Through His authoritative apostles, Christ revealed how He wished His churches to operate. They were to be led by pastors (the name is interchangeable with bishops and elders) who would exercise their leadership primarily through their example and their teaching. Under the leadership of these pastor-bishop-elders, the congregations or assemblies (i.e., the churches themselves) would make their own decisions.
This structure exhibits some similarities to political democracy, but congregational church polity should never operate like a New England town meeting. Yes, churches must count votes, sooner or later. Before they do, however, they should also prepare rightly for making their decisions. Ensuring the proper preparation involves both the pastor’s example and his teaching ministry, and it is a significant aspect of his leadership.
Congregational polity works best for an instructed, mature church. All believers have spiritual wisdom, but mature believers enjoy a more fully developed ability to form sound judgments (Heb. 5:13). This maturity comes partly through increasing familiarity with biblical content. It also comes through the application of biblical principles to the challenges of life. Christians grow in maturity as they practice biblical teaching by making decisions for themselves. Pastors who feed their flocks only the elementary teachings of Scripture often perceive that their churches are filled with spiritual infants. To protect their ministry they conclude that they must make the important decisions for these infants. When they do that consistently, they condemn their churches to perpetual immaturity.
The most important ingredients for a strong congregationalism are an expository pulpit ministry and a strong congregational prayer life. Expository preaching focuses upon biblical content and instruction, bringing out the meaning of the text and applying it to the situations of life. Congregational prayer is vital, both for bringing the corporate church into the fullest communion with the Lord and for uniting the church in the search for biblical wisdom and guidance. Congregationally-governed churches should embrace both biblical exposition and corporate prayer as vital habits, and these habits really need to be formed before the church has to make some crisis decision.
Spiritual instruction is the most important preparation for church decision making, but it is not the only preparation. Congregations also need full information about the questions that they are asked to decide. As part of their leadership, pastors must ensure the free flow of information within the congregation. Rare circumstances may occur when a pastor has to ask the church to trust him for something that he knows but cannot tell them, but these circumstances should be very few indeed. Under normal conditions, absolutely all members of the congregation should know absolutely every germane consideration that could sway their decision. The pastor’s responsibility is to ensure that no relevant piece of information is neglected, and certainly that none is deliberately withheld.
Among the considerations that church members must weigh is the perspective of other church members. To make wise decisions, Christians must know how their choices are likely to affect other Christians. Each church member should be able, directly or indirectly, to express any concern that affects the question to be decided. These concerns need not always be well-founded or even rational. A member might want to say something as simple as, “I just feel uncomfortable with this,” perhaps without even knowing why. The church cannot weigh perspectives until it knows what those perspectives are. Pastors who believe in congregational polity have a responsibility to structure discussion times so that any member will be able to air concerns and to know that they are being heard.
Two techniques will greatly facilitate this exchange of perspectives. One is to structure discussion times separately from decision times. Certain kinds of people feel intimidated if they know that a vote is likely to be taken soon after they speak. Consequently, they remain silent. Often, however, they would be willing to express their views and concerns if given an unpressured opportunity. A separate discussion time can provide exactly such an opportunity, especially if it is structured to include conversations within smaller groups.
Another technique for facilitating the exchange of perspectives is simply to give people permission to talk about the issue. For whatever reason, some pastors seem to feel threatened by church members conversing about church business during private, unstructured conversations in their homes and social interactions. Some pastors even label such conversations as gossip. They are not. The most natural thing in the world is for people to want to talk about questions that are important to them. The church is the people, not the building. If two or three get together and discuss a problem that the church is trying to solve, they are (all other things being equal) exercising their rightful authority as believer-priests. In an instructed, mature congregation, such conversations should actually be encouraged.
Of course these free conversations can become sinful, but so can church business meetings. For that matter, so can sermons. The solution is not to halt the legitimate activity, but to foster the maturity that will lead members to avoid sinful conduct, whether in private or in public.
One other element is vital as the church seeks to make wise decisions. It is the ability to disagree charitably. Disagreements do not necessarily arise from sin and they do not necessarily reflect any lack of spirituality on the part of the people who experience them. Disagreements come primarily from human finiteness. They occur when people see or think they see something that other people do not. When perspectives differ, conclusions may also differ. The only legitimate way of mediating these differences is to examine them, and to examine them they must be expressed.
Disagreement can be expressed in an atmosphere of love and respect. This is one of the areas in which a pastor’s example is crucial. How he receives disagreement is likely to set the tone for the entire congregation. If people see that he is reasonable when his counsel is questioned (Scripture calls this attitude “easy to be entreated”), then they are much less likely to feel attacked when their viewpoints are questioned.
Of course, once the church makes a decision, disagreement should normally come to an end. Barring seriously sinful decisions, all church members (including the pastor) are obligated to support the final decision of the congregation. Once again the pastor’s example is vital. He must be the one who models acceptance of decisions that he believes to be less than ideal. He must do his best to work for the success of the congregation’s choices. He should encourage others to do the same.
Under Christ, the local church of the New Testament operates with dual authority. Decision-making authority rests with the congregation, and the pastor is under that authority. Teaching authority rests with the pastor and the church is under that authority. Under certain conditions, however, this dual authority structure can break down. Something still needs to be said about those conditions.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder (Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary). Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Just As Thou Art
Joseph Denham Smith (1816–1889)
Just as Thou art—how wondrous fair
Lord Jesus all Thy members are!
A life divine to them is given—
A long inheritance in heaven.
Just as I was I came to Thee,
An heir of wrath and misery;
Just as Thou art before the throne,
I stand in righteousness Thine own.
Just as Thou art—how wondrous free:
Loosed by the sorrows of the tree:
Jesus! the curse, the wrath were Thine,
To give Thy saints this life divine.
Just as Thou art—nor doubt, nor fear,
Can with Thy spotlessness appear;
Oh timeless love! as Thee I’m seen
The “righteousness of God in Him.”
Just as Thou art—Thou Lamb divine!
Life, light, and holiness are Thine:
Thyself their endless source I see,
And they, the life of God, in me.
Just as Thou art—oh blissful ray
That turned my darkness into day!
That woke me from my death of sin,
To know my perfectness in Him.
Oh teach me, Lord, this grace to own,
That self and sin no more are known;
That love—Thy love—in wondrous right,
Hath placed me in its spotless light.
Soon, soon, ‘mid joys on joys untold,
Thou wilt this grace and love unfold,
Till worlds on worlds adoring see
The part Thy members have in Thee.