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Fall 1991 · Vol. 20 No. 2 · pp. 102–13 

The Church Growth Theory and Mennonite Brethren Polity

Responses by Marvin Hein 20/2 (1991): 114–17; and Herbert D. Neufeld 20/2 (1991): 117–20.

J. B. Toews

The Mennonite Brethren Church is a renewal and missionary movement rooted in the sixteenth century Anabaptist tradition. The centrality of renewal has focused Mennonite Brethren theology in soteriology and ecclesiology.

A modified presbyterian form of governance emerged in Anabaptism.

Evangelism and mission express the heartbeat of Mennonite Brethren people. The emphasis on evangelism and church growth in the Church Growth Movement has an affinity with Mennonite Brethren. Some theological and pragmatic emphases of the movement, however, create concern. This paper focuses on the leadership theory and practice of the Church Growth Movement in relation to Mennonite Brethren polity.


The term “polity” describes the way in which a church is governed. The post-reformation era gave birth to several structures of polity. 1

The Episcopal Polity-the Governance of the Bishops

In the Episcopal system the primary unit of the church is the diocese, a district {103} or province of churches. Each diocese is governed by a bishop. Every church belongs to the diocese and is accountable to the bishop of the diocese. Episcopal polity emphasizes the offices of the church to which leaders are appointed or elected. It makes sharp distinctions between minister-clergy and lay persons. Clergy often have the sole authority to govern the local church.

The biblical basis for the polity is the Jerusalem model of leadership, the leadership of the Apostles, especially Peter and John, and James. The polity is practiced in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Episcopalian churches.

Presbyterian Polity-the Governance of the Council of Elders

The primary unit of the church is the presbytery. Every church belongs to a presbytery and is accountable to the presbytery. The governance of the presbytery is by a body of elders, namely, ruling and teaching elders. The ruling elders are lay persons; the teaching elders are ministers. The teaching elders, the ministers, do not belong to the local congregation but to the presbytery.

The same model holds for the governance of the local church-a body of elders composed of lay elders and the ministers of the church. Clergy and laity are distinguished on a functional, not a sacramental basis. The Presbyterian model is based on the letters of Paul. The emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit rather than fixed offices is important for this polity. So is the New Testament language about “elders.” Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Methodists follow this model of governance.

The Congregational-Local Church Governance

The primary unit of the church is the local congregation. Each congregation is self-governing and claims local autonomy in all matters of faith, doctrine and governance. By definition, a local church recognizes no authority outside of itself. The form of local governance varies greatly. Local autonomy means each congregation is free to order itself as it chooses. It stresses the gifts and the Priesthood of all believers. In theory there is no clergy/laity distinction.

The Congregational model arose in England. It emerged in the struggle with the monarchial episcopacy of the Anglican {104} church. Baptists and independent churches have followed this model.


The early Anabaptists accepted the teaching and examples of the New Testament church as normative. While considerable freedom and flexibility were given to the working out of the New Testament teachings and examples, the principles of the interdependence and accountability of believers with each other and of churches with each other was central to Anabaptist-Mennonite polity. The church as the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12) was central in the formation and practice of this polity.

A modified presbyterian form of governance emerged as the polity of this movement. The primary church unit is the conference of churches. The Conference serves as the authority for all churches on matters of theology, common mission, ordination of ministers and inter-church relations. The local church is autonomous on local church matters. A bishop or elder system provided leadership within the Conference and in local churches. The role of the bishop or elder was not rooted in the Catholic or Anglican tradition of succession, but in the pastoral letters (e.g., Titus 1:5). Senior ministers and leaders were chosen from within congregations.

The priority of the Conference led by bishops reflected a presbyterian type polity. The local church was part of an organism and organization that was larger than, and prior to, the local church. This larger body of churches was led by a body of elders. The presbyterian quality of Anabaptist-Mennonite polity was modified by strong congregational and lay involvement in conference decisions and in local church decisions. The congregational process for the selection, affirmation and function of the leadership reflected this strong congregational and lay involvement in the governance of the church.

There have been some shifts in the shape of Mennonite governance structures in recent decades. Some Mennonite groups have moved from the bishop or elder system to a conference minister structure (e.g., Mennonite Church, General Conference, Mennonite Brethren). Others, such as the Brethren in Christ, have strengthened the bishop system. But all continue to practice a modified form of presbyterian polity, {105} strong conference and centralized local leadership together with strong congregational involvement in church governance.


The Larger Pattern

Mennonite Brethren church polity has historically reflected the modified presbyterian polity of the larger Anabaptist-Mennonite movement. The constitution of the Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches in North America clearly states that the primary unit of the church is the Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. “The Conference includes all churches founded on the Confession of Faith... and. . . the Conference shall have the right to make the final decision in all matters that relate to the united activities and the common welfare of the churches.” 2

Each local church belongs to the Conference: the General Conference, the national conference (Canada and United States), the district (U.S.) or the provincial (Canada) conference. The Conference in session (at each level) has the authority to make final decisions on all matters of faith, common church welfare and mission. Local churches are to accept as binding decisions made by the Conference(s). 3 The biblical basis for this structure is found in Acts 11 (the report to Jerusalem of the establishment of the Antioch churches), Acts 15 (the Jerusalem Conference and the report of the decision to the churches), and 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 (the common practice in all the churches).

The Conference(s) at each level is led by a council of elders, known formerly as the Board of Reference and Counsel and more recently as the Board of Faith and Life, or the Council of Boards. The Boards have the authority to hold the local churches accountable and intervene in local churches and agencies in cases of special needs. 4

Mennonite Brethren governance has always followed a modified presbyterian polity. It has never been congregational, as claimed by some in recent years. Local churches belong to, and are accountable to, the Conference(s); they are autonomous only in the governance of local affairs. {106}

Local Church Polity

Historically Mennonite Brethren local church governance consisted of leadership by a body of elders (1860-1950s). The leadership and the ministry was always multiple. Leaders, whether “elders” or “brothers” or “leaders,” were chosen from within the congregations. Leadership was chosen on the basis of giftedness and service within the congregation. People gifted in teaching, administration, evangelism and the deaconate were recognized from within the church. Opportunity for the exercise of these gifts was given within the regular fellowship and ministry of the church. After a time of testing the gifts and the consistency of life according to the scriptural standards for the leadership ministries, people were formally recognized as a gift of God to the church. Confirmation as servants of the church in ordination was recommended to the conference. The local church, together with the Conference, ordained such people.

The Board of Elders (usually called Altestenrat or Vorberat), consisting of the ordained leaders of the church, provided the leadership of the local church. The governance structure was fairly hierarchical. The power of the hierarchy was always qualified by two factors: 1) authority was shared, and 2) there was strong congregational involvement in deliberations and decision-making. Furthermore, because the leadership body had emerged from within the church, the leaders had earned the confidence and trust of the membership. Time-tested service and earned trust provided the basis for authority.

In some congregations persons who were not ordained as ministers or deacons, but had gained the confidence of the membership as models in faith and life, were added to the leadership team. The leader (chairman) of the elders was always viewed as an equal in the leadership group. In larger bodies, where the deaconate required a larger number of deacons, a board of elders often functioned as an executive committee. 5 The elders were the guardians of Scripture in nurture, fellowship and watchcare for the life and needs of the flock. The exercise of authority was implicit, guided by the word, “Thus says the Scripture.” {107}

Changes in the Basic Model

Until the 1930s in the United States and the 1950s in Canada, the ministers and elders in local churches were bivocational people. With the transition from an agrarian to an industrial, professional and commercial culture, the need emerged for paid pastoral leadership. For many years the context of a multiple ministry model remained in tact for this new full-time ministerial leadership. This transition to paid leadership provided the occasion for repeated testing of the biblical teachings on leadership. The official position of the Conference on the character and model of leadership as recorded in numerous conference resolutions continued to be that of multiple leadership. A clear preference was given to the emergence of this leadership from within the congregation. The importance of the spirit of servanthood and mutuality was stressed even more than before. 6

The basic model of local church governance began to change with the introduction of the paid pastoral ministry. The structural change was from the elder system to a church council model in the 1930s in the United States and in the 1950s in Canada. The dislocations of people brought about through immigration and the Depression, as well as the professionalization of the ministry, disrupted the organic spiritual process of leadership development within local churches. People in growing urban communities no longer knew each other as well, and pastors preferred more centralized forms of church leadership. Church councils began to emerge as an alternative form of church governance. Church council polity offered a representative form of leadership. Leaders came from the various programs within the church, e.g., Christian education, youth, music, deaconate, board of trustees, etc. The model was functional in character. The tenure of membership was limited to specific terms, one, two, or three years. 7 By virtue of its composition, its functional character and the brevity of tenure, the church-council form of governance had less authority. The process of selecting church leadership became more democratic, and authority shifted to the pastor. The collective responsibility for the spiritual nurture, watchcare and leadership was lost. The pastor became the center for all of these responsibilities. Church history will describe this model as a provision for pragmatic leadership which {108} accommodated itself to the dominant cultural milieu during the second half of the twentieth century.

In recent years some Mennonite Brethren churches have returned to a board of elders model. The return to this earlier model is very much a part of a search for responsible authoritative church leadership. In the absence of established organic processes to restore leadership from within the churchly community, various approaches have been used to reestablish the eldership pattern. The transition to eldership with authority has been rather rapid in some churches in order to break existing spiritual plateaus. In the absence of integral spiritual relationships with the congregation, giftedness and leadership talent have now become strong factors in the selection of elders. Church Growth Theory has had a major influence in these developments. The need for the change from the church council (democratic) leadership to a more biblical model is urgent.


Church Growth Theory defines itself as “that science which investigates the planting, multiplication, function and health of the churches as they relate specifically to the effective implementation of God’s commission to make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19-22). “It strives to combine theological principles of God’s Word concerning the expansion of the church with the best insights of contemporary social and behavioral sciences” based on the foundational work of Donald McGavran with focus on the homogeneous principle as reflected from his missionary ministry in India. 8

Church Growth does not claim to be an ecclesia. Its theology-the relation of biblical truth and social science principles-by its own definition is selective according to “the concerns of church expansion.” It is a theology of function. The effort to integrate the social science paradigm into a consistent biblical theology has proven difficult. Mennonite Brethren, committed to biblical theology, question a hermeneutic that selects passages that prioritize evangelism, (e.g., “The church must grow”), without an equal emphasis on discipleship (e.g., “The church must be and do” Matt. 5-7, Luke 10:25-37). Delos Miles, while recognizing the contributions of the movement, correctly concludes that the functionalism, {109} fantasy and pragmatism of the movement lacks theological consistency. 9

The polity of Church Growth Theory is designed for success in outreach and growth. Centralized pastoral leadership is defined as the key for vision and motivation in the assignment. 10 Church Growth theorists provide the following definition of leadership that will be effective for growth: “This army has only one Commander-in-Chief, Jesus Christ. The local church is like a company with one company commander, the pastor, who gets the orders from the Commander-in-Chief. The company commander has lieutenants and sergeants under him for consultation and implementation, but the final responsibility for the decision is that of the company commander, and he must answer to the Commander-in-Chief. . . . If you believe God has called me to pastor this church, then you follow me.” 11 The pastor has the power in a growing church. Or, as Robert Schuller puts it, “Let there be no dodging of this issue, Pastor. Do you hear me? You should be the sparkplug. You should be the inspiring commander leading the troops up the hill.” 12 The military paradigm requires no interpretation. It contains no biblical grounding or qualification. The reference to Jesus Christ as the Commander-in-Chief is hardly the language Jesus or the New Testament uses to describe his leadership style.

The leadership model is clearly highly centralized and autocratic. The pastoral role is defined as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a corporation or the commander of an army. The broader functional task of this leadership is provided in numerous publications. 13 The autocratic model of leadership as expounded in this literature places an important emphasis on motivating and training lay leadership to reach people for Christ and the church. The effectiveness of such centralized leadership is illustrated in many examples of local churches which have experienced phenomenal numerical growth.

Two observations, however, need to be added. The examples provided do not offer the needed data on the quantitative growth in relation to the spiritual qualities resulting from such growth. Secondly, the literature does not contain any reference to known crises in churches which resulted from the over-emphasis on church growth. The stories of major leadership reversals and radical declines in numerical membership are not described, let alone assessed critically. 14 {110}

The Mennonite Brethren’s experience with the Church Growth model of autocratic leadership has been both positive and negative. Such churches, especially those located in geographic areas of rapid population growth, cultural diversity, and industrial and economic expansion, have experienced significant growth. But the jury is still out on the overall impact. The record of numerous and devastating leadership casualties as well as spiritual and numerical reverses in congregations is cause for cautious assessment and critical review.

Stories illustrate a Problem

Several negative stories illustrate the problem. Congregation A experienced a growth of 175% over a ten-year period. A leadership crisis and change resulted in a loss of 51% of the membership. Some members of the church interpreted the disruption in church life and loss of membership due to 1) a preoccupation to reach the community weakened the focus on the spiritual nurture of the church fellowship; 2) the growth was too rapid for the social and spiritual integration of new people, especially new people from non-Christian backgrounds; and 3) the loss of spiritual vitality within the body found expression in leadership tensions and resignations. The church reports a gradual and difficult recovery. Transitional leadership has assisted in the healing process. The church is growing again today with a strong emphasis on nurture and integration. Church growth that is not rooted in spiritual nurture and community building does not create healthy churches.

Congregation B is a fifty-year old church with a history of 14 different pastors. One of the pastors with a tenure of over ten years was a gifted evangelist. The church grew 130% under his leadership. The years following his resignation were difficult. Membership dropped by 48%. The church experienced much disunity; pastoral tenures averaged only two years. In a meeting with a group of leaders in the church some fifteen years after the resignation of the “evangelist pastor” the following assessment was offered: “The pastor who brought significant growth to our church was a good pastor. We loved him. He was our leader. He was the church. When he left there was no leadership and there was no church.” Church growth that is centered in the pastor does not build strong, stable and enduring churches. {111}

Congregation C was a small church with sixty members. A gifted evangelist became the pastor. The church grew 460% in ten years. The leadership was centralized and autocratic. When some leaders in the church began to question the pastor’s centralized leadership patterns, the pastor resigned. Seventy-four percent of the members followed the pastor out of the church. The remnant has struggled for survival, and is only now beginning to reach out again into the community. A highly centralized pastoral ministry did not build corporate leadership nor did it build the church as a body.

The three Mennonite Brethren churches operated with a Church Growth theory of leadership. Leadership was highly centralized and the church grew rapidly. Each church experienced a severe crisis because of an over-emphasis on numerical growth and because of a leadership pattern that centered in the pastor rather than in the corporate leadership of the church. 15

There is a leadership crisis in Mennonite Brethren churches, as in the Christian church throughout the West. This crisis has led to a search for the restoration of effective leadership. Pastors under pressure of plateaued churches are groping for alternatives. The Church Growth model with its emphasis on authoritarian autocratic leadership and the responsibility of the leader to train his own leadership team-the Board of Elders-has become an attractive alternative for many Mennonite Brethren pastors.

Mennonite Brethren polity affirms the necessity of clear and strong church leadership. Leaders (always plural) are responsible to guide the congregation in mission, nurture and the “up-building” of the body. The leadership always proceeds in consultation with the congregation. The process of dialogue, fasting, and prayer to recognize God’s will leads to consensus. Spiritual unity and consensus in the church are prerequisites to effective mission and sustained growth. The leadership of the church must always lead so that it can be said of the whole church, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” Such a leadership model is clearly different than both the highly centralized pastoral polity of Church Growth Theory and the democratic principle of majority vote. {112}


The Church Growth movement’s emphasis on numerical growth is a healthy corrective to Mennonite Brethren churches with their rhetoric of evangelism, but often limited evangelism and growth. Mennonite Brethren churches can learn much from the church growth movement about how to move churches into a more effective evangelism and missionary commitment.

The modified presbyterian form of Mennonite Brethren polity calls for strong local church and denominational leadership. Such leadership is necessary to focus a missionary vision and to implement such a vision. The more unchurched the North American culture becomes, the more intentional church leadership will need to be in teaching and modeling both a missionary strategy and a strategy of nurturing and incorporation so that the church will grow wholistically.

The military paradigm of church leadership in the Church Growth movement is foreign to Mennonite Brethren polity. The modified presbyterian form of Mennonite Brethren polity must always be qualified by strong congregational and lay involvement in church governance, and by the biblical characterization of shepherd and servant leadership. The norm for church leadership must always remain the teachings and models of the New Testament, where leaders are the servants and shepherds of the people, not military generals or CEO’s. Churches with servants who lovingly lead the people will grow in the late twentieth century just as they did in the first century.


  1. The section on polity depends heavily on a presentation by John E. Toews to the New Pastors’ Orientation sponsored by the General Conference Board on Faith and Life, Fresno, January 20-23, 1991.
  2. Constitution and By-laws of the Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Churches (adopted at the 55th Session of the Conference, August 7-11, 1981), Article II, Section 1, p. 15.
  3. Ibid., Article III, Section 1, Local Autonomy, p. 15.
  4. Ibid., Article IX, Section 4, p. 23.
  5. In Russia the larger churches such as Ruckenau, Alexanderthal, and Tiege, and in North America, such churches as Reedley, Coaldale, Yarrow, and Hillsboro, functioned with an executive of the Board of Elders.
  6. General Conference Mennonite Brethren Yearbooks: 1948, pp. 106-108; 1951, {113} pp. 130-143; 1972, p. 14. Study papers, sponsored by Board of Reference and Counsel of the Mennonite Brethren General Conference, 1980: “Call and Ordination to the Ministry” by Victor Adrian; “Leadership Styles for Mennonite Brethren Churches” by John E. Toews; “Current Issues in Leadership” by Herbert Brandt. Pacific District Conference Year Book, 1983, pp. 18-22.
  7. A survey of leadership patterns in Mennonite Brethren Churches for the last two decades records an average of 3-4 years for a complete turnover in church council membership, including the pastor. Questionnaires were sent to all the churches to determine pastoral and church council tenure. A second survey tested these findings with district and provincial conference records.
  8. C. Peter Wagner, “Recent Developments in Church Growth Understanding,” Review and Expositor 77 (1980) 509.
  9. Delos Miles, Church Growth-A Mighty River Broadman, 1981, 144-146.
  10. C. Peter Wagner, Your Church Can Grow. Glendale: Regal, 1976. C. Peter Wagner, Your Church Can Be Healthy. Nashville: Abingdon, 1979; C. Peter Wagner, Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow. Glendale: Regal, 1979; Win Arn (ed), The Pastor’s Church Growth Handbook Pasadena: Church Growth Press, 1979.
  11. Wagner, Your Church Can Grow, 65.
  12. Ibid., 67.
  13. Donald McGavran and George G. Hunter III, Church Growth Strategies That Work, edited by Lyle E. Schaller. Abingdon, 1980; Peter Wagner, Your Church Can Be Healthy, edited by L. E. Schaller. Abingdon, 1982, 4th ed.; C. Peter Wagner, Your Church Can Grow.
  14. The Lake Avenue Congregational Church, Pasadena (California), offers only one example of rapid growth followed by a crisis in leadership and membership decrease.
  15. The examples are taken from research for a chapter on Mennonite Brethren leadership for a book manuscript, “Mennonite Brethren: A Spiritual Pilgrimage.” Church and conference records as well as interviews with members of the respective churches provide the data for the case studies.
Dr. J. B. Toews is Professor Emeritus and former President of Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California.

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