MacDonald begins his message by saying:
NOTE: the tone of this post is intentionally aimed at engaging those who are engulfed in this system of church government that neither honors the Scriptures nor advances the gospel.
That’s right! It’s actually the title to a book I have had percolating in my mind for a long time. After almost 30 years in ministry I have come irreversibly to this conclusion: congregational government is an invention and tool of the enemy of our souls to destroy the church of Jesus Christ. So there, I have said the strongest part of the message first; now some commentary.
In his commentary MacDonald lists five arguments against congregational church government. They are:
1. Congregational meetings are forums for division. He says:
When church life is going well, the leaders of a church struggle to get a quorum for decision making. When things are going wrong, every carnal member lines up at a microphone to spew their venom and destroy the work of Christ in the church.
2. Voting is not biblical. MacDonald explains:
There is not a shred of biblical evidence for a congregation voting on what its direction should be, but many church members believe it is their “God-given right” to stand in judgment over the Pastors and Elders that are seeking to lead them.
3. Eldership is sometimes unpopular. The author elaborates:
Elders are responsible to “shepherd the flock” (1 Peter 5:2), which is often a very dirty job. Calling out sin, dealing with those who have fallen and seeking their restoration (Galatians 6:1-4), these responsibilities put Elders in positions where doing the right often means doing the unpopular. To then force the Elders to submit to a referendum on their actions is crushing to good men and destroys the work of God in a church.
4. Congregationalism crushes pastors. Brother MacDonald continues:
I could retire now if I had banked a hundred dollars for every time a Pastor wept to me on the phone or in person about the crushing weight of a local ‘church boss’ who would not listen to Scripture or reason or God’s Holy Spirit.
5. Priesthood, not eldership, of all believers. MacDonald makes this point by saying:
A significant plank in the platform of biblical protestantism has been the priesthood of all believers. This is the idea that all of us as followers of Christ have equal standing before God and do not need a clerical intermediary in our relationship with the Lord. Sadly, though, this has led in many congregations to the Eldership of all believers—where each person, regardless of training, giftedness, fruitfulness, experience, etc., considers their thoughts about the future of a given congregation to be of equivalent value.
So far I have attempted to give a fair representation of Pastor MacDonald’s position in his own words. I seek to complete this article with brief personal responses to this popular pastor and teacher and then offer some biblical evidence for the biblical principle of congregational church government.
MacDonald’s first argument would be valid if divisions never occurred in churches that do not practice congregational government. That is demonstrably not the case. The Bible teaches harmony in a local church occurs when church members practice humility and selflessness (Phil. 2:1-4), “put up with” (ἀνεχόμενοι) one another in love (Eph 4:2),2 and seek to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3). Divisions are not the result of a congregational form of church government (which, as we shall see, rests on a biblical foundation), but they arise out of the carnality of the human heart.
As to MacDonald’s second argument (that voting is simply not biblical) we shall shortly demonstrate that Scripture gives evidence of some form of congregational decision making and determination.
MacDonald’s third point has some validity, but I fear he overstates his case. Shepherding is hard, and often thankless, work. Several responses run through my mind, but one will suffice for now. It is true that in church discipline spiritual leaders are to confront those who sin (Gal. 6:1). But according to Scripture the ultimate responsibility for exclusion from the fellowship is always a congregational action. In the case of personal sins between brothers (Matt. 18:17), of gross public sin (1 Cor. 5:4), and of a sinning pastor (1 Tim. 5:20), the biblical evidence always points to public, corporate exclusion or rebuke. No doubt the pastoral leadership will have to take the lead in these difficult cases and will have to expose itself to criticism. But when the ultimate step of exclusion occurs, they should be free from such attack because that action is to be corporate.
Fourth, MacDonald argues that “congregationalism crushes pastors.” I doubt he would argue that no pastor has ever been “crushed” in an elder-ruled system of church government. I know of situations where godly shepherds were “shown the door” by a board of elders.
Fifth, our brother seems to misrepresent the concept of the priesthood of all believers. He says: “Sadly, though, this has led in many congregations to the Eldership of all believers—where each person, regardless of training, giftedness, fruitfulness, experience, etc., considers their thoughts about the future of a given congregation to be of equivalent value.” If that is the case, then pastors have miserably failed to teach believers the biblical truth of the priesthood of the believer. I will not outline the biblical teaching in this brief response, but that statement misrepresents the biblical evidence.
Scripture does give clear evidence that congregations were active in the government of their churches. This is only a synopsis of that material.
1. The congregation disciplines its own membership. When personal offenses (literally, sins) occur and brethren cannot resolve them, the local church, not the elders or pastors, is to resolve the issue (Mt. 18:15-17). When public sins plague the church, the church, when it comes together, is to discipline the sinning member (1 Cor. 5:1-5). When a pastor sins, he is to be rebuked before all (1 Tim. 5:20).
2. The congregation elects its own officers. When the church in Jerusalem needed men to assist the apostles with the material needs of the widows, the whole multitude of believers elected them (Acts 6:1-7). The apostles “called the multitude of the disciples” (Acts 6:2) and instructed them to choose men for the task. Luke records that “the saying pleased the whole multitude” (Acts 6:5). Once elected, the apostles detailed their work, and the seven were accountable to the twelve for how it was accomplished (Acts 6:3). But the choosing of the seven was a congregational act. We were not there, and we do not know the mechanics by which the action was taken, but an argument against congregational choice in this case will not stand up to the evidence.
3. Congregations apparently voted to elect their own pastors (Acts 14:23). The word for “ordain” in this verse points to corporate participation in the choice of elders. Lest you think this is a Baptist “spin” on the verse and the use of the word, please consult the Lutheran R. C. H. Lenski in his commentary on Acts or the Anglican Henry Alford in his Greek New Testament commentary.
4. The congregation commissioned Barnabas and Saul as missionaries (Acts 13:1-3). Barnabas and Saul reported to the church, not just the staff of prophets and teachers, when they returned from their ministry (Acts 14:27).
5. The church at Antioch, not the leaders, sent men to Jerusalem to resolve a doctrinal dispute (Acts 15:1-3). The whole church at Jerusalem responded with its advice (Acts 15:22, 23). “It is clear that the whole church, whether of Antioch or Jerusalem, was involved in this entire process. It was not the sole responsibility of a hierarchy, but the whole body was addressing these issues. It was ‘the whole church’ and ‘the brethren’ who endorsed the message and elected the messengers (vv. 22-23). And it was to ‘the brethren’ (i.e., the whole church), not just ‘the elders’ that this doctrinal communicating was addressed (vs. 23).”3
6. The Acts 15 passage reveals that no organizational ties existed between the local churches. They enjoyed a spiritual kinship and fellowship. They voluntarily looked to each other for advice in a time of need. But no authority outside the local churches governed them. No church dominated another. “The local church always acted in absolute SELF-DETERMINATION of its relations with other local churches—Acts 15:1-30.”4
7. The churches chose the messengers who took the offering to Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:3; 2 Cor. 8:19, 23). The churches gave the offering, and the churches chose their messengers to convey that offering to Jerusalem.
Many other issues need to be addressed on this subject, and this forum is not the place to do that. I hope to address the issue more comprehensively in a work on Baptist Polity.
2 See Friberg, Analytical Greek Lexicon, in Bible Works 8.
3 Douglas R. MacLachlan, “The Polity Issue” (Unpublished paper, Northland Baptist Bible College n.d.), 2.
4 Richard V. Clearwaters, The Local Church of the New Testament (Minneapolis: Central C. B. Press, n.d.), 37.