A Short History of Southern Baptist Internal Polity

Posted: August 24, 2011 in Uncategorized

Today I will post two guests pieces from Chris Pope.  He is one of the interns at Oak Park Baptist Church, has served in  pastoral positions at other churches, and holds a Master of Divinity from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

First of all, understand that Baptist churches have always operated democratically, with business meetings on matters of membership, discipline, money, and property. Much of what we know of early Baptists comes from the minutes of their meetings and the meetings of their associations. But any organization of more than about 20 people is too large for every single decision to be made by the whole body or by just one person. You have to have a smaller group of people to make certain decisions, whether you call it a council, a committee, a team or whatever. For early Southern Baptists, the elders served that function for the church’s doctrines, ministries, and policies, and the deacons were essentially a benevolence committee, focused on the material needs of people in the congregation.

Most Baptist churches in the North have always had a single pastor. But when the Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845, nearly every Southern Baptist church had multiple elders, usually three to five. The elder who did most of the preaching was called pastor, but all the elders were on an equal level. One of the main projects of the SBC’s first president, W.B. Johnson, was to publish The Gospel Developed, a work on the gospel and church order in which he defended multiple eldership as strongly as any Baptist distinctive. However, most Baptists in the South moved away from this to a single-pastor model gradually during the late 1800s. You can see this movement in church manuals from the 1800s – Brown, Hiscox, and Pendleton, all of which focus on how the Bible would have the church to function. Several factors were involved, primarily J.M. Pendleton’s personal convictions on the matter, influence from other church traditions, and individual pastors moving westward to found churches. As churches moved to a single-pastor model, the deacons assumed more and more of the administration of the church, since the job of leading the church was too big for one man.

During the mid-20th century, the Sunday School Board saw that the deacons were being drawn away from their biblical duties, and the board’s solution was to recommend placing the administration of the church in the hands of a church council and a vast array of committees. In 1950 and again in 1970, the Sunday School Board published sample constitution and bylaws for new church plants that spelled out a very complex committee structure. Most SBC church starts from that time followed the Broadman Church Manual, which was head-over-heels in love with committees. The trend lasted until the conservative resurgence, but for the last 20 years, convention resources have been trying to steer churches away from committees and toward a more flexible ministry-team structure.

Meanwhile, modern SBC churches have been moving in three directions. From many larger churches, we see a single pastor – often the founding pastor – with the other ministers functioning as his staff. The congregation rarely votes, and administration tends to follow a corporate model, especially since such churches usually have members who own or manage businesses. Opposing this trend is a movement to return to a multiple-elders model based on the practices of early Baptists and the fact that elders are almost always plural in the New Testament. These churches stress the parity (equal standing) of the elders and a balance of authority between the elders and the congregation. Many smaller churches seek to preserve their traditions by taking a third option, maximizing the authority of the congregation by restricting  pastoral authority to matters of doctrine, which is historically a theologically moderate or liberal approach. In these churches, the power usually exists informally in the hands of a few families that were there before the pastor came and will be there long after he is gone.

Baptists are known as a “people of the book,” and especially so in our defense of a well-ordered church (meaning congregationalism, preaching-centered worship, and the right understanding of baptism and the Lord’s Supper). Yet most of this post-1845 development has been pragmatic in nature. Rarely have we seen churches looking to the Bible to form their internal decision-making process. Regardless of what model we choose or prefer, let us first look to the Bible to see what God has to say about it.


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