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07 May '13

Rethinking the meaning of congregationalism

Posted by T.J. Addington
Many reading this blog are part of churches that are congregational. The essence of congregationalism is this: All members of the church are filled with the Holy Spirit and all make up the body of Christ, so within the local fellowship, the congregation is the final authority under Christ. This means that no ecclesiastical hierarchy can tell the church what it must do, and that a congregation has the ability, if necessary, to override decisions of its leaders. It is rooted in a theological understand of the independence of the local church and the priesthood of all believers.

It is important to understand what congregationalism does not mean, because this biblical concept can morph into some unbiblical forms.

First, congregationalism does not mean that all members of the congregation have an equal voice in all decisions.

If this were true, the job of leaders would simply be to poll a congregation on any issue and take the church in that direction. The New Testament, however, places a high premium on strong leadership from spiritually motivated individuals who are vested with responsibility and authority. In fact, the New Testament has a higher view of leadership than many congregations, which ought to give us pause.

The New Testament model is that we are to choose godly leaders who have the gifts, skills and character to lead the church on behalf of Jesus in directions that are consistent with God's mission for the church. While the congregation has a role in choosing or affirming those leaders, they are chosen to lead, trusted to lead and given the authority to lead. Those who insist that all members of a congregation have an equal voice may be reflecting a popular belief as to how government should run on the national or local level, but they are not reflecting the biblical model for local church government.

Second, congregationalism does not mean that all members have a voice in all matters that leaders must decide.

Those who have the hardest time with this concept are those who remember when the church was a family (under 150 people), when most decisions were naturally made by some kind of consensus. In smaller congregations, naturally, more issues are discussed by the congregation because the church is a family system no matter what its polity. As a church grows, it changes, and the larger the church, the fewer issues actually come to the congregation.

As a church grows and leaders take more responsibility for decision-making, you often hear the complaint, "We are not congregational any longer." While we need to understand and be sensitive to the genesis of that comment, it is not necessarily a true statement.

Leaders can bring many or few issues to the congregation for decision-making and still be congregational. Congregationalism looks different in different size churches. Leadership pain comes when churches don't realize this and continue to bring numerous issues to the congregation as it grows, creating the biggest tollbooth of all: the need to have sign-off at congregational meetings for all decisions. It simply no longer works.

Ultimately, if a congregation has a say in the choosing of its leaders, in the calling of the senior pastor, must approve changes to bylaws, approves the annual budget and approves the purchase or sale of property, it is congregational, since it has the ability to override its leaders (if necessary) by changing its leader(s) or withholding permission on budgets.