English Español 简体中文
9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

The Kingdom Gain of Congregationalism

Print

Congregationalism is administratively inefficient. It provokes quarrelling and divisiveness. It caters to the most immature members of a church. It cultivates individualism. It undermines pastors. And it just might add to global hunger, strife in the Middle East, and the commercialization of Christmas.

These are the types of things for which congregationalism is sometimes dismissed.

I would say, on the other hand, that congregationalism, like every structure of authority, can be abused and misused, but that it’s what the Bible teaches, as I’ve argued hereand here.

Furthermore, congregationalism is crucial for the growth of Christ’s kingdom on earth. That’s the point I want to make today. Congregationalism is an important part of how Christ’s kingdom is effected or realized or (if you will permit the unbiblical language) extended.

Why? With authority comes responsibility. The head of a family, a company, or an army battalion bears more responsibility than every other member of the group. That’s not to say that other members of the group don’t bear any responsibility, but they do not bear it for every member of the group the way a leader does.

In a congregational church, every member jointly shares the authority, and therefore every member jointly owns the responsibility. By giving every new member a “vote” (in some cultural contexts) or by requiring some type of congregational “consensus” (in other cultural contexts), congregationalism says to every member joining the church, “You now have a share in the authority of this congregation, and therefore you now have a responsibility for this congregation and its gospel witness.”

In other words, congregationalism involves more than participating in the life of the church. It involves owning a church’s gospel witness. Pardon the business analogy, but you become a shareholder. By joining, you are taking ownership of what your church teaches and of every single member’s discipleship. And with ownership and authority come responsibility.

  • You are responsible to act if Pastor Ed begins to teach a false gospel. 
  • You are responsible to help ensure Member Candidate Chris adequately understands the gospel when joining the church. 
  • You are responsible for Sister Sue’s discipleship to Christ, that she’s being cared for and nurtured toward Christlikeness. 
  • You are responsible to ensure that Member Max is excluded from the fellowship of the church if his life and profession no longer agree.

With authority and ownership comes responsibility.

How then does congregationalism realize or extend Christ’s kingdom? Precisely in the fact that it gives every church member formal authority and ownership and responsibility for the church’s witness to Christ on earth.

With such authority, of course, comes greater judgment. And church leaders should plainly explain to every new member that these are the stakes.

What do you teach the people sitting in your church membership classes? If you’re a congregationalist, I believe you should say something like this:

“Friends, by joining this church, you will become jointly responsible for whether or not this local church continues to faithfully proclaim the gospel. That means you will become jointly responsible both for what this church teaches, as well as whether or not its members’ lives remain faithful. And one day you will stand before God and give an account for how you used this authority. Will you be careful and prayerful with the authority he gives you? Will you stand back and remain anonymous, showing up for 75 minutes on Sundays, or will you jump in with the hard and rewarding work of building relationships and making disciples? We need more hands for the harvest, so we hope you’ll join us in that work.”

Comments   |   RSS Subscribe

Thanks for this. Great thoughts!

Congregationalism finally coming to SGM?

http://www.covlife.org/1030_members_mtg/

Agreed. There are some benefits.

But I have always wondered where the Biblical argument for congregational voting is in the Scriptures, without proof texting and pulling scriptures out of context, of course?

Ronnie,
Who is the arbiter of what is pulling out of context and proof-texting? I'm assuming you're accusing Jonathan of these things?

Great post, thanks!

Interesting post here. After musing over some passages on congregants critiquing the sermon, I need to think harder about congregationalism.

Hi Jonathan,
I completely agree with your stress on the responsibility of the members in church. Each member is called to participate in the body of Christ with their gifts, and carry responsibility.
However, the word ‘congregationalism’ has picked up some bagage from church history, so I wonder if we should use this word without disclaimers. It can give the impression as if the church is a body with a democratic structure.
In the Bible I see a different model, however.
It would be helpful if your article would look a bit more broadly at authority in the Bible. In the Old covenant, God appointed leaders like Moses who had great authority. Then Jesus came with the authority of the Son of God. When he was baptized, God said: "This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him."
Before Jesus went to heaven He appointed 12 apostles and gave them authority (1Thess4:2). Their authority was unique, as they (through their teaching) formed the foundation of the church, together with the prophets of the old covenant (Eph2:20). They in turn appointed elders in every church, and the Bible commands us to obey our elders (Hebrews13:17). Practically, this means that a church is governed by a body of elders and not by a congregational meeting that votes about all issues.

It would be helpful for Christians to see their responsibility as members with the framework of authority God has established. Because both those in authority and those under authority are bound by the Word of God, members are called to test everything with the Bible as their standard.
Would this not provide a good balance and serve as an antidote against both democracy and individualism in the church of Christ?
Greetings in Christ our Lord,
Dirk

I love this. If a human body were so divided they would call it an auto-immune disease...Christ is not divided and we are all one body. Great subject. We are accountable to each other and to Christ. The harvest is great, yet so few choose to enter into the great harvest. +

I became a baptized, official, communion receiving, voting member of a congregational church at age 6 and was beyond the theoretical "age of accountability," hence understanding pretty well my actions. To add to all that, however, I was not converted when I joined the congregation. So, by your reasoning, at age 6, I would have authority to point out pastoral heresy, make sure other members joining understood the gospel (that I might have been able to do; I was in a strong, Bible believing church), be involved in another Christian's discipleship and be a part of an aberrant believer's church discipline (I also did that at age 12 when I voted to throw out the minister of music, who later was vindicated bc the senior pastor was actually the guilty party in the dispute). Somehow, although I believe you have set forth a decent case for ideal congregationalism, I fear that you tend to assume Christian maturity on the part of all members (which simply isn't the case) and minimalize the sinful nature of even those who are redeemed (voters in the pew). The above, brief, thoughts are why I moved from congregationalism to the plurality of elders to lead the church. I should add, however, that such polity disagreements never break my fellowship with a brother or sister in Christ. But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

Archie,

Not all churches, when seeking congregational consensus, seek it equally or in the same way from all members.

For instance, in some churches, membership is reckoned by household, so that each head-of-household votes, hopefully having taken into account the perspectives of his wife, mature children, etc.

Post new comment

Since commenting on a blog is an act of public communication, 9Marks encourages all commenters to use their real first and last names. Thanks!
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.