|Voting at the 2010 Southern Baptist Convention|
1. CONGREGATIONALISM: government by the congregation. In this form, all the members of the local congregation are the final human authority for the church. They elect leadership with certain responsibilities based on their gifts and callings, but their authority is as servant-leaders, exercised under the authority of the congregation. The leaders are most often called pastors and deacons, though before late 1800s, Baptists tended to use the terms elders and deacons. This model functions with local church autonomy. Each church decides what is best for itself. There is no body higher than the local church which can interfere with its inner workings. Its cooperation with larger associations and conventions is voluntary and non-coercive.
a. Biblical basis for congregational government. Seven major texts for church government are Matthew 18:15-20 (the church is the final court in church discipline); Acts 6:3 (the congregation selected the first ‘deacons’); Acts 13:2-3 (the church sent out the first missionaries); Acts 15:22 (the congregation as a whole resolves questions of doctrine); 1 Corinthians 5:2; 2 Corinthians 2:6; and 1 Timothy 5:19-20 (the congregation has ultimate authority to act in matters of discipline). Furthermore, the Greek word most often used for the church, ekklesia (meaning “local assemblies”; e.g. Acts 9:31; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Philippians 3:6; 1 Timothy 3:15), supports the idea of local autonomy of congregations. All the images of the church in the New Testament are non-hierarchical and are more like a family, which supports congregationalism. Paul addressed his letters to the churches, not to their leaders, and he reported his missionary activity to the church that sent him, not a bishop or elder (Acts 14:26-28).
b. PRIESTHOOD OF ALL BELIEVERS: This doctrine is the backbone of congregationalism. The priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:9) holds that all believers possess the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:17) and can be guided by the Lord. Therefore, every believer is equal to every other (Matthew 23:8-10). In a world where we are all fallen and fallible, congregationalism helps us find the likeliest way God is guiding us as we all pray and seek Him together. From that process, a consensus should emerge enabling the congregation to move forward in confidence and unity. That process presupposes that all the congregation’s members are regenerate (saved) and are in touch with the Holy Spirit (not living carnal lives.) The failure of churches in the important area of restricting membership to those who show evidence of being saved (regenerate church membership) is a reason church business meeting are dreaded. What should be a corporate seeking of the Spirit’s guidance becomes an occasion for carnal bickering. This is why some Baptist churches are turning to elder rule or have become pastor-governed or deacon-run churches. In the end churches that turn those directions are impoverished and weakened, denying the priesthood of all believers, robbing the church of the Spirit’s wisdom from the membership, encouraging church-hopping rather than committed members, and weakens the membership’s ability to own a vision or direction for the church.
c. CHRIST’S LORDSHIP: The Lordship of Christ over the local church is another Biblical theme of congregationalism. Since Christ is the supreme authority, and each member bears supreme allegiance to Christ alone as a believer-priest, then there can be no other outside authorities. There can be no jurisdiction of one church over another; each church is equal before Christ and each local church is independent of interference or control by the government because it represents an authority inferior to Christ. When we surrender authority to a bishop, presbytery, or another human body, we may restrict the local church’s ability to follow the Lord’s will for their church. Instead, local churches form cooperative relationships with other churches of like faith and order – not denominationalism, but connectionalism, voluntary and non-coercive connectionalism.
d. GREAT COMMISSION: The Great Commission supports congregationalism since making disciples among the nations means both planting local churches of mature disciples and also growing mature disciples is important for the direction and health of one’s own local church.
e. HISTORICAL EVIDENCE: While no church polity prevents churches from error or decline or sterility, congregationalism has the best track record for maintaining a faithful, vital, evangelical witness. An example is the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s and 90s. It was congregational polity, a bottom-up structure, which saved the Convention from a drifting, dangerous liberalism that threatened the mission and health of Southern Baptists. That dramatic reversal has only happened once in a major denomination, and it would have been more difficult, if not impossible, but for congregationalism.PRACTICAL EVIDENCE: Let’s be honest. In the end, people will have their say one way or another. It doesn’t matter if there is a bishop or a presbytery involved. Either people will have a way to express themselves or they will vote with their feet and their pocketbooks. Faithful congregationalism has a much better chance of developing committed members who have a sense of ownership and involvement in the church’s welfare even when some decisions may not go the way they would have liked. At least each person had a voice and a vote. Further, congregationalism provides a valid role for gifted and called leaders. It also preserves equality and the priesthood of believers in the body of Christ, and it conserves the liberty of each local body to follow the Lordship of Jesus in their congregational life.