Of Congregationalism

Matthew 18:15-17

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.

That is the general procedure of church discipline in the case of an unrepentant member. If at any point in the process he repents, then do not proceed to the next step.

Of course, cases can become complicated by various factors, and Baptists throughout history have developed procedures to guide a person through the process when the basic path does not appear straightforward. But the point I want to make is that the basic procedure is there.

If there is a problem, talk to the person privately. If the person won’t listen, involve some witnesses, but keep the involvement at a minimum. If that doesn’t work, however, and the person has to be removed from the membership, take it to the congregation. Time is not specified: take the time necessary, be generous, don’t on the other hand be negligent.

Congregational polity is sometimes caricatured as democracy. Some people seem to think that Congregationalism is when the congregation takes all the decisions. Perhaps that’s how they’ve seen it practiced.

But that is not Congregationalism. Congregationalism is when Christ who is the head of all the church and delegates all authority in the church, gives to pastors the authority of teaching and spiritual oversight, to the deacons of administering material needs, and to the congregation a part in appointing officers and in the matter of excommunication.

To me, even if you don’t agree with the voting for officers, I find it very hard for you to dodge the congregational implications of Matthew 18:17. If you still need them, look at the situation in Corinth that required discipline and deal with the word pleroma in 2 Cor 2:6. It seems to me very hard to evade congregational participation.

Here is what happens though when I bring up the idea of Congregationalism with people who don’t accept it. The question always is: what if the congregation is not mature enough to vote correctly? Well, one answer would be that if they vote incorrectly, it is on their head. If Christ gave them the responsibility they can blow it, but they’ll have to answer, just like a pastor will for blowing it with his responsibilities.

There is another consideration that those who do not understand Congregationalism perhaps should consider. It is this: it may be that the congregation blew it (felt sorry for the person, whatever); on the other hand it may be that that congregational vote is really a failure of pastoral leadership.

How can one blame the pastors? One can blame them if they did not do everything possible before the vote to make sure all the teaching necessary, instruction, dealing with questions, explaining and everything was properly done. In other words, if they scheduled the vote without having a pretty good idea of the outcome there is a good chance there was more of a failure of leadership to blame than congregational immaturity. Did they go from house to house if necessary teaching and instructing to be sure everybody understood the principles from Scripture, what the mind of the Lord was, etc.?

Whenever congregational immaturity as an objection comes up, I wonder out loud how mature the Corinthian congregation that originally received these instructions was. I usually get the response: not very. Because a lot of the responsibility rests on those who must be mature to occupy their position in first place: the pastors. They should be so involved in teaching, leading, instructing, that people have a clear idea of the mind of the Lord in a matter of church discipline.

It is not a free-for-all democracy where the pastors show up wondering which way things will go with these people. It is a carefully led process that results in a genuine obedience to the process and expectation of the Lord.

What then is the point of even voting? A good question. You don’t have to vote to be congregational, at least I don’t think so. You do have to involve the congregation in those decisions. How else if you don’t vote? And there is a real and overlooked advantage for the pastors. This is a really effective form of accountability. Congregationalism makes sure the pastors are involved the way they should be in the lives of each member, and the time of reckoning is that congregational meeting where every member, regardless of how mature or immature, exercises the authority Jesus Christ himself has delegated to him.

I think it requires stronger leadership.


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