December 18, 2017

A Theological Basis for Congregational Government

Larry R. Oats

Baptists have consistently maintained a congregational church government. Independent, democratic congregations suffered under the domination of Roman Catholicism until the Reformation, when these same kinds of congregations suffered under the Reformers. When the modern Baptist movement began (identified by this author as the time when Baptists began to call themselves such), Baptists continued to insist on a voluntary membership of true believers who held tenaciously to the conviction that each church member had an equal voice in the governance of the church.

Historically, there have been four approaches to church government. Catholicism and the Church of England, along with a few other denominations, demonstrate the episcopalian form of church government. Here there is a single head of the church, with the ultimate authority in the church flowing down to the congregations from that one individual. With the Reformation came a second form of church government. Presbyterianism is a form of representative government; each church elects representatives to the presbytery, which controls the local congregation. Each presbytery elects representatives to a body (which varies by name depending on the denomination) that bears the authority over the local churches. The authority flows up from the churches but rests in a body outside the local congregation. Baptists and our forefathers, known by various names, have argued for and practiced a congregational form of church government. In this polity, the earthly authority of the church rests solely in the congregation. While the church may be a part of a fellowship or association of similar churches, there is no authoritative organization beyond the local church. A final form of polity, if it can be called that, is no polity. Churches such as the Quakers argue that there should be no formal polity for a church but that the church and its members are dependent upon the moving of the Holy Spirit.

There is, sadly, an erosion of congregational rule among Baptists today, some purposed and some accidental. Purposeful erosion occurs when elder rule replaces congregational government. It also occurs when deacons or committees make decisions that should be reserved for the congregation. Purposed erosion occurs as well when pastors begin to assume a CEO-style authority beyond their Biblical mandate. Informal erosion occurs when only a small minority of members participates in business meetings, creating a de facto oligarchy. It may also come as a result of a church growing through the assimilation of members from hierarchical churches who transfer their old polity to their new Baptist church and assume that the church must be in complete agreement with some form of denominational oversight.

The church that adheres to congregationalism is a church that comprehends the theological foundations of the dispensationally distinctive position of the church. The dispensationalist argues that the church is not Israel; therefore, the polity of the church is not patterned on the methodology of the nation of Israel and its temple worship. Elements that are part of the distinguishing function of the church include the priesthood of the believer based upon the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, the necessity of a regenerate church membership, and the autonomy of the local church.

There are numerous Scriptural passages that argue for congregational government in the local church. Matthew 23:8 introduces the idea of a single level of church membership— all are brothers. Jesus’ teaching in Luke 22:25–27 indicates that the leaders of the coming church are actually to be servants. The congregation elected the deacons in Acts 6:3–5 and elders in Acts 14:23;[1] the entire church sent out Paul and Barnabas in Acts 11:22 (and compare Acts 13:1–3 with Acts 14:27, when they returned to the church as a whole to give a report) and Paul and Titus, according to 2 Corinthians 8:19. The congregation then received Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:27; 15:4). The entire church was involved in the decisions concerning circumcision (Acts 15:22–25). Discipline was carried out by the entire church (Matt. 18:15–17; 1 Cor. 5:12; 2 Cor. 2:6, 7; 2 Thess. 3:14). All the members are responsible for correct doctrine by testing the spirits (1 John 4:1), which they are able to do since they have the anointing of the Holy Spirit (1 John 2:20).[2]

Some of my colleagues are focusing their attention on some of these exegetical arguments. The New Testament texts which they will examine clearly argue for congregationalism, but these texts do not necessarily give the underlying reasons why. The purpose of this article is to briefly survey the theological foundations on which congregational polity stands. By examining the theological changes for the New Testament dispensation of the church, the rationale for congregational government can be found.

Dispensational Distinctiveness

The first theological foundation for congregationalism is the dispensational distinctiveness of the church. In the Old Testament, there was routinely some form of hierarchical oversight of the sacrifices. Noah appears to have functioned in some form of patriarchal role (Gen. 8:20), and Job clearly functioned in that role as he sacrificed on behalf of his children (Job 1:5). Abraham was the overseer of the religious activity of the family. In Genesis 12 and 13 Abraham alone built an altar. In Genesis 18 Abraham functioned as the mediator between God and Sodom. Isaac and Jacob appear to have followed Abraham’s example. Under the Mosaic Law the priesthood was developed to oversee the spirituality of the nation.

Under Jesus Christ and the inauguration of the church age, however, one of the significant changes that took place was the elimination of the Old Testament priesthood and the new indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit.[3] Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John indicates that a significant change in the relationship between the believer and the Holy Spirit would take place with the ascension of Jesus Christ. In John 14:16, 17 Jesus declared that He would pray to the Father for “another Comforter,” the “Spirit of truth” who “shall be in you.” Again, in 14:25, 26 Jesus indicates that the Father’s sending of the Spirit would be future. In John 15:26 Jesus indicates that He would send the Holy Spirit at some future time. In John 16:7 Jesus indicated that He must go away so that the Holy Spirit could come to the disciples. In Acts 1:5 Jesus stated, “Ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.” This indicates once again that the New Testament work of the Holy Spirit had not yet begun, but it was anticipated to begin just a few days after Christ’s declaration. Acts 2:1–4 makes it clear that this specialized ministry began at Pentecost with the descent of the Holy Spirit.

The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is what allows the New Testament saint to function in a way unlike any preceding dispensation. Abraham and Job served as the priests for their families. Under the Mosaic Law a single tribe was given the duties of the priesthood of the nation. In the Old Testament it appears it was imperative to have some form of mediator between God and man. In the church age, however, every believer is a priest (1 Pet. 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:6; 5:10) and Christ alone is the High Priest of the church (Heb. 2:17; 4:15; 7:26) and Mediator between God and men (Heb. 7:25; 1 Tim. 2:5). One of the themes of the book of Hebrews is the priesthood of the entire Christian commonwealth, with an emphasis on the New Testament believer entering into the very presence of God, an activity that only the High Priest could accomplish under the Law (Heb. 4:16).

The priesthood of the believer provides each church member with an equal right to direct access to God; it follows logically that these New Testament priests are entitled to equal privileges in the church. Equality before God makes men equal in their ecclesiastical standing.[4] Unlike the Old Testament priesthood, there is no New Testament law of primogeniture; there are no favored sons who inherit thrones or the high priestly office. The government of the church is that of a spiritual brotherhood of equals.

If church officers, in or out of the local church, carried the ultimate authority, then the priesthood of the believer would be impinged. The work of Christ makes such leaders unnecessary.[5] Instead, the ultimate earthly authority is the congregation, following the truth of the Holy Spirit working through the Scriptures.

Without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit it is reasonable to assume that the Old Testament saints were in need of a priest and king. A nondispensational approach to ecclesiology would support an episcopalian polity. The Jewish king and priest would naturally carry over to the bishop and even pope, spiritual overseers of a less spiritual people. The nation of Israel was a mix of believing and unbelieving Jews. In the Reformed church, there is the continuing expectation of unsaved church members, who would be in need of some kind of ecclesiastical overlord. Baptists, however, arguing for a new indwelling presence of the Spirit and the accompanying empowering that attends this indwelling, understand that the New Testament saint has a greater independence from men and a greater dependence on God.

Regenerate Church Membership

A second theological foundation is the Baptist requirement of a regenerate church membership. This requirement is predicated on the belief that all the members of a local church maintain a spiritual equality. This equality of all the members underlies the desire of a democratic ecclesiastical polity. “Hence, since the entire membership of the church is lifted into the plane of a divine freedom, and is subject only to Christ, it is endowed with autocracy; in its totality it elects and deposes its officers, determines all its methods of procedure, augments or diminishes its numbers by the exercise of its discipline. It projects no select guild or order of men above itself for its sovereign control, nor does it accept the imposition upon itself, from any source whatever, of such a sovereign guild.”[6]

The nondispensational approach to church membership expects a mix of saved and lost church members. This belief goes back to Augustine, who believed the church to be a “mixed body” (corpus permixtum) of saints and sinners. The holiness of the church is not that of its members, but that of Christ.[7] His main illustration and proof was found in Matthew 13 in the parable of the wheat and the tares.[8] In doing so, Augustine laid the theological foundation for the Catholic Church. Catholicism, following Augustine’s teaching, came “to distinguish an invisible church within the one, holy, visible, catholic church, outside of which is neither possibility of salvation nor knowledge of the truth.”[9]

The Reformers made little improvement in this area. Having saints and sinners in the same church was not a problem for Luther. He accepted, with some modification, the Catholic concept of the invisible church. Luther preferred the word abscondita (hidden) over the usual invisibilisi (invisible).[10] Only God can know precisely who are the members of the church, although the true believers (the fideles) can recognize what is the true church by the presence of its marks. It is only in later Lutheran theology that Calvin’s distinction between the visible and invisible church was drawn.[11] Calvin’s ecclesiology made some improvements over Luther’s, but the linkage of church and state and the distinction between a visible and invisible church maintained the problem of a church filled with the unregenerate. Calvin declared, “In this Church are included many hypocrites, who have nothing of Christ but the name and appearance; many persons ambitious, avaricious, envious, slanderous, and dissolute in their lives, who are tolerated for a time, either because they cannot be convicted by a legitimate process, or because discipline is not always maintained with sufficient vigour. As it is necessary, therefore, to believe that Church, which is invisible to us, and known to God alone, so this Church, which is visible to men, we are commanded to honour and maintain communion with it.”[12]

If the church consists of both saved and unsaved, then there is good reason not to give the vote to the congregation. Without the requirement of a regenerate church membership, the vote of the congregation could be worldly, selfish, and unspiritual. The need of a spiritual overlord would be as much a necessity in the New Testament church as it was under the patriarchs and Moses’ Law.

Autonomy of the Local Church

The autonomy of the local church is predicated upon congregational government. The episcopal church system imposes an authority from outside the local congregation upon the local churches. The presbyterian form of church government still places an outside body over the local churches. These two forms of church government, especially the episcopalian form, are typical outgrowths of an attempt to maintain some form of continuity between Israel and the church. Among the Baptists, however, the authority rests in the members of the local congregation, because these churches see no higher earthly authority than the congregation.

For Baptists there is no submission of a church to any authority beyond itself. Even when a member of an association or fellowship, each church maintains its autonomy. In such fellowships and associations, each individual church has a vote in the fellowship. In their practice, then, Biblically oriented fellowships of churches imitate the congregational government of the churches in that fellowship. Nothing outside the church has authority over the church.

Even the New Testament process of church discipline demonstrates the autonomy of the church and the priesthood of the believer. Under Moses, certain sins resulted in the execution of the sinner. Not so in the New Testament. The ultimate church discipline extends only to the exclusion of the person from the membership of the church.[13] Nowhere did Jesus Christ or the disciples establish a court other than the local congregation. Apostles and pastors exerted their authority not as lords of the conscience but as brothers (1 Pet. 5:3).

Conclusion

Many Evangelicals today argue that there is no specific New Testament church polity. Congregationalism, episcopalianism, and presbyterianism all find some basis in the New Testament, and they declare, as a result, that any kind of church government is acceptable. To argue for one form above another is viewed to be narrow and exclusive. This author believes the Scriptures are abundantly clear, both theologically and exegetically: there is a form of church government which fits the text and theology of the New Testament, and that form is clearly congregational in practice and authority.


Dr. Larry R. Oats is dean of Maranatha Baptist Seminary.

(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 2009. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. The word “appointed” is particularly interesting; it means to “choose; elect by raising hands.” BAGD. []
  2. Paul P. Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody, 1989), 358. []
  3. Some dispensationalists argue that the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament is unchanged from His Old Testament ministry. Most dispensationalists, however, accept the argument that the Holy Spirit’s indwelling of all individual believers is a ministry restricted to the New Testament. []
  4. E. Y. Mullins, The Axioms of Religion (Philadelphia: Judson, 1908; reprint Watertown, WI: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 2003), 127–28. []
  5. Roy McNutt, Policy and Practice in Baptist Churches (Philadelphia: Judson, 1935), 21–26. []
  6. C. B. Crane, “The Spiritual Constitution of the Church,” in The Madison Avenue Lectures (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1867; reprint Watertown, WI: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 2003), 74. []
  7. Alister McGrath, Christian Theology, An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 409. []
  8. Augustine, Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament, 23.1. That he made the church identical to the Kingdom of Heaven and identical to the world in the same parable apparently did not trouble him. []
  9. Earl D. Radmacher, What the Church Is All About (Chicago: Moody, 1978), 51. []
  10. Martin Luther, “Ad librum eximii Magistri Nostri Magistri Ambrosii Catharini, defensoris Silvestri Prieratis acerrimi, responsio,” in D. Martin Luthers Werke, Weimar edition (1521), 7:722. []
  11. Geddes MacGregor, Corpus Christi: The Nature of the Church according to the Reformed Tradition (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1958), 8. []
  12. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1.7. []
  13. In the episcopalian and presbyterian forms of polity, however, execution for ecclesiastical sins was a common event. []


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