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Sovereign Grace Ministries Soon to Decide on an Apostolic, Presbyterian or Independent Form of Church Government

The central work of the Sovereign Grace Polity Committee is coming to end.  Praise God!  Churches will soon decide whether to stay or leave.  By the start of the New Year, the dust should have settled and we’ll know how many churches remained or departed.  That also means 2013 could be a good year for those who have fought the good fight and endured to the end.  Next year could mean the turning of a page.  Let’s hope so.    

Last week, Phil Sasser, Chairman of the Polity Committee, posted the following letter on the Sovereign Grace website.  I have interspersed my comments in blue letters


Update from the Polity Committee, letter from Phil Sasser

August 22, 2012

The Chairman of the Polity Committee, Phil Sasser, wrote the following letter to update the Sovereign Grace pastors on the work of the Polity Committee.  We pass this letter on for your information and continued support through prayer. 

Dear Brothers,

Since it has been a while since our last update, the Polity Committee thought that it would be good to let you all know how we are progressing in our work.  The polity presentations in Louisville in July went very well.  There were many excellent presentations made by our pastors on behalf of their elderships.  As you would expect, the meetings were marked by good discussions on the topic at hand, godly demeanor in presentation, and mutual respect in discourse.  We would like to again express our appreciation to all those who presented as well as all of those who wrote polity position papers for their hard work.  It has been very helpful to the Committee to hear your thoughts.

As you would expect, everyone was on their best behavior! 

After hearing the presentations the Committee is now deliberating in earnest over the polity decisions before us.  In addition to our own discussions, we are interviewing leaders from a range of traditions to benefit from their perspective, experience and wisdom. 

Who are those leaders?  Will the Polity Committee reveal their identities and traditions?  Their influence could be pivotal especially if SGM goes with a presbyterian form of polity.  Many of C.J.’s reformed friends are in the conservative Presbyterian Church of America.  This would be a crowd pleaser except for his Baptist friends.  But even his independent Baptists friends will be glad C.J. gave up the notion of apostles.  I hope the Polity Committee calls Terry Virgo of New Frontiers International for a refresher course on apostles and prophets.

We thought it best to tackle the extra-local piece first, i.e. how Sovereign Grace Ministries should be defined and organized and how it should relate to the Sovereign Grace churches. 

It is best to tackle (a fitting description) the extra-local piece first.  It is the central concern of all parties pertaining to polity.  What is the relationship of the extra-local (SGM) to the local (SGM churches)?  If SGM assumes any kind of governing role, however weak, I anticipate half the churches will leave.

The remaining two pieces, a book of church order and rules of discipline, logically follow the more fundamental decision of what exactly Sovereign Grace Ministries is in relationship to Sovereign Grace churches.  We expect to be making those most difficult choices of polity in the coming weeks. 

The end is in sight!  Between now and October 9, the Polity Committee will conclude its deliberation and finalize their recommendation to the Board of Directors.  They are only going to deal with “the extra-local piece first” now.  Once that is decided they will commence work on “a book of church order and rules of discipline.”  The committee is comprised of seven men: C.J. Mahaney, Phil Sasser, Paul Buckley; Bruce Chick; Jared Mellinger; Jeff Purswell; and Matthew Wassink.  There are three basic options on the table.  The option which garners the most votes wins. 

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. 

If Phil is serious about basing their polity upon the clear teaching of Scripture, then we already know the answer to the question regarding how SGM will relate to the churches.  They must adopt the apostolic model.  There is no alternative.  It is the only one with biblical support.  See Sovereign Grace’s Charismatic Decline and Ever Changing View of Apostles; C.J.’s Conundrum Regarding Apostles.  If they go with the prebytertain model they have been reading their Bibles too little and talking to Presbyterian leaders too much. 

It should be noted that there was a wide variety of polity positions that were defended before the Committee during our meetings in Louisville last month.  Given the mutually exclusive nature of the polity options before us, it is clearly not possible to develop a polity that will accommodate every view.  Choices will have to be made.  

The operative words are “mutually exclusive nature.”  That’s kind of like “mutually assured destruction.”  There is no middle ground between cessationists and continuationists.  Someone has to go.  Joshua Harris, Mark Mullery, et al. believe apostles no longer exist.  They are extinct like dinosaurs.  When John the Revelator died on the island of Patmos, apostolic ministry forever died with him.  The Bible does not teach such a theory but so the story goes.  Others like the Chairman, Phil Sasser, believe apostles are alive and well.  He hopes they make a comeback and flourish in SGM.  I’m with Phil on polity.  I could not disagree with him more strongly on his unethical support of C.J.       

We are aware, as I am sure you are, that polity could potentially be source of separation between some, if only a few, of our churches.  Although this is not our desire, it is a possible outcome.  

This is where SGM spin begins in earnest.  This letter was posted on the website.  It is accessible to everyone.  For the first time, SGM introduces through Phil’s letter the idea that some churches may leave.  Here’s the truth, however.  If an apostolic or presbyterian model of extra-local government is adopted a large number of churches are already committed to leave.  Phil knows that is the case.  In fact, all the pastors know it too.  Therefore this reference to a potential separation “between some, if only a few, of our churches” is a lie.  Not a few churches will leave – more like 30 plus churches will leave.  Unless of course, SGM surprises everyone and adopts the “independent polity” and becomes a para-church organization.  Or SGM could become Southern Baptist and fully join up with Al Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY where SGM is now headquartered.  Hey, in a few years C.J. could run to become President of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Sixteen million members.  Dream big.  Al would love it.    

But polity has historically been a basis of acceptable separation between solidly orthodox Christian churches.  And if we separate for these doctrinal reasons, may God grant us the grace to do so in a God-glorifying way.  

Phil is right about this one if you’re only concerned about polity within the generally accepted range of orthodoxy which excludes Roman Catholicism.  SGM churches can separate in “a God-glorifying way” over apostolic, presbyterian, and independent forms of governing because we are not talking about ethical issues.  We are talking about polity differences.  That doesn’t mean this differences are not important.  But herein lays the problem.  SGM is trying to make it sound as though churches are leaving solely over polity.  That is not the case. 

Sovereign Grace is trying to frame the issue.  They know a major division is in the works and it’s not just over polity.  The Board of Directors, the Leadership Team and the regional overseers are working hard to pull off this grand attempt at damage control.  They are putting pressure on the pastors to “leave well.”  That means leaving quietly and not mentioning ethical concerns for SGM.  

As I’ve said before, any church may leave over polity, but every church should leave over the unethical conduct of C.J., Dave Harvey and the Boards, and when they do, they must say so.  A senior pastor cannot tell his church it is leaving over polity when it is really leaving over polity and ethics.  Pastors must be completely honest with their congregations.  That is the only way to leave in a truly “God-glorifying way.”  No half-truths.  See It’s About Ethics, Not Polity Stupid. 

Remember that Sovereign Grace churches have enjoyed a wonderful history of connectivity that will never be erased; even if we no longer share the same governance we will still have much more in common with each other than we do with any other churches or denominations with which we presently enjoy fellowship.  

This is a pompous and presumptuous statement.  It smacks of SGM elitism.  At least half the churches are seriously thinking about leaving over ethics, polity, doctrine and the loss of trust.  There are fractured relationships throughout SGM.  No longer do the pastors find themselves having “much more in common” with SGM than with any other  group of churches in the world.  Phil is falling all over himself trying to minimize how much discord, disagreement and disillusionment exits within Sovereign Grace Ministries.  This statement by Phil must be offensive to many of the pastors.      

In the coming months every church in Sovereign Grace will have to make a decision about its polity and about how it will relate to other churches.  It seems wise then for each eldership to think through how best to prepare its local church for this inevitability.  

Decision time!  Every pastor and church will be affected in one way or the other.  It boils down to two basic choices even though three options are on the table.  Will it be a non-governmental role for SGM or a pro-governmental role for SGM?  If it’s the latter then every church member must decide if they want C.J., Dave Harvey, John Loftness, Mickey Connolly and others providing leadership and oversight for their church.  

It will also be interesting to see how each church arrives at a decision.  Will church members decide the matter?  Or will the pastors decide the matter for them?  Will the pastors allow dissenters to openly and honestly share their disagreements?  Or will church members who disagree with the pastors be silenced and labeled as divisive?  Will the pastors take a tally (if not a vote) of church members to find out how many want to stay or leave and share that information with the church?  Or will that information be covered up if it doesn’t serve the interests of the pastors?  Will pastors genuinely solicit input from members or give the appearance and then do whatever they wish?  Will elderships divide?  Will churches split?  Will new churches emerge? 

The Polity Committee is working hard to not drag the process out too long but at the same time to carefully consider the options and the implications of each option.  The Committee has not yet decided whether to adopt an apostolic, presbyterian, or independent polity.  And there are several variations of each of these basic polity structures that are under consideration.   As noted above, we have also been consulting with other leaders outside of Sovereign Grace in the last couple of weeks and we will continue to do so. 

There you have it – the three options are apostolic, presbyterian and independent.  This really boils down to two choices.  Apostolic and presbyterian involve a governmental role.  Independent means no governmental role.  Covenant Life Church (Harris) and Sovereign Grace Church – Fairfax (Mullery) have already made it clear they are leaving  if SGM has any leadership role whatsoever in directing their church or a network of churches.  Many other elderships have adopted the same position.  For example, the Charlottesville, VA and Sarasota/Bradenton, FL churches have already left over polity differences and ethical concerns though they have been silent in public about the latter.  Another church in SGM will be leaving in the next couple of weeks.  That will bring the total to three.  By my count, that’s a “few.”  It’s not looking good for Phil’s pie in the sky projections.  Though the committee has not made a formal decision on polity; I’m confident they already know how things are going to shake out.  

Here are some relevant definitions associated with presbyterian polity from the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms by Donald K. McKim in order to help you understand that option.  

Presbyterial.  A form of church government where authority for decision making is in presbyteries, composed of clergy and lay elders from local churches.  Presbyteries are  linked to similarly structured larger bodies call “synods” and then to a general assembly.” (p. 218) 

Presbytery.  The grouping of Presbyterian churches in a particular region that assumes governmental oversight over the individual churches through representative elders and clergy.” (p. 219) 

Synod.  In presbyterian forms of church polity, a governing body for a geographical region between the presbytery and the general assembly.” (p. 274) 

General Assembly.  In Presbyterian churches, the annual meeting of elected pastors and elders from each presbytery that forms the church’s highest governing body.” (p. 112) 

Let me simplify for you.  In any given Presbyterian church you have ruling elders and teaching elders that comprise the Session.  Ruling elders are non-ordained laymen.  Teaching elders are ordained clergyman (i.e. pastors).  Together they provide spiritual oversight in a local church. 

On the regional level, you have the Presbytery and the Synod.  The Presbytery oversees a smaller area of churches than the Synod.  The General Assembly is the nationally recognized governing Board for the denomination.  

Take for instance, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  It is the largest presbyterain denomination in the United States and the most liberal.  It has over 11,000 congregations which are organized into 173 presbyteries (district governing bodies) and 16 synods (regional governing bodies).  It also has a General Assembly.   

Therefore you have four levels of elders - The Session, the Presbytery, the Synod, and the General Assembly - each with a higher degree of authority.  All the elders are elected from the bottom up meaning the local church chooses elders for the Session, the Sessions for the Presbytery, the Presbyteries for the Synod, the Synods for the General Assembly.  It is a reversed hierarchy.  

In the Bible, you will not find any such form of church government.  You don’t have national elders ruling over regional elders who rule over district elders who rule over local elders.  This is a man-made tradition.  A false substitute for apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers per the clear teaching of Ephesians 4:7-16.  Furthermore, you cannot use the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 in attempting to argue a presbyterian form of polity (see C.J.’s Conundrum Regarding Apostles, pp. 19-20, 27-28).     

Here’s the main point to keep in mind though.  Half the pastors in Sovereign Grace Churches don’t want any kind of authority over them or their churches.  It doesn’t matter if it’s apostles or if it’s elders.  These pastors now see themselves as the only, highest, and final authority in all matters related to the governing of their church.  They believe all apostles are dead and/or all elders are local.  That means no governing body exists outside or above their local church.            

The timeline has shifted, but only slightly.  The Committee had hoped to make its polity recommendation to the Sovereign Grace Board of Directors at their fall meeting in September.  Due to the schedules of several Board members and Leadership Team members, that date has now been pushed back to October 9-11, 2012.  The Committee will make its polity presentation then.  If the Board approves the polity recommendation it will be sent to all the pastors in Sovereign Grace for their consideration.  

Whatever the Polity Committee recommends to the SGM Board will be passed.  There is no doubt about it.  A mere formality.       

It is our hope to have a period of active discourse with Sovereign Grace pastors in order to solicit their feedback, bring greater refinement, and make appropriate changes before a final polity adoption plan is executed.  Also, the Committee has not yet made a recommendation to the Board on the final adoption plan, since such a plan depends somewhat upon the actual polity that we recommend.  Thank you for your patience on this most important aspect. 

The pastors will be allowed to comment on the form of government approved by the Board.  That doesn’t mean the Board is open to changing its mind.  The feedback will not move the Board from apostolic to independent or presbyterian to apostolic, etc.  Once the polity proposal is approved, it’s set in cement.  Only minor refinements will be made.  How, when and where the final polity plan is executed or implemented has not been formalized.  No recommendation has yet been given to the Board regarding such details.  

One other important observation.  On April 27, 2012, C.J. and Phil sent a previous  letter to the SGM pastors regarding polity.  At the time, they said the following.  “The Board has not yet determined whether the new polity pro­posal will be submitted to a formal vote of the pastors or a less formal process of affirmation.  We realize that this is a significant question, and so we will be intently pursuing the option that will best serve the resolution of our polity process.”  Well after four months, we finally have our answer to this “significant question.”  There will be no vote AND there will be no affirmation process.  This is just SGM.  They just hope you forget the past so you don’t hold them accountable.  The Board of Directors just decided away with both options.  What peeves me is their lack of transparency.  Change your mind if you want but please just be honest for a change!  And then be transparent and tell us why the Board unilaterally approving the polity proposal “will best serve the resolution of our polity process.”  

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. 

I think this last sentence is significant.  Knowing most of the men on the Polity Committee, I think it points to an apostolic view of polity for three reasons.  One, the apostolic view honors Scripture.  There are no independent churches in the New Testament.  There are no elder led denominations in the New Testament.  There are only apostles and prophets.  Men who are called and gifted to preach the gospel, train leaders, plant and oversee churches.  Two, the health of the churches is not served by adopting a polity that leaves them entirely on their own.  Three, apostolic ministry is essential in bringing churches together for a global gospel centered mission.  

The majority of Board Members and Polity Committee members don’t believe independent churches are in keeping with Scripture, well served by their autonomy, or contribute as effectively to a larger gospel mission.  I agree.  Apostolic ministry is not the problem.  Unethical conduct on systemic level by SGM leaders is the problem.  People, pastors and churches should leave because these men cannot be trusted in the exercise of authority over anyone.  Timothy, Titus and Barnabas – Amen!  C.J., Dave and Mickey.  Oh my!  


Phil Sasser on behalf of the Polity Committee 

Once again, thank you for your continued prayers for the Polity Committee, the Sovereign, and our family of churches.  We are most grateful! 


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