I had a conversation recently which drew my attention to the question once again: does the Acts 29 Network insist its networking churches/church plants possess a elder-ruled, presbyterian-like governing polity, or does it allow for congregational church polity as is found in our Baptist heritage? Let's take a look... >>>
From the Acts 29 Network website, we find the covenant established between an Acts 29 church's elders and the Acts 29 Network: "As an Acts 29 church, our elders covenant together according to the following":
- We agree that our church will meet all biblical requirements for elders, including that our church will be led by a plurality of qualified male elders... .
- We will give primary funding consideration (of our remaining 9-10%) to Acts 29 approved church planters at the discretion of our local elders... .
- We acknowledge that we will be participating in the spirit and not the letter of this principle and that our elders will determine what will be the healthiest course of action for us to remain a multiplying church on mission in our context (//link, all embolden here and below added for emphasis)
From the covenant agreement, we find that the Acts 29 Network insists, at minimum, that church plants and Acts 29 churches possess at least two particular ecclesial notions: a) an elder-led model; and b) a plurality of elders within the elder-led model. So far as the second notion goes, while insisting on a "plurality of elders" model may be perfectly acceptable in a more "Reformed" ecclesiological structure, a "plurality of elders" model hardly exists as a necessary or even desirable ecclesial notion within our Southern Baptist heritage--at least since 1925 . In other words, Southern Baptists have hardly been the cheerleader churchmen for either promoting or practicing a "plurality of elders" model. Please understand: it's not that one cannot find Southern Baptist churches adhering to elder plurality. Rather, it's that elder plurality is surely the proverbial exception which proves the ecclesial rule among Southern Baptists.
If I am correct, many--perhaps even most--Southern Baptists would have real concerns about, for example, NAMB monies sponsoring church plants which do not simply practice a "plurality of elders" model, but are required to practice a "plurality of elders" model. North Carolina pastor, Tim Rogers, raised a similar question in a piece entitled, "Acts 29 and Annie Armstrong Easter Offering."
Even so, while there is little, if any, confusion about what Acts 29 Network conveys concerning elder plurality, confusion exists pertaining to the first requirement listed in the covenant--an "elder-led" model. Again, the Acts 29 covenant reads, "our church will be led by a plurality of qualified male elders..." If by "elder-led" the Acts 29 Network means to convey the well-worn distinction between "elder-led" churches and "elder-ruled" or "elder-governed" churches, then the confusion lessens or perhaps even ceases, and so should the concern raised by dedicated Baptists who rightly want to preserve our rich ecclesiological heritage of biblical congregationalism. In short, a church could be elder-led and retain its congregational polity whether the church is single elder-led or plural elder-led.
On the other hand, if Acts 29 Network means to convey by "led by a plurality of elders" the much stronger sense of "elder-ruled" or "elder-governed," then there exists a tension which simply will not cease between the church polity Acts 29 Network possesses and the undeniable, all-but-universal congregational ecclesiology of churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. It is my belief, given what we can check from the on-line documents, that Acts 29 Network does, in fact, convey the stronger sense of elder-rule, elder-governed churches, and for that reason alone, Acts 29 Network church plants should not be recipients of Cooperative Program dollars under any circumstances. In other words, if Acts 29 Network church plants received Cooperative Program monies, Southern Baptists would, in effect, be supporting the establishment of churches with ecclesial polity more similar to Presbyterian tradition than Baptist tradition.
Let's tease out my notion that Acts 29 Network conveys the stronger sense of "elder-ruled" instead of "elder-led."
First, even though the covenant uses the language of being "elder-led" and not "elder-ruled," the recurring language which follows the initial statement of the church/church plant being "led by a plurality of qualified male elders..." clearly cancels out the softer notion of "elder-led" and supports the stronger, unacceptable ecclesial notion of "elder-ruled." For example, not only the funding decisions are made at the "discretion of the elders, " but also the healthiest course of action in remaining a church on mission is determined for the church by the elders. There is not a syllable which pertains to the congregation at all. Indeed, the covenant itself is a covenant with the elders not with the church/church-plant. Hence, the beginning phrase "led by a plurality of elders" seems to be very much muted when so much emphasis is placed on elder authority. In short, the pond is drained from merely being led by elders, and all that remains is the ecclesial mud of being ruled by elders, a notion definitively at odds with historic Baptist ecclesiology.
Second, and even more significantly, we find in the general information section concerning Acts 29 Network, its philosophy of ministry, and Frequently Asked Questions even stronger language which makes it clear Acts 29 Network promotes and insists upon elder-ruled, elder-governed churches/church plants.
- We believe local churches should be governed by godly husbands and fathers who are biblically qualified elders serving under the Lord Jesus Christ who is the Head of the church
- This [missions] money is not sent into Acts 29, but rather distributed by the elders in a local church directly to the church planter(s) that they [i.e. the elders] decide to assist… Acts 29 does assess church planting candidates and provide recommendations to the local church elders but it is ultimately the decision of the Acts 29 local church elders to approve funding a church planter
- A successful church plant is self-governed by biblical elders
- Acts 29 church planters and their elders covenant together according to the following essentials…
- We will give primary funding consideration…at the discretion of our local elders
- We acknowledge that we will be participating in the spirit and not the letter of this principle and that our elders will determine what will be the healthiest course of action for us…(//link)
There is no language in these statements which give the impression Acts 29 Network promotes or encourages any other ecclesial polity than elder-ruled, elder-governed notions. Local churches are "governed" by elders with ultimate decisions made by "local church elders." The successful church plant is self-governed by elders. Once again, we have strong language which negates the idea of simply being elder-led and not elder-ruled or elder-governed. Free church congregationalism--i.e., Baptist ecclesiology--exists nowhere in the language Acts 29 Network employs to describe its philosophy of local church polity.
Hence, if such is not enough to demonstrate that Acts 29 Network churches/church plants embrace local church polity very much resembling classical Presbyterianism and fundamentally contrary to free church ecclesiology, clear language remains a hopeless pursuit indeed. And, for those who continue to question those who've expressed concerns that some are attempting to steer us toward a more "Reformed" ecclesiological path, the evidence is there to examine.
Recall Dr. Ed Stetzer served on the Acts 29 Network board, and Dr. Kevin Ezell (president of NAMB) supported an Acts 29 Network church plant before becoming NAMB's president. Now we have Annie Armstrong Easter Offerings supporting at least a few Acts 29 Network church plants in the northeast. Couple all this with Dr. Danny Akin on the one hand suggesting in Christianity Today “we’ve been watching them [Acts 29 Network],” comparing SBC missions to a “monstrous aircraft carrier” while Acts 29 Network is a sleek “speedboat,” with Dr. Al Mohler on the other rhetorically asking, “When you're looking for theologically vibrant, healthy models that lead to growing churches, where else are you going to look [other than Acts 29]?"* (//link). What is one supposed to conclude?
Now here is the challenge I offer: place all this in perspective with *the* sole, exclusively nationally-attended convention-wide Pastor’s Conference stacked to the nose-bleed section with Acts 29 Network guys and still honestly suggest with a straight face Brad Whitt was blowing smoke about the possible "presbyterian" presence being subtlety promoted in the SBC.
With that, I am…
*Mohler included, as did Akin, Tim Keller in the mix for stellar examples of missions success —yet another Presbyterian, however…