Congregationalism Doesn’t Stop at 8 p.m.
Congregationalists argue that local congregations are ultimately responsible for their membership, discipline, and doctrine. But what does that mean? Are congregations responsible for a slice of the church’s life while the elders handle the rest? As long as we cast biblically informed votes in a members meeting, are we fulfilling our congregational duty? Or does “membership, discipline, and doctrine” require something more than merely saying “aye” and “nay”?
Members meetings are an easy place to see congregationalism at work. The whole church exercises its responsibility to bring people into and put people out of membership. But in the entire life of the church, those infrequent meetings can seem fairly insignificant. What, after all, is the congregation doing when it gathers for prayer and worship? On top of that, what about the other 300 or so days of the year? How is congregationalism at work then? Isn’t it true that congregationalist churches are basically elder ruled—except for the 12 times a year when we vote on receiving new members and disciplining others?
It’s not our purpose to explore the relationship between the authority of the elders and the final authority of the congregation. Bobby Jamieson has done that elsewhere. Elders are a good and precious gift to the church, and we should submit to them in ways appropriate to their authority. The point of this article, however, is to argue that when we say the congregation holds ultimate earthly responsibility for the membership, discipline, and doctrine of the church, we don’t just mean that the congregation has authority in one part of church’s life while the elders handle the rest. Instead, the congregation’s responsibility for the membership, discipline, and doctrine of the church is the responsibility for the whole life of the church.
Congregationalism is not some polity-extra that activates at a members’ meeting and deactivates once the congregation adjourns. The congregation’s oversight of the church’s membership, discipline, and doctrine ought to be happening all the time. It should shape and inform how the elders lead the church at all times. It should drive congregations to care for and nurture one another. One of the great benefits of congregational polity is that it forces congregations to remember that taking responsibility for other Christians isn’t just something good for you like eating your vegetables—it’s what makes you a church. Congregationalism means the whole congregation oversees the whole life of the church, all the time.
MEMBERSHIP & DISCIPLINE
Part of the problem is that we fall into the trap of thinking that regulating membership, discipline, and doctrine refers to events in the church’s life rather than to the entire order and life of the church. In other words, if final authority over “membership, discipline, and doctrine” just means the “vote” (excuse our Western ecclesial context) cast by a congregation to bring someone in, put someone out, or affirm a statement of faith, then it’s easy to see why you may feel like congregational polity only contributes a couple occasional hiccups to the church body.
But if a congregation receives someone into membership, then that congregation now bears the responsibility of overseeing, encouraging, and disciplining that member long after the members’ meeting ends. The congregation owns that person’s day-to-day faithfulness as part of its stewardship. Authority to bind and loose are not expressed only in the one-time events of receiving or dismissing people from the church.
In other words, voting to receive a member is more like getting married than casting a ballot for the next elected official. Marriage includes the event of the wedding, but this event inaugurates the day-to-day commitments and responsibilities that the two parties now bear to one another. When a congregation receives someone into membership that congregation takes on the day-to-day duty of meeting with, praying for, and discipling that member throughout the week and in the corporate gathering. When a congregation puts someone out of membership, that congregation has the day-to-day duty of treating that person as a tax-collector and calling them to repentance. Congregational authority over membership and discipline therefore are not merely one-time events but daily responsibilities.
But what about doctrine? Is a congregation’s authority over the church’s doctrine merely expressed in the one-time vote affirming the church’s statement of faith or in the disciplining of false teachers? That’s certainly part of the equation. But the congregation’s role in overseeing the church’s doctrine cannot be reduced merely to an event.
For example, the congregation is responsible for affirming, expecting, and supporting faithful teaching—giving double honor to those who do it well (1 Tim 5:17). Additionally, congregations should continue in, apply, live out, and help others live out the church’s theological commitments. While we typically view the preaching pastors as the only ones “doing theology” in the corporate gathering, the fact is that congregations bear the responsibility to affirm faithful doctrine in the weekly preaching and then say to one another, “Let’s live this out! Let’s help each other apply these truths and walk in them!” As 2 Tim 4:3-4 points out negatively, listening to the sermon is a theological activity of approving or disapproving the content of the teaching.
ALL THE REST
That stills leaves the question, what about the rest of church life? What do things like budgets, Sunday School classes, small group strategies, missions, and the other ministries of the church have to do with membership, discipline, and doctrine? Are these outside the congregation’s responsibility?
Not quite. All of the good and necessary “stuff” that’s part and parcel of church life are ultimately expressions of the church’s doctrinal commitments. While the relationship will be more or less direct, all of those things require the practical application of the church’s doctrine (or its functional denial!).
Sunday schools are an extension of the church’s teaching ministry, so the statements about doctrinal teaching above continue to apply. Budgets reflect the theological commitments of the church. Small group policies express theological priorities and goals—though in different ways in different churches. Missions strategies reveal a host of theological convictions.
We’re not calling for democratic chaos here. Elders must exercise leadership and authority. But while the elders may appoint the Sunday school teachers and decide the curricula, the congregation is still responsible for evaluating, affirming, and encouraging one another in that teaching as well as potentially exercising their “emergency break” powers in response to false teachers. Not every member should actively participate in creating the budget. But the congregation should embrace the responsibility of reviewing, affirming, and sacrificially funding the church’s budget or employing its veto and asking for revisions that further align the budget with the church’s doctrinal commitments. The congregation is like the engine to a car. The elders may push the gas and steer, but unless the engine is running, the car won’t budge.
In other words, congregationalism does not mean that every member of the congregation has his or her hands in everything the church does, but it does mean that the congregation as a whole should embrace responsibility for what the church does (the lives of the members), teaches (doctrine), and ministers (doctrine through members). Membership, discipline, doctrine—the whole life of the church.
FROM POLITY TO PRACTICE
So how do you move a congregation to take responsibility over all of the church’s life? Something like a Q&A time with members or a Monday night class on church polity may be helpful, but simply creating more events on the church calendar misses the point. More events will not help a congregation live out their responsibilities on a day-to-day basis.
More fundamentally than any vote, congregationalism is about the member who of his own initiative starts reading the Bible with a new convert. It’s about the member who out of her own heartbreak over sin’s effect on the church urges a fellow member towards repentance. It’s about the member who utilizes the body to pray for her unbelieving coworkers. Any church leader in any kind of polity values these sorts of things. But only congregationalism recognizes that these kinds of activities are the essence of what makes a group of Christians a church.
That sort of living, breathing congregationalism takes work. There’s no shortcut to training a congregation on how to assume and live out their God-given responsibility over the whole life of the church. That’s what elders are for—to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ (Eph 4:12). That sort of training and equipping is long, slow, and sometimes frustrating along the way. Even once you establish it, there’s work to be done to maintain that sort of vitality.
When you reduce congregationalism down to just members’ meetings, you deprive yourself of much of the blessing the Lord intends to grant his church through good polity.