The third traditional Baptist distinctive is often called congregationalism or congregational polity. Congregationalism is the conviction that the highest earthly authority in a local church is the congregation itself. In keeping with my focus on the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity, I want to think in terms of Christocentric congregationalism.
Christocentric congregationalism assumes a church is committed to two core priorities. First, it assumes that the congregation desires, above all things, to submit to Christ’s lordship as it is revealed in the Scriptures. Every local church is first and foremost a Christocracy because Jesus is the head of the church. Though the whole congregation is involved in a church’s most important decisions, the members must seek to glorify Christ in every decision they make. The wheels come off of congregationalism when Jesus is no longer at the center.
Second, and closely related to the above, Christocentric congregationalism assumes a church understands itself to be a covenanted gospel community. In fact, I’d argue that a failure to maintain a regenerate church membership is a key reason that so many Baptist churches practice an aberrant form of congregationalism. In healthy congregationalism, the church’s regenerate members confirm to each other Christ’s plan for their church as they seek to follow his will through submitting to his written Word.
It seems many contemporary Baptists are nervous about congregationalism. Sometimes this hesitancy is because of the influence of dynamic men who pastor very large Baptist churches that are frequently congregational in principle but dictatorial—even if benevolently so—in practice. Interestingly, unless a man was the founding pastor of his church, in most cases the church was more intentionally congregational when he began his ministry among them. Other times anti-congregationalism is due to the influence of pastors of churches in other traditions that openly affirm a more hierarchical polity. We’ve witnessed this scenario in recent years with Mark Driscoll’s and James McDonald’s respective critiques of congregational polity.
Both of the above scenarios are variations on a theme: the alleged incompatibility of congregational polity and pastoral authority. After all, Scripture makes clear in 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13 and Hebrews 13:17 that Christians are to honor and submit to their leaders. How can this be done when a pastor’s very employment is dependent upon the will of the members? I think the answer is trust.
In a church that embraces Christocentric congregationalism, it is true that the membership selects and holds accountable her pastors. So there is a sense in which the members have authority over their pastors. But it is also true that the members select pastors to lead them—these men aren’t mere employees, they are leaders who “shepherd the flock of God,” “oversee” the church, and when they do their job correctly, “rule well” (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1–2; 1 Tim. 5:17–19). So there is also a sense in which the pastors have authority over their members. The congregation trusts the pastors who lead them, and the pastors trust the members not to act in an unbiblical manner toward their leaders.
When congregational polity and pastoral authority are properly balanced, the church’s membership selects who will serve as her pastors. They then joyfully submit to those pastors insofar as these men live in a manner consistent with the biblical qualifications for an elder, teach sound doctrine, and proclaim the good news. If, God forbid, a pastor strays from godly living or sound doctrine, then the church has the responsibility to remove the man from the office due to ministerial malpractice. (I’m assuming the church would handle this in a Christlike way, since we’re talking about a healthy scenario.) In a church that is committed to Christocentric congregationalism, it should be very rare for the members to push back in a serious way against pastoral leadership, but it should be very regular for the pastor(s) to know and love the people and lead them in a way that reflects the servant leadership of Jesus Christ (Phil. 2:5–11).
While the relationship between congregationalism and pastoral authority is surely a hang-up for some, another reason many of the Baptists I know are skittish about congregational polity is because they’ve experienced unhelpful expressions of congregationalism. Some have lived through combative church conferences where the congregation showed little love for Christ or one another. Others have witnessed (or endured) mean-spirited votes of “no confidence” in the pastor or other staff members, often for unbiblical reasons. Still others have seen ineffective congregationalism where the whole church had a voice in even the most mundane of decisions.
A couple of examples should suffice. I remember serving as the interim pastor of a small church and moderating a conference where the members argued for forty-five minutes over whether they should spend $300 on a new copier or fork over $250 to fix the old one. The deadlock was finally resolved when a deacon donated his company’s prehistoric copier to the church for free; it stopped working a couple of months later. The meeting was frustrating, to say the least.
I’m also familiar with a Southern Baptist church in this part of North Carolina that has terminated three pastors in about a dozen years because of tensions over worship styles. In each case, the new pastor of this small church tried to lead the congregation to embrace a less “traditional” approach to musical worship. In each case, a minority of the regular attenders managed to force the pastor out. And how did they accomplish this feat? Their strategy was the same each time: in the days before a church conference, they would recruit inactive church members to attend the conference, “stack the deck,” and vote the pastor out. It worked every time.
I’m just as troubled by unhealthy congregationalism as anyone, but I don’t think the answer is to abandon congregational polity, which Baptists have historically argued is at least implied in the New Testament. In the earliest churches, the whole church set apart deacons (Acts 6) and enacted the final stage of church discipline (Matthew 18; 1 Corinthians 5). While the apostles seemed to have at least frequently appointed elders in local churches, the fact that Paul wrote Timothy with a list of elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 would seem to imply the church in Ephesus would play a role in vetting qualified pastors. All this to say, in the New Testament certain key decisions were made by the whole church—at bare minimum, they selected at least some of their own officers and exercised redemptive church discipline.
If a church wishes to be characterized by Christocentric congregationalism, I’d argue that the flow of her “organizational chart” should look something like this: each congregation is ruled by Christ, through decisions made by her members, under the leadership of elders, as they are served by deacons. While this approach is admittedly not absolutely identical to the New Testament, it seems to preserve biblical emphases and adapt them to a contemporary context wherein most agree there are no longer apostles who exercise binding authority over all the churches.
Congregational polity is perhaps the most controversial of the historic Baptist distinctives. But if we take seriously the New Testament’s teachings, if we believe there are no longer apostles, and if we want to be consistent in our commitment to the reformational doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, then we should hold fast to congregationalism. Gospel-centered Baptist polity is Christocentric congregationalism, and it is one of the greatest needs in many Baptist churches in the early years of the twenty-first century.
Note: This is the seventh post in an ongoing series on the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity. Earlier posts in this series include:
The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Introduction
The Gospel and Baptist Identity: What is the Gospel?
The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Pondering Baptist Identity
The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Four Categories of Baptist Beliefs
The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Covenanted Gospel Membership
The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Confessor Baptist by Immersion