Reconciling Congregational Polity and Pastoral Authority: Part One

Baptists have historically affirmed congregational polity, or the idea that the church’s membership governs itself by means of democratic processes under the lordship of Jesus Christ. But Baptists have also affirmed strong pastoral authority, of the idea that a church’s members are to submit themselves to the leadership of their pastor or pastors. Seminary students sometimes ask if these two ideas can really be reconciled.

I think I know why seminarians (and many others) raise this question. Many Southern Baptists have past experiences in churches where these two concepts weren’t always balanced properly. Some have been members of churches where the pastor (or staff) made almost every important decision related to the church’s ministry. There were rarely, if ever, church conferences. When the church did assemble in conference, they tended to focus almost exclusively on financial matters like the annual budget, building programs, and the buying and selling of church property.

Others have been members of churches where the pastor had little or no authority of any kind. Instead, pastors and other staff were treated as merely paid employees who worked for a personnel committee or deacon board. Almost every ministry decision was put to a full vote before the entire congregation. The pastor had to seek approval to make any changes whatsoever to the status quo. And if the pastor failed to toe the party line, it was time for him to find another ministry elsewhere.

In both of the above scenarios, I think there is a lack of trust between pastor and congregation, though it obviously manifests differently in each case. It is also possible that in both scenarios, the pastor and staff aren’t considered “real” church members, but are rather seen as either private ministry contractors who are working at their current church or ministry experts who use their present church as the laboratory for all their grand ideas.

No doubt most churches are somewhere between these two extremes, but I know of several churches that could accurately fit each of the above descriptions. And they are of every size and located in every corner of the Southern Baptist Convention, though I think it’s fair to say that in general larger churches tend toward an overemphasis on pastoral leadership while smaller churches tend toward an overemphasis on congregational decision-making.

This is not a recent debate. During the 1980s, one of the common differences between conservatives and moderates were their respective views on pastoral leadership. Moderates frequently accused conservatives of holding to an “authoritarian” view of pastoral ministry. Conservatives responded that too many moderates downplayed pastoral leadership and advocated a polity that was too egalitarian in terms of roles and responsibilities. In 1988, The Theological Educator at New Orleans Seminary even invited Richard Land and Ralph Langley to dialog on this debate in a special issue dedicated to “Polarities in the Southern Baptist Convention.” Land represented conservatives and Langley represented moderates.

For my part, I’m convinced congregationalism and pastoral authority can be reconciled. In my opinion, when we look at all the New Testament has to say about church structure and leadership, and when we take into account the reality that we cannot perfectly replicate their model because there are no contemporary apostles who exercise unilateral authority over churches, it seems like the best way to apply apostolic practices to contemporary churches is something like the following:

  • A healthy local church is an assembly of regenerated individuals who testify to their salvation by confessor immersion and covenant together for the sake of the gospel
  • Local churches are ultimately ruled by Jesus Christ, who is the Head of a redeemed people that he has called into existence through his saving work and who receive that salvation through repentance and faith
  • Local churches are governed by decisions made by the whole congregation, who constitute a royal priesthood in submission to the lordship of Christ as it is revealed through the Scriptures
  • Local churches are led by biblically qualified and congregationally authorized pastors who guide the congregation through their godly example and their proclamation of the Scriptures
  • Local churches are served by biblically qualified and congregationally authorized deacons who care for various needs within the body and thereby free the pastors to concentrate on the ministries of prayer and proclamation

I think most Baptist churches would affirm something like the above, though not every church would say it exactly the same way. But as with so many debates, the devil is in the details. In my next post, I hope to tease this model out in some practical ways that I hope show that we really can be congregational and really follow the leadership of our pastors.

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  1. Todd Pylant   •  

    Yes, the devil is in the details. Looking forward to the next post where you flesh this out, but I am glad to see someone wrestle with how these two fit together. Each church it seems draws an imaginary and movable line between congregational and pastoral authority. It usually shows up when the pastor wants to lead the church in a direction that a significant minority doesn’t want to go. Then the congregational authority shows up to trump the pastoral authority.

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  4. Mark   •  


    How about reconciling the practice of diaconate authority with the biblical role of deacons?

  5. scott parkison   •  

    I very much struggle with the “democratic process” often affirmed by Baptist churches such as majority votes, Roberts Rules of Order, old business/new business, etc. Does this really come from the Bible? And, if not, why is it so deeply embedded in the ecclesiological structre of most Baptist churches? Looking forward to the second post.

  6. jan zizka   •  

    Bible is very clear that authority of a pastor(s) over a congregation.Congregation should submit to a group of pastors,with a chief pastor/single pastor according to size of church.Bible doesn’t say anything about bishop/overseer for group of local churches.So heirarchial pattern of authority is unbiblical,and every local church should be fully autonomous and thus allowed to grow.

    Coming to authority of laity,it should not upsurp the pastoral authority which is to lead the congregation in truth and love.God bless you all.

  7. Michael   •  

    But where does it stop? I am currently in a church with one pastor, no deacons, and no elders. Usually the Pastor makes a decision and tries to rarely have a business meeting…especially after a few people objected over the last project he pushed through. That is all fine until there is a conflict or when the sinful nature of the pastor rears its head with nobody to put it in check.

    In my case, our youth ministry is a mess. There are people with morality issues in leadership positions in the group and the children brought to the church have problems with disrespect, vulgarity, drugs, etc. etc., to a point that there was no way I could condone it or allow my children to participate.

    Now that I have removed my children, this solo pastor is trying to enforce church discipline to make me put my children in youth group against my better judgment. He feels his authority has been challenged by my “silent protest” of taking my kids out and that I must put them back in to maintain “unity.”

    Pastoral authority can become cult like very quickly.

  8. Claude   •  

    In response to Michael’s post, I completely agree. Pastoral authority is intended to be in leading by example and teaching. The word pastor is the Latin word for shepherd and a shepherd leads. He feeds,cares for and leads. Peter talks about the priesthood of the believer and all born again believers are indeed priest in the truest form. These believers have the same Spirit in them that any pastor has. A pastor has been gifted to lead God’s people and according to I Peter 5, he answers to the Chief Shepherd. That should make any pastor tremble when they try to lead according to their will & not the LORD’S.

    Pastoral authority can indeed become cult like and it can be a problem with certain people. The Roman Catholics take so much criticism from us but, they have a belief in papal infallibility. This belief is that whatever the pope deems is the correct thing is indeed correct. Isn’t the mindset that the “pastor is always right” the same thing except on a smaller scale.

    These two need to be merged but, for this to happen many pastor’s need to simply “get over themselves”, and congregations will need to be committed to “maintaining the unity that Christ has created”.

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