Is Our Church Partnership Biblical?
This is the second post in a series on church partnerships. Read the first post.
Here is the way the New Testament is not written: “Then Paul reviewed the ordination guidelines that had been forwarded to him and had a robust discussion with the Ordination Committee. Meanwhile in Jerusalem, Peter drafted several proposed changes to the Book of Church Order related to church plants in Macedonia and sent them via messenger to the Director of Church Planting in Antioch. And having nothing else to do on Malta, John did the thankless task of reviewing and preparing the minutes from the last Council of Elders.”
Quite obviously, this paragraph is not in the New Testament. Yet, these are pieces of our church government in Sovereign Grace Churches. So how did we get here? If our deep desire is to build churches that are faithful to the Scriptures, and modeled to some degree after churches in the New Testament, how did we end up with all these elements?
Ultimately these questions force us to the most fundamental question about church government and polity: “Is it biblical?” Perhaps you’ve asked this question yourself and, if so, I want to encourage you that it is the right place to start.
What I cannot do here is reproduce the arguments for our polity listed in our Book of Church Order, and really, you should stop reading this post right now and go read those arguments instead. Instead, what I aim to do is provide the basic steps you take to get from Scripture to our Book of Church Order. It’s also important to note that I’m focusing here very specifically on extra-local church partnership and interdependence. I strongly believe that the local church’s identity and government and mission must be lived on a local level through wise application on that level. Yet we must also be clear about church life beyond the local church, so that is what I’m focusing on here.
First, we recognize the clear model of interdependent churches in the New Testament.
In reading Acts and the letters of the New Testament I believe it’s impossible to conclude that local churches were to live autonomous and completely separate lives. Here are just a few places I see a clear interdependence in the New Testament:
- Theology –– The gathered leaders from a wide variety of churches brought reports and made theological decisions in Acts 11:1–18 and Acts 15:1–21. Then they sent letters with these theological decisions to other various churches (Acts 15:22–35). The New Testament is filled with letters from men in some churches writing about theology to people in other churches.
- Government –– In 1 Peter 5:1–5, Peter exhorts and charges the elders in a group of churches. In Titus 1:5, Paul gives specific governmental direction as he charges Titus to appoint a plurality of elders in each church.
- Mission –– In Antioch, we see that pastors from one church are sent out (Acts 13:1), picking up help from other churches along the way (Acts 16:13; 18:18), and then return to strengthen the original church (Acts 15:35).
Through the unique leadership of the apostles (like Peter and Paul) we see a beautiful picture of interdependence in the early church. Some of what we see in the New Testament is simply unrepeatable without the unique authority of the original apostles, but it’s impossible to deny the overall shape and example of New Testament interdependence.
Second, we constantly strive to be as biblically faithful to that model with the tools passed on to us.
Now we come to a crucial sticking point. Many denominations are built around a nearly complete independency, and many independent churches look at the New Testament and say, “It was nice when the apostles were around, but now every church should be completely independently governed and, at best, cooperate with other churches.”
Here is where we part ways with many friends. Because rather than seeing this kind of interdependence as a relic of a bygone era, we see it as a vital pattern passed on to the church and seek to fulfill it as faithfully as we can with the tools given to us. My friend Ian McConnell says that the picture of local churches we see in the New Testament is not simply a monument to admire but a model for us to emulate. We do not have the apostles and their unique church-planting gifts, but we still seek to plant churches. We do not have the apostles and their unique Spirit-empowered gifting, but we still pray for the sick. We see the beauty of churches working together in the New Testament and, rather than asking, “Why even try without the apostles?” we ask, “How can we be as faithful to the pattern of Scripture we can with what was passed on to us?”
I also think that there are hints at the trajectory of this interdependence beyond the apostles. Here are a few:
- Theology –– It seems clear that Timothy had a unique ability and authority to do some things because of his mandate from Paul—and that from Paul’s unique role. But Paul writes, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). Paul intends not just for Timothy to pass this teaching on, but for Timothy’s protégés to pass it on, and the pattern is to continue beyond them.
- Government –– In Acts 15, all the elders in Jerusalem were present and were clearly part of the deliberation and the decision. If only the apostles met and made decisions, we could conclude that only apostles could do so. Instead, we find the opposite––that “the apostles and elders were gathered” (Acts 15:6).
- Mission –– It seems clear in Acts 18:24–28 that Apollos was not an apostle. But it’s also clear that he is discipled by some in a local church and sent on to other areas to help support other local churches (19:1). This kind of example models churches working together to deploy men to advance the gospel, but without the direct initiative or intervention of apostles.
Additionally, while the example of church history is not definitive, it is helpful, and it should also matter to us that, in the early church after the apostles, we see that the church aimed (albeit imperfectly) for interdependence. The goal was to build together in theology, in some aspects of governance, and in mission. So, this aim should affect us and our churches.
Third, we constantly strive to apply clear scriptural principles to areas that are less clear with wisdom and discernment.
I do not think it’s a stretch to say that, when it comes to the government of the local church, some of our questions are answered very clearly, but other questions are not answered as clearly. So what do we do? We start with what is clear, then seek to apply that with God-given wisdom. For example, there are very clear commands from Paul that elders must fit the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:5–9. We simply do exactly what the Bible commands.
Or do we? This command raises many other questions not directly addressed in those passages: What’s the step-by-step process for testing the character of elders? What training should an elder have? Such questions illustrate that, while we must cling to what is clear in God’s word, applying those clear instructions forces us to develop specific applications of these things.
Here are some very specific aspects of our church government as we seek to obey the Bible:
- Our judicial committees and process seek to answer the question, “How do you apply scriptural principles about accusations against elders and accusations in general in real life situations (e.g. Matthew 18:15–20 and 1 Timothy 5:19–21)?”
- Our church planting committees and processes seek to answer the question, “How can we plant churches in our 21st century world that are faithful to the New Testament example?”
- Our Leadership Team seeks to answer the question, “How do you effectively lead a group of interdependent churches forward in our mission to plant and water churches?”
Fourth, we constantly strive to become more faithful and wise in our church government.
One of the things I love most about our Book of Church Order is not what is in there now, but what will be there 10 years from now. One of the greatest gifts our polity gives us is a wise and judicious and scripturally faithful way to make changes now and in the future. Why? Because we have not arrived. We should not think that, after centuries of church government, we have finally nailed it—that we have found the holy grail of church polity. We are trying to be as faithful as we can and—by God’s grace—we do think it’s a good polity. But we know that, as we study the Bible, we will be constantly reformed by it and we want to embrace this precious reality. We hold our church government firmly, but humbly—always under the authority of the infallible word of God.
As I write this post, I’m preparing for our annual Council of Elders meeting, and I thank God for it. When I sit in a room with representatives from churches across the world, when we pray together, when we debate theological issues as we ask for God’s wisdom, when we plan for the furtherance of the mission, I see the shape of the New Testament churches. I see men being deployed for ministry and churches linking arms to plant new churches. This work excites me. And it leads me to pray that God would make us as a family of churches into an ever better picture of His bride until He returns.
- Read our Book of Church Order, especially the first few sections giving biblical support for our government.
- Read other related resources on our polity page.
- Read Paul Buckley’s excellent posts on how having extra-local leadership functions does not kill the role of our own local church leadership and governance: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
Photo from Shutterstock.
Ricky is the lead pastor at Cross of Grace Church in El Paso, Texas. Additionally, he serves on Sovereign Grace’s National Church Planting Group. He and his wife, Jenn, have two sons.