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.