SGM’s “New” Polity

April 28, 2010 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

Over at SGM Refuge, Jim and Carole have published notes of Jeff Purswell’s recent presentation about polity.  Unfortunately, it’s a disappointing read, especially after all the emails I’d received over the past couple of months, from hopeful SGMers touting the upcoming “changes.” 

Basically, the “new” thinking on polity is anything but new.  Purswell merely presented a lengthy apologetic for what Sovereign Grace Ministries has been doing from the very beginning.  His rationale for claiming that SGM is “governed by ‘elder’ rule” – when what is really meant is that SGM is governed solely by paid staff pastors – is that the New Testament term used for “elder” is also interchangeably used for “pastor.”  And that it’s better for such “elders” (paid staff pastors) to be able to make running the church their full-time occupation, rather than dealing with the distractions of a regular job. 

Which of course begs the qustion, when are more of SGM’s “elders” going to become even more biblical and take up tent-making? 

More importantly, when will SGM churches specify in their promotional materials that they’re attempting to “go back to the New Testament” and are NOT using the term “elder” according to its present-day commonly understood definition?  When will they tell people up front that unlike any other “Reformed” organization, SGM congregations have absolutely zero say in church decisions – financial or otherwise – and that SGM “elders” are NOT selected by the congregation in any fashion?

When will visitors to SGM churches be told the truth about what happens when conflicts between pastors and members arise?  That essentially, with the current polity structure in place, members are told, “Submit to me or leave”?

I have other questions – lots of other questions – about what the men of the “A-Team” (formerly “apostolic” team) were thinking as they huddled together and decided that it’d be a better idea to hunker down and tell people once again that if problems arise in their churches, it’s because the members simply need to submit more to their pastors who are – this apparently is a direct quote – “first among equals.” 

For instance, how could these A-Team men really believe that a windy treatise about the governance structures in place in the New Testament church would do anything to address members’ concerns about the lack of avenues for conflict resolution?

Moreover, is it even good Bible scholarship, to take essentially descriptive phrases of what the early church had in place for leadership and claim that those are prescriptive commands for what churches are to do today?  I mean, isn’t there the teensy little problem of apostolic succession here?  After all, unless C.J. Mahaney can trace his appointment all the way back to the Apostle Paul, aren’t these SGM “A-Team” members just grasping at straws, seeking to gloss over their people’s very real questions and concerns with a bunch of “scholarly” mumbo-jumbo?

Wouldn’t it be more in keeping with the broader principles of Scripture to be less hung up on just what “elder” might have meant in the Greek, and instead focus on the more important issues of accountability and avoiding the very appearance of evil? 

The tippy-top of SGM’s Amway-like pyramid structure of governing authorities had a great opportunity to truly humble themselves and put some mechanisms in place for the inevitable occasions when pastors screw up and ought to be held accountable by the people whom they supposedly “serve.”  But they blew it, choosing instead to hide behind lofty-sounding chatter about what the New Testament church supposedly did.

I am reminded, actually, of the following passage from I Kings 12:

Rehoboam went to Shechem, for all Israel had come to Shechem to make him king. And as soon as Jeroboam the son of Nebat heard of it (for he was still in Egypt, where he had fled from King Solomon), then Jeroboam returned from Egypt. And they sent and called him, and Jeroboam and all the assembly of Israel came and said to Rehoboam, “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke on us, and we will serve you.” He said to them, “Go away for three days, then come again to me.” So the people went away. 

Then King Rehoboam took counsel with the old men, who had stood before Solomon his father while he was yet alive, saying, “How do you advise me to answer this people?” And they said to him, “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever.” But he abandoned the counsel that the old men gave him and took counsel with the young men who had grown up with him and stood before him. And he said to them, “What do you advise that we answer this people who have said to me, ‘Lighten the yoke that your father put on us’?” And the young men who had grown up with him said to him, “Thus shall you speak to this people who said to you, ‘Your father made our yoke heavy, but you lighten it for us,’ thus shall you say to them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s thighs. And now, whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.'”

So Jeroboam and all the people came to Rehoboam the third day, as the king said, “Come to me again the third day.” And the king answered the people harshly, and forsaking the counsel that the old men had given him, he spoke to them according to the counsel of the young men, saying, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” So the king did not listen to the people, for it was a turn of affairs brought about by the LORD that he might fulfill his word, which the LORD spoke by Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat.

SGM leaders – you “apostles,” you “first among equals” – you squandered a golden opportunity to demonstrate actual humility.  You blew the chance to show that you don’t actually see yourselves as superior to those whom you (supposedly) serve.

So all we can conclude is that you actually believe your own press.

You should have done what Rehoboam did not do:  listen to your people.  The fact that you didn’t – and the fact that you’re still trying to shore up the illusion that SGM is merely following the “New Testament church” when in actuality all you’re doing is clinging to your own power and control – does not bode well for the future.

© 2010, Kris. All rights reserved.