Practicing the Gospel in Community: Congregational Church Polity

[Editor’s Note: This summer we at BtT are featuring old but good posts for your reading enjoyment. Look out for an all new BtT in August 2014. This post¬†originally appeared on August 29, 2008.]

This is the sixth article in a series that explores the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity. Congregational church polity (or government) is the belief that the highest earthly authority within a local church is the congregation itself. Positively, congregationalism argues that a majority of the church’s membership determines the agenda of the congregation. Negatively, congregationalism contends that no pastor/elder, deacon, or committee can dictate policy to a church or assert absolute control over a congregation. Congregationalism assumes a regenerate church membership, and when exercised responsibly, is nothing more than the corporate living out of the gospel within the community created by the gospel.

Congregationalism makes some contemporary Baptists nervous; many of us have horror stories of contentious church business meetings. Others want to safeguard pastoral authority, arguing that congregationalism sometimes undermines the leadership of pastors/elders. While I am sympathetic to these concerns about how congregationalism is practiced in some churches, spurrious application of biblical principles should not lead to a rejection of those principles. In the New Testament, whether its the setting apart of church leadership (in the absence of apostles) or the exercise of church discipline, the final decision-making authority resides with the congregation itself.

It is important to understand that an affirmation of congregationalism does not necessitate the tyranny of the majority. Presumably, a church is attempting to submit to the lordship of Christ and is pursuing his will in all matters brought before the body. Furthermore, congregationalism does not mean that the church must meet in conference for every decision that is to be made. Presumably, every church invests decision-making authority in some leaders, whether they be pastors, other staff members, deacons, or certain committees. While both of these scenarios sometimes occur, we must remember that a divisive or ineffective congregationalism is evidence of a spiritually unhealthy church. To say it another way, troubled churches are often characterized (plagued?) by a corrupt congregationalism.

We must also understand that congregational church polity does not negate the authority of pastors/elders as they lead the church. Rather, congregationalism argues that pastoral authority is a derived authority, exercised under the lordship of Christ, in accountability to the whole church. Furthermore, healthy pastoral leadership should result in spiritual maturity among the members of the congregation, which should in turn result in a Christ-centered congregationalism. Biblically healthy churches must be willing to follow the (godly) leadership of their pastors, while godly pastors must be willing to lead in a manner that is consistent with the will of the (biblically healthy) congregation. Congregationalism reminds us both that pastors are not dictators and that churches are not ochlocracies.

As a closing note, congregationalism is closely tied to the reformational doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. The priesthood of all believers affirms two realities. First, the doctrine argues that every believer has direct access to God because of the high priestly ministry of Jesus Christ. Or, to say it another way, we do not need an earthly priest to serve as our mediator with God because we are in union with the one mediator between God and man, the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5).

Second, Baptists and most other Protestants argue against the existence of any special priestly class of Christians. Instead, we contend that all believers are spiritually equipped for the work of the gospel ministry within their unique vocations. To affirm the priesthood of all believers is to embrace an “every member ministry,” even as we set apart some God-called individuals to serve as pastors (and deacons).

It is this aspect of the priesthood of all believers that intersects with congregationalism. Baptists argue that congregational polity is simply the most consistent application of the priesthood of all believers. Our priesthood is practiced within the context of the gospel community, under the lordship of Christ, in accountability to one another, following the leadership of our pastors. This whole process has the gospel at its center, and it is only when congregationalism is untethered from the gospel that things get dicey. So let us labor for a gospel-centered, Christ-exalting, balanced congregationalism in our churches.

[Note: For more information about how Baptists have understood and applied the priesthood of all believers, I recommend Malcolm Yarnell’s fine essay “The Priesthood of Believers: Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Royal Priesthood,” in Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches (Kregel, 2007).

Reconciling Congregational Polity and Pastoral Authority: Part One

Baptists have historically affirmed congregational polity, or the idea that the church’s membership governs itself by means of democratic processes under the lordship of Jesus Christ. But Baptists have also affirmed strong pastoral authority, of the idea that a church’s members are to submit themselves to the leadership of their pastor or pastors. Seminary students sometimes ask if these two ideas can really be reconciled.

I think I know why seminarians (and many others) raise this question. Many Southern Baptists have past experiences in churches where these two concepts weren’t always balanced properly. Some have been members of churches where the pastor (or staff) made almost every important decision related to the church’s ministry. There were rarely, if ever, church conferences. When the church did assemble in conference, they tended to focus almost exclusively on financial matters like the annual budget, building programs, and the buying and selling of church property.

Others have been members of churches where the pastor had little or no authority of any kind. Instead, pastors and other staff were treated as merely paid employees who worked for a personnel committee or deacon board. Almost every ministry decision was put to a full vote before the entire congregation. The pastor had to seek approval to make any changes whatsoever to the status quo. And if the pastor failed to toe the party line, it was time for him to find another ministry elsewhere.

In both of the above scenarios, I think there is a lack of trust between pastor and congregation, though it obviously manifests differently in each case. It is also possible that in both scenarios, the pastor and staff aren’t considered “real” church members, but are rather seen as either private ministry contractors who are working at their current church or ministry experts who use their present church as the laboratory for all their grand ideas.

No doubt most churches are somewhere between these two extremes, but I know of several churches that could accurately fit each of the above descriptions. And they are of every size and located in every corner of the Southern Baptist Convention, though I think it’s fair to say that in general larger churches tend toward an overemphasis on pastoral leadership while smaller churches tend toward an overemphasis on congregational decision-making.

This is not a recent debate. During the 1980s, one of the common differences between conservatives and moderates were their respective views on pastoral leadership. Moderates frequently accused conservatives of holding to an “authoritarian” view of pastoral ministry. Conservatives responded that too many moderates downplayed pastoral leadership and advocated a polity that was too egalitarian in terms of roles and responsibilities. In 1988, The Theological Educator at New Orleans Seminary even invited Richard Land and Ralph Langley to dialog on this debate in a special issue dedicated to “Polarities in the Southern Baptist Convention.” Land represented conservatives and Langley represented moderates.

For my part, I’m convinced congregationalism and pastoral authority can be reconciled. In my opinion, when we look at all the New Testament has to say about church structure and leadership, and when we take into account the reality that we cannot perfectly replicate their model because there are no contemporary apostles who exercise unilateral authority over churches, it seems like the best way to apply apostolic practices to contemporary churches is something like the following:

  • A healthy local church is an assembly of regenerated individuals who testify to their salvation by confessor immersion and covenant together for the sake of the gospel
  • Local churches are ultimately ruled by Jesus Christ, who is the Head of a redeemed people that he has called into existence through his saving work and who receive that salvation through repentance and faith
  • Local churches are governed by decisions made by the whole congregation, who constitute a royal priesthood in submission to the lordship of Christ as it is revealed through the Scriptures
  • Local churches are led by biblically qualified and congregationally authorized pastors who guide the congregation through their godly example and their proclamation of the Scriptures
  • Local churches are served by biblically qualified and congregationally authorized deacons who care for various needs within the body and thereby free the pastors to concentrate on the ministries of prayer and proclamation

I think most Baptist churches would affirm something like the above, though not every church would say it exactly the same way. But as with so many debates, the devil is in the details. In my next post, I hope to tease this model out in some practical ways that I hope show that we really can be congregational and really follow the leadership of our pastors.