Ecclesiology is always a hot topic among Baptists. One of our bedrock beliefs is congregational church government. But not all congregational government is constructed alike.
I’ve been the senior pastor of three churches over the last 27 years. My first church was governed by its eight deacons, who ran the church with something just less than an iron fist. Everything went through the deacon board. The church’s committees and officers had to go through the deacon board to get anything done. They even felt they had the authority to tell me what I could and couldn’t preach (let’s just say we contended about that one).
My second church had deacons and committees, but it slowly, over the 14 1/2 years I served there, became a pastor-led church. In fact, I have come to believe that this is the reason God moved me out of that church. It had developed an unhealthy dependence on me. I never wanted to rule the church, but over time it got to the point where very little happened there that wasn’t my idea.
My third church, the one I serve now, has been (up until the last year or so when we restructured) a committee-led church. In a church that only reaches 300 in attendance on Easter Sunday, we had 22 standing committees! When I first got to Sioux City, I read the church’s bylaws and I stated a theory which was confirmed by folks that had been around a while. Those bylaws had been written by someone who had had a bad experience with powerful deacons. I’ve never seen deacons with less responsibility than ours had. We have three full-time staff members who also give leadership to certain ministries.
So, I’ve served 3 churches: one deacon-dominated, one pastor-led, and the other committee-led. Three churches, three different structures, but these three churches all had something in common which I believe is common to all churches.
They all had elders and they all were congregational.
All Churches Have Elders
Let’s not quarrel with nomenclature here, okay? In none of these churches was there a mention of elders in the bylaws. None had an elder body. But in each of those churches there existed a small group of folks who gave clear and distinct leadership to the church. They were “de-facto” elders.
Elders (whether they are called by that name or not) are a body of leaders in the church who help to steer the church in the direction it should go, the people that the members of the church look to for guidance.
In my first church, I was an elder, to some extent. But the real elders of the church were the deacons, and in reality a small group of 3 or 4 men among those. If something was going to get done, they had to get behind it or it wouldn’t happen. In my second church, I was the lone elder (in the last few years of that ministry – it was not true as much in the early years). I would bring ideas up to the deacons for their thoughts, and they would say, “Whatever you think, pastor!” That was nice, but I came to believe it was not healthy. I noticed something at Southern Hills. We have formed several special committees over the years to make important decisions. A hospital wanted to buy some land from us and we formed a group to discuss it. We needed an site plan to try to make some sense of our fairly odd physical plant layout. We needed to restructure the church. What I noticed is that each time the church elected an ad-hoc committee, some of the same names appeared on each committee. (By the way, I was glad they did – these men were genuine, spiritual leaders). Of course, the pastoral staff also are respected and we have genuine “elder” authority.
My point is simple – every church has a person or a group of people who are the de facto leaders, the elders. Call them pastors, or deacons, or give them no title at all. They are the true leaders. In some churches, these are godly men who meet the biblical qualifications for elder and are officially given that role. In some churches, these can be power-hungry folks who usurp authority through whatever means. Elders, in the real more than in the ideal, come in all shapes and sizes.
The argument among Baptists is not about whether your church will be led by a small group of folks who will give guidance and direction to the church. The question is what you will call that group, how much authority they will have, and whether they will be selected, qualified and commissioned according to biblical standards.
Your church has elders.
Every Church is Congregational
In my first pastorate, we had monthly (and often lively) business meetings. The church voted on just about everything. That carried through into the early years of my second pastorate. One year, while I was on vacation (after this, we never scheduled business meetings while I was gone!) the church had a business meeting in which it spent 45 minutes “discussing” whether or not to buy a roll of stamps. As we grew (and after we wrote bylaws) we put more authority in the hands of officers and committees and our business meetings focused more on the big-picture items. Here, at Southern Hills, we only have a couple of business meetings a year, plus special meetings as we need them. Our August meeting covers nominations and reports while our December meeting focuses on the budget.
Some SBC churches (generally smaller ones) have business meetings in which the church votes on everything. That is impractical in churches as they grow larger. Bigger churches tend to have business meetings that only focus on larger items – passing the budget, electing pastors and other leaders.
But, again, I maintain that every church is, in one form or another, congregational. The government might not be congregational, but in the end the congregation will have its final say. If the congregation is not given a voice in church affairs, if the leadership ignores the consensus and rams things down the throats of the people, they will vote the only way they can – with their feet.
Church leaders need to respect the congregation as they construct their government. Yes, churches need to qualify leaders and respect their leadership. But they also need to empower the congregation and respect the church’s priests (all believers) who are able to discern the will of God as a group and seek the will of God together.
I am not trying to make too sweeping or controversial of an observation here – my point is much more simple. You are going to have a small group of leaders in your church, for good or ill. And your congregation is going to have its say, in one way or another.
I believe that biblical ecclesiology demonstrates respect for leadership and holds it accountable to high standards. It also respects the congregation and its voice in church affairs. There are a variety of ways those interests can be structured, but qualified leadership and congregational consensus are essential for the proper functioning of the church.
I also think that some of our ecclesiological arguments are really more about nomenclature than substance. We are not arguing over whether a church will have elders, we are arguing over what those elders will be called. And we differ on exactly how much authority the congregation should have in church affairs as opposed to the leadership. But, for the most part, we are not arguing over the core truth of congregationalism – that the church’s consensus is essential in the conduct of church affairs.