry of NT apostles tells us something about the nature of the church…. So, in the Committee’s recommended polity, the extra-local function exercised by the NT apostles and the vital connectivity they fostered transfers to regional assemblies of elders.” (SGM RPP, p. 11) 

The Polity Committee states unequivocally that the Bible teaches “the extra-local unity, cooperation and government of the NT churches is especially apparent in the ministry of the apostles.”  This is affirmed by the Statement of Faith and yet the Polity Committee goes on to repudiated the teaching of Scripture and the Statement of Faith when it says “the extra-local function exercised by the NT apostles and the vital connectivity they fostered” will be transferred “to regional assemblies of elders.”  They absolutely cannot do this without violating the Statement of Faith and the Book of Church Order! 

The work of the Polity Committee is invalid.  They are required to defend apostolic ministry.  Instead they have created a polity that is foreign to Scripture and contrary to the Statement of Faith.  They have rejected apostolic ministry and substituted a modified Presbyterian tradition in its place.       

“Furthermore, the polity proposal is based on the principle that the local eldership is responsible and accountable to the Regional Assembly and Council of Elders for its actions. If the local eldership is only partially responsible and accountable to these bodies, insuperable difficulties would emerge for this polity.” (SGM RPP, p. 7) 

The Statement of Faith expressly forbids such a polity because of its belief in apostolic ministry as portrayed and practiced in the New Testament.  End of discussion.  The Polity Committee needs to be replaced by an Ethics Committee that will play by the theological rules already set down.  In all sincerity, this is about integrity!  You cannot uphold the Statement of Faith and vote to ratify the Book of Church Order.       

Every elder in SGM must also sign off on this statement. 

“I submit without exception to the explicitly mandated polity practices of the SG Book of Church Order.  I affirm that the form of government contained in the SG Book of Church Order is a wise and suitable application of Scriptural principles.” (SGM RPP, p. 90) 

The form of government contained in the Book of Church Order is unbiblical and extra-biblical.  It is neither a wise nor suitable application of Scripture.  First of all, the form of government taught in the New Testament is not obscure.  It is clear.  The question is whether or not you accept the teaching of the New Testament.  That starts with the acceptance of apostles.  You can’t begin to understand biblical polity without them.  

Second, the ministry of the apostle is laid out in great detail in the New Testament.  We are not left to the “application of Scripture principles.”  Apostles were heralds of the gospel gifted to plant and built churches.  There is no confusion about their role or responsibilities.  For example, read 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus.  It is easy to understand what they did and how they related to local elders and churches.  

Third, the number of offices created by the Book of Church Order is mind boggling.  Those who hold these offices are given titles not found in Scripture.  There are no Directors of Church Planting or Church Care in the New Testament.  There are only apostles.  The Polity Committee shows no theological courage or personal integrity in rejecting the language of Scripture.     

I could never sign off on the Book of Church Order because it contradicts Scripture, contradicts the Statement of Faith, and is unwise and unsuitable for doing so. 

The Sufficiency of Scripture and the Book of Church Order 

The Statement of Faith says this about the role Scripture in Sovereign Grace Ministries.  

“The Scriptures are the authoritative and normative rule and guide of all Christian life, practice, and doctrine.  They are totally sufficient and must not be added to, superseded, or changed by later tradition, extra-biblical revelation, or worldly wisdom. Every doctrinal formulation, whether of creed, confession, or theology must be put to the test of the full counsel of God in Holy Scripture.” 

Notice, the Scriptures are “totally sufficient” as “the authoritative and normative rule and guide of all…practice” in SGM.  The words “all…practice” include polity (i.e. church government).  I know because that is what I intended and conveyed to C.J., Dave and Steve.  None of us wanted to become a denomination or forsake the central role of apostles and prophets.  In fact, C.J. considered himself a prophet when this was approved.  So did the rest of us.  Here’s the point.  The Statement of Faith forbids any foot loose and fancy free structures for governing not expressly found in the Bible.  

But this is precisely what the Book of Church Order puts forth.  Let me restate the obvious.  The clearly taught practice of church government in the New Testament “must not be added to, superseded, or changed by later tradition…or worldly wisdom.”  But that is precisely what the Book of Church Order does.  It adds to Scripture, supersedes Scripture, and changes Scripture.  On what basis?  Later tradition and worldly wisdom.  

“Later tradition” includes the Presbyterian tradition of extra local elders organized into regional presbyteries (i.e. the Regional Assembly of Elders) and a general assembly (cf. the Council of Elders).  “Worldly wisdom” includes getting rid of apostles and prophets.  I wrote the following last November. 

Sovereign Grace Ministries Aborts Simplicity of New Testament Polity
November 4, 2012 at 4:53 PM
Brent Detwiler 

The SG Book of Church Order has given pastors and churches hundreds of reasons for leaving Sovereign Grace Ministries and hundreds of reason for not becoming a part of Sovereign Grace Ministries.  Godly people with a simple commitment to Scripture don’t want to be regulated by regional and national Boards, Councils, Courts and Committees.  They want to love Jesus, live the Bible, have leaders they can trust, and enjoy fellowship with other churches in reaching the world.  

The God ordained simplicity of the New Testament has been forsaken.  These men on the Polity Committee and Board of Directors are wiser than the Bible which they consider woefully inadequate in matters of polity.  They have created their own convoluted scheme of governing.  They have displaced the simple polity of the NT which brought about the planting of churches throughout the known world in 30 years.  It does not matter that we live in the 21st Century.  We should follow the pattern found in the Book of Acts and filled out in the Epistles.

I am not interested in the high minded schemes of men.  I yearn for the wisdom of the New Testament, not the sophistry of men.  But the plan and pattern of ministry of the NT is too low minded for the sophisticated polity committee and the “outside theologians” they consulted.  I will take Ephesian 4:8-17 over committees coming out the wazoo.  These men have moved away from the Bible and replaced it with their own constructs.

In my study of Church History, I’ve always been stunned by the quick decline of the Church in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries and beyond.  Formalism, clericalism, and institutionalism quickly replaced the gifts, power and simplicity of the early church.  Before long, there were bishops and archbishops that ultimately led to the Papacy.  

Let me use a passage by way of analogy.  I know it is talking about our relationship with Christ (which is infinitely more important than church polity) but it highlights a relevant truth. 

2 Cor 11:3 But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ. 

We must never be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.  The same should be true of our devotion to his body, the church.  Why do we have to complicate and distort church polity beyond recognition?  There are no denominations in the New Testament.  There are no “larger ecclesiastical bodies.”  There are no extra-local elders. 

So Little Integrity, So Much Hypocrisy

Every pastor who stays in SGM must agree with the following statement and affix his signature. 

“I submit without exception to the explicitly mandated polity practices of the SG Book of Church Order.  I affirm that the form of government contained in the SG Book of Church Order is a wise and suitable application of Scriptural principles.” (SGM RPP, p. 90) 

I could never sign this solemn pledge on the basis of conscience and Scripture.  But that is not the primary point I am making in this post.  If I am a SGM pastor, I cannot “submit with exception to the explicitly mandated polity practices” because they violate the explicitly mandated doctrines contained in the Statement of Faith. 

You cannot swear allegiance to the Statement of Faith and ratify the Book of Church Order at the same time.  The two are opposed to each other in importance respects.  Simply put, the Book of Church Order does not adhere to the Statement of Faith.  That means the Book of Church Order has to go or the Statement of Faith has to be re-written.  Right now, however, the Statement of Faith trumps the Book of Church Order like four aces trump four nines in Poker.  The Book of Church Order must conform to the Statement of Faith because it is invested with a higher authority. 

In three weeks, the National Council of Elders will vote on whether or not to ratify the Book of Church Order.  This provides yet another test for SGM leaders with regard to their integrity.  Here’s the plain truth.  Every high ranking Elder has no choice but to vote against the Book of Church Order for four perspicuous and fundamental reasons.  

One, the Book of Church Order turns Sovereign Grace Ministries into a religious institution or denomination which is expressly forbidden by the Statement of Faith.  Two, the Book of Church Order assigns the characteristics of inerrancy and infallibility to the Statement of Faith.  That is heretical.  Three, the Book of Church Order dismisses apostles when it is required to defend the present day ministry of apostles without reservation.  Four, the Book of Church Order puts forth a traditional, worldly wise form of government that violates the sufficiency of Scripture and its teaching about apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.    

Oops, I almost forgot.  There is a fifth reason every man on the National Council of Elders should vote against it.  Job security.  If they vote in favor, a Regional Judicial Review Committee or the SG Court of Appeals must censure and remove them from SGM for heterodoxy and a serious deviation from the Statement of Faith!  (cf. SGM RPP, pp. 28, 32, 108, 113) 

Finally, listen to this solemn exhortation by the seven man, Polity Committee in their “Preface to the Book of Church Order.” 

“Our pastors have had little reason to closely examine the Statement of Faith and compare it with their own beliefs in order to determine whether they are fit for service in Sovereign Grace.  But in our new polity, the Statement of Faith not only constitutes our public testimony, it also provides the only standard whereby we can judge the orthodoxy and heterodoxy of our pastors.” (SGM RPP, pp. 31-32)

I hope Paul Buckley, Bruce Chick, C.J. Mahaney, Ken Mellinger, Jeff Purswell, Phil Sasser and Matthew Wassink follow their own advice.  Anyone who votes to ratify the Book of Church Order on April 12 is not “fit for service in Sovereign Grace.”  I could not agree more! 

Will the Book of Church Order be voted down?  No, it will be ratified.  Why, because there is so little integrity and so much hypocrisy in Sovereign Grace Ministries.  SGM becomes a denomination in three weeks.  The ethical and theological demise continues.   

##

 

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend