Response by McDonald RE Congregationalism

June 26, 2011 by  
Filed under A Monday AM BLOG

This exchange has provided a most beneficial snap shot of this issue. I have encountered multiple ‘battles’ in churches over this issue. McDonald has done a great service to pastors by capturing this issue in such a brief format. His exegesis and logic are virtually irrefutable. (tcf)

Responding to Satanic Attacks on My Post about Satanic Congregationalism
June 13, 2011

I got a lot of comments disagreeing with my post last week on congregational government. Most were gracious and kind, attacking my position and not me. Some comments had to be deleted, being so eerily harsh they seemed to come from the back pew of a congregational stronghold or an outtake from the original Thriller video.

For more than 15 years I have joked with our Elders that “I am going to write a book called, ‘Congregational Government is From Satan,’ but no one will read it because the lines are so clearly drawn—people will end up either burning the book or making the cover into a poster to hang in the board room.” My blog on Thursday with that long-contemplated title confirmed my suspicions. Many commented demanding I refute the biblical passages used to defend congregational government, as though I had failed to do so because I was not able. Oh please, it was a rant, not an air-tight argument (as many rightly observed). Ranting is okay on a blog, isn’t it? (Crazy how even some blogs that pride themselves on their hyperbole and sarcasm can’t see it in others.)

Refuting the biblical evidence for congregational government kind of feels like refuting the Scriptures in favor of infant baptism (there’s a great blog idea, “Infant Baptism is from . . .  ). Let’s admit our traditions rather than trying to prove them biblical. I believe Elder rule is biblical, but boards, and budget approvals, and bands to play music are all things we made up on our own. Communion in rows with silver trays, committees, and Christmas pageantry are also inventions of man. I believe congregational government is worse than a tradition of man. Satan is the accuser of the brethren (Revelation 12:10), the devourer of Christians (1 Peter 5:8), and the one seeking a ‘foothold’ through relational conflict (Ephesians 4:26-27). I see only a satanic strategy in a system that promotes democracy above God-ordained authority structure and grants to the church membership (another tradition) the capacity to control the church’s future. Yes, all systems are flawed when sinful people manipulate them, but the absence of a full model of church government in Scripture is not permission to invent our own. Let us begin at the place Scripture does, with a plurality of Elders (not one pastor) making consensus decisions and lovingly shepherding the flock of God with gentleness (1 Peter 5:1-5). Here are the three main Scriptures given in defense of congregational government, and then (rant aside) I want to add some needed qualifiers to what I have asserted.

Does Acts 6:1-7 teach congregation government?
In Acts 6 we have Elders delegating deacon nomination to people within the church. Still, the decision to have deacons, what their qualifications would be and the final appointing (v.3) of those nominated by the congregation all rested with the Elders, NOT the congregation. Further there was no voting, no motions, no individuals standing to voice their objections to the Elders plan. We are told that their decision “pleased the whole gathering” (v.5), but isn’t that confirmation that the Holy Spirit was leading the elders, rather than evidence of ratification by a congregation? We understand that Acts 6 describes the action of apostles who were foundational for the church and not normative (Ephesians 2:20). However, surely the establishment of the office of deacon by the apostles, who were more than mere elders, provides insight on how elders should function in the church today and reveals the congregational role as participating, not ruling.

Does Matthew 18 teach congregational government?
Matthew 18 details the process of confronting a professing believer who sins against you. It describes an escalating influence upon refusal which adds first one or two participants, then the final stage of ‘telling it to the church.’ Though we are not told, it makes sense that the ‘one or two’ added as a first step would be Elders or every private offense would create discord as it is distributed to innocent third parties (more like gossip) and then to everyone. If the one who offended ‘refuses’ then the offense is told “to the church.” Who is telling? Maybe the offended brother, maybe the Elders brought in, but clearly not the congregation who are in the role of listening. The goal of this is to increase the pressure on the offender to ‘hear you.’ Clearly the congregation has a role in church life. Those who believe in Elder rule should recognize this participation by the congregation and the need to bring them into important church actions. However, a role of participation is a long way from final authority, voting, and Robert’s Rules of Order. Congregational participation under Eldership is not congregational government and the conversation would be advanced if proponents would stop using this passage to defend the most common configurations of congregationalism today.

Does 2 Corinthians 2:6 teach congregational government?
Paul was wounded by the actions of some in the Corinthian church. He wrote to correct these issues so that he might not be injured again by those who “should have made me rejoice” (1 Corinthians 2:3). The key phrase for those who defend congregational government is in verse 6, “for such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough.” Paul is saying that the pain caused by a member’s criticism was actually worse for ‘all of you’ (congregation) than it was for him, because it resulted in Paul delaying his visit. Paul’s “anyone” of verse 1 was actually injuring the congregation through his action—a frequent result of congregational rule, where a fleshly person ends up negating the blessing that could have come to the whole. The verse is not teaching congregational government, it is describing the “punishment” a congregation might inflict on one who put himself before the whole.

“No!” to Congregational Government “YES!” to Congregational Confirmation

A few other passages which observe congregational participation in the life of the church are used to defend congregational authority—but in what ways should these passages inform our governance? At Harvest we frequently speak of congregational confirmation. We invite the church to submit names of those they believe are biblically-qualified and would serve well as Elders. As Elders we frequently seek, through an insert in the bulletin, the concerns and counsel of the church membership. Every member of the congregation is given opportunity to express their thoughts on any matter of the church’s direction, and receives a prayerful contact from one of the Elders to answer their questions and resolve any issues of disagreement or misunderstanding. We believe that no Elder has a corner on God’s direction for the church and that the Elders together are wise, in significant issues, to seek the confirmation of God’s Spirit through the church membership. However, we would not seek congregational wisdom in a public meeting for obvious reasons, and nothing is ever put to a vote which only polarizes people called to unity.

Solicit wisdom from the congregation? Yes, Elders should do that.
Prayerfully consider the counsel of the congregation? Yes, Elders should do that!
Subject the congregation to a public forum where any member can speak and decisions are made by voting and Elders must follow a mandated percentage of voters? No, Elders should not do that!
I appreciated one of the comments to the previous post which said, “there are only two instances of a purely congregational vote in the entire Bible. The first was when the Israelites decided to go against Joshua and Caleb’s spy report, and the second was when the crowd chose to have Barabbas released instead of Jesus. So the first congregational vote caused the people of God to wander in the wilderness for 40 additional years, and the second one led to the crucifixion of the Son of God—we shouldn’t have a third.”

While I disagree with the 9Marks post’s rationale for congregational government, even in the moderated form they describe, I do deeply appreciate the exhortations for updated church membership roles, active church discipline by elders, and men who fear God more than man. Further, I think their “congregational government” under elders is not very far from our “congregational confirmation” at Harvest. What I am repudiating is not that, but as stated above, the Robert’s Rules of Order, “every man does that which is right in his own eyes” form of congregationalism that destroys pastors and divides churches.
Internationally we have many wonderful Harvest church plants that are seeking to lead people away from the unbiblical excesses of congregationalism without going to an alternately unbiblical form where Elders lord their authority over the people with no pattern of shepherding or even listening to the burdens and concerns of the church. Elders acting unilaterally and not hearing the hearts of the people they lead is not only unbiblical, it is unloving and not servant leadership as modeled by Jesus Christ. I deeply respect our brothers and sisters, e.g. in Romania, who are taking a fresh look at what the Bible describes as biblical governance and seeking a model which respects biblical Eldership and the voice of God’s Spirit to members of the church.

Congregational government was developed to protect a church from bad Elders, but in reality there is no protection from that. As with Eli (1 Samuel 2-4), if the leaders are bad the church is headed toward Ichabod. Creating an unbiblical system to guard against that danger may comfort the fears of the laity, but it departs from the Word of God.

Scripture provides no antidote for the blessing of God upon prideful selfish shepherds. If the leaders are bad the church is going down, but if the congregation has control, often even good leaders are crushed and quit. I agree that any model of church government is exposed to the carnality of its participants and the attacks of the enemy. But surely we can expect the Lord’s protection and provision most plentifully when we move away from traditions and practices which are rooted in democracy and tradition, not the Word of God.

Source of this data – June 13, 2011 James McDonald Harvest Church Chicago IL Vertical Church BLOG Post.

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