A Display of God's Glory/Congregationalism

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By Mark Dever About Church Government
Chapter 4 of the book A Display of God's Glory


Do you consider church to exist merely for your own spiritual growth? When you gather on Sunday morning with your congregational family, you are not simply having your personal devotionals with lots of other people. No, you are participating in the life of a particular church. And when Christians gather as a congregation, it is not merely as individual consumers who happen, by temporarily shared tastes, to be in the same room. We are actually assembling as a living institution, a viable organism, one body. I wonder why YOU go to church.

Let me ask you a question that might help to get to the nub of the matter: What’s the use of the church? Take a moment and try to answer that question. When you understand something more of the church and what it’s about, then the Christian life becomes a lot more than a simple sustained moral effort to cultivate a list of private virtues and avoid a list of private vices. You begin to understand the church as the manifestation of the living God in this world.

Congregationalism—What it Means

Mistaken conceptions of Congregationalism

People have often misunderstood congregationalism. Its detractors have presented it as a kind of lone-rangerish independency. “Separatism,” it’s been called. One writer has defined it as “the claim of individual congregations to act as if they were alone in the world, independently of all other Christians,” (Roland Allen, Missionary Methods, p. 85n1). On the other hand, some of its champions have presented it as straight and simple democracy, tying it up with the inalienable rights of man. Charles Finney presented congregationalism this way:

Episcopacy is well-suited to a state of general ignorace among the people. Presbyterianism, or Church Republicanism is better suited to a more advanced state of intelligence and the prevalence of Christian principle. While Congregationalism, or spiritual Democracy, is best suited and only suited to a state of general intelligence, and the prevalence of Christian principle. (Charles Finney in his Lectures on Theology)
Correct Conception of Congregationalism

None of these are good understandings of the picture of church life that the New Testament leaves us. Congregationalism in no way inhibits cooperation with other congregations in missions, education, evangelism, disaster relief, and so many other things. It does mean, though, that no body from outside can mandate something for a particular congregation, whether in a matter of discipline or of doctrine. Relying on the clarity of Scripture perhaps more than in any other polity, we congregationalists assume that God will lead His people as a whole to understand who should be recognized as members and leaders, what should be believed, and in what should be done.

Some may dismiss congregationalism as just a reflection of enlightenment political theory. But that is simply not the case. In Clement of Rome’s first letter to the church at Corinth, written around AD96, we read of elders being commissioned “with the full consent of the church,” (trans. Staniforth, p. 46). Other examples abound. Certainly Christians in the past have understood this to be taught by Scripture.

Congregationalism is simply the understanding that the last and final court of appeal in a matter of the life of the local church is not the bishop of Rome or Constantinople or Washington. It is not some international body, or some national Assembly, Conference or Convention. It is not the president of a denomination or the chairman of a board of trustees. It is not a regional synod or ministerial association. It is not a group of elders inside the local church, or the pastor. The last and final court of appeal in a matter of the life of the local church is, and should be, the local congregation itself. This seems to be evidenced by the New Testament in matters of doctrine and of discipline, in matters of admission of members and the settling of differences between them.

Four Areas in the New Testament where the Congregation has Authority.

Let’s look at just these four matters in the New Testament:

1. Matters of Dispute between Christians.

In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus told of a dispute between brothers:

If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Notice here to whom one finally appeals. Notice what court is the final judicatory. It is not a bishop, or a presbytery; it’s not an assembly, a synod, a convention or a conference. It’s not a pastor or a board of elders, or a church committee. It is, we read, “the church,” that is, the whole local congregation whose action must be the final court of appeal.

If you look to the passage we considered earlier, Acts 6:1-5, we see an important event in the life of the early church. There was a problem over the distribution of the church’s resources, and this problem was evidently requiring a good bit of the apostles’ attention. Verse 2 reads,

So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the Word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word. This proposal pleased the whole group.

And then Luke goes on to name those whom the church chose.

One of the complexities of using the New Testament as a guide to our church life is the presence of the apostles in these churches. You understand the difficulty. How fully can we later elders, pastors and overseers assume the apostles’ practice as a guide for our own? Can we define doctrine, delineate error, or recall the words of Christ as these could who were with Jesus throughout His earthly ministry, who were taught by Him and who were specially commissioned by Him to be the foundation of His church? Are the names of those of us who are elders here to be inscribed on the foundations of the New Jerusalem as the apostles’ names are? Clearly, the answer to all these questions is “no.”

Our problem with the model of the apostles is that in following it, present-day church leaders might ascribe too much authority to themselves without the competence to deserve such authority. Yet in Acts 6, we see these very apostles handing over responsibility to the congregation. They were recognizing in the assembly the same kind of ultimate authority, under God, that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 18.

Following these examples, Paul, too, taught that the discipline and doctrine of a local church is held in trust, under God, by the congregation. Paul, when writing to the Corinthian church, told them that they were to judge those inside the church (I Cor. 5:12). He writes,“appoint as judges even men of little account in the church!” (I Cor. 6:4). In matters of dispute between Christians, the congregation as a whole is the final court held out in Scripture.

2. Matters of Doctrine

All of the letters of the New Testament (except Philemon and the pastorals) were written to churches as a whole, instructing them as a whole on what their responsibilities were. Even in matters of the fundamental definition of the gospel, the congregation seemed to be the court of [earthly] final appeal. So in Galatians 1, Paul calls on congregations of fairly young Christians to sit in judgment of angelic and apostolic preachers (even himself! Gal. 1:8) if they should preach any other gospel than the one which the Galatians had accepted. He doesn’t write merely to the pastors, to the presbytery, to the bishop or the conference, to the convention, or to the seminary. He writes to the Christians who compose the churches, and he makes it quite clear that not only are they competent to sit in judgement on what claims to be the gospel, but that they must! They have an inescapable duty to judge those who claim to be messengers of the Good News of Jesus Christ according to the consistency of their new claims with what these Galatian Christians already knew to be the gospel.

Paul makes this point again in II Timothy 4:3 when he counsels Timothy and the church in Ephesus on the best way to handle false teachers. When he describes the coming tide of false teachers in the church, he particularly blames, in 4:3, those who “to suit their own desires… gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” Whether in selecting them, or paying for them, or approving of their teaching, or in simply consenting to listen to them repeatedly, the congregation here is culpable. They are held as guilty for tolerating false teaching, as are the false teachers themselves. In basic doctrinal definition, the congregation as a whole is the final court held out in Scripture.

3.Matters of Discipline

In I Corinthians 5, Paul appeals to the whole Corinthian congregation (not just to the elders) to act, in verses 5, 7, 11, and 13. This is not a matter merely or finally for Paul the apostle, or for whatever elders the local Corinthian church may have had. This was a matter for the congregation as a whole. They had all accepted this one in to their number, and they were all now tolerating him. So they were all now implicated in his sin, and they must now either turn loose of this man, or turn loose of their claim to be Christ’s disciples. In matters of church discipline, the congregation as a whole is the final court held out in Scripture.

4. Matters of Church Membership

Paul writes in II Corinthians 2:6-8, “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him.Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.” They had acted to punish this man. In so acting, they had done so by the majority. A majority of church members had voted to exclude this one from their fellowship. The punishment seemed to have worked. It was, as Paul says here, “sufficient for him.” Now Paul writes to the church as a whole urging the repentant man’s re-admission into the church. But Paul can do no more than exhort, because in matters of church membership, the congregation as a whole must be the final court. So it is in Scripture.

II. Congregationalism—What it Doesn’t Mean

Biblical Examples of Erring Congregations

Saying that Scripture presents the congregation as the final court of appeal, the final earthly authority of the meaning and application of God’s Word in our lives, does not mean that the congregation is always right. When Paul wrote to Timothy, his disciple and the pastor of the church of Ephesus, he described the coming evil days in II Timothy 4:3 as a time “when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” Interesting, isn’t it, that while Paul suggests that the congregation is responsible along with the elders for keeping watch over the church’s doctrine (as was implied by his letter to the Galatians), he is also clear here that they will exercise that responsibility badly! Congregationalism is biblical, but the congregation is not inerrant.

Historical Examples of Erring Congregations

This is clear from this example in II Timothy 4. It is painfully clear from the history of the church, the centuries spent largely in darkness, and even by continuing error in the congregations of brothers and sisters in whom we recognize much Biblical wisdom. Individual examples of erroneous congregational judgement abound! In history, we can go to the congregation that fired Jonathan Edwards. They had every biblical right to have that kind of authority, but that was, I think you would agree, a very poor use of it. Think, too, of our own congregations. We bring no more doubts against God’s sovereignty by speaking of His churches’ errors, than we do by confessing our own sins. Even rightful authority established by God in this fallen world will err.

The Picture is Incomplete, but Clear

The portrayal of congregationalism in the New Testament is quite an incomplete picture. We get it in snatches, asides, and assumptions. It is, however, clearly present, and the more one thinks of it, the more obvious it becomes throughout. Nevertheless, the peripheral, assumed nature of it would seem to leave us quite a bit of freedom to exercise the “Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word,” of which the Westminster divines wrote (chapter one).

Almost every gathering of believers is congregational to some degree, whatever the formal structure of government. Even a church in which the congregation only holds title to the property is in some sense a congregationally governed church. In that case, the congregation could always decide simply to pull the plug on the whole thing if they didn’t agree with their leaders’ decisions. Even more is a church considered congregational if the congregation has the final say in issues of budget or the call of a pastor. Add to that the congregation as the final court of appeal in terms of doctrine and discipline, disputes and membership, and you begin to have a congregational church not unlike the models given us in the New Testament. How much further a congregation decides to involve itself corporately in decisions about the leadership, the staff, and the budget, is then a matter of prudence and discretion for decision within individual congregations. Neither nominating committees nor trustees are found on the pages of the New Testament. You look in vain for finance committees or small group leadership teams. Belief in the sufficiency of Scripture, however, doesn’t forbid such structures; it just relativizes their authority. It clearly demonstrates that they are not of the essence of the church, and that they must submit themselves to the wisdom of the whole congregation.

III. Congregationalism—Why it is Important

Why does all this matter? If congregationalism is simply the reality of our lives together as Christians in churches, the challenge for us is not to create it, but to recognize it, and to order our church lives appropriately. We should respect the structures that God has created and trust His wisdom in doing so.

To Maintain Doctrinal Fidelity in Congregations

I know that some in the Reformed camp tend to lean more toward Presbyterian government. This is sometimes done quite subtly, and only half-way. For example, I know that there are many godly, congregational, baptist churches which, in deciding to have elders, decide also to have different, more stringent standards of subscription for elders than for other members of the church. For instance, they have all the members of the church affirm the New Hampshire Confession, while asking the elders to affirm the Philadelphia (or Second London) Confession in addition. While the desire for exemplary maturity in the elders of a congregation is healthy and even biblical, this means of achieving it may leave something to be desired. Do we see such clearly modeled in Scripture? No. Would this perhaps leave the congregation both feeling and appearing unprepared to be the court of final appeal in matters of doctrine, as Paul commanded them to be in Galatians? You must decide for yourself. While I will certainly desire and probably expect a more mature understanding of doctrine from those who would serve us as elders, I would not want to move the church to a more clergy-dependent position than I find on the pages of the New Testament; I fear that such formal requirements may tend to that.

Congregationalism’s Historical Record

Friends, the verdict of history is in. While it is clear that no certain polity prevents churches from error, from declension, and from sterility, the more centralized polities seem to have a worse track record than does congregationalism in maintaining a faithful, vital, evangelical witness. (Congregationalism’s record is particularly enhanced in the case when the purity and visibility of the church is protected through a biblical practice of believer baptism and a rejection of infant baptism.) The papacy has wrought havoc on self-confessed Christians. Bishops have hardly done better. Even assemblies, conferences, presbyteries, synods and sessions, when they have moved from being advisors to being rulers, have overstepped their scripturally-warranted authority and have brought more trouble than help.

Could it be that the gospel itself is so simple and clear, and the relationship that we have with God by the Holy Spirit’s action in giving us the new birth is so real that the collection of those who believe the gospel and who know God are simply the best guardians of that gospel? Doesn’t that seem to be what we see in the Scriptures?

IV. Congregationalism—How it Works

The Account a Leader Must Give

As Congregationalists, how should we respond to Hebrews 13:17? “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” This didn’t mean, of course, that the writer was telling these Christians to become the menial hand-waiters to their leaders. No, the seriousness of the topic in mind is clear. This has to do with the account these leaders will give for their work, and that account is given to God!

Trusting Leaders

Does this have any wider implications? I think so, in that it is always helpful for Christians to have in mind the seriousness of positions of authority in the church, particularly in matters of teaching. James said in James 3:1 that “Teachers will be judged with a stricter judgment.” The account that we elders must give is finally not to our churches; it is to God.

Do you see the importance of all this? In all the corporate responsibility we have, I am not suggesting that God leaves us merely to operate all the time as a committee of the whole. We should give thanks to God for the leaders that He puts among us. We should recognize them, and trust them. The words we see here like “obey” and “submit” are words that we are not used to hearing, but they are words that are applied in the New Testament to people in society and at work, at home and in our marriages, with God and in the church. And they do require, on our part, a certain amount of trust.

It has been said that trust must be earned. I understand what is meant. When a new administration comes in, a new boss is put in place at work, or even a new friendship starts, we want to see by experience how these people will weather the difficulties, how they persevere, whether they succeed in benefiting not just themselves, but others, too. So, we say, trust is earned.

But that attitude is at best only half true. At the same time, the kind of trust that we are called to give to our fellow imperfect humans in this life, be they family or friends, employers or government officials, or even leaders in our church, can never finally be earned. It must be given as a gift—a gift in faith, more in trust of the God who gives, than of those whom we see as God’s gifts to us. It is a serious spiritual deficiency in a church either to have leaders who are untrustworthy or members who are incapable of trusting.

{Graph Goes Here} 

So how should we trust? Imagine a simple graph, with one line measuring increasing clarity and another increasing seriousness. The quadrants are 1) those things which are clear, but not serious, 2) those things which are neither serious nor clear, 3) those things which are both serious and clear, and 4) those things which are certainly serious, but are not clear.

1. Clear, but not Serious (e.g., Should we paint the exterior of the building purple?)—On matters in this category, there will simply be no discussion generally, though under “Any Other Business” I’m never sure what’s going to come up!

2. Neither Serious nor Clear (e.g., Should we close our services with prayer or with a time of silence?)—On these matters, good and spirited congregational discussion is fine. These are not entirely unimportant matters, but neither are they the most important. Everything from cleaning contracts to parking ideas could be included here.

3. Both Serious and Clear (e.g., Should we continue to require belief that Jesus is fully God and fully man in order to be a member of our church?)—There will almost always be agreement here, but should there be serious errors by the elders in either doctrine or discipline, this is where the apostles always appeal to the congregation in the New Testament. Would the church at Jerusalem split? Would the church at Corinth forfeit their witness to God’s holiness, and lead people astray about what it meant to be a Christian? Would the church at Corinth refuse to recognize genuine repentance? Would the churches of Galatia forfeit the Gospel? Would the church at Ephesus accept false teaching? In these clearest matters of congregational action in the New Testament, the greatest of issues are at stake.

4. Serious, but not Clear (e.g., Should we acknowledge this person as an elder or affirm this membership action; should we allocate this serious expenditure, or make this directional decision as a congregation)—These are the issues about which it is most important for the church to listen to the elders. In many ways, it is this quadrant where the elders most particularly serve the church, rather than the church attempting to act as a committee of the whole, or having the pastor, or some committee chairman, make the decision alone. This is the crucial area where a church either enjoys the leadership God gives it and prospers by it, or they reject it and pay the price.

Encourage and Trust your Leaders!

A church member’s basic attitude needs to be either to trust the leaders or replace them. But don’t say that you acknowledge them and then not follow them. If you disagree with the elders on a recommendation, have a good reason. Go and talk with them about it. Other than the Bible, you are the elders’ main source of information about YOU! Let me encourage you to talk behind your elders’ backs, meet in secret and plot to encourage your leaders. Strategize to make the church leaders’ work not burdensome, but a joy. This, the writer to the Hebrews says, will make your leaders a blessing to you.

John Brown, a teacher of ministers in Scotland two hundred years ago, wrote a letter of paternal counsels to one of his pupils newly ordained over a small congregation. In it he said,

I know the vanity of your heart, and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small, in comparison with those of your brethren around you; but assure yourself on the word of an old man, that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ, at his judgment-seat, you will think you have had enough.

How many churches languish today in an evil combination of selfish leaders and stubborn members? Such congregations usually shrink and wither away. Some churches have wonderful congregations, but they have recognized the wrong people as pastors and elders, people who show themselves to be at best careless and stupid, and at worst, base charlatans. Too many of us have been involved in such churches. Some churches have wonderful, godly leaders, but congregations full of complacent, self-centered people. If such a pastor can stay and patiently teach, the congregation can be renewed. If not, such a congregation will, I think, bear a heavy judgement on the final day for wounding good under-shepherds of the flock of Christ. But the healthy church, though filled with imperfect members and leaders, is marked by godly initiative and service, godly teaching and obedience, godly leadership and membership.

It is to that broader idea of membership that we now turn.

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