Recently Sovereign Grace Churches (SGC) went through the process of writing and adopting a new polity. This polity is carefully defined in our Book of Church Order. In our polity we define things like the office of elder, how elders are to relate to one another and the church, how elders are ordained, accountability for elders, how local churches within our denomination are to relate to one another, how local churches should walk through separating from our denomination, and processes for dealing with the discipline of church members, local elders, and local churches. If you were to ask me about the value of such a document ten years ago, I would have scoffed at the need for such detail, probably making a comment about being charismatic and not needing to be tied down by all of the red-tape and bureaucracy of a denomination. Having gone through a tough stretch in our denomination over the last 5 years, my tune has changed. I not only see such documents as valuable, I see them as essential for the long-term health of any denomination.
However, with structure comes rules and processes. Rules and processes take time, and they are inherently less flexible. As a result, adopting a polity of this kind creates a tension between adhering to rules and procedures and the desire for immediacy, particularly when it comes to carrying forward the mission of the church.
Joe Church Planter lives in a strategic, un-churched area of the country where we have been chomping at the bit to plant a church. He is gifted, educated, and already has a core group of folks regularly gathering who are fully on board with planting a church in their city. Joe Planter also shares the values and vision of SGC, and really wants to plant a church with SGC. Then he reads our BCO and discovers there are more than a few hoops for him to jump through if he wants to plant a church with SGC. He will need to build a relationship with one of our regional leaders, get plugged into the national church planting process, walk through a period of mutual evaluation, walk through the ordination process, put together by-laws that are in compliance with our BCO, receive approval from the Regional Assembly of Elders (RAE), and then he can plant a church. Say whaaa?!
Good grief, people, don’t you know we are on mission here?! This guy is educated, gifted, in a high need area, and has a core group that is fired up. This thing is ready to go. The harvest is plentiful, the laborers are few, and you want to delay for how long in order to satisfy the requirements of your BCO? Why all this red-tape? Why all this bureaucracy? In upcoming posts I am going to be addressing a number of items from the BCO, but I wanted to start with one mentioned above, ordination.
Of all of the processes outlined above, ordination is likely the longest one. Why, when the mission is so pressing, when Joe Planter’s life is full with preparations for a plant, would we ask a man to take 6-12 months to study for and walk through our ordination process prior to planting a church with us? Here are 3 reasons.
Elder’s Lives Matter.
Elders are not called to be superhuman. They are by no means perfect. However, they are called to lead their churches by teaching the truth of God’s Word while living lives that exemplify that teaching. When pastors fail morally, they have a disproportionate impact on the spiritual well-being of those they care for, and mar the name of Christ before a watching world. It is worth taking time to examine the lives of our elders to make sure, as far we are able, that their lives meet the requirements of 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1.
It’s possible to be so distracted by the minutia of doctrinal distinctives that we miss the forest for the trees. However, it is also possible to so downplay doctrinal understanding and clarity that we inadvertently diminish the glory of the God we are on mission to proclaim. It is my subjective assessment that, often in the name of mission, we can downplay, even deride, the importance of theological training and clarity. We rush the process, thinking that, “all that matters is the gospel.”
To put it another way, once Joe Planter has planted, his church is growing, and his obvious ability to gather and charismatically lead are on full display, what will be the content of his messages week after week? What will the teaching diet of his church look like? How will he help his church process the death of a child, a terrorist attack, infertility, and human sexuality? How will he winsomely answer questions about how men and women relate in the church and in the home? Will he know the questions to ask when a couple comes to him and says they have both been divorced and would now like to marry one another? The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. That includes maturing, and caring for existing disciples who need elders that are doctrinally sound and able to teach and pastor them through all of the various struggles of this life.
Doctrine matters because it is the content every elder draws from when leading, teaching, and pastoring God’s people. Our mission is more than gathering new disciples and starting new church. It is also the maturing and deploying of existing disciples. The training and doctrinal clarity of elders is what will give longevity and stability to any movement of churches seeking to be on mission for Christ.
Polity Gives Him a Voice.
Our polity vitally connects us to the other churches within SGC. When a man is ordained, he is not only vested with authority to lead his local church, he is vested with authority to influence the direction of our denomination. The reason every man is examined by elders in the region, and is finally voted on by the Regional Assembly of Elders, is because that man, once ordained, has an equal voice with every other elder in that region. He can serve on committees that rule on judicial matters, work to plant churches, examine and put forward candidates for ordination. He also has a national voice, serving on our Counsel of Elders, national committees. He even has the ability to propose changes to our Statement of Faith. Much is entrusted to a man once he is ordained within SGC. Joe Planter’s connection to SGC is more than relational support, denominational branding, and much needed funding. He is a full participant in the extra-local life of SGC. Doctrinal unity and clarity are vital to ensuring the long-term health of SGC.
Mission is pressing, but the costs of not carefully walking through the process of ordination are too high. Lord willing this elder is in ministry for decades, and his church will likely far out last his ministry. For decades to come, he and his fellow elders, will shape their church and life extra-locally within SGC for decades to come. When the 12-18 process of ordination and preparation for planting are weighed in the balance against the value of moral purity, doctrinal clarity, and extra-local unity. Slowing down, asking the right questions, and walking through the process is well worth the time invested. And in the long run moral failure, doctrinal drift, and disunity are far more costly to the mission than the 12-18 months it takes to carefully walk through a church planting and ordination process.