Tuesday, 31 May 2011

An Appeal for Clarity in Discussing Baptist Elders

A discussion of Elder rule is going on in some Southern Baptist circles (Elderizing the SBC), and it probably affects other Baptist groups as well.

In the discussion of church governance, I find that often people use the term “elder” without sufficient explanation of what they mean. We should first remember that terminology has little value in and of itself. It really doesn’t matter if you refer to those leading your church as a plurality of “elders” or a plurality of “gorillas.” The single issue is whether your church leaders have unilateral authority and are self-perpetuating (i.e., the leaders pick their own replacements).

I am amazed that some ministerial leaders scholars seem to argue for self-perpetuation and unilateral authority of the leadership group on the basis that the Bible uses the term “elders.” There is absolutely no evidence that the earliest churches were governed by the fiat of an elder board or that the elders were self-perpetuating.

In terms of biblical evidence, it appears from 1 Timothy that the indigenous church was expected to choose its own church leaders. In that very troubled church at Ephesus, Paul easily could have appointed church leaders to replace those who had been disfellowshiped (viz. Hymenaeus and Alexander). Or he could have written the church to confirm Timothy’s appointment of church leaders. Instead, he set forth a list of qualifications for church leadership to the congregation at Ephesus. Of course, the list was written ostensibly to Timothy, but as is the case for much of the letter, this was information was not so much written to Timothy as it was written to the congregation. (The church at Ephesus was in such turmoil that a letter written directly from Paul to the church probably would not have been received.) From this, we surmise that the church chose its own leaders.

The claim that the earliest church had a Presbyterian governance requires some far-fetched thinking. It assumes that the apostles appointed a group of church rulers in the infant churches, and that these church rulers continued to serve until they passed on their status to their successors. This really is little different from the notion of apostolic succession of bishops and popes and priests. There really is no indication that elders chose their own replacements.

Some rudimentary church history is important for the discussion. I suspect that early church governance quickly evolved toward an Episcopalian model very early simply because the Roman model of the Caesar was the prevalent model for governance. Thus, the bishop held all authority and ruled by fiat. When the Reformation rediscovered the theology of the priesthood of every believer, some Reformation elements reduced the power and authority of the ruling bishop, divesting it to a ruling Elder board.

Divestiture of the bishop’s power to the elder board was insufficient for Baptists—those who most fully embraced the priesthood of every believer, and the indwelling of the Spirit within every believer. Even the least believer might have insight and was capable of making prophetic contributions to the direction of the church. Consequently, as they strove to apply consistently the doctrine of the priesthood of every believer to ecclesiology, Baptists divested power away from the Presbytery and toward the congregation.

For Baptists, the congregation has all the authority. Indeed, I suspect that many early Baptists avoided the term “Elder” simply because it conveyed a status of too much authority in the church, preferring the term “Deacon,” and so emphasizing the leaders’ servant qualities. Regardless of how the term “Deacon” became the preferred term, Baptists set limits on their leaders.

On one Sunday, when I finished teaching Sunday School, I walked into the church sanctuary, preparing for worship. At the appropriate time, the chief elder (pastor) stood up and, to the absolute shock of the entire congregation, announced to the 150 or so members present that the elder board had decided to dissolve the church, and dispose of its assets, and that there would no longer be any services or ministries. Five minutes later as we sat dazed and astonished, he stood up and said that we must vacate the church building. Such is the authority of a ruling Elder Board.

Baptist congregations delegate responsibility and authority to various church leaders—call them elders (or deacons or trustees or gorillas) if you will. Some churches give greater authority to its leaders than other churches. But in the end, congregationalism gives authority to the congregation to remove its leaders and to appoint new ones when appropriate.

Monday, 30 May 2011

The Validity and Urgency of the Altar Call

In recent years, many Calvinists have severely critiqued the altar call, claiming that it is an Arminian innovation designed to manipulate people into making a faith commitment. While many an altar call may indeed be characterized as manipulative and fleshly, there is such thing as a Spiritual altar call, and it is an appropriate part of Christian worship, arising not out of a misguided Arminianism, but out of biblical urgencies.

The altar call is a natural progression of the sermon. Whether the sermon is evangelistic or meant to challenge believers, the sermon is designed to move individuals toward change in their lives. There should be at least a little movement toward Christ-likeness in every listening believer’s life, and if the Spirit is calling individuals to make a significant decision, there should be an opportunity for people to make their decisions public. The altar call, then, is an opportunity for people to give public testimony, and this is right and good.

The altar call provides a unique Spiritual context which is not available at other times. To be sure, a person can be saved anywhere and at any time. However, the altar call has as its context the preached word and the praying congregation. These two elements, contemporary as they are with the altar call, are means by which the Spirit moves in the lives of people.

When the word has been preached, it is incumbent upon the congregation to pray mightily for the Spirit’s convicting power. This is often the missing ingredient in the altar call. We might have pensive music and other mood setting elements in play, but this is nothing, for the one thing which is relevant is the Spirit’s drawing. Thus, the congregation needs to be taught and urged to pray with all their strength for the salvation of those in attendance, or for their fellow believers who are being called to make decisions.

Again, I emphasize that it is not mood setting elements that make a difference. The real difference is when the congregation is gathered in the Spirit, and the power of the Lord Jesus is present. This is the ideal behind the altar call, with God’s people fervently praying with great expectation. If this element is lacking, I’d suggest getting rid of the altar call.

It is altogether insufficient for the minister to stand in front with the musicians quietly playing, and with the congregation reverently standing with heads bowed and eyes closed. No, every believing Christian must be called to pray with hearts heavily burdened for the lost. We must learn to pray as if it matters, for prayer really does matter. The model in Jonah 3:7-9 is instructive.

Arminians do believe that each one of our individual friends and loved ones can be saved, and that none is excluded from the offer of salvation on the basis of some unbiblical decree. Indeed, we believe that God is pleased for us to pray for the conversion of our individual friends and loved ones, and that he is eager to answer our prayers by sending his Spirit to convict them and to draw them to faith. No doubt, Calvinists often pray for their friends and loved ones, even though their theology tells them that some eternal degree may very well have excluded their loved ones from any hope of salvation. Arminians have no such deterrents to prayer.

Because we Arminians believe in a “whosever will” gospel, we should be all the more urgent in our praying for those in the altar call.