Zebras at a Waterhole in Okaukejo, Etosha Pan, Namibia . PHOTO : J . Rieck

Monday, March 12, 2012

Why I am a “Congregational“ Reformed Baptist

Baptists have  historically been known as  ‘congregationalists’. By this    we  mean that   the  highest court of appeal on earth is  the  “ekklesia of God”  - the  congregation or church of God,led by her  elders,  and  together, under the headship of her ascended  Lord.  

Muddying the waters …

I wish I could  present you with a clear , straightforward  apologia  for  being a congregational  Baptist. I can’t, because congregationalism itself  is subject to weaknesses, since congregations  are after all constituted by redeemed sinners!  To make matters even worse,  congregational Baptist churches   have sometimes  been invaded by non- regenerate  members since the  door into church membership had  not been guarded. This has been the case in  churches  where members were  received  through  an emotional, ‘decisionistic’   form of evangelism  together with  a  shallow  theology of repentance  and a  lack of insistence  upon  a thorough discipleship.  So, when ‘goats‘  begin to rule the church,    congregationalism becomes   a curse  and a nightmare!  Much has been written  regarding this problem in recent times  by Southern Baptist Theologians  of the “Founder’s Movement”.

Notwithstanding the  fact  that  congregationalism  as a form of church government  has its own  set of critical challenges,  I  believe  in congregationalism, and I am committed  to this form of church government.   

Clarifying  Congregationalism…

I know that some Reformed Baptists  have  sometimes  struggled with congregationalism, because:

(i)  They have had an experience of ungodly congregationalism. I personally   have experienced the worst of congregationalism in the early years of my ministry, and there are still shades  of it from time to time, when the congregation makes bad, prayer-less  and   naïve  decisions, overruling their  elders.  Nevertheless,  I believe in, and encourage  congregationalism! 

(ii)   They  are very often influenced by  their evangelical Presbyterian brothers, whose theology they admire, and whose  style of church government  they  find   appealing, because it  eliminates  the  pains  of slow and clumsy congregationalism. In fact, one might argue that they are  “Baptist Presbyterians“, and they would be Presbyterians, if it were not for their  sound views  on believer’s baptism! I also know that some godly  Presbyterian  church elderships  are far more congregational  than they  would care to admit!

Rule by the elders  in terms of  the ‘buck-stops –here‘ decision- making process in the church   admittedly  appears to be preferable  to the  often clumsy congregational  meeting. It appears  to  simplify  the decision making process simply because less people are involved, but I would  argue  that this  does ultimately not help the church to mature, nor to exhibit the level  of congregational life that our Lord truly desires!  Pastor – teachers  and the elders  of the church  exist  to  equip  the congregation to become mature.  To this end Paul writes  that God gave  gifts  to  “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…”  (Eph. 4:12,13). Children only mature as they are given responsibility, and I would argue that this is the strength of true congregationalism.  I would argue that  congregationalism  is the goal  of mature membership !

Therefore …my defense of  “congregational “  Church Government :

1. The congregation  under Christ  is  led  by a servant leadership/eldership  rather than ruling eldership. Jesus frequently addressed  this subject, particularly  when his disciples wanted to set themselves as ‘popes’  in the kingdom of God. (see Mark 10:35-45; Luke 22:26; John 13:2-17 ).   Servant Leadership   is  focused on empowering the congregation, and leading the congregation into responsible decision making. I would argue that this even  includes allowing the congregation to make mistakes (obviously - of a non heretical  nature!), after which the elders  through patient instruction should lead the congregation  to  repentance  and a more  biblical  view of things. I have had such  experiences in our church,  where I believed  that the church had been wrong in a congregational decision. But since the elders and I had been ‘outvoted’ , we needed to teach the church patiently (cf  2 Tim2:24), only to see the church  conform  to the elders wisdom  after a while. 

2.   The Congregation  is the final court of appeal   on earth: Matt  18:18ff - The context of this statement  by our Lord Jesus Christ  is the church:  “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be  bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven“. Whilst elders do undoubtedly have a vital role to play  in guiding the church in responsible decision making and teaching, they must  in the end, defer to the church. This means that the church meeting  (the congregation) may  override the authority  of the elders. The elders are not invested  with  infallibility, nor are they endued with absolute authority. They are accountable to the church. 

3.  Congregationalism  takes seriously the nature of the church.  Each member, born again and baptized    is not only important in the church, but is  also able  to engage in responsible  churchmanship, since the Holy Spirit   dwells  in  each true believer. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit has gifted each believer in order to make a vital and necessary  contribution to the  ministry and well-being of the whole church. This does not only mean that members can meaningfully contribute to the ministry of the church in terms of their gifts, but also in terms of their corporate wisdom, prayer  and counsel.  Let me  repeat something that I have said earlier: Congregational  church government   presupposes  that  our members are converted! Baptist ecclesiology is founded  upon   the principle of  a   regenerate membership.  
  The question is this: Will we trust our members  to participate in responsible decision making?   Obviously, if  Baptist churches   have a large group of  passive, ‘non –resident’,unfruitful,  and even  non -regenerate members,   congregationalism becomes chaotic and risky!   But if the gates to church membership are guarded through making sure  (as much as is humanly possible) that  our members have entered by the narrow gate,   and that our members have been   discipled  into the obedience of the faith, then  we have no reason to fear congregationalism. Someone may ask:  What about  young believers who are not mature, and  who still have many worldly ideas floating in their minds?  I  believe that the mature leadership of the elders who lead the church in responsible decision- making plus the maturity of the older members will have a wholesome influence  over the younger members. 

4.   Congregationalism  most honours  the Head of the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ is committed to His whole church, and if every member does   their part and is involved in the ministry of the church according to their spiritual gifts, and if each member participates in  the congregation  (including in the   decision making processes  involved in  a Quarterly General Meeting of the church),  it also follows that Christ is most glorified in such a church.

5.  Church discipline is congregational. In many  churches church discipline is actually exclusively exercised  by elders, when in fact  both the Lord Jesus, and  the apostle  Paul taught  that the church  was the final court of appeal  in the matter of church discipline  (Matthew 18: 15-18 ; 1 Cor  5: 1-13). I find  that  this fact affirms  our view of congregational church government. In our church we practice church (congregational) discipline, after  all attempts at restoring a person  by the means prescribed in Matt 18:15ff  have failed.

Conclusion :

I am not saying that congregationalism  is a perfect system. Neither am I saying that it is easy. It isn’t ! Ask me … I have been ‘at it’  for 25 years. But I would argue that congregational  government would be   the  logical outcome for a  a maturing congregation.

With tongue in cheek I would therefore  suggest that when a church is planted, it might be governed episcopally. Let the bishop rule over his young flock while they are babies. Then as time passes, add other elders and widen  the  decision - making process and call yourself ‘Presbyterian Baptists’. But since  we  are aiming for maturity (our achievable goal according to Ephesians 4:1-16)  we would  strive for congregational church government !

What do you think ?  Let the debate begin…

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