Congregationalism is the idea that Christ has established local assemblies of believers and that He is directly Head over each. The idea has both internal and external application. Externally, congregationalism means there are no layers of ecclesiastical authority outside the local church between it and Christ. Internally, it means there is no individual or board between the congregation and Christ. Leaders serve the congregation.
History has proven that layers of control outside the local church are no guarantee against corruption, either in doctrine or practice. Roman Catholicism comes to mind. That’s why we had the Reformation.
But congregational government virtually guarantees that there will be sick congregations. Corinth and Laodicea come to mind. That’s why we have the epistles.
If both congregational and non-congregational structures are subject to error and failure, does it even matter what structure churches use? If we rely solely on results arguments — as we’re so fond of doing — maybe not.
But for Bible-believers, “What works best?” isn’t really the question, is it? The right question is “What do the Scriptures instruct us to do?” The results are God’s concern, not ours.
This understanding of where results fit in is so important in our times. The general public feels increasingly entitled to demand information from, and issue orders to, private organizations. Christians seem to also feel increasingly entitled to demand information from, and issue orders to, local churches that aren’t their own. In the early centuries A.D., churches were threatened by the authority coming down from the top of society. Today, churches are threatened both by the authority coming down and the authority rising up from the grass roots (also known as “the ignorant masses”)! And it’s all fueled by a thirst for what we think are better results.
So the ideological weather out there these days requires that we regularly re-fortify our thinking with unchanging, rock-solid, revealed truth (see Eph. 4:14).
The biblical evidence
There isn’t any verse that says “local congregations are in charge of themselves under Christ.” Rather, the case is inductive: we grasp it by understanding many passages that point to a single conclusion. (The lines of evidence that follow are adapted mostly from A. H. Strong, and Roland McCune.)
1. Congregations are called to seek internal unity.
In the NT, local churches are called to strive for unity of belief and practice — to agree together about what should be done and how.
- Rom. 12:16 — “Live in harmony with one another”
- 1 Cor. 1:10 — “I appeal to you … that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but you be united in the same mind the same judgment.”
- 2 Cor. 13:11 “agree with one another”
- Eph. 4:3 — “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”
- Phil.1:27 — “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel”
Not only do the many NT calls to pursue unity always have the same focus — the local congregation — but there is also no command to seek the approval or agreement of other congregations or anyone else outside the local fellowship. (See comments on the “Jerusalem Council” below.)
2. Congregations are called to maintain pure doctrine
Each congregation is tasked with preserving sound teaching within its own fellowship. Though 1 Timothy 3:15 may sound like a mandate for all believers everywhere (what some of the confessions of faith call the “invisible church” or “universal” church, or small-c “catholic” church), the context is Timothy’s work with a particular congregation.
I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth
The same pattern is evident in Jude 3, 1 John 4:1, and the seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3. Strong, once again, observes:
In all these passages, pastoral charges are given, not by a so-called bishop to his subordinate priests, but by an apostle to the whole church and to all its members. (905)
In reference to the calls to repentance in Revelation 2 and 3, McCune explains how this works:
Corporate bodies as such cannot repent or maintain true doctrine except as the constituent individuals do so. This is done corporately through the personal soul liberty of each member, comprising the corporate conscience, so to speak, of the local church. (233)
3. Congregation are called to safeguard the ordinances.
Oversight of the ordinances is also assigned to local churches. McCune’s summary is succinct:
Paul, for example, did not commit the Lord’s Table to ecclesiastical officials or clergymen, but to the membership (1 Cor 11:2, 23–24). The ordinances are the property of the whole church. They are to be administered only by the authority of the local church, not by individuals acting in their own behalf or in behalf of any institution other than the local church. (233)
Given the importance of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in Christian living and church life, the fact that God has assigned the responsibility of administering these activities to local congregations points, once again, to His intention that local churches be independent and self-governing.
4. Congregations are called to choose their own leadership and representatives.
- Acts 6:1-6 — Deacons are chosen as “it pleased the whole gathering,” and “they” choose the seven men.
- Acts 13:1-3 — The congregation at Antioch sends Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey. The will of the congregation is identified as the will of the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:4). Later, the team sent by the local church reports back to the local church (Acts 14:27).
- 1 Corinthians 16:3 — Paul plans to send a group to Jerusalem with the Corinthians’ offering, but the church is to select those who will go. He identifies them as “those whom you accredit by letter” (ESV).
- 2 Cor. 8:19, Acts 4:23, Titus 1:5 — Elders are appointed in the churches. Though apostles and their representatives are involved in the process, the wording doesn’t specify that these men acted unilaterally, and there is some evidence that the congregations themselves participated in the choosing as in Acts 6 (Strong, 906; McCune, 234, Grudem, 921).
- Acts 15 — Local congregations send messengers to join in voluntary cooperation at the Jerusalem Council (perhaps better dubbed the “Jerusalem Conversation”). McCune boils it down:
The so-called “Jerusalem Council” (Acts 15:1–30) was really no more than a meeting of the members and messengers of two local churches, each sovereign in its own affairs. The church at Antioch designated Paul and Barnabas to go to the church at Jerusalem (v. 2). The Jerusalem church answered through its messengers (v. 22). (236)
Taken together, these passages reveal that the apostles — even with their unique authority (2 Cor. 10:8, 13:10) — had a profound respect for local churches’ responsibility over their own affairs.
5. Congregations are called to exercise discipline over their members.
Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 establish the principle that government authority is instituted by God “for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good” (1 Pet. 2:14). However, Scripture also reveals that government’s power is not all-encompassing. When the commands of men in authority directly contradicted the commands of Christ, Peter declared that “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
In God’s design, “the powers that be” are also categorically limited: “sin” and “repentance” are not their concern. Matters of individual relationship to God are not their concern.
In practical terms, this means government authority and church authority operate separately from one another in response to wrongdoing. Congregations must cooperate with the governing authorities, but must also pursue their own responsibilities in dealing with the sin and repentance of their members. Neither institution is a substitute for the other, and when sinful conduct is also illegal conduct, offenders must answer to both law and their local church. When sinful conduct is not illegal, the responsibility is assigned to the congregation alone.
- Matthew 18:17-18 — The outlined process reaches its final audience when the victim “tell[s] it to the church [ekkelsia].” Verse 18 is clear that there is no higher authority on earth: “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Any appeal to another authority would be an appeal to a lower authority!
- 1 Corinthians 5:4-13 — The congregation is to assemble, and “deliver” the offender “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.”
- 2 Cor. 2:6, 7 — The apostle declares that the punishment “inflicted by the majority [polus]” in the congregation is “enough.”
These passage exclude two sometimes-attractive alternatives: externally, taking misconduct to some authority other than the law and congregation; internally, handling misconduct exclusively by the pastor or a team of elders. It’s the work of the congregation.
Paul directs the local church at Corinth to care for its difficulties. No committee was formed and no pressure was brought to bear either by other churches, apostles, or ministerial executives. The decision of the local church on the matter was final. There is no higher court of appeal or body of jurisdiction; the local church’s judgment is final (Matt 18:15). (236)
Strong clarifies the role of the church leadership:
It should be the ambition of the pastor not “to run the church,” but to teach the church intelligently and Scripturally to manage its own affairs. The word “minister” means, not master, but servant. The true pastor inspires, but he does not drive. He is like the trusty mountain guide, who carries a load thrice as heavy as that of the man he serves, who leads in safe paths and points out dangers, but who neither shouts nor compels obedience. (908)
The NT assigns clear responsibilities to local congregations and recognizes no higher authority for carrying out those responsibilities. So, what if churches fail to act as they should? In the area of discipline in particular, what about churches that fail to pronounce guilt and exclude the unrepentant?
We know that any process God instructs us to follow works exactly as God intends it to work. “His way is perfect” (Psalm 18:30). That doesn’t mean churches have an excuse when they fail to exercise their autonomy (i.e., responsibility) properly. What it means is that God has already thought of that. He has already prepared His own solutions. At times, it may be a challenge to our faith to believe that His solutions are sufficient, but when our faith becomes sight we’ll have no doubt that He knew best all along.
Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004. Print.
McCune, Rolland. A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity: The Doctrines of Salvation, the Church, and Last Things. Vol. 3. Allen Park, MI: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2010. Print.
Strong, Augustus Hopkins. Systematic Theology. Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907. Print.
Aaron Blumer is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in small-town western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. In his full time job, he is content manager for a law-enforcement digital library service.