Teach, Wait, Repeat: How Calvinism Fuels My Commitment to Congregationalism
Pastor Mike was discouraged. He’d been working hard at revitalizing a church for two years. Yet, despite his best efforts, the church was still characterized by immaturity. He had seen a few conversions, a few marriages repaired, and a few folks begin to take an interest in discipleship, but most of the members were lukewarm at best.
An important vote was coming up at the next members meeting, but Mike was sure it wouldn’t go well. Slumped in his chair, he looked at his associate pastor. “This church hasn’t been properly taught in decades,” he lamented, “it’s times like this I think that maybe I convince myself that congregationalism isn’t biblical!”
I can empathize with Pastor Mike’s lament. Christ’s sheep can act in immature, even ungodly ways—particularly those in churches that have suffered through years of theological malnourishment. Sometimes, pastors can feel helpless as they watch the congregation wield the keys of the kingdom unwisely or even unjustly. It seems like ministry would be a good deal easier if we just changed our polity. Why give the congregation the final authority on matters of membership, discipline, and doctrine when it seems like pastors could do that work much more effectively?
But if we’re convinced that Scripture teaches congregationalism, how do we stay the course especially when that polity often seems counterproductive, at least in the short-term, to the church’s best interests? In this article, I want to show how the doctrines of grace undergird and fuel a commitment to both congregationalism and a philosophy of ministry characterized by preaching, praying, loving, and discipling the congregation to maturity. I’m not saying that congregationalism only works with a Calvinist soteriology. I’m simply saying that congregationalist pastors who affirm God’s sovereignty should feel confident that his grace can transform even the most immature congregation into a holy and vibrant community that wields the keys of the kingdom wisely and righteously.
In what follows, then, we’ll consider how our theology shapes our polity, how polity shapes ministry, and how ministry is fueled by our conception of God.
Theology Shapes Polity: Rehearsing the Theological Foundation of Congregational Polity
Congregationalism is theologically rooted in the fact that, in the new covenant era, all of God’s people have the law written on their heart. Yes, New Testament texts explicitly affirm congregational polity (Matthew 18; 1 Cor 5). This polity, however, doesn’t emerge out of a vacuum. The arrival of the new covenant fundamentally transforms the people of God from a “mixed” community (one designed for believers and unbelievers) to a “believing” community (one designed for everyone who “knows the Lord, from the least to the greatest” (Jer 31:34).
This shift from a mixed community to a regenerate one was predicted in the Old Testament. In the old covenant, the people of Israel were in need of a circumcised heart (Deut 10:16; Jer 4:4). Certainly, some Israelites were genuinely regenerated and justified by faith (Gen 15:6; Ps 32). Yet most members of the covenant community were faithless, unregenerate, and “circumcised merely in the flesh” (Jer 9:25–26).
In the new covenant, however, every covenant member has received heart circumcision (Deut 30:1–7). In other words, each new covenant member has received God’s saving grace. God has removed their former heart of stone and given them a heart of flesh (Ezek 36:26), one inscribed with the law of God (Jer 31:33). Further, God puts his Spirit in each member of the new covenant, enabling them to walk in obedience to the law (Ezek 36:27). These texts (and many others) clearly accent God’s sovereign act in salvation and emphasize that these salvific blessings are enjoyed by all in the new covenant.
Congregationalism, then, is a function of this new redemptive-historical reality that each member of the new covenant has been regenerated by God and indwelt with his Spirit. Congregationalism works only because the people themselves are objects of God’s sovereign grace—transformed sinners who can now genuinely respond to God’s Word and yield their lives in submission to God’s will. In other words, these new covenant texts highlight God’s effectual work in the life of each covenant member. There is a natural fit between God’s transforming work as articulated by Calvinists and the way God has determined his people govern themselves in the new covenant.
Polity Shapes Ministry: Pastoring and Congregationalism
As Jonathan Leeman has argued, polity shapes discipleship.  How we view the nature of the church shapes how we approach the Christian life. Similarly, polity shapes pastoring. How we understand the pastoral task is largely a function of where we locate the keys of the kingdom. Pastors who see themselves as having final earthly authority on matters of membership, discipline, and doctrine can more easily tolerate immaturity and doctrinal aberration in the congregation. Why? Because those immaturities likely won’t threaten the overall trajectory of the church.
But congregationalists recognize the keys are not in the hands of the elders but in the hands of the local church—the particular assembly of justified sinners. This in turn shapes pastoral efforts and philosophy of leadership. Pastors do not make right decisions for the church, they teach the church to make right decisions for itself. Leeman even calls elder-led congregationalism Jesus’ discipleship program. They do not (nor can they) care for the whole congregation, so they must equip members to care for one another. Pastors are not necessarily the front line of ministry but the supply line—equipping the saints to carry out the church’s mission.
In other words, congregationalism creates a membership-focused ministry. The pastoral responsibility is not to build programs, raise funds, or even start new ministry initiatives. Instead, pastors focus on shepherding and discipling the congregation through preaching and teaching, all while asking God to produce fruit from their labors. They also focus on raising up elders to share the pastoral burden of discipling members to wield the keys of the kingdom well.
Scripturally, Paul articulates this commitment in Ephesians 4:12, describing the pastoral task as “equipping the saints for the work of the ministry.” The picture here is not of the pastors building up the church but of the pastors training the church such that it “builds itself up” (v. 16) by being a congregation mature enough to reject false doctrine (v. 14) and apply the truth of God’s word to others in a transformative way (v. 15).
Modern pastoral manuals and “how-tos” emphasize the need for ministerial creativity and entrepreneurialism. The supposedly “good” pastor is the one gifted as a manager of ministry initiatives—the more CEO-like, the better. But the biblical picture is far simpler: godly men, recognized as elders by a congregation, teach others what the Bible means and how they should obey it. Then they pray that God would cause the people to obey and encourage others in the congregation to do the same.
Ministry under the Sovereignty of God: Congregationalism and Calvinism
Continuing in congregationalism is hard work precisely because it requires us to trust God’s work in and among our people. Pastors often know how to wield the keys of the kingdom better than the congregation, but we must trust God’s wisdom in putting the keys into their hands, and then plead with the Lord that he cause our people to wield the keys rightly. We can teach, shepherd, counsel, and disciple, but God alone can bring spiritual maturity.
Calvinist pastors, of all people, should be the most patient people on the planet. We should recognize that while we plant and water, only God can give true growth (1 Cor 3:6–7). We can’t engineer results or produce spiritual life—only God can. Our job is to plod, teaching God’s Word to the congregation and trusting his Spirit to work, even though he sometimes works more slowly than we might prefer.
Paul commends this model of ministry in 2 Timothy 4:2: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” Pastors, therefore, must give themselves to the task of teaching—“preach the word,” “reprove,” “rebuke,” “exhort”—with a disposition of “complete patience.” Paul’s command to exercise patience shows just how truly dependent we are on God’s sovereignty to produce spiritual fruit in our people.
Pastoring a congregational church looks like diligent labor, constant teaching, and tireless shepherding. It also looks a lot like waiting—waiting for God to bless the ministry of his Word. Ministries built on attractionalism or that diminish congregational activity and authority with overstaffing are not characterized by waiting but restlessness. But biblical ministry, relying on God’s sovereign grace, gladly submits to God’s timing and purpose. We trust God to produce spiritual fruit at the time he desires to the degree he wills.
Yes, congregations can be recalcitrant. Christ’s sheep sometimes bite other sheep and their shepherds. But remembering that God’s sovereign grace is the bedrock of the new covenant community will steady our commitments to congregationalism and keep us constant in the work of teaching, discipling, and praying. We labor in hope that our congregation can govern itself wisely under elder leadership precisely because we are confident that he who began a good work in them will carry it to completion (Phil 1:6). The same Spirit that formed our local congregation into a new covenant community is the same Spirit now sanctifying the people.
 See Leeman’s edifying discussion on this point in Jonathan Leeman, “Introduction—Why Polity?,” in Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age , Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman, eds. (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 11–20.