When one uses the term “a congregational church”, it amazes me how many different things that can mean to the speaker. Also, it is discouraging to me how much a person’s understanding of “congregationalism” is not derived from the Word of God at all or from the leading of the Holy Spirit, but rather from tradition, Americanism, and culture. It is helpful to me if I breakdown the essence of congregationalism into two key aspects:
The First Aspect of Congregationalism--Autonomy:
First, the word Congregationalism means that each local church is autonomous , and not subject to oversight by or accountability to any other higher human authority structure in the Visible Church. Of course, this concept of autonomy does not mean that the local church is not directly accountable to the authority of the Lord as He leads His church through Word and Spirit. We are autonomous not from our King Jesus but from other church authority.
A. I support the autonomy of the local church
because of the depiction of Scripture itself:
- I find no evidence for any basis of any kind of hierarchial authority in the Visible Church (i.e. Bishops or a Presbytery) over the local church; the only authority over a local church depicted anywhere in the Scriptures is the authority of the Risen Christ (the Head of the Church) & the authority of the Apostles (an authority which passed with the death of the last Apostle).
B. I support the autonomy of the local church
because when Paul writes his letters to the churches, he addresses them to either:
-“to the church” or “churches (1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:1; 1 Thes 1:1; 2 Thess 1:2)
- “to the saints” (Rom1:7; Eph1:1; Col 1:2)
- Note: the letter to the Philippians is addressed “to all the saints” and then also mentions the Overseers and Servant Ministers who are included within the group of saints in that singular church.
-the logical conclusion here is that as Paul addresses matters in churches, he writes to the church as a whole to address needed matters, not to a bishop (overseeing several churches) nor to a presbytery (having authority over several churches); it is the congregation whom Paul calls to action.
C. I support the autonomy of the local church
because the arguments of other denominations for “authoritative connectionalism” are biblically bankrupt.
1. The arguments for “authoritative connectionalism” from the Episcopalean tribe are not based on the Word.
I have explained earlier that the Episcopalean contention for “The “Threefold Ministry” is just simply heretical in that it violates the role of Overseer/Elder/Shepherd as well as the role of Servant Minister. Based upon pragmatic tradition, it just does not jive with the Word of God. I don’t feel this warrants further elaboration.
2. The arguments for “authoritative connectionalism” from the Presbyterian tribe is based on faulty exegesis.
My unease with the “authoritative connectionalism” of the Presbyterian tribe of brothers goes back decades. Even when I served in the conservative bible-believing PCA, I did so nursing deep reservations as to what I was taught about the meeting in Jerusalem depicted in Acts 15. I was taught incorrectly that the biblical basis for the representative and deliberate assemblies to have authority over local churches is rooted in that Acts 15 meeting.
Because I have history with this tribe of the family of God, I am going to try to explain this matter extensively. I suspect that some of my Presbyterian brothers and sisters may be surprised with my understanding of Acts 15, but those with whom I have discussed this issue over the years will recognize my biblical analysis.
I was taught that each local church sent representatives to the Presbytery at Jerusalem to decide this issue of the teaching of the Judaizers, and this was a representative and deliberative assembly which was a proto-type for the authority of a Presbytery or General Assembly to have authority to issue decrees binding the local churches.
Exegetically, this is error. Upon deeper study, the issue in Acts 15 is that Judaizers from Judea appear in Antioch teaching a different gospel (Christ + circumcision). We see in Gal 2: 12 that these men came to Galatia from James. This most likely means that the Judaizers actually came out from the Jerusalem church. Given this disruptive teaching emanating from the Jerusalem church, the singular congregation of Antioch (Acts 15: 2) determined that Paul and Barnabas (and others from the Antioch congregation) would travel to Jerusalem to complain about this false teaching.
While Paul & Barnabas did share their testimony of God’s work among the Gentiles with other churches enroute to Jerusalem (Acts 15:3), there is no biblical evidence anywhere to lead one to conclude that these other churches also sent elder/pastor representatives to Jerusalem to decide this issue.
This really is not a meeting where elder/pastor representatives from various churches come together to decide a theological issue for the church as a whole. This is the Antioch church complaining to the Apostles and Jerusalem elders about the teaching coming from the Jerusalem church which is adversely affecting the Antioch church. This really is not a presbyterial court meeting representing many churches coming together to decide an issue; rather, this is simply two autonomous churches (autonomous except that they are subject to the authority of Apostles) who are in conflict with each other and are seeking resolution to the conflict by appealing to the Apostles to address the issue.
So, who is actually present at this Jerusalem meeting? See Acts 15:4-6
a. the Apostles (to include Peter) and the Elders of the Jerusalem church (vs. 4)
b. the believing Pharisees of the Jerusalem church (vs. 5)
-very possibly the ones who sent out the Judaizers (see their comments of vs. 5)
c. the delegation from Antioch (including Paul & Barnabas) bringing the complaint to the Jerusalem Elders & Apostles
d. James (1/2 brother of Jesus) who is historically famous for being the champion of insuring that the Law is fulfilled by the Gospel, but not replaced by it. If it is possible that James may have somehow fueled or condoned the false teaching of the Judaizers, it is clear that James sees the error after the Jerusalem Apostles and Elders hear the testimony of the witnesses and act to “look into this matter” (vs. 6).
I was taught that the Presbytery of Acts 15 delivered a decree to the churches which had been decided upon by the Apostles and the elders who were in Jerusalem for all of the other churches to observe. This is certainly true in that this is exactly what Acts 16: 4 explicitly teaches.
However, the assumption (and the fatal flaw) of what I was taught was that this authority emerged out of a decision made by representatives from all or most of the churches of the day. A decision ratified by the representatives of all the attending churches thus is binding on all of the churches. There are two clear errors with this assumption:
a. There were no representatives from the other various churches. There were only representatives from the offending church and representatives from the offended church. And the Apostles were there.
Dr. Waldron agrees: It is not true, however, nor can it be proven that this council was composed of the elders of many churches or even two churches…Furthermore, absolutely no proof exists that any of the elders of the many other churches to whom the decrees were delivered were present. WRTC, p. 209
b. My earlier Presbyterian teaching seems to have totally missed the essence of the authority behind this decree or pastoral letter (as it sometimes is called). The authority undergirding the decision was not the authority of some “Presbytery”; rather, it was the authority of the Apostles which undergirded the decree.
-Dr. Sam Waldron also agrees with this assessment:
My point is that the Jerusalem church (primarily because of the presence of living apostles) exercised an authority over the whole church. This authority was unique to and limited by the peculiar realities of the apostolic age. With the passing of that foundational and transitional period, the unique authority of both the living apostles on earth and the transitional importance of the mother church in Jerusalem passed away. The authority of the Jerusalem council was real, but apostolic, and so limited to the apostolic period of church history. It creates no precedent or model for authoritative councils on earth today.” WRTC p. 294
D. Cautions about the autonomy of the local church:
1. Dr. Waldon asserts that this autonomy does not mean that each local church is an island unto itself. Rather, autonomous congregational churches have readily given themselves to associations with other churches in order to combine resources and energies to further the Kingdom of God. He writes:
The proceedings of these associations, consociations, synods, and councils were, of course, advisory in character. They exercised no authority or jurisdiction over the internal affairs of the local church. WRTC, p. 207
2. Caution: Sometimes, there arises a flaw in the understanding of “Autonomy” in some of our churches.
Concept: We are an autonomous church; therefore, this means that:
Wrong View: Nobody can tell our church what to do or how to do it.
-we have chosen to affiliate with the SBC, NCBC, & DVMBA
-but they cannot tell us what to do or how to do it
-we have chosen to call a Lead Pastor and a Team of Pastors
-but he/they cannot tell us what to do or how to do it
Correct View: King Jesus is the Head of our church; only He can tell our church what to do or how to do it
-Jesus tells our church what to do and how to do it by leading us via His Word & Spirit
-the leading of the Holy Spirit often comes via the advice of the SBC, NCBC, DVMBA or our Lead Pastor
The Second Aspect of Congregationalism-Democracy:
Secondly, the meaning of the word Congregationalism sometimes entails the concept of democracy. This aspect of congregationalism is often diverse, controversial, divisive, and misunderstood. There is no clear understanding within the congregational community as to how decisions should be made in a congregational church, and how a local church should be led and managed. Democracy is understood differently by different local churches. Several observations:
A. Fact: democracy is never mentioned in the Bible (however the SBC Statement does mention “democratic processes”?
B. Meanings of the word democracy vary- here are at least three different views held by various congregational churches:
View #1: Self-determinism democracy
This is the simplest, and in my opinion, the healthiest understanding of congregationalism “democracy”
This understanding of this aspect of congregationalism contends that it the congregation which makes the initial fundamental decisions concerning if they will be a church and what kind of church they will be.
The congregational members themselves decide they are called to become a body of believers
-Acts 10: 24—Cornelius and his family and his friends meet together
-Paul meeting with groups of “interested people” in different cities
The congregational members themselves decide what kind of church they will be (Baptist, Independent, etc)
The congregational members themselves decide their “constitution” according the Word and Spirit’s leading
Parallel: this akin to a nation citizenry making a fundamental decision to be governed by Dictator vs. Democracy
What is important is that this concept of democracy does not involve “driving the car” of the church’s ministry because that job falls to the Team of Pastors.
View #2: Representative democracy
In this view, the congregation elects its representatives (Team of Pastors) who then Oversee the church’s ministry
Parallel: this is the “democracy” system of America
-we elect our leaders who then “oversee” our government on our behalf
-in the USA, we never vote on a Senate bill or a Presidential executive action
View #3: Town Hall democracy
In my opinion, this is the disastrous understanding of congregational democracy which devastates local churches.
The concept here is all members vote to decide oversight matters of the church’s ministries-one man one vote
There is absolutely no place anywhere in the Word of God where this is depicted as biblical.
This concept completely usurps the biblical role for the Team of Pastors who are the Overseers of the local church.
C. American congregationalism today is a disaster because of Town Hall Democracy
-This is especially true in smaller churches in rural areas
-Americans have lost sight of what a Lead Pastor is and have replaced it with the idea of “politician”.
-Americans have a mistrust of leadership/authority and thus want to make all of the choices themselves
-American church-goers= gripers, complainers, and gossips (not new-cf. Israelites in the wilderness)
-American churches have seriously distorted the biblical role of “Servant Minister” to become Overseers.
-American churches elevate what they perceive to be American values above the teachings of the Word of God
D. The flaws of a the concept of “Town Hall Democracy”
1. Concept: everyone has a “right” to vote and to try to get what they want (one man-one vote)
-rugged individualism; by vote, the congregation runs the church i.e. the members drive the car.
2. Biblical Support for “Town Hall Democracy” whereby the congregation “drives the car” of the ministries of the church (i.e. runs the business of the church) is non-existent in the scriptures:
Nowhere is there any biblical example or even any biblical principle which could be cited as evidence that the congregation should be involved in setting the vision for the church, setting up and governing the ministry arenas of the church, implementing the ministries of the church, overseeing or managing the ministries of the church, overseeing the Pastors/Elders of the church, deciding what expenditures should be approved for the ministries of the church, etc. Biblically, all of these functions properly belong to the Team of Pastors of the church.
-“THE CHURCH IS NOT A PURE DEMOCRACY-At this point special attention regarding a limitation of congregational church government is in order. Waldron is appropriately concerned that congregationalism not be construed as ‘rugged individualism’ but rather as an assembly of believers determined to seek the mind of the Spirit and the will of Christ. And I might add that the congregationalism of the New Testament does not encourage anyone to voice any opinion he has or vote any way he wishes. The church is not, strictly speaking, a democracy. “ WRTC, p. 238
3. The only biblical support anywhere supporting a limited role for the congregation is centered upon the ratification by the congregation of the biblical qualifications of a man presented for the role of Pastor/Elder. Even in this matter, the authority of the congregation is very narrowly defined. I have already discussed these dynamics surrounding the exegesis of the texts of Acts 1 and Acts 6.
-“The thoroughly democratic congregationalism that characterizes many evangelical churches today is the unbalanced offspring of the more balanced congregationalism of a better ecclesiastical day. Without denying the power of the brotherhood, it balanced this power by means of its emphasis on a plurality of elders. The church and eldership each exercised a role in church government that was critically necessary…. Thus, by the will of Christ, the king of the church, the church and the elders were to have distinct and interlocking roles to fulfill in the government of the local church.” WRTC, p. 202
E. What might a healthy “congregational democracy” look like when voting on the proper issues biblically prescribed for the congregation to vote on?
1. How should we vote?
Wrong: I am voting for what I think is right and what I want
Correct: I have studied the Word and prayed for the leading of the Spirit; God has revealed to me His will and I am voting accordingly
Note: Henry Blackaby’s view on voting at business meeting and his advice to his members.
No prayer and no study= No Vote!
2. How can the Holy Spirit lead us in a particular vote?
-pray for the Spirit’s guidance, particularly as we study the Word
-respect for the advice of the Team of Pastors
-respect for the advice of the SBC, the NCBC, & the DVMBA
-respect for the voices (in the debate) of others at the business meeting who might disagree with us
-we need to not come with our minds already made up
-we need to come willing to listen to how the Holy Spirit leads in the meeting itself
3. How will the Holy Spirit not lead us?
-He will not lead us via gossip, bad reports, phone tree blitz, etc.
-“backroom discussion” (these are really only “political caucases” within the church) are a sin
-strategizing “how we can get our way” rather than following the Holy Spirit is a sin
4. Food For Thought: Unfortunately, without a stable primary leader, most everyone usually does “what is right in their own eyes” and votes accordingly (Joshua 21:25)
-Why do we call a Lead Pastor (Overseer, Elder, Shepherd) if we are not going to follow him?
F. How does a false understanding of the Reformational teaching of the “priesthood of believers” feed the misunderstanding which depicts that the church members should make the ministry decisions of the church and should “drive the car” instead of the Team of Pastors.
Here is the argument:
The Reformation taught us that we are all a “Priesthood of Believers” which means that we are called to oversee the church as a whole together. We need no leader; we are all equally leaders making our own decisions.
Unfortunately, this argument totally misunderstands what the Reformers meant when they asserted the “Priesthood of Believers”. In order to understand what they meant, we need a fuller understanding of biblical Christology. We need to understand how Christ fulfills three offices as our Mediator, how the Old Testament “shadows” of these offices functioned, and finally what the New Testament polity for these offices actually looks like.
Jesus’ three offices as Mediator OT “shadows” of the three offices NT “church polity” .
1. King (High King: King of Kings) Earthly Kings Earthly Overseers
2. Prophet (High Prophet: the Lawmaker) Earthly Prophets Earthly Teachers (Elders)
3. Priest (High Priest: Melchizedek) Earthly Priests (order of Aaron) Priesthood of all Believers
Observation #1: The Reformation did not advocate “the Kingship of all believers”
—all members are not the overseers of the ministry of the local church
Observation #2: The Reformation did not advocate “the Prophethood of all believers”
—all members are not called to be the teachers/preachers of the local
Observation #3: The Reformation did, however, advocate “the Priesthood of all believers”
In order to understand the meaning of “the Priesthood of all Believers”,
we must first understand the two primary functions of the Old Testament Priests:
Function #1: The work of Atonement
-the Priest “processed” the blood atonement dynamics of temporary OT forgiveness (sacrificial system)
-the Priest made the declaration of our forgiveness, love, worth, cleanness, usefulness, value of person
-with the work of Jesus on the cross, we need no human on earth to process our atonement, or to declare our forgiveness, or to encourage us that we are part of the Family of God—loveable, worthwhile, clean, worthy
Function #2: The work of Prayer
-the Priest functioned to intercede for believers to the Lord
-with the intercessory work of both our High Priest Jesus and the Holy Spirit, we need no other human person to usher us into the presence of God in order for Him to hear our prayers.
Bottom Line: the curtain into the Holy of Holies has been torn, and we now are each of us free to enter into the presence of our King without the priesthood of another. We are all our own priests.
Summary: In the NT church, we are a “Priesthood of Believers
- we have no need for a priest to mediate our atonement and forgiveness for us
- we need no need for a priest to to intercede for us in prayer,
-but this has nothing at all to do with the King or Prophet roles in the NT church.
In the NT church, we continue to have a biblical need for:
-earthly Overseers in the NT church to lead and govern us (we call them the Team of Pastors)
-earthly Elders in the NT church to teach/preach to us (again, we call them the Team of Pastors)
Conclusion: Cries for “Town Hall Democracy” cannot be justified using the “Priesthood of all Believers” because such justifications fail to understand the Christological views on the Mediator role of Jesus and also always end up doing violation to the biblical teachings concerning the ministry of the Lead Pastor and the Team of Pastors.
What is next in our polity journey?
Polity Part 7: A study of the Biblical Role and Functions of the Congregation
Polity Part 8: A discussion of how to actually change your “polity paradigm” in your local church
In the War of Wars against darkness (Ps. 144:1),
Dr. Craig D. Childs, Sr.
Director of Missions