Did you catch James MacDonald's critique of congregationalism yesterday morning? It’s not clear to me if he was referring to hyper-congregationalism or congregationalism in general, but since most of us at 9Marks hail from a congregational tradition, we thought it provided us with a good opportunity to think about congregationalism in general. It may surprise him and others that, in some circles in the SBC, 9Marks is seen (and critiqued!) as being advocates for having a plurality of elders and even giving those elders leaderhip in the congregation.
MacDonald offers five critiques of congregationalism, which I think we can see quite readly are indeed Satanic abuses of congregationalism:
1) Congregational Meetings Can Be Forums for Division: Satan will often employ many God-given gifts and institutions--from biblical marriage to civil government to biblical congregationalism--for diabolical ends. You name it, and he'll use it to undermine leadership, to divide friends, even to present a poor witness for the gospel. With congregationalism, for instance, Satan will use things like unregenerate church members, decades of failing to practice church discipline, and man-fearing pastors in order to make a congregation ornery.
I think of John Dagg who wrote, "We concede that the independent form of church government is not adapted to ungodly pastors, and unconverted church-members" (Manual of Church Order, 278). Of course, that's true of any church order. Still, you can feel it more quickly in a congregational members’ meeting.
Solutions: pastors need to do a better job teaching the gospel, conversion, and what it means to be a repenting Christian; churches need to be more careful about receiving and dismissing members; churches need to practice church discipline.
2) Voting Can Be Deeply Unbiblical: Congregationalists sometimes equate congregationalism with democracy, but that’s not the right way to understand congregationalism. Church members are not given a vote for "representing their will" or "giving the leaders a mandate." Jesus is king. His Word rules. The only purpose of the congregation's vote, if they have one, is to make sure things are working according to his will. If the leaders start teaching another gospel, the congregation should get rid of them, like Paul tells the Galatians (Gal. 1:3-10). If the leaders fail to take care of a man in heinous sin, the congregation should step up and hand the man over to Satan, like he tells the Corinthians (1 Cor. 5). Pastors should teach their flocks that Jesus gives them the final authority to guard his gospel, not to "express yourself."
Solutions: pastors should do a better job in teaching what congregationalism entails. They should explain to the sheep that Jesus has authorized them with the keys of the kingdom, not for getting into arguments over the color of the carpet, but for binding and loosing on earth (Matt. 16:13-20; 18:15-20). That’s a big responsibility. Have our churches been taught to approach that responsibility with fear and reverence?
3) Eldership Is Sometimes Unpopular. We congregationalists have sometimes done a bad job historically of pitting the congregation’s ultimate rule against day-to-day elder leadership. Hebrews 13 tells church members to "obey" their leaders and to make their work a joy--because it profits us to do so! You want profit? I do. So we should learn to obey your leaders. The only time a congregation should act to veto the elder’s leadership is when—like a child whose parent asks him to sin—we observe the elders departing from Scripture or abusing it.
Solutions: appoint and install a plurality of elders. Teach the church about the goodness of authority. Pastors should always be teaching congregations what a pastor and elder’s job description is. Hold up the elder’s office as something which should be esteemed and sought by all godly men.
4) Congregationalism Can Crush Pastors: James observes that pastors move every 2-3 years and that a pastor typically leaves a church because of 8 people. Though I expect that the frequency of pastoral moves more often than not is the responsibility of the pastors themselves, still, we have all heard stories about carnal and unregenerate congregations who have spurned the Lord’s servants. And we've heard these stories in churches of every kind of polity. I would not want to be numbered among those “8 people” on that Last Day.
Solutions: Again, take care of your membership rolls. Make sure everyone entering the church understands the gospel. Practice informal and formal church discipline. Teach that conversion entails repentance and faith.
5) Priesthood Not Eldership of All Believers: It's easy for immature Christians to become unteachable. They claim to have a "personal relationship" with Christ, and so they stop listening to those who are older and wiser in the faith, like a church's elders. It's like they think they're their own elders. I frequently tell younger men in the faith, "One of the most important qualities of a godly man is that he's teachable." I tell single women, “The most important qualities in a potential husband is that he loves the gospel and he’s teachable.” In fact, our church won't make a man an elder unless he's demonstrated a track record of being teachable.
Solutions: Cultivate a culture of discipleship, where people learn to apply the Sunday sermon to themselves and one another throughout the week…where inviting rebuke and criticism is normal…where giving encouragement is normal…where accountability is expected…where members learn to have transparent conversations with one another. Also, preach expositionally. This is one way to demonstrate what an elder’s own submission looks like, as he submits himself to the text every week.
In one sense, congregationalism is reality, as I’ve often heard Mark Dever say. People are going to vote with their feet no matter which polity they belong to.
Yet more importantly, it’s our conviction that congregationalism in the context of elder leadership just makes the most sense of two streams of biblical teaching. On the one hand, you see a stream of passages in which Jesus and the apostles seem to entrust final say to the entire gathered congregation (Matt. 18:15-20; Acts 6:2-6; 1 Cor. 5; 2 Cor. 2:6; Gal. 1:3-10). Every single Christian, every single church member, is going to give an account to God for the role he or she played in preserving the gospel from one generation to the next. He will give an account for whether or not he tolerated false teachers, for whether or not he abided unrepentant sin within the body. Woe to the congregation that does not act to protect and proclaim the gospel!
On the other hand, you see a stream of passages which call Christians to submit to their leaders (Heb. 13:7,17; Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2-3). Every single Christian, every single church member, in the ordinary course of the Christian life, is called to practice submitting to King Jesus by submitting to the earthly authorities he has placed over us, from parents, to presidents, to pastors. It's how we grow, flourish, and prosper.
It’s tempting to pick one of these streams rather than the other. But we need to strike the balance by figuring out how to put both together. If we don’t, the ship can veer toward unwieldy hyper-congregationalism, or it can veer toward an abusive elder rule. King Jesus, in his wisdom, appears to have opted for something in the middle. Along these lines, an elder-led, congregational-rule model seems to work best and best satisfy the biblical mandate.
Thank you, James, for provoking we who are congregationalists to think more carefully about how Satan would trip up a biblical system. He’s always trying to abuse and misuse God’s good gifts. So we must labor together to fight the good fight of faith.
To read more about how congregationalism and elder leadership fit together, as well as a defense of each, see Mark Dever's Display of God's Glory--PDF here.