Why Should We Emphasize Congregationalism?

In this post we will be extending the third installment of Jonathan Leeman’s breakout session at the Virginia Baptist Convention entitled “So is the ‘Baptist’ Brand Really Worth It?”



Question 2: Why should we emphasize congregationalism? Again, we should for three reasons. It’s biblical. It helps Christians to partake of their gospel work. It strengthens the church’s witness.

Congregationalism is biblical.

First, congregationalism is biblical. Who does Jesus task with excommunicating the unrepentant man in Matthew 18? Not the pastors. Not the deacons. He tasks the church.

Same thing in 1 Corinthians 5. Paul doesn’t tell the leaders to hand the man over to Satan. He tells the church.

And in Galatians 1: who does Paul say should stop allowing the false teachers to teach a gospel other than the one he preached to the church? Is Paul writing to the pastors, telling them to get the false teachers out of there? No, He’s telling the churches.

That brings us to the second reason we need to emphasize congregationalism…

Congregationalism helps Christians partake of their gospel work.

It’s the job of the whole congregation to guard the what and the who of the gospel. Church membership is an office. It’s a job. And every one joining your church should know that they now have a job to do: to guard the what and the who of the gospel. What is a right profession of the gospel? And who is a credible gospel professor.

That means, church leaders, you need to equip them to do their jobs. You need to make sure they know the gospel well.

It’s strange to me how even Baptists are sort of reluctant about congregationalism. I get this because there are so many bad examples of it. But again, that’s like saying there’s bad examples of marriages. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. And that’s where I’d point Baptists even to the PCA, who has congregations vote on their pastors, or even the OPC who has congregations vote on excommunication!
When you take the vote or governing authority out of the hands of Christian, you weaken the Christian and you breed Christian nominalism. I don’t have historical studies to prove this. But I think a casual look at church history would suggest that the further you remove authority from the hands of ordinary Christians—whether from a world-wide episcopacy based in Rome or Constantinople or from the state churches of Europe—the more you tempt people to nominalism (yes, I know there are other problems with Catholicism concerning the definition of faith).

Non-congregational polities—elder or pastor rule—effectively fire Christians from the job responsibilities assigned to them in the gospel. Do you want to cultivate a culture of discipleship in your church? Do you want to fight against Christian nominalism and Christian complacency? Then don’t fire Christians from the jobs, but keep people in their jobs by training them in how to do their well.

You strengthen a soldier not be letting him stay back in the supply tent, but by pushing him out onto the bridge and telling him to guard the bridge. So you who are pastors should be saying to your members, you’re responsible to guard the what and the who of the gospel. If I as you pastor compromise the gospel, fire me. If member 362 starts living in unrepentant sin, and brings shame on the name of Christ, that’s your responsibility. So get to know your fellow members now.

Congregationalism is not about arguing over the color of the carpets, or requiring the pastor to get congregational approval if he wants to buy a new photocopier, or putting microphones in the aisle during members meetings so that you an publicly oppose the pastors. It’s about the congregations having final say in matters of membership and discipline (Matthew 18) as well as in doctrine and who the pastors are (Galatians 1). Otherwise, members should learn to submit to their leaders (Hebrews 13, 1 Peter 5, Acts 20).

Congregationalism strengthens the church’s witness.

Finally, congregationalism strengthens the church’s witness. When you have a church filled with people who know how to clearly articulate the gospel, and who know it’s their responsibility to guard and protect one another in the gospel, what do you have? A strong and healthy church, whose members are better equipped to share the gospel with their non-Christian friends and neighbors.

Christians don’t think, “Hey, my pastor’s job is to share the gospel, so if I can bring my non-Christian colleagues to the church service, he’ll here the gospel!” No, they know that it’s they’re job to know and to live and to share the gospel.

All in all, I believe a congregational church that equips the saints for the work of the ministry, and for guarding the what and the who of the gospel is a church with a brighter and healthier witness.

Brothers, the Baptist distinctives of believer’s baptism, regenerate church membership, and congregationalism are not essential to salvation, but they are importing for guarding what is essential. The Baptist distinctives are not the glistening diamond of the gospel, but they are the platinum prongs which hold that diamond in place.

Jesus took them seriously. We should take them seriously.

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2 thoughts on “Why Should We Emphasize Congregationalism?

  1. “Non-congregational polities—elder or pastor rule—effectively fire Christians from the job responsibilities assigned to them in the gospel.”

    I’m not a pro at these things, but it seems this statement would contradict Paul’s instructions regarding elder rule. Again, I’m fairly new to this position, but my SBC church recently voted to be elder led because it was a more biblical form of polity than what you’re calling congregationalism.

    Contrast that with the church down the road who is deacon (or congregational) led: they’re looking for a new pastor and there isn’t a man in a 1,000-on-roll/300-400-regular attender church with the biblical literacy to be able to lead them during the interim. That’s a problem. What do “we” (SBC-ers that is) do? Call a man we don’t know to be the interim pastor while a search committee full of people that most in the congregation don’t personally know looks for a new pastor from the outside. Never mind that the last 4 pastors to this church who’ve moved on were all “called” there the same way. Never mind that it might take 5-10 years for that pastor to actually “be the pastor” for many in the congregation, if he stays that long (another way to say it: for that congregation to be that people’s pastor).

    It would seem that the instructions for elder rule to the NT churches help us tremendously here. I’m willing to be taught on this. I don’t have all the answers. I just know that Paul was clear on how to set up polity. In my short spiritual life I’ve seen what this form of congregationalism ultimately leads to: pastors and staff that are no more than hired hands with no rights or power to publicly rebuke sin and bad congregational decisions. It also seems like the epitome of folly to ask God to bless the efforts of our churches when we are so openly disobedient to his clear commands regarding church polity.

  2. I must say that I fully agree with what you have written regarding Baptists and congregationalism and why we should emphasize that form of church government. Having spent 6 years in intensive research covering the meaning and usage of ekklesia in 2000 years of church history, accumulating in the process some 3000 5×8 notecards covering more than 250+ volumes, I am persuaded that you have written an item that deserves consideration by all serious minded Baptists. Likewise, having spent 28 years as a pastor of Baptist churches, it seems evident to me that we are not making full use of the teachings of the Bible on the church which surely explains the anemic condition of most believers today. Think what it would mean to have believers come to church with a desire to worship and be delighted to learn that right there in the center and heart of that local congregation is the very heart and center of Heaven itself, the Lamb as it had been slain in the midst of the throne, What worship such reality would produce, if only the eyes and ears of the believers became aware of that presence, even of the one who can adjudicate their sin problems and empower them to be shining examples to the world.

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