The Fellowship Polity Draft

The Fellowship of Presbyterians (about whom I’ve written here and here) released drafts yesterday of the polity and theology documents that will guide their January gathering in Orlando. This post will lift up the most prominent characteristics of the polity draft.

I tweeted my highlights of the document on my first read-thru, and you can see those quotes here.

Here’s what the document looks like as a wordle:

Clearly the local congregation is the most important entity in the polity that will shape the Fellowship’s New Reformed Body. Fellowship leaders have said as much, and they’ve been accused of being Congregationalist in their polity. They’re rebutted that claim. At the very least, it’s fair to say that this polity draft establishes that its most important function is to serve the mission and ministry of local congregations.

For comparison’s sake, here’s what the PC (USA)’s Form of Government looks like as a wordle:

Congregation is one of the most prominent polity element there too.

Some of the highlights of what congregations do in this polity:

  • receive, hold, encumber, manage, and hold property: 4.0101(a)
  • prepare required annual review and mission narrative documents for the presbytery: 3.0103(m)
  • request transfer or dismissal from their presbytery or from the New Reformed Body at a called congregational meeting: 1.0503(d)

The other big element in this polity is the presbytery. It defines a presbytery not as a “corporate expression of the church” as in the nFOG of the PC (USA), but as a “covenant community” of congregations. That may seem a pedantic distinction, but I think its significance lies in the fact that, as it does with members of congregations, the Fellowship polity makes voluntary participation in a covenant the substance of participation in a church body.

The presbytery also has a much more active role to play for the Fellowship in the coaching and encouraging of its pastors. The mechanism for this is a peer review process (2.0402) that must be completed at least annually by every installed pastor. The substance of the review is pastors’ health and  future ministry goals, as well as the sharing of best practices and insights.

The controversial stuff about church denominational affiliation pops up in the fifth chapter, titled “Ecumenicity And Union.” What’s described there is a process by which congregations or presbyteries may affiliate with the Fellowship’s New Reformed Body through a union arrangement or by joining a new entity called an Affinity Network. The process laid out requires a 2/3 majority vote of either the congregation or the presbytery respectively, as well as the consenting judgment of the PC(USA) body to which it is currently subject. And in the case where PC(USA) and Fellowship rules butt heads, “the less permissive rules shall govern”(5.0202 and 5.0203).

A few other interesting tidbits:

  1. There’s no General Assembly. The Synod is the highest council in the NRB
  2. Pastors “ordinarily” shall hold an MDiv. degree from an accredited seminary
  3. No CPM: presbyteries come up with their own credentialing and calling mechanism for pastors
  4. Members of congregations are called “Covenant Partners” (see note about presbytery membership above)
  5. Honorably Retired pastors can’t vote at presbytery

Finally, a word about the Essential Tenets. I’ll review those next, but they appear in the polity draft often and they clearly play a unifying role. The Fellowship clearly expects members of churches, congregations, elders, deacons, and pastors to adopt the Essential Tenets they’re laying out, and even to do so “without hesitation” (2.0103c). The lack of a uniform theological standard has been a constant critique of this group, and this polity draft clearly intends to establish the Essential Tenets document as the norm to which everyone must subscribe in order to belong.

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