Why Our Church Moved from Elder-Rule Polity to Elder-Led Congregationalism
Our church recently transitioned from an «elder-rule» model of church government to «elder-led congregationalism.» As I have talked with pastor friends from various streams, many are stumped as to why we would do that.
«You mean the elders had the congregation’s trust and could lead freely and . . . you changed that!?»
«Why would you move from efficiency to inefficiency?»
«Why would you get sheep involved when the shepherds can do that?»
Put simply, because Jesus said so. Five words compelled us to make the shift: «tell it to the church» (Matt. 18:17). The context of Jesus’ command is unrepentant sin in the church. He gives three steps to address the sin, and the final step is to tell the church and regard the unrepentant sinner as a pagan and tax collector. In other words, treat them as one who is no longer in the covenant community.
Jesus only used the word «church» two times in all four Gospels. These verses contain some of the most important teaching Jesus gave on the church, and we had better listen up and heed his instruction.
It’s striking that Jesus does not mention church leaders in his teaching on how to handle sin in the church. He doesn’t say, «Tell his family» or «Tell his small group,» or «Tell the church staff.» He says, «Tell the church.» Scripture is clear that when members must be removed for ongoing sin, it’s to be done by the members in the assembled congregation, not by the elders in the conference room. King Jesus says the acceptance and excommunication of members is above the pay grade of the leaders. He has given the keys of the Kingdom to the gathered congregation (Matt. 16:19, 18:17–20; 1 Cor. 5:4).
So, while much messier, elder-led congregationalism allows me and the other elders to stand before Christ on judgment day with a clean conscience, knowing we sought to obey all he commanded concerning the body of which he is the head.
HOW TO MOVE TO ELDER-LED CONGREGATIONALISM
That’s the “why”—now the “how.” I came to South Side Baptist five years ago with a commitment to “preach, pray, love, and stay.” I got to work praying for my people, getting to know my people, and preaching slowly through books of the Bible. Also immediately, I walked the staff through Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.
I began to teach and model personal discipleship and encouraged others to do the same. By God’s grace, a culture of discipleship began forming much earlier than I expected. Ephesians 4:12–16 was a constant push. Still is.
Good literature has been vital. From the beginning, I established a book table and gave away solid books every chance I had. As our country’s reading habits continue to shrink, smaller books have been super useful. We changed our service times to have 30 minutes between Sunday School and service and charged the congregation to use the time to build one another up. We also purchased copies of Tony Payne’s How to Walk Into Church for every member household.
My second year, I took the elders to the 9Marks Weekender hosted by High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin, Texas. This was immensely fruitful! So much so, I’ve taken a church van full of men every year since. The immersive ecclesiology taught by better men than myself, but saying the same things, moved the ball down the field rapidly. Plus, the giveaway books!
I changed our elder on-boarding reading from Alexander Strauch’s Biblical Eldership to a range of books including Jeramie Rinne’s Church Elders, Dever’s What is a Healthy Church?, and Payne and Colin Marshall’s The Trellis and the Vine. As elders, we also read Jonathan Leeman’s Church Membership and Church Discipline; during our meetings, we read Those Who Must Give an Account edited by John Hammett and Benjamin Merkle during our meetings.
The elders were now on board. We agreed we had “fired our church members” and needed to give them their job back. I had just begun preaching through Matthew with an eye toward chapters 16 and 18; the time was right. Plus, there was a member issue that had the potential of moving toward excommunication, and we needed to get the church ordered rightly while things were calm.
So I taught congregationalism to the deacons and home group leaders first, to see how they received it and clarify any questions. It was my hope that they could function as shock absorbers as we laid this shift out to the whole congregation.
I then preached a seven-week series called “Membership Matters.” The sermons were:
- The Community of the New Covenant: basically regenerate church membership from Jeremiah 31:31–34.
- Church Leadership: the church is to be led by a plurality of spiritually-qualified, male elders called to pastor a particular flock. Six callings: oversee, shepherd, teach, equip, model, and multiply.
- The Keys of the Kingdom: Matthew 16 and 18.
- Church Discipline: a “topositional” sermon on 1 Corinthians 5.
- A Culture of Discipleship: Ephesians 4:12–16 (again), priesthood of all, every-member ministry.
- The Mission of the Church: God’s heart for the nations.
- Job Description of a Church Member: 15 marks, adapting and expanding on a brilliant talk given by John Folmar at the Austin Weekender.
During this series, we also had two Q&A sessions on Sunday evenings for clarifications and many practical details the sermons could not handle. In the middle of the “Membership Matters” series, we bought 250 copies of Leeman’s Understanding the Congregation’s Authority to give to every member household.
We have now had three member meetings, and they have been incredibly encouraging. Due to Jesus’ clear teaching in Matthew 16 and 18, our members do not view voting in new members as a pointless and perfunctory duty, but rather the weighty and significant exercise of the Jesus-delegated keys of the kingdom.
While the Lord was already producing a culture of discipleship among us, empowering members to do their jobs (elder-led congregationalism) has poured gasoline on that fire. There’s a renewed and increased sense of responsibility, commitment, and love among the members of South Side. Jesus’ plan for discipleship is bearing fruit.