Sovereign Grace Churches on a Collision Course with Sovereign Grace Ministries Over Polity Differences
A slow motion train wreck is about to ensue over the next 3-5 months. Two opposing forces are heading down the track toward each other from opposite directions. That’s because half the churches in SGM are on a collision course with the SGM Board of Directors, Polity Committee and Leadership Team over polity.
The outcome of the polity debate has never been in question – only the consequences. C.J. and Dave Harvey handpicked the new Board and Polity Committee members. The Board in turn rubber stamped C.J., Dave, Jeff Purswell and Tommy Hill as the leadership team. Then C.J. was made the President and tagged the Chairman of the Polity Committee. Later Phil Sasser was added as Co-Chairman. What C.J. wants, he gets and what he gets, often causes destruction. This time will be no different.
I recently pointed out on my blog how Chairman Loftness and his Board have made C.J. the main thing. Immediately following that post, C.J. gave up his position as Co-Chairman of the Polity Committee with no explanation. Phil is now the sole Chairman. That is just like SGM - smoke and mirrors - change the appearance of things but not the substance. C.J.’s exit as Co-Chairman is a public relations stunt – nothing more.
Now to the topic at hand. There are three options on the table for how Sovereign Grace Ministries will be governed (or directed) in the future.
The Basic Polity Options
On July 10-11 eight churches presented their polity positions papers to the SGM Polity Committee.
- Covenant Life Church – Gaithersburg, MD
- Redeemer Church at Lake Nona – Orlando, FL
- Redeemer Church of Arlington - Arlington, VA
- Sovereign Grace Church - Aurora, IL
- Sovereign Grace Church – Fairfax, VA
- Sovereign Grace Church - Apex, NC
- Living Hope Church – Harrisburg, PA
- Redeeming Grace Church – Durham, NC
The first five churches made presentations essentially opposed to SGM polity. The last three churches made presentations essentially supportive of SGM polity. Three more churches make their presentations tomorrow.
The following three polity options have emerged with regard to how SGM may function moving forward.
Option 1: Apostolic ministry is upheld with authority over churches – SGM remains the same.
- “As we’ve [the interim Board of Directors] stated at the [2011 Pastors] conference and in our various polity meetings, we continue to affirm and celebrate our existence together as a family of churches. Although this letter speaks in terms of “the Board,” that is simply a functional term for the governing body of Sovereign Grace Ministries and not an abandonment of biblical principle. Based upon the precedent of the New Testament, SGM is an expression of extra-local ministry that is connected to local churches, emerging out of local churches, endorsed by local churches, and working with local churches, with the goal of planting churches and serving those churches as they grow toward maturity.” (Letter from SGM Board to Pastors, February 24, 2012)
- “An apostolic government is established solidly in the New Testament. It is not an occasional or incidental precedent, but one demonstrated in Acts and all of the epistles. What we see is that the New Testament knows nothing of a local church not tethered in some way to apostolic authority. Whether it is the direct involvement of the Twelve and Paul, or men sent out by them such as Barnabas, Timothy, and Titus, the local church is to be connected to some kind of apostolic oversight.” (Phil Sasser, Daniel Baker, Walt Briley, Jim Martin from Sovereign Grace Church, Apex, NC)
- Read Cotton Candy; Sovereign Grace’s Charismatic Decline and Ever Changing View of Apostles and C.J.’s Conundrum Regarding Apostles for additional insight.
Option 2: SGM becomes a para-church organization with no authority over churches – SGM changes.
- “A non-ecclesiastical, para-church network that exists for the purpose of equipping and strengthening local churches through the production of music, literature, conferences, training and general edification. In addition to this, we see SGM having a vital role in strategizing and supporting the work of church planting and the furthering of gospel mission.” (CLC Polity Position Paper)
- “We could not in good conscience endorse…any non-ecclesiastical body that claims authority and oversight of local churches.” (CLC Polity Position Paper)
Option 3: SGM becomes an ecclesiastical body comprised of elders from all member churches (i.e., a national/international presbytery is formed) – SGM is replaced.
- “An ecclesiastical body with actual and equal representation from each of its member churches, with a scope of authority limited to matters of doctrine, mission, and those matters which are mutually agreed to by its representative churches.” (CLC Polity Position Paper)
- “We could not in good conscience endorse…any type of ecclesiastical body that is not made up of member churches having authoritative representation in ecclesiastical decisions.” (CLC Polity Position Paper)
Three Basic Responses to Option One
The SGM Board, Polity Committee and Leadership Team have no choice but to advance Option 1 if the ministry is to continue. It doesn’t matter that C.J. has renounced this option in the past. He’ll just change his theology. No big deal. Furthermore, the first option is the only option with biblical support. The second and third options have no biblical backing. Options 2 and 3 may be adopted by a new association of churches as a diluted substitute for apostolic ministry but there is no biblical justification for them. They are the inventions of men - neither biblical nor evil.
Option 1 asserts that “apostolic ministry is upheld with authority over churches.” As I see it, there are three possible responses by the churches to this option.
- We believe in apostles and prophets and we also believe in C.J. We are staying.
- We believe in apostles and prophets but we no longer believe in C.J. We are leaving over ethics.
- We no longer believe in apostles and prophets. We are leaving over polity.
A lot of churches like Covenant Life Church and Sovereign Grace Church Fairfax no longer believe in apostles and prophets. They are prepared to leave over polity. This is a sad theological development and I believe the wrong reason for leaving. Here are their position papers on the subject - Covenant Life Church Polity Position Paper and On the Governing of Sovereign Grace Church Fairfax. The second option is the right option. Churches should maintain their belief in apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Eph 4:11) and leave over ethics.
The Reformed Tradition
In this regard, I am sorely tempted to provide a lengthy response from Scripture to both Covenant Life Church and Sovereign Grace Church Fairfax. Their arguments against the on-going role of apostles and prophets do not come from Scripture. They come from the Reformed tradition and the standard fair arguments of cessationists. That is why they quote books for support instead of Scripture in context. They simply don’t put forth arguments found in the Bible. Why? Because there are none! I mean no disrespect, but it is true. That's one of the reasons SGM has been "essentially" Reformed, not entirely Reformed.
The explanations provided for discontinuation are unsubstantiated. There is not a single passage in all the New Testament that teaches the cessation of apostles and prophets either with the death of the last apostle (e.g. John the apostle) or with the completion of the New Testament (i.e., Revelation). Some have tried to use Heb 2:3-4 for the former and 1 Cor 13:10 for that later but that will not do. Hebrews doesn’t teach cessationism and the “perfect” in Corinthians is not the canon of Scripture – it is a reference to the return of Christ. In addition, there is not one passage of Scripture that teaches it was required to be an eyewitness of the resurrected Christ in order to qualify as an apostle except for the original twelve apostles.
CLC and SGCF also claim there were no apostolic successors in the NT. Obviously there were no successors to The Twelve but there were host of other apostles like Paul (e.g. Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, James, Apollos, Epaphroditus, Andronicus, Junias, Titus, Luke, Jude, Sosthenes, Sopater, Aristarchus, Secundus, Gaius, Tychicus, Trophimus, Aquilla, Epaphras, Demas, Crescens). At the time of his death, 20-30 other apostles were associated with Paul. These men worked with Paul and the vast majority outlived him due to his martyrdom. They succeeded him in apostolic ministry. To this they were appointed by the ascended Christ just like any pastor (Eph 4:7-11). Timothy was one of Paul’s successors. Of this there is no doubt. Read 1 & 2 Timothy. He was ordained and gifted to this end (cf. Acts 16:2-3; 1 Tim 1:18; 1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6). These passages don’t deal with his ordination as an elder or bishop but are in relation to Timothy’s role as an apostle.
In spite of my disagreement, I have included selected quotes from their position papers because CLC and SGCF are drawing a line in the sand and many are following their example. Both strongly assert that apostles and prophets don’t exist and churches are autonomous and independently governed with no outside interference or oversight. I’m glad they are leaving but I wish it were over ethical concerns. In any case, a train wreck is in the works.
Apostles Have Ceased to Exist
The SGM Statement of Faith affirms the present day ministry of apostles and prophets. CLC and SGCF no longer do. That means they are in violation of the Membership Agreement they signed with SGM which requires adherence to this tenet.
“The ascended Christ has given gift ministries to the church (including apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers) for the equipping of Christ’s body that it might mature and grow. Through the gift ministries all members of the Church are to be nurtured and equipped for the work of ministry.” (SGM Statement of Faith)
They write in opposition to the SGM position:
- “There is no ongoing apostolic office or hierarchical structure of governance above the local church.” (CLC)
- “Authority vested in an extra-local elder would have to assume apostolic power, which we deny exists since the passing of the original Apostles, outside of their teaching found in the canon of Holy Scripture.” (CLC)
- “Along with Reformed tradition, we affirm, ‘The apostolic foundation of the church and its government does not mean a continuing apostolate. For us it survives, not as an institution, but only in the apostolic word, which remains as the foundation of the church.’” (CLC)
- “While the apostles may have carried the day in the NT times, we believe that office is no longer functioning in churches today.” (SGCF)
- “It is our conviction that the office of the apostle ceased with the death of the original apostles.” (SGCF)
- “Such officers [apostles and prophets] and gifts related to new revelation have no successors since God completed His revelation at the conclusion of the Apostolic Age.” (SGCF)
No Apostolic Authority Exists Over Churches
According to CLC and SGCF, no one has any authority whatsoever over the churches that comprise SGM. Apostles and prophets have ceased; but so too Chairmen and Presidents. They’ve got to go also! On this polity point, a head on collision is coming because the official bylaws vest the following powers in John Loftness and C.J.
“The Chairman shall be a member of the Board of Directors. As the spiritual leader of the Corporation, the Chairman shall have principal responsibility to establish the Corporation’s vision, mission, and priorities.”
“The President shall serve as the Chief Executive Officer of the Corporation. He shall have the general powers and duties of management usually vested in the office of the chief executive and president of a Corporation, and shall have such other rights, duties, and powers as are authorized by the Board of Directors.”
And let’s be clear, “the Corporation is organized as a convention or association of churches” according to the same bylaws. The only way CLC and SGCF stay is if John and C.J. dissolve their job descriptions and become deacons.
They write in opposition to the SGM position:
- “Local churches are governmentally independent.” (CLC)
- “There is no place for non-ecclesiastical, para-church, or quasi-church authority over the church of Jesus Christ.” (CLC)
- “We hold that, according to the New Testament, every local church, governed by its elders, is independent and a complete church. Any theory that demands a legal or binding authority over the local church and its eldership introduces an impermissible hierarchy into the church of Christ.” (CLC)
- “We could not in good conscience endorse…any non-ecclesiastical body that claims authority and oversight of local churches.” (CLC)
- “We find no biblical support for this third office [bishop] nor for an authority structure that exists outside and above the local church. In this sense we join our Congregationalist and Baptist brethren in believing that each local church is independent and autonomous in its governance.” (SGCF)
A Church Association Is Desirable
While dismissing apostles and prophets, Covenant Life Church and Sovereign Grace Church Fairfax both see the value of relating to other churches. There is a new association of churches being discussed and planned as I write. A lot of pastors want this, are asking for this, and are actively pursuing this new cooperative arrangement. A major split is certain in Sovereign Grace Ministries. There will be an alternative to corruption and heavy handedness. For that I am grateful to God!
- “Local churches…should not deny the blessings and obligations of association with other churches. While one local church and its elders have no authority over another, local churches can partner with one another to support the expanse of the gospel and to support one another as needed.” (CLC)
- “It ought to be of utmost importance for believers and local churches to pursue unity and peace with one another, highlighting our spiritual unity in the gospel and where possible demonstrating our unity in practical ecclesiastical cooperation. Therefore, let us celebrate where there is doctrinally sound, gospel ecumenicity and collaboration.” (CLC)
- “This is not to say there is not a place for and usefulness to councils and ecclesiastical assemblies. On the contrary, such connection is clearly taught in Scripture (Acts 15) and, when agreed upon by mutual assent by individual congregations, is desirable to enhance the work of the church. Indeed, it encourages the unity of doctrine, discipline, and worship within various churches and furthers common interests such as the education of ministers and the work of mission and mercy.” (CLC)
- “Because there is biblical precedent for and obvious usefulness in collaborating together as churches for the purpose of doctrinal unity and mission, we affirm the permissibility of local churches formalizing their cooperative efforts. In so doing, it is important to specify the parity that exists between congregations in the structuring of the various assemblies, whether they be called associations, councils, or denominations.” (CLC)
- “We believe it is possible to affirm the independence of local churches, while also affirming the importance and value of connection. In this sense, the independence of local churches is not qualified. We also do not believe that this local church connectedness is rooted merely in some sort of ongoing apostolic ministry but in common submission to the authoritative, apostolic teaching of the New Testament, which binds true churches together.” (CLC)
- “Though we believe our church is to be governed independently and autonomously, this doesn’t mean we should exist without seeking connection and association with other churches.” (SGCF)
- “Paul himself provided much of the ‘glue’ that kept churches connected and while we do not expect his apostolic ministry to continue today, we do expect the Spirit to provide relational connections between churches. These connections may facilitate church planting, provide training for leaders, retreats for members, financial support for congregations in need, counsel for difficult situations, and so on.” (SGCF)
- “Joining together with like-minded congregations, especially those in our area is a vital means of fulfilling Gods call to us as a church. Whatever relationships, associations, and church connections we enter in to, we will preserve the self-governing autonomy of our local church.” (SGCF)
I imagine C.J. and Phil felt their hearts sinking as they listened to the polity position papers realizing the writing was on the wall. A major split was inevitable. The SGM Polity Committee may adopt Phil’s strong position on apostolic government or Jeff Purswell’s weak position on semi-technical apostles – it doesn’t matter. A lot of churches have decided to leave. They have already dethroned C.J. in their theology and hearts. His rule is over for them.
All that remains is time and it may not take 3-5 months. The train wreck could occur sooner. In fact, some pastors are pushing for a quicker timeline. They want to separate from SGM now, form a new network of churches now, and get on with ministry unimpeded by the reproach that is Sovereign Grace Ministries. Hasten the day.
In my next post, I will return to what has always been the most important issue – the ethical demise of SGM. I’ll tackle what has been my central concern from the beginning. The loss of integrity. Members, pastors and churches may leave over polity but everyone should leave over ethics!
Please support my efforts with a financial gift. See A Timely Call to Help the Detwilers. Thank you.
I no longer have a dog in this fight, but wanted to make the point that perhaps the reason CLC and others have chosen there position on not having outside "Apostolic" authority is because that is what they have been burned by.
I think you may be right. CLC and SGCF are probably more influenced by their bad experience with SGM then they’re aware. We tend to change our theology in reaction to bad experiences. The Arminian becomes a Calvinist and the Calvinist becomes an Arminian. The Pentecostal becomes a cessationist and the cessationist a Pentecostal. The Congregationalist an Anglican and the Anglican a Congregationalist. That’s why pure Bible study is so important. So I don’t agree with CLC/SGCF biblically but I do agree with them emotionally.