Congregational Church Polity: A Biblical Defense

Congreagational Church Polity

This is a paper that I wrote for one of my seminary classes that deals with the idea of congregational church polity. It was originally written in December of 2010. I have done minor editing for clarity. Enjoy!


One question that the church has to wrestle with is, “How are decisions of the church to be made?” As a result of answering this question there seem to be at least three systems that church governments fall under–Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Congregational.[1] Each of these systems has benefits and drawbacks as well as a surplus of variations on the main theme.

A crucial issue pertaining to this topic is whether or not “the content of the New Testament, in regards to church government, is descriptive or prescriptive.”[2] The heart of this issue is whether or not what is written in the New Testament is intended to describe the way the church did things in the first century, or if it establishes a foundation on which all churches, for all time, should base their church government.

While the way a church operates is important, the form of church government is not a major doctrine. Major doctrines would include the Trinity, substitutionary atonement, or the authority of Scripture. Just because it does not fall into one of these ‘major’ categories does not mean that it is unimportant. [3] Another question to be answered on this issue would be, “after examining the New Testament is there a particular form of church government that is preferable over the others?” Is there a New Testament pattern for church government?

This paper will give a brief description of the Episcopal and Presbyterian systems and then give major attention to the biblical support as to the reason that the Congregational system follows the pattern of the New Testament.

Episcopal Polity

In the Episcopal form of church government, the authority rests in the office of archbishop, who is head of many bishops. They, in turn, have authority over a “diocese,” which are simply the churches under the jurisdiction of a bishop. The officer in charge of a local parish is a rector, commonly called a priest. Technically, archbishops and bishops are also priests since they have been at one time ordained in this system.[4]            

The Episcopal form of church government is also referred to as hierarchical[5] or monarchical.[6] This is due to the fact that authority is dispensed downward from the top. There are several groups that hold to some form of Episcopal polity. The most well developed Episcopal system can be seen in the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). Central to RCC polity is the doctrine of “apostolic succession.” A recent Catechism summarizes this doctrine as follows: “Just as the office which the Lord confided to Peter alone, as first of the apostles, destined to be transmitted to his successors, is a permanent one, so also endures the office, which the apostles received, of shepherding the Church, a charge destined to be exercised without interruption by the sacred order of bishops.”[7] Under the RCC system the Archbishop (Pope) holds all the authority, which has been “passed down” from Peter through the generations.

Presbyterian Polity

In Presbyterian forms of church government, authority resides in the elders. Each congregation elects its elders to a “session.” The pastor of a church is one of the elders in the session with equal authority to all other elders. The session has governing authority over the church. Additionally, some or all of the elders are also members of a “presbytery,” which has authority over the churches of a region. Furthermore, some of the members of the presbytery will be members of a “general assembly” which has authority over all the Presbyterian churches in a nation or region.[8]

Presbyterian polity is expressed in varying forms, but it is very common for supporters of this view to emphasize a difference between ruling and teaching elders. A passage of Scripture central to the Presbyterian position is 1 Timothy 5:17: “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” From this text and others in the New Testament, advocates of Presbyterian ecclesiology contend that there are two different groups of elders: ruling and teaching. Robert Reymond argues for such a distinction and says, “Ruling Elders then is a term descriptive of the non-ministerial elders of the church; teaching elders are those that have been set apart for the ministry of the Word.”[9]

Congregational Polity

In Congregational forms of church government, the authority rests within a local church. This system begins with the lordship of Jesus Christ over each member and assumes a regenerate church membership.[10] James Garrett is helpful with his definition of congregational polity:

It is that form of church government in which final human authority rests with the local or particular congregation when it gathers for decision-making. This means that decisions about membership, leadership, doctrine, worship, conduct, missions, finances, property, relationships, and the like are to be made by the gathered congregation except when such decisions have been delegated by the congregation to individual members or to groups of members.[11]

In contrast to the Episcopal and Presbyterian systems, Congregational churches have no person or organization above or over the local body, except Jesus Christ as its head.[12] The congregation makes decisions for their own church under the direction and authority of Jesus Christ. Garrett is again helpful here, saying that:

It is the intention under congregational polity that the congregation govern itself under the lordship of Jesus Christ (Christocracy) and with the leadership of the Holy Spirit (pneumatophoria) with no superior or governing ecclesiastical bodies (autonomy) and with every member having a voice in its affairs and its decisions (democracy).[13]

In congregational polity, there is nothing “higher” than the local church, and the local church does not need any outside authorities to justify its decisions in any area.[14]

The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 says this about congregational polity, “Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes.”[15]

That said, there are various ways in which this form of church government is manifested among congregational churches. These manifestations start with a single elder/pastor model, in which the congregation chooses the pastor and the final decision on things fall on him. On the other end of the spectrum, there is a “pure democracy” in which every decision, small or great, comes before the body for a decision.[16] Somewhere in the middle of that spectrum is what the Bible teaches about church government. These details all lead to the question of what the Bible says about how the church should make decisions.

Adrian Rogers described the congregational church to be “pastor-led, deacon served, committee-operated, and congregationally affirmed.”[17] Is this what the New Testament has in mind for church government?

Matthew 18:15-17 is a key text to which many go to show support for congregational polity. The majority of modern commentators take the words “tell it to the church,” in 18:17 as a reference to a local or specific congregation. The steps involved in resolving and restoring a Christian brother, who has had some kind of moral or relational failure, begins with an individual plea for repentance and ends with the local congregation. Thus, Jesus is granting the authority of discipline to congregational church government.[18]

In Acts 6:3, the Jerusalem congregation alone was tasked with choosing seven men who were “spirit-filled” and were of “good reputation” to be in charge of the everyday matters of the church–“waiting on tables.”[19]

In Acts 13:2-3 the Holy Spirit leads the church in Antioch to set apart Saul and Barnabas for missionary work. The words, “they were worshipping,” in verse two, is in reference to the whole congregation in Antioch, while the words, “they placed their hands on them,” is in reference the three men mentioned in verse one. The whole church, from the leaders to the members, seem to be involved in the commissioning of these two missionaries.[20]

In Acts 15:22, the apostles and elders along with “the whole church” of Jerusalem choose messengers to deliver their message to the church in Antioch.

Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:2, shames the congregation for their celebrating of one man’s sinful behavior rather than “being filled with grief.” Paul puts the responsibility of expelling this immoral brother on the whole community of believers in Corinth–the local church. This action would have been for purposes of preserving the holy character of the congregation. However, this does not mean that the church should discontinue seeking the redemption and restoration of this man, but rather the way the whole church approached the situation was wrong and should have been taking care of by the body as a whole.[21]

In 2 Corinthians 2:6, we have the account of a man who has taken sufficient punishment by the “majority” and is now in need of “forgiveness,” “comfort,” and “love.” The church was apparently acting against an offending Corinthian brother based upon the majority vote. The construction of this sentence leaves us to understand that there must have also been a dissenting minority. However, as a body, the church had passed their judgment, with their votes in obedience with the suggestion of their Apostle. Now that they have successfully disciplined him through the congregation, they need to express to him Christian love.[22]

Congregational church polity is closely connected with the concept of the priesthood of the believer. If all believers are to exercise the “royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9) through the offering of spiritual sacrifices, then those same believers, who are priests, should participate in, and be responsible for, the basic decision–making of the congregation.[23] It naturally follows that if all believers are priests then all believers have a voice in the decision-making processes. This is a stark contrast to the Episcopal and Presbyterian systems of church governance.

There are many other New Testament texts that reinforce congregational church polity as the preferred polity for the church.[24] While this is true, there are many ways that this form of government manifests itself in practice. Dr. Alan Branch gives some great insight into common mistakes in congregational church government. They are as follows:

  1. Ecclesiology more influenced by American Civics than the New Testament
  2. Elevation of parliamentary procedure and church Constitutions above the Bible
  3. Business meetings held too frequently.
  4. Failure to empower leadership.
  5. Voting on minutia.
  6. Situations where the most immature members of the congregation are allowed to influence key decisions.[25]
  7. Allowing inactive members to vote in conference[26]

Knowing the weaknesses of this form of church government can help people be on guard so that they do not abuse the system of church government that is represented in the Scripture.

The verses that have been looked at in this paper, along with the discussion on what congregational polity is and common mistakes, have illustrated the nature of how the New Testament depicts the church as a congregational body. The membership of these bodies is to take an active role in the decision-making process, which is done autonomously from other entities. These New Testament examples show the church operating under a congregational form of church government. So the questions from the beginning; “How are decisions of the church to be made?” “Is the content of the New Testament, in regards to church government, descriptive or prescriptive?” “Is there a particular form of church government that is preferable over the others? Is there a New Testament pattern for church government?” This study shows that there is a way that the New Testament both describes and wants us to follow in making the decisions of the church. That way is known as Congregational church polity.

 

 

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction To Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 904.

[2] Dave Pine, Services: Coaching and Consultation: Church Polity, http://www.cbnw.org/services/coaching/polity/congregationalGovernment.pdf (accessed November 25, 2010).

[3] Grudem, 904.

[4] Grudem, 923-924.

[5] Grudem, 923.

[6] Walter Thomas Conner, Christian Doctrine (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1937), 266.

[7] Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1995), sec. 862.

[8] Grudem, 296.

[9] Robert Reymond, “The Presbytery-Led Church,” in Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity, Brand and Norman, eds. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2004), 121. Italics added.

[10] Nathan Finn, Practicing the Gospel in Community: Congregational Church Polity, http://betweenthetimes.com/2008/08/29/practicing-the-gospel-in-community-congregational-church-polity/ (accessed 11 24, 2010).

[11] James Leo Garrett, Jr. “An Affirmation of Congregational Polity,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry Vol.3, No. 1 (Spring 2005).

[12] Chad Owen Brand & David E. Hankins, One Sacred Effort: The Cooperative Program of Southern Baptists (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005), 43.

[13] James Leo Garrett, Jr., Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical, 2d ed. (BIBAL Press: North Richland Hills, TX, 2001), 2:644.

[14] One Sacred Effort, 44.

[15] Baptist Faith and Message, http://www.sbc.net/bfm/bfm2000.asp (accessed 11 29, 2010). Art. VI.

[16] Grudem, 928-936.

[17] Adrian Rogers, The Incredible Power of Kingdom Authority: Getting an Upper Hand on the Underworld (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishing, 2002),186.

[18] Jr. James Leo Garrett, “An Affirmation of Congregational Polity,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry 3, no. 1 (Spring 2005).

[19] Malcolm B. Yarnell III, “The Church,” in Baptist Faith and Message 2000: Critical Issues in Americas Largest Protestant Denomination, ed. Douglas K. Blount & Joseph D. Wooddell (Lanham, MD: Rowman & LittleField Publishers, Inc., 2007), 60.

[20] Jr. James Leo Garrett, “An Affirmation of Congregational Polity,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry 3, no. 1 (Spring 2005).

[21] Alan F. Johnson, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: 1 Corinthians, ed. Grant R. Osborne (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 87-89.

[22] Phillip Edgcumbe Hughes, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, ed. Ned B. Stonehouse (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962), 65-67

[23] Jr. James Leo Garrett, “An Affirmation of Congregational Polity,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry 3, no. 1 (Spring 2005).

[24] Malcolm B. Yarnell III, “The Church,” in Baptist Faith and Message 2000: Critical Issues in Americas Largest Protestant Denomination, ed. Douglas K. Blount & Joseph D. Wooddell (Lanham, MD: Rowman & LittleField Publishers, Inc., 2007), 69, see ft. note 29.

[25] Here Dr. Branch uses the illustration of Diotrephes from 3 John, noting that many churches are driven by “church bullies.”

[26] Dr. Alan Branch, “Baptist Ecclesiology,” (class lecture, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, April 23, 2007).

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