The General Role of the Congregation:
- The congregation is called to follow the Team of Pastors in the leadership and governance (oversight) of the church’s ministry as the Pastors follow the Holy Spirit and His Word.
- The congregation is called to be the AWE People to serve the Lord with and for the Team of Pastors and Servant Ministry Team Leaders.
Biblical Role #1 of the Congregation: The Democratic Right of Self-Determination
It seems to me that it is self-evident that it is the congregation who determines if they are being called to be a local church and what kind of church they will be. While not a prescriptive teaching of the Scriptures, I believe that the Bible gives us a few descriptive texts of the infancy of churches where the “congregational members” determined that they would meet together for Kingdom purposes.
I believe that a similar case can be made in Acts 16 for the churches founded in Lydia’s house and probably the church which met in the jailor’s home. In some respects, every church begun by Paul started with some group which gathered together to be made into disciples within the Kingdom body. This usually begins with a “called people”.
I believe that the corollary of the right of self-determinism is that the congregants are the ones whom the Holy Spirit leads to decide what kind of particular church they will become. The question often is: will we be Baptists or Methodists or Presbyterians or non-denominational or a Bible church, etc. Led by the Holy Spirit and the Word, the members decide.
If you are with me this far, it should not be a stretch to conclude with me that the members of the congregation in the orbit of their self-determination are the ones whom the Holy Spirit leads to establish the broad strokes of the governance polity paradigm with which the church will be set up. I prefer not to use the terminology of constitution or bylaws because they smell so legalistic. Rather, I prefer such terms as “Working Polity Principles” or something of that nature.
In many cases, the existence of the congregation precedes the identification of the Lead Pastor. Because each member of the congregation is filled with the Holy Spirit, the congregation is usually the initial entity which the Lord uses to lay the polity groundwork for the life of the congregation. While we are hard-pressed to put a finger on a prescriptive verse of the Word to support this, it does seem to flow logically from the call of a church to be an autonomous church family which has no other entity to turn to in order to arrive at an ultimate polity for the church.
Consequently, as the members are guided by the Word of God and feel led by the Holy Spirit, they approve the Polity which they believe contains the biblical principles and practices specified in the Word of God. Following the teachings of the Bible, the congregation assigns roles and responsibilities for the congregation itself and for the leaders of the Church whom the Lord might call to lead them. If the congregation should subsequently discover something in her polity paradigm which is inconsistent with the Word of God, they should move immediately to amend their Polity Principles to become consistent with the truths of Scripture.
Furthermore, the congregation agrees to submit to those authorities and responsibilities delineated in their Polity Principles (Heb. 13:7,17 & other texts) until the Holy Spirit leads them to amend the Polity Principles in order to realign the church’s Polity to be closer aligned to the biblical paradigm for Polity. In my assessment, the right to initially approve and to subsequently amend the Polity Principles of the Church (according to the Word of God) derivatively belongs exclusively to the congregation as an outflow of their right of self-determinism.
Biblical Role #2 of the Congregation: Ratification of their Lead Pastor and their Team of Pastors:
While it is not my purpose to spell out in detail the extensive process for a local church to arrive at a selection of her Lead Pastor and/or the Team of Pastors, it must be stated that a local church should not have a Lead Pastor or a Team of Pastors impressed upon the church unless she has both called and ratified such Pastor(s).
As an autonomous congregation, the local church has neither a Presbytery “to confirm” nor a Bishop “to appoint” Lead Pastors to serve in such local churches. So, where do we go in the Word of God to come to the conclusion that the congregation plays a calling and ratifying role in the selection of her Leader(s)?
As a precursor to leadership in the church, the Old Testament depicts that in God’s call of a Stable Primary Leader, the “congregation” played such a role in the call of her leader- King Saul. In 1 Sam 10:24, we see the People of God ratify the Lord’s choice of their Primary Leader (well, maybe not so stable) as he was being presented to the People by Samuel with the People’s affirmation of “Long live the King!”
In the New Testament, we see a role for the People of God to continue to have a voice in the selection of their Leaders. I believe that it is clear in Acts 6:1-6 that a portion of the congregation assisted the Apostles in determining if the seven men needed to become “Servant Ministers” met the biblical qualifications prescribed by the Apostles. To be very specific, as we utilize Acts 6: 1-6 to justify the congregation’s involvement in the selection of their Pastor(s), the text itself limits the role of the congregation to ratifying this pastoral candidate as one who satisfies the biblical qualifications to become a Pastor.
This should be the limit of the congregation’s involvement. Does this man meet the biblical qualifications? This ratification should not be seen (as it often incorrectly is seen) to be a vote as to whether or not we feel we like this guy. When the congregation does vote, there needs to be more focus on the biblical Kingdom perspective:
- It is not: “I vote my conscience for what I want, for who I like, or for what I think is best.
- It is not: “I vote for the person I like.”
- It is: “I vote for what I believe God is leading me to conclude based upon His Word and His Spirit”
- It is: “I vote to ratify that the suggested leader, in fact, meets the biblical qualifications of a Pastor.
Biblical Role #3 of the Congregation: The Ratification of the Dismissal of the Lead Pastor
Should a Lead Pastor be found no longer biblically qualified to serve as a Pastor, the congregation shall dismiss such person from his position as Lead Pastor.
In my opinion, such a vote by the congregation is not needed for the dismissal of another member of the Team of Pastors other than the Lead Pastor because the Lead Pastor has the biblical right to dismiss such a Team Pastor without concurrence of the congregation. Consider the authority of Paul to dismiss John Mark and to prevent him from subsequently returning to the Missions Team (Acts 15: 26-41).
Biblical Role #4 of the Congregation: Pull the “Emergency Brake” on the Pastor(s) if absolutely necessary
While the Lead Pastor or Team of Pastors may still be biblically qualified for their offices, they may make a decision or series of decisions which the majority of the congregation determines are unbiblical or ungodly. Great caution should be taken prior to exercising such a biblical right. Since, God has raised up and confirmed the Lead Pastor and/or the Team of Pastors, the congregation should follow their lead—not fight them for direction of the ministry. Such “emergency brake” votes should never be utilized over preferences, traditions, adiaphora, etc. Rather, this extreme utilization of authority by the congregation to override the Lead Pastor should be reserved for those rare occasions when the Leaders are themselves in sin or teaching heresy or leading the congregation into sin.
We see this principle exercised by the People of God in the Old Testament. They held the “emergency brake” when the Stable Primary Leader sought to lead them toward evil:
- consider the case of the congregation of Israel over-ruling Saul concerning his decision to execute Jonathon
- consider the case of Israel over-riding Samuel to get a King because his sons were unworthy to succeed Samuel
- consider the case of 1 Tim 5:17ff when the congregation is called to try the Pastors (only with 2-3 witnesses) and to rebuke the Pastors in public when they sin or teach heresy.
- consider the case of the church in Pergamum who is called to repent of following false teachers in the church. The church is called to repent and to stop these heretical leaders. (Rev. 1: 12-17). Likewise, the church in Thyatira.
- “Only if elders recommend something contrary to the Scriptures or that transgresses the boundaries of another human authority’s jurisdiction should members of the church feel at liberty to oppose their recommendations.” WRTC, p.220
- The Elders do “… exercise great authority in the New Testament churches…. In congregational polity, the church selects its elders precisely because they are judged to be men of God; and having selected the elders, the congregation follow them as godly authorities. The exception to this is also clearly outlined in 1Timothy 5 where elders who are ‘sinning’ are to be publicly ‘rebuked in the presence of all’ (vs. 20)….”
Biblical Role #5 of the Congregation: Ratify the Removal of Church Members by Church Discipline
According to Matthew 16: 18-19 and Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Cor 5 (see from 1 Cor 1:2 that this epistle is addressed to the church), the church as a whole is the final authority to remove a church member via discipline from the Body of Believers.
2 Cor 2: 6-8 makes it clear that the action was taken by the “majority”.
This congregational approach to church government seems to be in keeping with the counsel of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17. A series of approaches to an offending brother culminates in “tell it to the church” (vs. 27). Clearly the final action anticipated by Jesus was not to be the verdict of a group of presbyters, still less of bishops or a council external to the local church. “Tell it to the church” strongly implies that the adjudication of such an issue lay with the gathered congregation.
Moreover, many believe that the reference to “two or three” witnesses as a preliminary step might well be referring to the Pastors’ role in the discipline process. I believe that when the discipline process has run its course, the Pastors/Elders should bring a recommendation for a member’s removal to the congregation; and the congregation should trust the leadership of the Pastors/Elders (and vote accordingly to ratify the dismissal) unless there is a biblical reason for not
following the Leaders in this matter. It can’t be- “I just like ole Joe”; there must be a biblical cause for not following the advice of the Leaders. The congregation as a whole does NOT try the case—that would be disastrous. Rather, the trial is to be conducted by the pastors, and the final ratification belongs to the congregation.
“Finally, it is clear that even in church discipline and election of officers where the New Testament requires the voice of the church, the elders are to lead. Clearly, their authority requires them to present evidence and make recommendations in matters of church discipline. Clearly, their duty requires that they screen potential officers, recommend them to the church, and appoint them to office when elected (1 Tim 5:22)…. The consent of both the church and its eldership (and, thus the
unity of the church) is required for every act where the church as whole has a voice. WRTC p. 220-221.
For those who contest that the Team of Pastors/ Elders should be the ones who first try the discipline cases, one needs to be reminded that the very purpose of the appointment of Elders by Moses was, in fact, primarily to serve as “judges” adjudicating matters within the body.
Biblical Role #6 of the Congregation: Ratification of some element of the budget
Do we have a biblical basis for concluding that the congregation’s should have an involvement with the budget?
First, consider the specific requirement of a church to set the salary of the Lead Pastor. 1 Tim 5: 17-18 contains the following instructions:
- Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. Almost all credible commentaries interpret this “worthy of double of honor” to be addressing financial increased compensation for the Pastors who serve the flock well.
- For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing”, and “The laborer is worth of his wages.” It seems pretty clear to me that the church is called to set for their Pastor(s) an appropriate salary package. From a purely pragmatic basis, it only makes sense that the entity which ratified the call to the Pastor(s) should be the same entity which insures that they are properly compensated.
Second, consider the dynamics surrounding Luke 14. One might could reasonably deduce from Luke 14:28-32 that the Lead Pastor and/or the Team of Pastors have a responsibility to “count the costs” as they lead the church in ministry dynamics. Obviously, this counting the cost may involve an assessment of the congregation’s “buy in”. Will the people support this ministry through finances, support, prayer, etc? Thus, the congregation needs to have the opportunity to have some way to express their “buy in” of the leadership of the Pastor(s) and their Pastors’ desired ministries for the year.
Weighing in on the budget is a way for the assessment of support of the budgeted ministry to be considered. So, what are the options for a local church to have influence upon the church’s annual budget? Here are three common models for congregational involvement in the budget process.
Model 1: The Team of Pastors develops the budget to fit their vision of the ministry of the church and has final approval of the budget. Other than the congregation’s approval of the Pastor’s salary, the membership of the congregation has no other actions concerning the budget. The congregation does not vote to approve the budget; they only receive the budget as information. Of course, the Team of Pastors needs to discern from the Stewardship Ministry Team that there is a reasonable expectation of sufficient funds to be received in the year to accommodate the expenses of the budget.
The strength of this model is that since it is the Team of Pastors who develop the vision for the annual ministries, then it is the same Team of Pastors who should decide which ministries get how much funding. If someone else controls the purse strings, then it becomes possible that they effectively hold the vision of ministry hostage. The holders of the purse strings then may be in position to strangle the ministry vision. Then, effectively, the Team of Pastors is no longer the leaders of the church.
Model 2: The Team of Pastors develops the budget to fit their vision of the ministry of the church and has final approval of the budget line items but not the final approval of the bottom line of the budget. While the congregation continues to set the Pastor’s salary, the membership of the congregation must also approve the bottom line of the budget. The congregation hears directly from the Stewardship Ministry Team and the congregation (after hearing the reasonable expectation of funds available for next year’s ministries) votes to set the bottom line. However, the congregation does not vote on which ministry line items get what funding.
The strength of this model is that the Team of Pastors (not the congregation) still maintains control of how ministry arenas should be funded. However, the congregation determines how much the budget should cost the church; after all, it will be the members who will “foot the bill” for the annual budget—such responsibility thus seems appropriate. If the congregation does not approve all of the funds requested (because insufficient funds are expected to be received ), the Team of Pastors return to the budget to amend it to be subsequently delivered to the congregation as information only. The congregation does not decide what is to be cut; the Team of Pastors makes those decisions. Once the congregation’s “voted upon” financial cap for the budget has been respected, the matter of the budget is set and is only to be received by the congregation as information. This is the model which I prefer.
Model 3: Team of Pastors proposes the budget to fit their vision for the church, but the congregation must approve all of the budget—to include what ministry items get how much funding. In my opinion, this model is the least desirable model in that this model strips the Team of Pastors of their overseer role in the church. Folks with no knowledge of how the Holy Spirit is leading the Team of Pastors to lead now become responsible for which ministries get what funding. Too often, members’ “pet projects” are given unmerited weight at the expense of the vision for ministry. While many congregations prefer the power and authority this model gives them, I believe this is an unworkable format for a biblical leadership of a local church.
Biblical Role #7 of the Congregation: Approving Legal Matters
Where do see this authority in Scripture? Obviously, we do not see such function specifically prescribed in the Word. However, I believe it to be an authority reasonably deduced from the instruction to believers in Romans 13 to be submissive to the civil authorities of the land.
Since the laws of the land generally require local churches to follow certain legal guidelines concerning being a non-profit, maybe becoming a corporation, and how trustees and the like must address legal matters, etc, it is not a stretch that it is the congregation which must address corporation issues surrounding the transfer of title of assets.
Ownership of property is a legal issue pertaining to the Corporation of the local church. In almost every state, decisions concerning purchase/sale of real properties require a congregational decision to empower the Trustees to act on behalf of the corporation.
I recommend congregational votes related to anything concerning the sale/purchase of real property or acreage, the sale/purchase of significant personal property items (i.e. vehicles), or possibly major repairs or renovation of real property.
Generally, repairs to real property and matters of maintenance of real property and personal property should not come before the congregation for approval. Those matters should be determined by the Grounds and Property Ministry Team who is managed by a Servant Ministry Manager who is accountable to the Lead Pastor, not the congregation.
The decision as to whether or not a property matters rises to the level to be addressed by the congregation normally lies with the Lead Pastor. Of course, this could be appealed at a properly called business meeting called for this specific purpose.
Biblical Role #8 of the Congregation: To ratify future big Ministry Arena Initiatives
As stated earlier, one might could reasonably deduce from Luke 14:28-32 that the Lead Pastor and/or the Team of Pastors have a responsibility to “count the costs” before embarking on a significant new ministry initiative. Obviously, this counting the cost may need to assess the congregation’s “buy in”. Will the people serve in this ministry? Will the people support this ministry through finances, support, prayer, etc? Thus, the congregation needs to have the opportunity to weigh in on these big ministry decisions and “advise” their Team of Pastors.
What is not the role of the Congregation?
The congregation’s role is not to oversee the ministries of the church.
That job belongs to the Team of Pastors. Therefore, it is not their role to vote on the plethora of ministry vision, management, or implementation dynamics. There is no indication anywhere in the Word of God that the congregation is responsible for leadership, management, or any other kind of ministry direction within the church .
The congregation’s role is not to be the “bosses” of the Team of Pastors.
The Pastors are called by but do not work for the congregation. The Pastors work for the Lord.
The congregation’s role is not to Create and make Changes in the Vision of the church
This is the role of the Team of Pastors.
The congregation’s role is not to oppose or to complain against their Pastors.
See Moses and the “complaining congregation” in the Wilderness, esp. his sister Merriam (leprosy).
Consider how David would not raise up his hand against God’s anointed (a weak King Saul).
One sample summary of “congregational polity” for a local church
We believe ourselves to be called by Christ to be an autonomous local congregation—a family of families called to serve and follow Jesus Christ. It is our conviction that it is self-evident that the grass roots human authority for an autonomous local church is the congregation itself—believers who have each received the Holy Spirit Himself in his/her spirit and thus can hear and perceive (albeit imperfectly) the leading of the Spirit of God in the fundamental matters of the Kingdom .
That assertion does not mean that we believe that the Lord calls the congregation to exercise either leadership or management of the ministries of the church. We believe that function properly biblically belongs to the Lead Pastor and the Team of Pastors. While the congregation is empowered to pull the “emergency brake”, we do not drive the car.
However, we believe that being congregational means that it will be the church family itself who will make the initial determination (through the study of the Word and prayerfully seeking the Will of the Holy Spirit) as to which authorities and powers will be retained by the congregation and which authorities and powers will be delegated to the Lead Pastor and/or to his team of Pastors/ Elders. It will be the congregation itself which ratifies the Lord’s call to our Lead Pastor and later to his Team of Pastors. This determination and all other matters being either delegated or retained by the congregation will be spelled out in our “Proclamation of Polity Principles” subject, of course, to subsequent amendment. Obviously, all such determinations of delegation and retention of authorities should be founded upon the principles of the Word of God and the leading of the Holy Spirit.