Church Polity

A Short Biblical Case for Congregational Autonomy

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.

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Early Christian Decision-Making: And Now for the Vote (Part 2)

Read Part 1.

The famous Twelve Articles which preceded the Peasants War of Luther’s day are very modest by today’s standards. In their own day they were conservative and presented no challenge to the feudal system. They began with the demand that “every municipality shall have the right to elect and remove a preacher if he behaves improperly. The preacher shall preach the gospel simply, straight and clearly without any human amendment, for, it is written, that we can only come to God by true belief.” Luther had written words quite similar, with the difference that he named the congregation as the deciding body. In those days, of course, there usually wasn’t much difference between congregation and municipality. Now if this type of congregational control had been standard practice in 1520, neither the Twelve Articles nor Luther’s tract would have ever been written. Indeed, most political and religious leaders in those days did not take well to it. It would take over three centuries before independent congregations which chose their ministers were generally tolerated in European nations.

But the whole idea of congregations choosing their ministers would have seemed anything but radical in Jesus’ day. As I have related in previous articles, the concept of towns, cities, organizations, or religious congregations voting for their leaders was a widespread practice. The common (but not only) word for voting in the Greek language was cheirotoneo. Its second occurrence in the New Testament is in 2 Corinthians 8:19:

And not that only, but who was also chosen of the churches to travel with us with this grace, which is administered by us to the glory of the same Lord, and declaration of your ready mind. (KJV)

In this verse cheirotoneo is translated “chosen” by the KJV, NIV and NKJV and “appointed” by the NASB, ESV, RSV, and NEB. The BDAG lexicon gives the translation in this passage “choose” (by election). The Liddell-Scott-Jones Lexicon (LSJ) gives the translation “appoint” (like the high priest of Judaea).

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Early Christian Decision-Making: And Now for the Vote

Speakers and writers like words. Sometimes they are utterly fascinated by them, as they are with the words “freedom,” “change” or “networking” in our day. Sometimes when a group of people is talking about a particular subject, one person’s name comes up again and again. Since most of what is said about the person is from sources second or third hand, you have the choice of adopting the views of others or you can find out about the person for yourself. Consider a word “vote” as the person. Consider the subject to be church authority, and you have the idea. People concerned about church order often talk about the word “vote,” then look for it in the Bible (or for it not to be in the Bible, as the case may be).

You will not find the word “vote” itself in the English Bible. You will, however, find its synonym, “elect,” many times over. A direct usage of this word in a passage on church order is found in Acts 6:5. The congregation of Christians in Jerusalem chose or “elected” seven men for a new ministry. The Greek word used is eklego, the same word used to depict God’s election of the redeemed. But eklego was not the standard word for voting used in the Greek-speaking world of the New Testament times. The standard word was cheirotoneo, a word that was full of political overtones (and a really clumsy word today, to those who don’t know Greek!). Cheirotoneo is used exactly two times in the New Testament: in Acts 14:23 and in 2 Corinthians 8:19. Perhaps this should tell us something about church order and church decision-making in pages of the New Testament. Evidently it wasn’t all that important for the New Testament writers or for God what method believers used to make group decisions. The Bible does not codify procedure for the meetings of missionaries, elders, deacons, deaconesses, cell-groups, funeral crews, or congregations. To the delight of everyone except those of us writing about church order, the Bible is blissfully un-byzantine.

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