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.
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.”