Friday, October 31, 2008

Why I Am a Congregationalist, 2

After posting some comments on a church battle resulting in the resignation of its pastor, pointing out that as a congregationalist I believe the church has the right to call its pastors, a couple brothers asked me to defend myself. "How could I be a congregationalist?!" No, actually, they didn't say that. They were very kind and raised good questions. It's Friday and I'm a little punchy :-)

So, in my last post I gave this reason for being a congregationalist: Texts like Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5; and 2 Corinthians 2:6 all teach or imply that the congregation acts decisively in the exercise of church discipline. So, in those matters, I am a congregationalist.

A second reason I am a congregationalist involves matters of doctrinal error in the teaching ministry of the church. In short, it seems to me that the pattern for corrective response in doctrinal error involves the congregation finally censoring or removing the erring teacher(s) and safeguarding the gospel.

I have in mind a couple of passages.

First, when Paul writes to the churches of Galatia, he does not address a monarchical bishop or a council of rulers/elders. He writes "to the churches in Galatia." We know the apostle was not shy about addressing leaders or individuals personally where he feels they have some obligation or responsibility (1 & 2 Timothy; Titus; and Philemon). So, his writing to the churches as a whole rather than individual leaders or groups of leaders is significant. And what he tells those congregations is that they are to judge what is taught against what they received, rejecting even angels and pronouncing anathema on gospel-distorting false teachers (Gal. 1:8-9). The congregation has a doctrinal and gospel trust it is to protect. We see a very similar responsibility in Ezekiel 34:17-23 where the Lord promises to judge the strong sheep for abusing the weak sheep when unfaithful shepherds were ruling (vv. 1-16). Congregational response and action are all the more important precisely when the elders or leadership of the church is in error. In other words, if there is no congregational backstop for erring leaders, then there is no safeguard for the truth. It is the church that is the pillar and ground of the truth--not the rulers alone or even primarily. May the Lord make us effective teachers so we have churches prepared to contend for the truth.

The second passage I have in mind is Titus 3:9-11. Here is a letter addressed personally to Titus, and his first order of business is to appoint elders as a previous comment noted. Titus is obviously in a church-planting or missionary situation where he is apparently the sole elder. Duly constituting elders is critical in his context. When Paul says in 3:9-11 that Titus should warn a divisive person up to two times then have nothing to do with him, do we think that only Titus is to avoid the divisive person? That's very improbable since the nature of the sin (schism or dividing the body) is undeniably corporate. For the discipline to work in the case of false teachers and the instruction to have any sense, it must be the congregation that is finally putting away these controversialists.

We see the same thing in Romans 16:17--"I urge you, brothers, watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them." The dividers of the body are able to work their splits "by smooth talk and flattery" that "deceive the minds of naive people" (v. 18). So the entire congregation must pull away from such people.

The church--the entire body of Christ--guards against false teaching, especially when the teaching comes from within or from one or more of her leaders. This isn't merely a pragmatic argument to limit elder rule. It's what the Scripture holds out as the weighted balance against abuses in leadership and false teaching.


Stephen Ley said...

Thanks for these posts. While not persuaded, you make a strong case. But I wholeheartedly agree that this is not a gospel issue, not a fundamental issue, and that unless leaders and laypeople prayerfully seek "the wisdom that comes from above" both congregational and elder-led forms of polity will break down.

BTW I made a strong plug for What is a Healthy Church Member? at our last Session meeting. I'm hoping we'll use it in one of our Sunday School classes and/or new member classes. Grace and peace.

doug said...

Wonderful post Thabiti. Thank you and amen! :-)

Jeff Locke said...


I don't know where I stand on this issue, but I have a question. If there is no authoritative body to appeal to, how would a church go about removing a pastor who is teaching false doctrine? How does something like that play our practically? No ulterior motives in my question, I'm just curious to know!

FellowElder said...

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for the great question. You (and others) don't have to be shy about asking a question or worry about being judged as having an agenda on the sly. We all have an agenda, and that is to know, love, enjoy, and serve our Savior more today than we did yesterday! So, anything that helps us understand His word better and take it into our hearts as precious is a good agenda, even when there is some differing views. Your question is most welcome.

What I think the Scripture models is that the congregation under the Lordship of Christ and His word is the authoritative body to appeal to. So, the final appeal is made by and made to the body as a whole.

In the case of removing a pastor, it probably looks like a series of hopefully prayerful discussions and biblical study of the key issues, and a congregational decision/vote. This is difficult because, honestly, if we had to generalize, the levels of theological and biblical literacy in churches is quite low. So, there is a major weakness in the congregational system if the congregation isn't well taught, or the congregation is largely unregenerate, or if the congregation seems to be abandoning the truth (as was the case in Galatia). Those are real dangers.

But it still leaves us with the congregation either taking a deliberate vote/action or individuals "voting with their feet" in the case you mention. One way or the other, the congregation will act. The very sad reality is that when a man teaches falsely in the pulpit the "strong Christians" are the ones who often abandon "weaker Christians" by leaving the church to the errant teacher. We tend to say, "I love the word and the gospel; it's not being taught here any more; so, I'm going to leave and find a place where it is." But the presumption of Galatians and Jude, for example, works in the opposite direction. It seems to me the correct response is for the body to remember what it received, contend for it, and remove those who blemish the love feast. There is an implicit congregationalism at work in those cases where the body acts as the final authority.

Hope that helps. And thank you again for taking the time to drop the question.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for taking the time to respond so graciously and thoughtfully. Your answer was helpful. You raise things I hadn't thought of before. I appreciate it!