My Prediction: Sovereign Grace Ministries Adopts a Combination of Presbyterian and Independent Polity
Apostolic polity is out. A combination of Presbyterian and Baptist polity is in. That’s my prediction. I’m calling it Bapterianism. Of course, I could be wrong. If so, Sovereign Grace Ministries has another reason to stone me. This unique blend will make for another claim to fame – like Reformed and charismatic. It will please Cessationists (e.g. MacArthur), Presbyterians (e.g. Duncan) and Baptists (e.g. Mohler) – all of C.J.’s friends will support it as a blessed novelty. We will find out tomorrow when the Board of Directors reveals their choice.
One reason C.J. relocated Sovereign Grace Ministries to Louisville, Kentucky was in order to build a symbiotic relationship with Al Mohler and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS). Five years from now, I wouldn’t be surprised if C.J. were President of the Southern Baptist Convention (if he’s not sued for covering up child molestation).
“The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was founded in 1859 as the first seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention. Today, it is one of the largest seminaries in the world and trains students from 41 countries and all 50 states. Led by R. Albert Mohler Jr. and served by a world-class theological faculty, Southern Seminary is relentless about the task of training this generation of ministers to preach the gospel and take it to the ends of the earth.” (http://www.sbts.edu/)
C.J. didn’t build this alliance with Al Mohler and the seminary so he could convince them of present day apostles or get the faulty speaking in tongues. Nor, did he deepen his involvement with Mohler and the seminary in order to grow in his charismatic theology and experience. No indeed! I suspect just the opposite has happened – C.J. has become a cessationist. If I’m correct then apostles and prophets are a thing of the past and there is no chance apostolic polity will be adopted. You can’t embrace apostolic polity without apostolic men.
Moreover, you don’t pursue Baptists in order to become full blown Presbyterians. And you don’t adopt Baptist polity in order to accentuate the five-fold ministry of Ephesians 4:11 or the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit. As a result, charismatic experience will decline even more in Sovereign Grace Ministries. When was the last time you read a story on the SGM website about the Holy Spirit coming in power upon a church and people speaking in tongues and prophesying? Or a story about signs and wonders (faith, healing, miracles, deliverance) accompanying the proclamation of the gospel? You have to go back 20 years.
The leaders of Sovereign Grace Ministries are no longer Reformed and charismatic. Just Reformed pastors who happen to lift their hands in worship. If they remain continuists, I’d like to know what gifts continue and in what fashion.
Here’s what Chairman Loftness said in April about SBTS.
“The proximity to Southern Seminary allows us to upgrade our academic offerings, including opportunities for collaboration and potential transfer credit toward a Master’s degree…. As noted above, we are excited about opportunities this will afford us to collaborate with Southern Seminary, which will only enhance our program and facilitate further training for our students and pastors. The Leadership Team will communicate more details in coming weeks.” (John Loftness, Sovereign Grace Ministries Relocation Announcement, April 19, 2012)
Here’s what C.J. recently said about the President, faculty, and seminary.
“Louisville is also strategic because we have the opportunity to benefit from and support an excellent seminary like the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I have a deep appreciation for the superb leadership of Dr. Al Mohler, the president of SBTS—he is both a friend and a mentor in many ways. And the faculty at this seminary is not only impressive theologically, but even more importantly in their love for the Savior. The elders of Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville [C.J.’s new church] are already taking classes, building relationships, and exploring ways to support the ministry of SBTS.” (C.J. Mahaney, Church planter interview: C.J. Mahaney - Louisville, KY, Sept 26, 2012)
C.J. has hitched his wagon to Al Mohler and the crown jewel of Baptist seminaries. Southern Baptist are the largest Protestant denomination in the world and SBTS is their leading seminary. C.J. will continue to make theological adjustments in order to fit in and be accepted by the faculty and SBTS Board of Directors. There will be no talk of apostles. No advocacy for tongues and prophesy. No emphasis on the supernatural gifts. If not full blown theological cessationists, the leaders of SGM have become functional cessationists.
I said the following seven months ago on March 12. A month later, the current Board announced SGM’s relocation to Louisville.
“I assume C.J. and Jeff are moving to Louisville, KY. C.J. to plant a church next to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where Al Mohler is President. Jeff to teach as a Faculty Member at the seminary. It would not surprise me if Bob Kauflin packed up and went with them. Bob would pastor and lead worship in the church and might teach part-time at the seminary. Overnight, the church would be numerical success with Mohler’s support. Seminarians would come in droves. Al would preach there occasionally. C.J.’s wit and insight would wow the crowds. I suspect the SGM headquarters will also move to Louisville but be much smaller. Mohler will help provide for C.J., the church, the headquarters, and the Pastors College. I think the Pastors College with integrate with the seminary in some fashion.” (Brent Detwiler, Cotton Candy, March 12, 2012)
Further access to SBTS is contingent upon C.J. further changing his theology and polity. Open doors for Jeff, Bob and others are largely dependent upon C.J. These men want favorable status with the SBTS Board, the 170 faculty members and the 2,000 students. That’s the goal. Adopting aspects of an independent polity like the Southern Baptists is a big step in that direction.
Seven months ago, the Interim Board wrote a letter to the SGM pastors highlighting their on-going commitment to “the precedent of the New Testament,” “extra-local ministry,” and “the pervasive biblical pattern of gifted men [i.e., apostles] leading the church in its mission.” They also stated in no uncertain terms that the Board was “the governing body of Sovereign Grace Ministries.” I addressed all these affirmations in Cotton Candy on March 12, 2012. The Board clearly stated their continued affirmation of apostolic ministry and plans to “maintain their historical commitment” to apostles.
“As we’ve stated at the [Pastors] conference [in Nov 2011] 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. As such (and as will be noted further below), participants in the new Board will comprise both men serving extra-locally as well as elders of churches partnering with SGM.
“Thus, we will maintain our historical commitment to the pervasive biblical pattern of gifted men leading the church in its mission—planting churches, nurturing churches, and uniting churches in a common mission (e.g., Acts 13:1-3; 15:39-40; 18:27-28; 1 Cor. 16:10-12; Phil. 2:19-30; Col. 1:7-8, 4:12; Titus 1:5; et al). The inclusion of church elders on the board will also honor the biblical precedent of local elders partnering with extra-local workers in leadership and mission (e.g., Acts 13:1-3; 15:6).” (The Interim Board, Letter to SGM Pastors from SGM Board, February 27, 2012)
I believe all this has changed. No longer will they “continue to affirm” or “maintain [their] historical commitment” to apostolic ministry. Such belief based upon “biblical principle,” “the precedent of the New Testament,” and “the pervasive biblical pattern” is over.
Furthermore, C.J. will introduce some aspects of Presbyterian polity into SGM polity even though he didn’t move SGM to Jackson, Mississippi – home of Reformed Theological Seminary and First Presbyterian Church where C.J.’s friend, Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III, is the Senior Minister. Presbyterian polity is rather complicated. It has a 4 tiered hierarchy comprised of elders with increasing authority. The local eldership is called a Session made up of ruling elders (laymen) and teaching elders (pastors) voted into office by the church. All the Sessions in a district elect elders to a Presbytery. All the Presbyeries in a region elect elders to a Synod and the Synods elect elders to the national General Assembly. The General Assembly provides national leadership. The Synod regional leadership. The Presbytery district leadership. The Session local leadership.
I don’t think SGM will adopt this polity in entirety but they will allow the pastors to vote on some issues and there will be a layered hierarchy. It will be interesting to see if the Board of Directors, the Leadership Team and the Regional Overseers are all elected by the pastors or whether one or more group is appointed by another group. For instance, will an elected Board of Directors appoint the Leadership Team without a vote of the pastors?
As importantly, how much authority will these three groups have over the churches? If considerable, then the “elders” on each level are effectively apostles. Yes, they may be elected apostles, but they will have leadership roles over the churches. This won’t be acceptable to those pastors who believe local churches are independent, autonomous and strictly self-governing.
I expect the polity adopted by the Board will be confusing, contradictory and without clear biblical support. It will be a strange amalgamation of theological constructs. For instance, Tommy Hill just wrote in relation to the class action lawsuit that “SGM churches are separately organized and constituted in their respective communities. They voluntarily partner together for certain aspects of their broader common mission: to plant churches, develop resources, train pastors and serve international ministries.” (Updated Statement on Reported Lawsuit, Oct 28, 2012). Tommy is attempting to legally distance SGM from pastors who are negligent, criminal, or guilty of malfeasance in order to avoid lawsuits like the one they are facing. It won’t work. See Cotton Candy for the legal relationship between SGM and SGM churches.
On the one hand, SGM wants to legally distance itself from SGM churches in order to avoid class action lawsuits. On the other hand, they want to maintain some control. That is why there will be confusion. Baptist polity says churches are autonomous. Presbyterian polity says there is oversight at the district, regional and national level. Sovereign Grace will try to combine the two. Of course, this is illogical but logic has not been a strong suit for a while. Instead of a Convention like the Southern Baptist or an Assembly like the Presbyterian Church; Sovereign Grace will come up with a Consemply – an oxymoron to be sure. Churches will be independent and dependent. I guess that means they are co-dependent. Pun intended.
The Board of Directors, Leadership Team and Polity Committee have moved away from developing “a polity that is consistent with Scripture” to a polity “we hope will provide the great majority of us, if not all of us, with a definition of how we can walk together as a family of churches.” Notice the progression in the following statements from Scripture to pragmatism.
Letter to SGM Pastors from C.J. Mahaney and Phil Sasser re. Polity
April 27, 2012
“Our approach will be to ask what we believe are the most important questions related to our polity, to search the Scriptures for the answers, and to develop a polity that is consistent with Scripture.”
Update from the Polity Committe, letter from Phil Sasser
August 22, 2012
“Please continue to pray for us that we will be led by the Holy Spirit as we seek to base our polity upon the clear teaching of Scripture and to use prudential wisdom in those areas that are not as clear or where there is greater freedom…. We are grateful for the many who have been praying for this process as well as those who have worked hard to provide wise biblical input. We are trusting God to lead us into a future polity that will honor Scripture, serve the health of our churches, and best promote our gospel mission together.”
Board Update: A reasoned response to six questions
September 14, 2012
“Right now, our attention is primarily devoted to producing a polity document that we hope will provide the great majority of us, if not all of us, with a definition of how we can walk together as a family of churches.”
The focus has shifted from Scripture to pragmatism. Choose a polity the majority of churches can live with and a polity cessationists, Presbyterians, and Baptist can’t argue with. Bapterianism (add it to your dictionary of theological terms) will be eclectic enough to please everyone. No apostles. No prophets. Just pastors and teachers and almost forgot, evangelists, at least in theory.
I believe the SGM Board, Leadership Team and Polity Committee have several goals for changing their polity. First, to keep churches from leaving SGM over polity. Second, to maintain control over the denomination. Three, to allow limited autonomy (which is a contradiction of terms). Four, to please the Reformed and Baptist community. I had more hope in June that Phil Sasser and his committee would build their polity around Scripture. Not now. With Bapterianism they can kill four birds with one stone. Very efficient.
Jesse Jarvis is the senior pastor of Sovereign Grace Church of Daytona Beach. With the full support of the church, he recently ended their partnership with SGM over ethical concerns. One of those concerns surrounded “Denominational Accreditation and Peer Affirmation.” On July 27, Jesse wrote the church about SGM’s desire “to have a name for itself.” I could not agree more.
“Denominational Accreditation and Peer Affirmation – There has seemed for some time to be a desire within the Leadership Team of SGM to have a name for itself among the big names of modern Evangelicalism. At the May 25th meeting the South East Regional Elders had with C.J., Mickey Connelly, Jeff Purswell and Tommy Hill this was not only confirmed but was clearly the most exciting thing to those men. The affirmation they are receiving (particularly C.J.) from denominational leaders like Al Mohler, Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan and John MacArthur seems to be their greatest felt strength. This is part of the motivation to move SGM headquarters to Louisville and for CJ to plant there, etc.” (Jesse Jarvis, Letter to SGCDB, July 27, 2012)
Pastors and leaders from the 14 Florida churches (now down to 11) were in attendance at the May 25 meeting with the SGM Leadership Team. The overwhelming majority of them agreed with Jesse’s assessment.
Three weeks ago, Tommy Hill, the fourth member on the SGM Leadership Team, alerted everyone that “a number of substantive amendments to our governing documents” were likely. That’s because you can’t adopt a Presbyterian and independent polity without making radical changes to the Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws.
Changes to our Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws
September 27, 2012
“On behalf of the Board, I [Tommy Hill] am writing to inform you of Sovereign Grace Ministries’ plans to update its governing documents. As you know, we are in the midst of a structured process across our association to re-examine our polity and the implementing governing documents. This process we expect to conclude in the next year and will likely result in a number of substantive amendments to our governing documents [the Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws].”
Last week the SGM Board of Directors posted “Board Update: Polity Proposal.” It follows with my comments are in blue lettering.
Board Update: Polity Proposal
October 16, 2012
"This past week the Sovereign Grace Ministries Board of Directors met to consider the polity proposal presented to us by the committee we appointed this past Spring. We made some edits but largely adopted it as presented, so as it stands it is substantially complete and close to being ready to send to our pastors for their comment and review. We plan a ninety-day review period during which time we will engage SG pastors for their comment, making appropriate changes at the end of the process. Then we will prepare a final document to put before our pastors for a ratifying vote. Details on the adoption process will be in the polity package we’ll send out later this month."
There’s a lack of clarity in this update. That’s intentional. The Board is holding their cards close to the vest.
Here’s my best attempt to explain the Board’s esoteric meaning. The polity proposal was “largely adopted.” It is “substantially complete.” That implies “the new governance structure” is a done deal for all practical purposes. Adopted seems to mean it’s been officially approved and accepted by a vote of the Board under the current Bylaws.
The pastors have until the end of January to “review” and make “comment” then “appropriate changes” will be made as determined by the Board. These will be minor refinements. Nothing substantial.
What is a “ratifying vote”? That’s the big question. We won’t know for certain until tomorrow when the Board reveals the entire “adoption process.” That is, how the edited polity proposal will be ultimately adopted. Remember, the unedited proposal has already been adopted by the Board without a vote of the pastors. I think that will change will the final version.
I think the Board will delegate to the pastors the authority to legally and officially approve or reject the edited polity proposal. The current Articles of Incorporation and the Bylaws don’t allow the pastors to determine or finalize polity unless these legal document have been radically rewritten. The SGM pastors are not authorized to ratify the polity proposal.
One of two things is meant by a “ratifying vote.” The SGM pastors will actually be empowered to vote on whether or not the new governance structure is adopted. I assume by a simple majority (51%). In such case, the pastors will have final authority. This implies some form of Presbyterian and independent polity has been adopted.
Or, the SGM pastors will be permitted to express consent, affirmation and agreement but their opinion will have no binding authority. The Board retains final authority and can adopt and implement the new polity without majority support from the pastors. This implies an apostolic model has been adopted. I don’t think this is the case.
"This week we are incorporating the SGM Board’s edits. Next week we will get a review from theologians outside of SG to see if any aspect of it could have unintended consequences which we missed. Our plan is to finalize edits by October 27, get one last approval from the Board, and then send it to our pastors electronically October 28. We’ll also have hard copies at the Pastors Conference where we will take a session to explain the thinking behind it in its entirety and in its individual parts. That session will include a time to interview members of the Polity Committee as well."
Who are these outside theologians? I believe they represent a cross section of C.J.’s Presbyterian and Baptists friends. Certainly men like Al Mohler, Russell Moore, and Thomas Schreiner from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Also Presbyterians like Ligon Duncan. I guarantee none of these “outside theologians” believe in apostles. They’d be fired or removed from ministry if they did. These men have been reviewing the polity proposal and providing input to C.J. and the Polity Committee in order to avoid any “unintended consequences.”
I think SGM wants the churches to be independent but not too independent. I think SGM want to yield control but not too much control. If true, those are the unintended consequences they are trying to avoid. Bapterianism is their best shot.
"This new governance structure is much needed and our thanks goes to the Polity Committee whose members toiled in meetings and in private to give us structures for relating to each other as pastors and pursuing our mission together. No polity can replace truth and love, but appropriate polity, applied with humility, can provide us with structures which will support life and growth and the pursuit of our mission together. This is our hope and our intention. Please pray for wisdom to create a governance that pleases God and pray that when we finally adopt it, we will have the humility to apply it by grace."
I think the “new governance structure” will affirm the independency of churches but that should not be equated with an absolute freedom to believe and act in any fashion. The SGM Board will put structures into place to control the Pastors College, ordination, the Statement of Faith, church membership, funding, and the overall mission. We find out tomorrow.
Covenant Life Church and Sovereign Grace Church of Fairfax committed to leave SGM during their July polity presentations if Sovereign Grace Ministries adopted any kind of governance over their churches be it apostolic or Presbyterian. But in reality, polity is a moot point. Irrelevant at this late date. Additional pastors and churches have already decided to leave over abusive leadership practices and unethical conduct by the Leadership Team, the Interim Board and the current Board. Not even Bapterianism will keep them in the fold.
Much grace to you all,
The Sovereign Grace Board
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