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Commentary on Paul Buckley's "Why We Won’t Hand Over Control of Our Churches"

Paul Buckley is the Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors for Sovereign Grace Ministries.  He was also one of seven members on the Polity Committee that wrote the Sovereign Grace Book of Church Order.  He excluded these notable facts from this article and his biography below.  Paul is also smart.  He has a PhD from The Johns Hopkins University and attended schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  

For all these reasons, I cannot fathom Paul’s inexplicable ignorance in this post which appeared yesterday on the SGM website.  Paul is totally misinformed about his own position as a Congregationalist and he badly misrepresents the actual polity of SGM of which he is so familiar.  What Paul has written is theologically inaccurate and terribly misleading.  

Here is part 1 of his three part series.  It was entitled “Paul Buckley: Why We Won’t Hand Over Control of Our Churches [Part 1].”  My comments are interspersed in blue letters. 


Handing Over Control? 

I [Paul] know some pastors have been wrestling with the issue of handing over control of their church to an extra-local ministry.  As a committed Congregationalist, in terms of extra-local polity, I thought it might be helpful to share my perspective for what it’s worth.  I share as a fellow pastor who has been deeply involved with the formation of the polity proposal.  I am not speaking for my brothers on the polity committee or the committee as a whole.  However, they are all aware of my views and believe they are compatible with the current proposal.  As a matter of fact, our committee represents a spectrum of views on polity held together by common values and a common agreement on the function of our polity.  I hope my thoughts somehow help you process through the current polity proposal, particularly if you share a concern for transferring authority outside the local church. 

Paul is dead on in his first sentence, “I know some pastors have been wrestling with the issue of handing over control of their church to an extra-local ministry.”  That is exactly what Sovereign Grace Ministries demands in the SG Book of Church Order.  They impose upon the local churches a governing structure that is entirely unbiblical – one that requires churches to relinquish massive control to SGM.  

But Paul is dead wrong when he refers to himself as a “committed Congregationalist.”  He is nothing of the sort.  The Polity Committee proposed, and the Board of Directors adopted, an extreme and oppressive form of Presbyterianism.  Every seminary trained pastor and theologian knows that Presbyterianism and Congregationalism are mutually exclusive.  It is impossible to say you are a “committed Congregationalist” and remain in SGM.  I could cite a dozen reference works from my library that prove the point.  Let me cite three.  

The first comes from the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms which is the leading reference work today on theological definitions in Reformed Christianity.  The second comes from the Leon Morris, one of the most renowned theologians of the 20th Century.  The third citation from the helpful Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms. 

Congregational form of church government.  A form of church government in which governing authority is with the local congregation, which is autonomous and independent.” (Donald K. McKim, WDTT, p. 58) 

Congregationalism.  Added to this is the emphasis on the local congregation in the NT.  There, it is maintained [by Congregationalists], we see autonomous congregations, not subject to episcopal or presbyterian control…. Congregationalism is much wider than the church that bears the name.  Baptists, for example, usually have congregational polity.  They see the local congregation as independent and not subject to any outside authority.  So is it with several other denominations.” (Leon Morris in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p. 24) 

“Congregationalism.  A system of church government that assumes that Christ’s authority comes directly to the local congregation.  As a result, decisions in matters of faith and practice arise primarily if not solely out of the local congregation’s corporate reading of Scripture.  Today most congregationalism is “democratic” in the sense that the will of the majority of the people in the congregation constitutes what the local church believes and practices, and determines who should serve as its leaders.” (Stanley J. Grenz, David Guretzki, & Cherith Fee Nordling, PDTT, p. 29)

Paul goes on to say this about the other six members of the Polity Committee.  “However, they are all aware of my views and believe they are compatible with the current proposal.”  That is another absurd statement.  The “current proposal” is diametrically opposed to Congregationalism.  At every point, it is a frontal assault on the independence and autonomy of the local church.  To be autonomous means to be self-governing and self-determining.  The SG Book of Church Order demands subservience and obedience without exception to all its doctrines, practices, and rulings.  You only need to read it to know I am not exaggerating in the least.

But let me add another note.  I am aware that the SGM Board of Directors, National Leadership Team, Regional Leaders, and Polity Committee are all attempting to convince naïve pastors throughout SGM that you can believe in the primacy of the local church and still remain in SGM.  That Congregationalism and the SG Book of Church Order are compatible.  That is a lie.  They are blatantly incompatible.  But their spin is working in some circles.  They have even duped Mr. Buckley and he is gladly passing it on to others in this post. 

Paul concludes his opening paragraph with the statement, “I hope my thoughts somehow help you process through the current polity proposal, particularly if you share a concern for transferring authority outside the local church.”  Paul is no “committed Congregationalists”; he is an “apostate Congregationalists” because no Congregationalist would ever transfer governing authority to an outside agency like SGM.  The moment you do so, you cease to be a Congregationalist.  You have renounced your polity beliefs in practice.

Paul makes references to “some pastors have been wrestling with the issue of handing over control of their church to an extra-local ministry” and “share a concern for transferring authority outside the local church.”  That is a gross understatement.  Many pastors and members are concerned about putting SGM in charge of their church.   

I have sought to be as concise as possible but have realized I can’t share my thoughts in just one blog post.  This current post will be the first of three.  I really hope and pray you will find them helpful.  I fear my thoughts might come across like reading a dumb version of John Owen – lots of words but little insight, but if a few guys are helped in processing the polity proposal that will plenty. 

The Pastor's Charge 

First off, as long as I am called to pastor, I can never hand off my call to care for and lead my local church.  I believe the elders of a local church carry a unique and solemn charge to pastor and give account to God for the souls of all the members of their particular local church.  The biblical evidence for this call is compelling, clear and sobering (see 1 Peter 5:1-4, Hebrews 13:17, Acts 20:28, 1 Corinthians 3:10-17, 1 Thess. 2:19-20 Ephesians 4:11-16, Colossians 1:28-29, 1 Timothy 3:1-7, 4:16, & 5:17-25, Titus 1:5-9, James 3:1, etc.)  Just as I would not hand off my call to be a husband to my wife and a father to my four children, I will not hand off my call to pastor my local church, so help me God.  So why would I ever think it would be appropriate for my church to join a union of churches that involves delegating some aspects of my pastoral duties to someone else?  Isn’t this a violation of our solemn call to pastor our people?  Isn’t this handing over control of our church to someone else?  As a pastor with fervent Congregational convictions, why would I choose to join Sovereign Grace Ministries? 

Paul completely contradicts himself in this paragraph when he says, “I will not hand off my call to pastor my local church” but then says he will delegate (i.e. hand off) “some aspects of my pastoral duties” to SGM.  After this he claims again to be “a pastor with fervent Congregational convictions” but he is nothing of the kind if theological terms mean anything and believe me, they do!  You cannot do theology without precise definitions.  It is much like the practice of medicine.  Words mean everything.    

Here are 3 of 8 reasons, somewhat overlapping, that compel this Congregationalist leaning pastor to join this union of churches: 

Another contradiction.  Is he a “committed Congregationalist” or a “pastor with fervent Congregationalist convictions” or a “Congregationalist leaning pastor?”  It doesn’t matter.  Not even a pastor that leans as badly as the Tower of Pisa would ever sign onto the highly regulated and intrusive polity of SGM that clearly controls its churches.       

1) My church needs the accountability, advice and assistance of other elders and churches.  I don’t trust myself enough and I don’t trust our eldership enough to think that we can navigate through all the ups and downs of pastoral leadership on our own.  We need help.  We need others who are wrestling with the same issues and have experienced God’s grace in leadership in such a way that they can offer us some help and advice.  We need to lock arms with other pastors who will ask us the hard questions and stand by us through the storms.  We need to create relationships with other pastors and churches that are not merely informal associations but partnerships that can carry the weight needed to help us and call us to account when the going gets tough.  We need a family of churches that will pool our resources and commit to each other over the long haul so that we can forward and sustain our mission to plant gospel centered churches and reach the nations.  We can’t do these things on our own and we can’t do these things without a substantial degree of trust and cooperation. 

First, Congregationalists believe that Jesus Christ provides each local church with all the resources necessary to govern themselves.  That includes extensive accountability to the congregation by the pastors.  In fact, the pastors are elected by the congregation.  Paul repudiates both these basic premises.  

Second, SGM is not putting forth a polity designed to “offer us some help and advice.”  They have put forward an all-encompassing polity where they define all acceptable limits of theology and practice.  In addition, they require obedience to all the decisions and rulings rendered by a plethora of governing bodies (e.g. the national Board of Directors, national Council of Elders, national Leadership Team, national Court of Appeal, regional Assembly of Elders, and regional Judicial Review Committee).  These decisions and rulings are binding upon every pastor and church without exception.  The governance structure proposed by SGM is a vast hierarchy with extraordinary powers.  It is not what Paul describes above.  SGM pastors are even required to take a vow of obedience before Almighty God. 

“’Having prayerfully and soberly considered this agreement, we solemnly pledge to actively support and whole-heartedly submit to the mission, values, statement of faith and Book of Church Order of the union of churches known as Sovereign Grace; and we call to witness Almighty God who searches our hearts and to whom we will give account on the Day of Judgment.’ 

“The elders of the joining church shall record their pledge by signing a copy of this Partnership Agreement and pledge.  This document will be kept in archives by Sovereign Grace Ministries.” (SG Book of Church Order, p. 32) 

Third, contrary to Paul’s assertion, informal associations between pastors and churches can provide adequate accountability, advice and assistance.  Fourth, no one should embrace the kind of “accountability, advice and assistance” practiced by the leaders of SGM.  Their leadership culture is destructive and contributed to the harm of many individuals and churches.  Fifth, none of the current leaders in SGM are trustworthy.  They have repeatedly lied and deceived.  It continues unabated.  These are proven facts.  This post is but another example of manipulation and misrepresentation. 

2) Our participation will always be voluntary.  The polity proposal makes no claim on our churches’ assets.  Neither does it seek to prevent our church from leaving for any and every reason.  The association is from start to finish entirely voluntary.  Now, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t a substantial association.  We are granting permission to this union of churches to perform certain appropriate extra-local functions and we are committing to certain theological and polity principles.  We are even allowing others to make statements about our departure if they deem it divisive or heretical.  Such concessions are important if we want this voluntary association to have “teeth” to it and not be something we can easily join or leave without any real commitment or consequence.  But none of this takes away the clear and unwavering voluntary nature of the association.  This commitment is at the core of why I believe this current polity proposal is acceptable for one who holds to the primacy of the local church and the need for it to exercise ultimate authority. 

Paul says, “The polity proposal makes no claim on our churches’ assets. That is partly true.  If you leave SGM, they won’t take your church building or bank accounts from you.  But SGM does require every church to ideally give 10% of their income to the denomination unless it secures permission to give less.  And if you plant a church with SGM money you are expected to pay it back if you leave. 

Then he says, “Neither does [the polity proposal] seek to prevent our church from leaving for any and every reason.  The association is from start to finish entirely voluntary.”  This statement is completely untrue!  The Book of Church Order is explicit and absolutely forbids a church from leaving “for any and every reason.”  The exact opposite is true.  You can only leave SGM “in dire or exceptional circumstances or situations” that are approved by the Regional Assembly of Elders.  Otherwise, the Assembly promises to strongly rebuke and publicly censure the departing church and its pastors. 

“In protecting the reputation of Christ every church should make a concerted, vigorous, and lasting effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace modeling the love of Christ in its given communion of churches by only withdrawing from such fellowship in dire or exceptional circumstances or situations. 

“Therefore, the elders of SG member churches willingly agree that, should they feel compelled to withdraw their local church from association with SG, they will follow the Separation Process articulated in the Book of Church Order.  Should their Regional Assembly of Elders deem their reasons for withdrawal good and sufficient, they will release the local church with its elders from the obligations of membership in SG with blessing and commendation.  Should the Regional Assembly of Elders deem the church’s reasons for withdrawal bad or insufficient, the Regional Assembly of Elders will censure the church’s eldership for divisiveness.  The member churches with their elderships affirm the duty of the Regional Assemblies of Elders to act thusly.” (SG Book of Church Order, p. 16) 

Lastly, Paul says in this paragraph, “This commitment is at the core of why I believe this current polity proposal is acceptable for one who holds to the primacy of the local church and the need for it to exercise ultimate authority.”  This is unbelievable.  Anyone reading the SG Book of Church Order quickly realizes that SGM has primacy in determining doctrine, practice, and mission.  No pastor can possibly hold to “the primacy of the local church” and affirm SGM polity.  

Furthermore, Paul is absolutely deceived or deceiving when he says his local church will continue “to exercise ultimate authority.”  That is roundly and repeatedly shown not to be the case in the polity proposal.  The SGM courts, councils, committees, boards, leaders, and assemblies “exercise ultimate authority” in every major sphere of church life!     

3) Relationship or partnership always involves some level of cooperation and trust.  I think if we agree that we need other churches and we are not absolutely independent we automatically decide to cooperate in some substantial way.  Once we make this commitment it is really just a matter of how substantially we cooperate.  Any voluntary partnership necessarily involves some commitment of trust and resources.  Some partnerships require a very low level of cooperation, others ask for something more.  Your participation in your fantasy football league is probably pretty low cost to you.  Your participation in your family is hopefully much higher in cost.  But at whatever level we participate in something, we are always sharing our trust and resources to create a genuine relationship and partnership.  The more trust and resources we exchange the more we can do in partnership.  On the other hand, if we reduce or withdraw our resources and trust we end up with no true association.  It is nonsensical for someone to both claim absolute independency and at the same time believe in association.  They are mutually exclusive.  If we believe in voluntary association it is simply a matter of the degree of how much trust and resources we extend.  I believe this polity strikes a healthy balance of exchanging the trust and resources needed for effective partnership without overstepping the primacy of the local church. 

I would not advise anyone to invest in SGM even the little they may expend on their fantasy football league.  Paul says, “The more trust and resources we exchange the more we can do in partnership.”  That is true but you don’t share your resources with people you cannot trust.  Sovereign Grace Ministries is utterly untrustworthy and they have done nothing to earn back the trust they have lost.  In fact, every month for the last 18 months, they have repeatedly said and done things that have caused a greater erosion of trust.  SGM is less trustworthy today than at any time in its history. 

Paul’s final comment, “I believe this polity strikes a healthy balance of exchanging the trust and resources needed for effective partnership without overstepping the primacy of the local church.”  The only way Paul can get away with such an outrageous statement is if no one reads the SG Book of Church Order 

SGM doesn’t overstep the primacy of the local church; they trampled it underfoot like the Gentiles did Jerusalem for 2,000 years (cf. Luke 21:24).  The primacy of the local church is destroyed by SGM polity.  A church’s liberties and freedoms are taken away.  Its roles and responsibilities are removed and assigned to outside agencies.  If the current polity is ratified, SGM churches become captive to the most oppressive governance structure I know of in Protestantism today.  It is there to see for yourself.  

Paul insists in his title that Congregationalists like himself will not “hand over control of our churches.” That is pure nonsense.  The day he signs the Partnership Agreement and pledges allegiance to the SG Book of Church Order, he unquestionably turns over the control of his church to Sovereign Grace Ministries.  

All that I have said is treated at length in Sovereign Grace Ministries Puts Forth 5 Tiered Hierarchy with 7 Distinct Governing Bodies (October 29, 2012) and especially pages 7-14 in Sovereign Grace Ministries Aborts Simplicity of New Testament Polity (November 4, 2012).  

[Part 2 and 3 will follow next week]

Paul Buckley has a PhD in material science and an M.S. in material engineering from Johns Hopkins University.  He has served in pastoral ministry for eleven years.  For the last ten years he has served as the founding pastor of King of Grace Church in Haverhill, Massachusetts.  Being in the Boston area Paul has had opportunity to teach at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and serve as a pastoral mentor for M.Div. students. 


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