Different discussions you see and hear about church government as Baptists assume a type of congregationalism. Yet it’s rare in such discussions that anyone presents a definition and defense of congregationalism. I want to address that issue. Certainly in church life, Jesus stands as the sole authority over his church (as Dr. Russ Moore says, “the church is not a democracy by a Christocracy”); but Jesus has vested the final earthly authority under him to the congregation as a whole. But what does this look like, practically speaking?
Biblical congregationalism is about a priesthood proclaiming Christ. The Bible says that we are a holy/royal priesthood, and the two main texts on this are 1 Peter 2:4-10 and Revelation 1:6 with 20:6. Of course 20:6 talks about being a priesthood in the millennium who rule with Christ, and therefore your interpretation is going to be dependent upon your eschatology so for our purposes here we’ll focus on 1 Peter. And Peter tells us exactly what the purpose of this priesthood is: “to offer up spiritual sacrifices” which involves proclaiming “the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness and into his marvelous light.”
I have heard, several times, congregational decision making (as in: business meetings where every member has an equal vote) defended based upon the concept of the priesthood. Yet, the priesthood as Peter describes has nothing to do with decision making but everything to do with preaching Christ. Simply put, this means every church member is a preacher—we are all to proclaim the One who saved us from our darkness and brought us into the true light. As a church body—a congregation—we proclaim Jesus together to the world around us.
Biblical congregationalism is about members of a body serving and ministering to each other to build each other up in Christ. There are a couple of different places we can look for this, such as 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4. The Holy Spirit gives particular gifts to each member, part, and joint in order that we might serve each other. In this service we meet each other’s needs and help each other mature in Jesus. True spiritual maturity occurs within the life of the body, for not only does one member grow but the entire body grows (at least in a healthy body).
If we are truly congregational our primary concern will be for the needs of other members for the sake of the maturity of the church. And, of course, this isn’t about getting our way nor having our say. Rather this is about considering others more important than ourselves and looking out for their interests (Philippians 2:3-5).
Biblical congregationalism is about confirming who belongs to the body and who does not. Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 contain those passages we often use in reference to “church discipline” but there is so much more going on there. That whole binding-and-loosing in heaven thing, it all has to do with recognizing who belongs to Jesus and who does not based on a person’s testimony in combination with a person’s life.
This is why if a person is walking in sin and they refuse an individual and 2-or-3 person rebuke, you take them before the church. It is only the congregation then who, after pleading for their repentance, has the right to rebuke them in such a way as to say, “You are like a Gentile and a tax collector to us.” In other words, “You are a sinner who has shown that you do not belong as a part of this body because you have not truly turned to follow Jesus.”
“Where two or three are gathered in my name” tells us the congregational body, no matter how small or large, has an authority the individual Christian does not: to say to someone, “You belong, welcome, my brother/sister,” or, “You do not belong, turn from your sin and follow Jesus.”
Biblical congregationalism is about affirming, appointing, and submitting to qualified leaders. Each established church is responsible for affirming the call of and appointing the men who fill leadership positions in the church (Acts 6:1-7, 1 Timothy 3:1-13). But they affirm and appoint trustworthy men who they then submit to and follow (Hebrews 13:17). There’s a reason the Bible uses the terms elder, overseer, and shepherd to reference the church’s primary leadership office.
They are elders, in part, because they are trustworthy men of character who have proven themselves good managers through the care of their families and can therefore care for the church in a loving, fatherly way. They are overseers because they provide careful watch and guidance over all aspects of the life of the church body. And they are shepherds because they lead the sheep to feed in green pastures and rest beside still waters.
Yet in most Baptist churches such leadership is hampered because instead of submission, the churches have redefined congregationalism to mean the shepherds must wait for the sheep to raise a hoof in a vote to tell the shepherds where to lead. Does anyone else see the problem with that picture? And some say the shepherds lead in spiritual matters but the congregation makes other decisions; yet I say: show me that divide in Scripture, for spiritual and physical are much more intermingled than that especially in the human experience.
Now, let’s be clear: this submission is not a blind submission. If the elders/overseers/shepherds lead in a way that is contra-Christ, domineering (contra-1 Peter 5), or greedy, or their lives fall into moral disqualification, then the congregation has the responsibility and authority to remove such leaders. They are to follow shepherds, not wolves and thieves.
But if the Bible says submit and calls such leaders shepherds and overseers, then true congregationalism will affirm and empower their leadership by submitting and following, and it will not neuter leadership by attempting to dictate terms.
This comes down to a trust issue: do you trust your leaders? Do you believe they are truly men of character as described in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1? If yes, then why not trust them to lead and make decisions in a godly manner? If no, then the question needs to be asked: is there a reason why you do not trust them? If you have no reason, then the problem is you and you need to repent. If you have a reason not to trust them, then why continue to affirm them as shepherds?
This is also where a church sorely needs a plurality of leadership. When a group of men function together as elders/overseers/shepherds, they are able to hold each other accountable and rebuke those who stray into the sin of ungodly leadership (1 Timothy 5).
In conclusion… Biblical congregationalism is not about church business meetings, committees, and voting privileges. It is about a body that bands and works together to proclaim Jesus, build each other up, confirm each other’s testimony and membership, and affirm and follow godly leadership. Let us seek to help our churches grow as the body of Jesus in this world!