Recently, I read a blog post from a pastor saying that Congregational government was from Satan. He is a prominent pastor who came from a Congregational background, so I found his words pretty strong. I do think he had some good things to say, and true things, but I felt he missed some things as well. As someone who works in the context of a Congregational church in the Baptist tradition, I think there is good in the system that exists, as well as ineffective practices.
One of the interesting things about Baptist churches is that they a lot like snowflakes, almost no two churches are alike. While they might be called Baptist, what Baptist looks like in each church can be very different. While the Baptist tradition has some distinctives it holds to, which ones are emphasized and ignored is different in each congregation, and very few put all distinctives at equal measure. The reason for this is found in those distinctives.
Baptists hold to the belief that each church is autonomous. The distinction that Baptist churches were to be autonomous, that is self-governing, is a reaction to the Anglican Church from which the early Baptists left and challenged. Instead of falling under the leadership of an archbishop, or monarchy, early Baptists wanted the church to only be under the rule of Christ, as discerned by its members.
Because of the autonomous nature of Baptist churches, church leadership manifests itself through the congregation. Congregationalist governance demonstrates itself by giving overall authority to the members of the church. Lewis Sperry Chafer and John Walvoord in their book Major Bible Themes state that “The concept of a congregational church is that a local congregation determines its own affairs, elects and ordains its own ministers, and directs the use of its own treasury.” Congregational governments follow a democratic process of bringing major issues to a church members vote. What is chosen to be voted on can differ from congregation to congregation. In general the election of church leaders (deacons or elders), a financial budget and the hiring or firing of a pastor are common to all congregational churches bylaws. Often though how congregational government is practiced can turn into developing consensus over every issue the church faces in its operations, from paint color to Sunday school curriculum.
Robert Lightner in his book Handbook of Evangelical Theology points out that “The congregational form of government does not mean the congregation decides on every single matter. There is no such thing as pure congregationalism, any more than there is a pure democracy. The New Testament church appointed leaders who had specific responsibilities. They were responsible ultimately to the congregation, however, and of course the congregation was responsible to Christ.”
The Baptist distinctive that the church must fall under the Lordship of Christ should be emphasized over the other distinctives, including congregational government. While there may be no general Baptist document that states it must be emphasized more than other distinctives, a basic understanding of scripture would point to this. The author of 2 Corinthians points out in chapter 4 verse 5 “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” And Paul in Galatians 2:20 states that “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” If we are to be following Jesus as Lord and His will for His church, it should provide focus in how a church conducts itself. In Colossians 3:1-3 the apostle Paul states “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” And in Ephesians 5:17 he admonishes believers to not be foolish, but to understand what the will of the Lord is. When a congregation is putting the mission of God as its priority and submitting their desires to Christ for His desires, congregational government works well.
Unfortunately, one of the realities of congregational government is that it can give the opportunity for people “who are not seeking first the things above” an opportunity to try and get their way. “Similarly, persons who have not experienced Christian growth and discipleship in a meaningful way (1 Corinthians 3:1-14) may also lack a servant attitude with a deep commitment to follow Jesus as Lord (Philippians 2:5-11). The effective exercise of congregational church governance requires that persons desire to follow the will of Christ for the church and that they seek insight and wisdom from other believer priests.”
An excellent read on how congregational governments might function best can be found here http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?ID=22616.
How congregational government is to function in my opinion needs to come out of how we answer these following questions:
- What is the call of Christ to His Church in the New Testament? What is the role and mission of all churches?
- What is the specific vision Christ is inspiring for this church?
- Can you provide appropriate avenues to talk together, question and discern God’s direction?
- Which voices will we choose to indulge and engage from the congregation? Those who are seeking the things above, or the things of this earth?
- Are we willing to lead into unpopular areas and stick to the mission Christ calls all churches too?