by Jonathan Leeman
In this post excerpted from Don’t Fire Your Church Members I seek to answer 10 common critiques of elder-led congregationalism.
(1) Congregationalism leads to isolation and fragmentation between churches. It harms the unity that Jesus intended for his church (e.g., John 17:11, 21–23; Eph 4:1–6).
First, Christians should indeed be united in their obedience to Christ’s rule, but there is nothing in any of the biblical-unity texts to suggest that Jesus or the New Testament authors had institutional authority in mind. Maybe they did, but one has to impose that assumption on the unity texts.
Second, “visible” unity does indeed present an attractive witness to the world. But it’s hardly a bishop reaching his hand into a church that the world finds compelling, or the bureaucratic unity produced down at denominational headquarters. The world is compelled when Christians visibly love one another as Christ has loved them, particularly across generational, ethnic (Jew and Gentile), gender (male and female), political-class (slave and free), education (Greek and barbarian), and general socio-demographic boundaries that divide them (see John 13:34–35; 1 Cor 12; 13– 14; Eph 2:11–22). Loving unity amidst diversity is compelling.
Third, the wonderful illustrations of the interdependence between congregations in the New Testament are not grounded in forced obedience, but voluntarily given in love (e.g., 2 Cor 8:1–8, esp. 8: “I am saying this not as a command. Rather . . . I am testing the genuineness of your love”).
Fourth, with the exception of the Roman Catholic Church, every tradition engages in splits: Presbyterians dividing from Presbyterians, Anglicans from Anglicans, Lutherans from Lutherans, Methodists from Methodists. What’s more, the more logically and biblically consistent position is either the Roman or the congregational position, not something in between. Rome is consistent because it says all particular churches should be united in faith (gospel belief) and order (institutional authority), and it acts accordingly. Congregational churches are consistent because they say all particular churches should be united in faith but not in order. Order unites only the local church.
Everyone else pleads the importance of unity in faith and order, but they contradict this claim by uniting only with their own tribe of churches, no more united to churches in other traditions than congregational churches are.
The question is, does the unity between local churches called for by the New Testament include institutional order or not?
If so, Rome is right, and these churches are being disobedient by dividing from one another. If not, the congregational churches are correct, and these churches deny the authority that belongs to their own members.
(2) Congregationalism leads to doctrinal and moral chaos since there is no higher accountability. After all, who keeps a congregation accountable?
The critique cuts both ways, or every way! Who keeps the presbytery accountable? Or the general assembly, the bishop, the synod, or the pope? One could easily argue, furthermore, that connectional denominations in which authority resides outside the local church, have a poorer track record of remaining faithful to Scripture. Just consider Rome or the mainline Protestant denominations. And when the connection becomes unfaithful, every church becomes infected. When a congregational church becomes unfaithful, however, the sickness is relatively contained.
Furthermore, we should learn our church government from the Bible, but it is worth noting how most political thinkers—like the early American founders—knew that political accountability works best when authority is pushed downward, not upward. Would you recommend keeping Congress accountable by putting it under the president? Or the president accountable by putting him under the United Nations?
(3) The Bible explicitly gives authority to elders (e.g., 1 Tim 5:17; Heb 13:7, 17). It does not explicitly give authority to congregations.
First of all, Matthew 18 explicitly authorizes congregations. There is nothing in the text to recommend reading “church” as elders, and there are several reasons not to (e.g., the numeric trajectory of verses 15–17; how the original readers would have understood the term ecclesia).
Second, Paul, remarkably, treats the congregations to whom he writes as equals. In 1 Corinthians, he says he has already passed judgment over the sinner (5:3), and then he calls the church to do the same (vv. 4–5; 12). So in Galatians 1 and elsewhere.
(4) Doesn’t Acts 15 present a precedent for a council of leaders exercising authority over multiple churches?
Acts 15 is a tough passage. But a couple of things are worth observing.
First, the so-called council does not consist of multiple leaders from multiple churches, but several delegates from Antioch seeking counsel from their mother church in Jerusalem.
Second, the Jerusalem congregation is present.
Third, the Jerusalem congregation consents to the final conclusion.
Fourth, the text actually says nothing about how the decision is reached.
Fifth, the apostles were present, and they claimed the Holy Spirit agreed with their decision!
Sixth, Luke’s primary purpose in the passage is not to establish guidelines for polity, but to explain what the early church determined regarding circumcision and its role in salvation and church membership.
In short, I would say that Acts 15 offers no real instruction for church polity today; instead, the Holy Spirit-inspired, apostle-written letter that went out from the church in Jerusalem should be treated almost like any other New Testament epistle. It’s not binding as a matter of ecclesiological authority but as authoritative apostolic instruction that would eventually be canonized as Holy Spirit-inspired, apostolic Scripture.
Just consider: is the letter from Jerusalem binding on churches today by virtue of the authority of the church in Jerusalem, or by its inclusion in Scripture? The answer to that question will indicate what kind of authority the letter sent from Jerusalem bore—ecclesiastical or uniquely apostolic.
(5) The Bible tells church members to “submit to” and “obey” elders. To say the congregation has final rule reduces elder authority to a so-called advisory or influential authority, which is not really authority. In other words, congregationalists merely give lip service to elder authority.
The critique treats authority as one kind of thing when the Bible establishes several kinds of authority in the church, all of which work together. Elder authority, in the congregationalist conception, is real authority because
(1) God established it (e.g., Acts 20:28);
(2) it possess a heavenly and eschatological sanction, meaning Jesus will judge unlawful acts of disobedience to elder authority on the last day;
(3) that end-time sanction should weigh on a believer’s conscience; and
(4) a pattern of unrepentant insubordination to an elder is potentially grounds for church discipline.
(6) Congregationalism is inefficient and makes it hard to get things done.
Compared to other forms of church government, yes, congregationalism can be inefficient. But so is sanctification, and the inefficiency of congregationalism is, in essence, the inefficiency of Christian growth. Learning is inefficient.
Like a parent who is trying to help children grow in maturity, so a pastor’s job is not just to make all the decisions for church members but to lead them in good decision making. And, yes, that takes slow, careful shepherding work. A person who doesn’t have patience for that kind of work probably shouldn’t be a pastor. Business might be a good career.
(7) Congregationalism is just a reflection of Western democracy. It’s a modern idea, not a biblical one.
First, democratic mechanisms were commonly used in the ancient world—everywhere from ancient Greece to the Roman republic to the Jewish communities at Qumran.
Second, congregational inflections can be heard both in the early church (from the Didache to Clement and even to Cyprian) and the Reformation church (see Luther and Calvin).
Third, the renewal of contemporary forms of congregationalism (1500s) preceded the renewal of contemporary forms of democracy (1700s).
Fourth, congregationalism, properly understood, is not a democracy but a mixed government.
(8) There is no example of every member voting in the Bible.
Look at what many commentators say about the word “majority” in 2 Corinthians 2:6. It’s difficult to know how Paul knew a majority acted unless there was a vote. In fact, what the Bible actually never shows is the session, the presbytery, the synod, or the college of cardinals voting! (Every form of polity employs some set of parties voting. It’s just a question of whom.) It is worth recalling, moreover, that voting is a form, not an element. And forms are somewhat flexible.
(9) It lets the sheep fire the shepherd (as with Jonathan Edwards). That doesn’t make any sense!
Then Paul doesn’t make sense, because that’s what Paul does. In fact, Paul tells the churches of Galatia to fire him or an angel from heaven for preaching a false gospel (Gal 1:6–9). This doesn’t mean congregations can fire their pastors whenever they please. They need biblical grounds. Jonathan Edwards’s congregation was probably wrong to fire him, even if they possessed the right to fire him. Legitimate mechanisms can be used wrongly.
(10) Congregationalism fosters infighting and gives immature believers influence.
Perhaps, but it gives the immature influence only in the way that God’s gift of decision making to humanity gives the immature influence. You cannot make an omelet without breaking some eggs. The very opportunity to make decisions provides a platform for maturity and growth. Specifically, congregational rule gives the immature members the opportunity to exercise their submission muscles by learning to submit to the elders’ leadership, as well as their wisdom and discernment muscles, which they need to make decisions that are crucial to the integrity of the church. Elder leadership requires the elders to equip the church for this rule. Elder-ruled polities, on the other hand, deny the congregation this opportunity for training and growth.