Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Why I Am a Congregationalist, 1

A couple folks visiting to comment in my last post have asked on what biblical basis am I a congregationalist. That's what I get for throwing out terms like "congregationalist"!

No, actually, I welcome the questions and the comments from what looks like my elder rule and presbyterian friends. So, let me try to sketch out a few reasons why I am a congregationalist.

But first, a couple of caveats.

1. While I think the Scripture is sufficient and tells us everything we need to know about how to organize the local church and how to define relationships between local churches, I don't think what we're told about local church polity is anywhere near exhaustive or extensive or plentiful. The biblical date, imo, is sufficient but it's also slight.

2. I don't think polity is a matter that should create acrimony between Christians. Practically speaking, it is a matter that divides Christians because either you'll organize in some hierarchical, interlocking structure or you won't. You can't be both locally "autonomous" (not sure I like the word or the connotations) and episcopal. But this is not a gospel issue; it's not a fundamental.

3. By congregationalist, I don't mean American-styled democracy where it's one-man one-vote on every issue. So, when I use the term I'm not insisting that there is a vote on everything or that there is no appointed leadership and decision-making beyond or apart from the congregation. I certainly affirm the leadership and authority of a plurality of elders in a local church body. That's part of the apostolic practice, but that's not the whole of the apostolic practice.

So, a couple of reasons why I am a congregationalist.

First, because Jesus was a congregationalist. I guess I should elaborate on that point, huh?

In Matthew 18:15-17, the Lord gives an outline of "steps" to be followed in the case of private offenses. If one brother sins against another, there is a process for reconciliation and restoration to be followed, the end of which is the entire church hearing the matter, addressing the person, and treating the person as a tax collector should the person remain unrepentant. The last line of defense, if you will, is the congregation--not the elders or a synod or bishop located elsewhere. The local congregation adjudicates.

In the example of scandalous public sin in 1 Corinthians 5, the apostle Paul writes to the congregation and exhorts the congregation--not the elders or a regional body--to "hand the man over to Satan" and "put the man out of the fellowship." It's the congregation that acts decisively in this matter of discipline. They take this action, at the apostle's instruction, "when [they] are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (v. 4). It's the local assembly that takes this action. Second Corinthians 2:6-7 refers "to the punishment inflicted by the majority," indicating that the disciplinary action was taken by a majority of the congregation in Corinth. Whether 2 Corinthians refers to the same incident addressed in 1 Cor. 5 is immaterial. In fact, if 2 Corinthians addresses a different incident, it only strengthens the case for congregational responsibility in matters of discipline and membership.

So in these passages it's clear that the congregation takes the final and decisive action in membership and discipline, including a vote of some form in 2 Cor. 2. Both the Lord Jesus and the apostle Paul teach this. So, this is reason one for me: Jesus and the Apostle Paul instruct local congregations to handled matters of discipline and membership.

Tomorrow, D.V., another brief point.


Hayden said...


The Matthew 18 argument is an argument from silence. The text literally says, 'tell it to the church and if he refuses to listen even to the church let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector...'it says nothing about voting or adjudicating but on the congregation being informed and asked to be a part of teh discipline. This is not talking about a 'get out the vote effort' :) I have witnessed this at Grace Community Church and have seen it done where a person's name is named and the congregation is told to pursue the person. If they refuse to repent after some time they are 'treated as an unbeliever'. They are not making the decision but are participating in the execution of the decision.

I think the part that many people do not get is that an elder led system is not secretive in sharing information with the congregation. They do not have a deaf ear to the concerns and questions of the congregation. They are just charged as elders to make the final decision and the congregation is to 'submit' to their leadership (Heb 13:17). This is never done in a vacuum, if it is done right.

What you see in both examples is the congregation being involved in the discipline of a errant brother with the hope of restoration. Elder led government would have no problem with this just they see no reason to vote in such things.

The 1 Corinthians 5 verse has Paul saying, "I have decided" with Paul taking the role of the Elder over this church. He made the decision because they failed to do it! Again the congregation was not voting or in this case involved in the making of the decision but they were involved in executing the decision.

To me, and I have been in both types of churches, congregationalism can become 'paralysis by analysis'.

It is true that elder leadership can be abused but there are safeguards to remove them. Hopefully, no elder 'lords over' the people they are leading.


By the way, I do agree with you about the not separating over this issue. This is not on the level of getting the Gospel wrong. Your blog is still my favorite for intelligent conversation about the church, even if I think you are wrong in this case my brother. :)

FellowElder said...


I love it when a brother calls me wrong and then adds a smiley face! :-) And more than that, I love it when the disagreement is over what Scriptures says or means in the Spirit of Christ, and not disagreement over preference or culture or tradition, etc.

But, my brother, you didn't deal with 2 Corinthians 2. :-)

It's clear that "the majority inflicted the punishment."

As for 1 Cor. 5, I don't think I see in the text your assumption about Paul "taking over" as though an elder in that church. Clearly the place is so out of whack that the church is somehow celebrating the sin (v. 2). But if Paul were taking over, why does he instruct the assembly to "hand this man over to Satan"? Again, the assembly is taking the final action, and that really is inescapable if the discipline is to have any teeth. Finally, if this is an elder-led congregation, we'd at least expect Paul to specifically address the elders in this matter (sorta the way Peter does in 1 Peter 5:1) if for the one reason of rebuking the elders publicly for not acting in accord with Christ (1 Tim. 5:19-20). Their public rebuke should have been intruction for the whole. But he doesn't address the elders; he addresses the gathered congregation.

I agree with you about how elders are to lead the process. Here and elsewhere, elders would be leading throughout in just the way you outlined... informing, teaching, guiding, etc, and the congregationn would be submitting to the elders' rule and authority via the teaching. The difference is the last "step" or action. Because the pattern in Scripture demonstrates congregational action, in matters of discipline the last step is congregational action, some way to arrive at "the majority" who acts.

I don't think I'm arguing from silence. I think congregational action is seen in all the texts cited and practically is necessary (treat him like a pagan or tax collector) for the discipline to be effective at hopefully producing repentance.


Hayden said...

I guess I don't see your point with 2 Corinthians 2. In any elder led system that I am aware of the congregation is involved in the life of the people of the congregation. The punishment 'inflicted by' the majority (which is in italics by the way ;)) is not really specified. Is the point of 2 Cor 2 to hold up congregational involvement or to talk about forgiveness?

In any elder led system that is functioning biblically there is action by the congregation with the direction coming from the elders.I don't think that the congregation should have no involvement in decisions BUT I do think that the elders are vested with the final decision and the congregation is to follow.

This is much like the roles in a marriage. Are we to take a vote in our families for the decisions that we make and go with the majority? (I know my kids would like that model, we would have pancakes and hot dogs all of the time :)

The voting aspect is very hard to find in Scripture because there is no clear example of it. The elders are to lovingly lead the congregation in all areas and set a vision. I know that you don't disagree with me on this it is just the voting thing that we disagree on.

2 Cor. 2 is a great passage on the body of Christ doing what they are supposed to do, warn an errant believer and forgive when repentance comes.

FellowElder said...

Hi Hayden,

I think we have a lot of substantial agreement about the who is leading when and the Christian tone that should characterize that leadership, especially in the case of discipline.

I also agree with you that the main point of the 2 Cor. 2 passage is to encourage the congregation to affirm its love for the repentant brother. Though that's the main exhortation, two things should also be clear in what Paul says:

1. It is the congregation that is to affirm their love, not just the elders or some smaller body; and
2. It is the congregation (the majority or rest) who has taken the previous action of punishing the brother.

A quick quote from Kruse's comments on this verse make my basic point:

"The word translated punishment (epitimia) is used only here in the NT, but in extra-biblical writings it is used of the imposition of either legal penalties or commercial sanctions. Its use here approximates to the former sense and suggests that the congregation had acted formally and judicially against the offender. The word translated majority (pleionon) could be also construed "the rest", in which case the punishment of the offending member would have been determined by a unanimous decision of the rest of the congregation, not simply by a majority."

If you let go of an a priori elder led assumption for a moment, I don't know what other conclusion we could draw other than the conclusion that it was the congregation acting decisively in both the previous removal and now the reinstatement of the brother. This is a very clear example of voting (or something like voting) in the Scripture (how else are we to understand "the majority"?). To assume otherwise is to import assumptions or texts in a way that isn't included in the immediate statements of 2 Cor. 2.

Hopefully in a later post I'll wrestle with how I think this fits with something like Heb. 13:17. But for now, could you help me with this statement: "BUT I do think that the elders are vested with the final decision and the congregation is to follow." Where are you finding this? Is it passages like Heb. 13:17 only, or are there other places?

Your brother loving the dialogue,

Anonymous said...

Excellent topic

As you men both know,

either system can work, and have worked historically.

Thabiti's preference for a congregationalist system, is warranted by the cited scriptures and more.

The nobility of that position is the inclination and responsibility of the members to have vested spiritual interest in it's health as a body.

This requires all the members to be taught and learned about the nature and calling of the Church in a subjectve way, that often does not come across in most of your elder driven Churches.

This is just a fact.

I have for years been apart of your elder led Churches, and have seen the pathetic passivity on the part of the congregation as a whole, when issues came up, and the need for their invlovement in prayer and participation was required.

Also, when the leadership corrupts, as many have, the congregation, often silently sits and watches as the elders make decisions which harm the direction of the fellowship, because they were conditioned to be merely an onlookers.

Unfortunately much like our government, and the political climate of today, which seems to be headed in a bad direction, simply because the citizens are too detached to recognize their rights being violated, conditioned by a nanny state political process.

Perfection awaits us.

but with godly men and women, both systems can work, well!

By Grace Alone,


Hayden said...


Either way can be corrupted because we all are sinners, BUT the question is not what 'works' (pragmatism) but which model is most likely biblical.

I contend that the elder led system is closest to the biblical model. The fact that Titus is to 'appoint' elders in Crete and also in acts we see the appointing of elders all with the purpose of leading the congregation. Elders that are not servant leaders and abuse the leadership of the church should be rebuked and confronted.

Alexander Strauch makes a very good case for elder leadership from the Scriptures in 'Biblical Eldership'. I have read Dr. Dever and others that have a modified congregational system put forward and I find their case less compelling when you look at the biblical data.

I challenge us all to examine our preconceptions and experiences in light of Scripture.

Where is Dan Phillips when you need him? Brother Dan, calling brother Dan!