Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Letter to the Church at Temple Hills: Congregationalism, Congregations, and Love

I'm a congregationalist. I believe the congregation has the final say-so in certain matters, including the calling and termination of its pastors.

History records a couple of mind-boggling decisions made by congregations in the termination of its pastors. The famed case of Jonathan Edwards comes to mind. There, the local church fired the greatest American theologian and one of the principal figures used of the Lord in the first Great Awakening, a revival that swept through New England. A couple pastoral mis-steps and a big fight over communion and membership and down came the axe on Edwards.

Then there is the case of Lemuel Haynes. For over 30 years the faithful pastor of a congregation in Rutland, Vermont, Haynes led the congregation as it grew significantly, championed the gospel against universalism, defended the cause of the oppressed, and wrote eloquently against slavery and for the ideals of the new republic at her birth. After 30 years, following a poorly-handled censure of a deacon, with racial prejudice growing in the body, Haynes was dismissed by the congregation into which he'd poured three decades of his life.

In both cases, the congregations had the right to make the decision. In both cases, the congregations were wrong, in my opinion. Congregationalism is not a fail safe for foolishness or rashness or partisan bickering or any other sins of the flesh. In some cases, congregationalism simply provides a larger canvas for the flesh to display itself. The rule of the majority isn't any more sanctified than the rule of a few bishops. Both have their weaknesses. Bishops may become tyrants; congregations may become mobs.

When a faithful pastor is removed from his people, it is akin to a marriage covenant being torn asunder. The tear is deep and often irreversible. The pains are real and lasting. Memory becomes a phantom that haunts and unsettles--for pastor and people.

There is something that congregationalism presupposes if it is to be healthy. It assumes the people comprising the congregation are actually acting as members of one body rather than individuals "casting their vote" in partisan affairs. It assumes that the allegiance to the whole is stronger than the allegiance to self or any parts or cliques. The party spirit crying "I am of Apollos" and "I am of Paul" destroys the "no division in the body... equal concern for each other" (1 Cor. 12:25) ethic vital to the well-being of the church.

Every member of the church has a responsibility to abandon self and party and fight for the preservation of the whole. "Make every effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to one hope when you were called--one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (Eph. 4:3-6). "Is Christ divided?" (1 Cor. 1:13).

Recently, members of an increasingly prominent Baptist church voted to remove a faithful pastor from his post. The vote was split--roughly 115 folks for removal to about 105 folks against. The vote ended several months of painful dissension apparently led by two deacons who opposed the biblical direction of the church. And thus ended seven years of faithful, patient, gentle, wise and biblical leadership. As far as I am concerned, this brother was far more godly than I, far wiser, far more loving, far more patient, and so on. It's a termination that has the ring of Edwards and Haynes. That is to say, it was within the congregation's rights, but it was sad and misguided.

Now, however, there is a significant problem facing the church that goes well beyond simply finding another pastor. What do you do with a church so evenly split? How do you continue to be one church? How do you put Eph. 4 and 1 Corinthians and so many other passages into practice?

Already many have decided to leave the church. But here are my questions: Why leave the church to the control of a couple of people who do not understand biblical leadership? Why abandon brothers and sisters for whom there is to be equal concern and care? Why now act as though the church is no longer the unified body of our Lord in that local place? Why give the world another example of Christian disunity denying the reality that the Father sent His Son? (John 17:20-21) Why leave and thereby suggest that you were given to that party spirit which exalted men over Christ? Why let that local church descend into what might be generations of unfaithfulness and pain?

Here's one man's plea to almost 50% of the congregation: demonstrate that Christ and His bride are greater in your affections than even the very beloved pastor unjustly removed from leadership. Demonstrate your love for the pastor by remaining committed to the church he worked to build. Keep a view that looks beyond your pain and beyond this skirmish to the people who will come and the generations that will arise, and stay for them. Keep a gospel light on for those who will come. Fill up the sufferings of Christ in your body rather than give in to the tempting convenience of leaving, so that the cause of Christ and Christ himself will be seen as your treasure. Love one another deeply from the heart so that the world would see a compelling picture of forgiveness and grace and mercy and reconciliation and gritty commitment and hope and peace and longsuffering and forbearance and unity in Christ.
You've been dealt a blow, but it's a long battle. Take the pain, bear it and live on for Christ and the gospel and the kingdom. Satan has overplayed his hand. The victory of Christ will now be more apparent and sweeter if you love one another with a sincere love, stemming from a sincere faith, powered by the indwelling Spirit of God.

Of course, churches have reversed decisions before. I pray this one would do so in this case. Call in mediators like those at Peacemakers Ministries. Until there is reconciliation, remove from leadership those deacons causing the strife. As a congregational church, you not only call the pastors but all the leaders--including the deacons. Sit some men down until you're able to pray and work your way to the mind of Christ, then act on the biblical wisdom you've learned over these seven years. Do what you have to do to weaken the devil's work among you and plead for an enlargement of the Spirit's work in and through you. Forgive from the heart as God has forgiven you. Repair the harms done and so bring honor to our Lord.

Please pray for all the saints of God facing church splits, witnessing embattled pastors, and fighting through the challenges to biblical faithfulness. I've written about one such church here, but there are tons more in this fallen world.


Hayden said...

I too have been a part of such a sad 'split'. The first pastor that I ever knew was ceremoniously kicked out because of some petty things. It was painful BUT the Lord used it to call out a faithful group of people and start a new work that is dwarfing the old church in Mobile Alabama.

This is interesting because I have had some conversations on congregationalism vs elder led polity. I just recently finished a 'candidating process' and have accepted the call to a church that is elder led. (actually the last vote they took was to go to an elder led system)

Thabiti, in all of the material I have read on the topic of church polity I have not been able to see a congregational form of polity. I have read Dr. Dever's material as well as Strauch's book on eldership and remain unconvinced. Why are you convinced of a congregational led system of polity? (this is not confrontational at all,which is hard to tell on a blog, just looking to see your Scriptural support)

Stephen Ley said...

That's very sad. I hope that congregation takes your advice and reconsiders. I'm a huge fan of Eric Redmond.

Echoing a bit the previous comment...as an elder in a Presbyterian church I appreciate the fact that the decision to call or dismiss a pastor has to be affirmed not only by our Session and congregation, but also by the Presbytery. Yes, it's frustrating sometimes and sometimes it feels like gridlock, but I believe it's a wise compromise between two extremes. "Where there is no guidance, a people falls,
but in an abundance of counselors there is safety." Prov. 11:14

DJP said...

Brother, it seems to me that there's a reason that there are no mirror-verses to Hebrews 13:7 and 17, calling leaders to submit to majorities.

When was the crowd ever right in the Bible? The mixed multitude? Dathan and Abiram? The apostles in Gethsemane, or when Jesus predicted His death? Israel, before their Messiah?

There's a reason the Bible gives standards for leaders (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1). Taking one untrained, untested, unqualified individual and multiplying him by 100, 300, or 5000, doesn't strike me as a formula for good leadership.

The result is as your narratives indicate.

One Dan's viewpoint. Your mileage may vary.


Shawn Abigail said...

I don't see a lot in the Bible about congregational votes. I do see leadership by a plurality of elders who meet the criteria given in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Having elders does not prevent a church from having problems, but it has a Biblical foundation and has to be better than a system where the most carnal church member has as much influence (or more) than the most godly church member.

Anonymous said...

At some point, brothers of a reformed mindset must determine whether transitioning older congregations to a plurality of elders is a "hill on which to die." I have seen black, white, city, country, large, and small congregations in conflict over this transition. I, too, am a fan of Eric Redmond. Still, those pastoring older congregations must fidure this one out.

Ken Sande said...

Leadership battles and congregational divisions like this occur all too often in both congregational and elder-led churches. As Ed Clowney once wrote (paraphrased), the poorest form of church government in the hands of godly men will do far more good than the best form of governement in the hands of ungodly men. Your counsel to this church is entirely consistent with the biblical call toward grace, humility, reconciliation, and unity. May God grant this congregation and hundreds more in the same position the wisdom to heed your godly counsel.

MHJones said...

Good article sir. Mbuso Zamchiya, one of the men formerly known as Elder at the church in Temple Hills has been saying very much the same thing. I fear he may be right.

I, or course, prefer pettiness and vindictiveness. It's so much easier and so much more fun.