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FIRST-PERSON: Common mistakes in congregational church government

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–I celebrate congregational ecclesiology. However, what many Baptist churches claim as a Biblical ecclesiology is merely a flawed model they have practiced for a long time and have “baptized” in Christian terminology. While many churches claim to practice a New Testament model, they in fact practice a dysfunctional imitation of the real thing.

I contend that there is a real difference between legitimate congregational ecclesiology as opposed to the “crass congregationalism” many churches practice. I’d like to suggest some common problems in congregational ecclesiology:

— Ecclesiology that is more influenced by American civics than by the New Testament.

Many Baptists view ecclesiology as a sort of town-meeting democracy. “Town-meeting” ecclesiology expresses itself in endless business meetings where anyone, regardless of his or her fidelity to Christ or His church, is allowed to speak. This is not what the New Testament advocates. This form of congregationalism reflects polity more influenced by American civics than by the New Testament. In short, congregational church government is not meant to entail a monthly “free for all” under the disguise of a church business meeting. Thus, the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 states that each congregation “operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes.” Democratic processes are intended to respect the Lordship of Christ and the priesthood of believers. In contrast, “town-meeting Democracy” too frequently breaks down into chaos.

— The elevation of parliamentary procedure and church constitutions above the Bible.

Baptists believe the Bible is “the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds and religious opinions should be tried.” Therefore, church constitutions are evaluated in light of Scripture as well. Constitutions and parliamentary guidelines are helpful and needed documentation. They supply agreed-upon ground rules for everyone involved in a local church. When used appropriately, parliamentary procedure secures the right of the majority to decide while allowing a minority to be heard. When abused, constitutions and parliamentary procedure can become methods to prevent progress. If there is a conflict between what a church constitution mandates and what the Bible requires, the Bible should win every time.

— Business meetings held too frequently.

I am convinced that churches can function effectively by having no more than two to four business meetings a year. Multiple business meetings can distract energy from Great Commission work and substitute activity for real service. A healthy question for churches with monthly business meetings to ask is this: “Is it an efficient use of our time to have a business meeting every month?” Having fewer business meetings does not preclude special meetings to address new opportunities, such as building programs or the call of a pastor.

— The failure to empower leadership.

When I say that many Baptist churches fail to empower their leaders, I am referring to more than just the pastor or staff. When a church chooses members to serve on committees or ministry teams, then that church should trust its own members in those areas of responsibility. It is not inconsistent with the New Testament for a congregation to choose leaders from within and then empower those leaders to make decisions in their realm of responsibility.

— Voting on minutia.

This follows closely on the heels of the previous criticism. A congregation functions in the healthiest manner by assigning responsibility and then getting out of the way.

— Allowing the immature members of the congregation to influence key decisions.

Many congregations are driven to the lowest common denominator of maturity by a flawed model of ecclesiology that invites people who are immature, backslidden or inactive to participate in key decisions. I refer to these situations as “the tyranny of the immature.” This is perhaps the most deadly mistake a church can make. A local church should expect a certain level of faithfulness before individuals are allowed to vote in a conference or serve in leadership.

I contend that what many churches call New Testament ecclesiology is in fact a dysfunctional copy of the real thing. In contrast to a hyper-congregational model of town-meeting democracy practiced by many churches, I submit that the New Testament does not demand or endorse such a model. A more healthy form of congregational church government includes the following minimum requirements:

— The congregation affirms God’s call of the pastor.

— The congregation approves a budget.

— The congregation approves the ministry teams.

— The most mature lead. Flagrant immaturity is not left unaddressed.

This is congregational church government. The people in leadership are chosen by the church under a budget approved by the church with leadership of a pastor called by the church. I contend that this approach provides a healthier environment that is more conducive to spiritual maturity and evangelism.
Alan Branch is vice president for student development at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo.

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  • Alan Branch