“Who’s in charge?” …the wrong question.

Yet more importantly, it’s our conviction that congregationalism in the context of elder leadership just makes the most sense of two streams of biblical teaching. On the one hand, you see a stream of passages in which Jesus and the apostles seem to entrust final say to the entire gathered congregation (Matt. 18:15-20; Acts 6:2-6; 1 Cor. 5; 2 Cor. 2:6; Gal. 1:3-10). Every single Christian, every single church member, is going to give an account to God for the role he or she played in preserving the gospel from one generation to the next. He will give an account for whether or not he tolerated false teachers, for whether or not he abided unrepentant sin within the body. Woe to the congregation that does not act to protect and proclaim the gospel!

On the other hand, you see a stream of passages which call Christians to submit to their leaders (Heb. 13:7,17; Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2-3). Every single Christian, every single church member, in the ordinary course of the Christian life, is called to practice submitting to King Jesus by submitting to the earthly authorities he has placed over us, from parents, to presidents, to pastors. It’s how we grow, flourish, and prosper.

This block quote comes from the 9 Marks blog by Jonathan Leeman on June 10, 2011 (read the rest here).

I’ve served on staff in two churches that wrestled with polity questions—congregationalism or elder rule?—and how to strike a balance between the two. This blog article would have been helpful to have read years ago! Often it seems that the controversy attached to decisions of polity boils down to a battle for power. Someone might ask, “who’s in charge?” As if in a congregational model, somehow the congregation is in charge all together, and in an elder-rule model the elders are in charge. But this is the wrong question, as Jonathan Leeman points out. Because Jesus is in charge.

One senior former leader in my last church opined, as I was being forced to leave the church, that this would not have happened if I had been informed upon my arrival that “we are a congregational church.” (Part of the conflict that attended my ministry there involved a move toward elder rule—which was ratified by a 90% vote just recently, more than a year after my departure.) The thing is that people really do get confused between democracy and congregationalism. Leeman reminds his readers that whereas in democracy each citizen gets a vote to indicate his or her will, in congregational churches, following the Bible, we each get a vote to indicate God’s will. I would go so far as to say that if a church member does not know how how sound biblical doctrine and biblical teaching relate to the issue being voted on, he should abstain altogether from that vote. If such and such a member doesn’t know what God’s Word says on a subject, how can he vote to represent what he knows to be God’s will?

It’s interesting to me that 9 Marks is criticized by some people for advocating elder rule and by others for advocating congregationalism. The thing is, both models are evidenced in Scripture. No, that’s not quite right: a model that contains aspects of both congregational authority and elder rule is evidenced in Scripture. When I’ve seen congregationalism go awry, it has typically involved loud and angry congregation members contesting either the church leadership or the pastor or both. When I’ve seen elder rule go bad, it has involved a pastor or an elder fight to hold power. Power is not what it’s all about. It’s about the Gospel. Protecting and preserving the Gospel and the gospel-witness of the church as it impacts the community and culture around it.

I’m glad (though the feeling is a little bitter-sweet) that the church I formerly served is now a step closer to being equipped to protect the purity of the Gospel message with strong elder-rule. I’m also glad because their vote (congregational!) in favour of a move to elder rule allows them (potentially) to carefully guard the highest office of leadership in the church from those who would undermine the Gospel. If done well, elder-rule in a congregational church, with consistent, loving church discipline, can go a long way to keeping the church free from the sort of power-seeking and jealousy usually found among sinful people who love to express their sinful opinions. It’s worth losing a job, it’s worth fighting through hard opposition, for the sake of helping a church stay true to the Gospel and guard its membership against the cancer of unrepentance. Jesus rules.