Friday, December 22, 2006

A Timely Case for Congregationalism

I promised not to post any more this year, but circumstances have afforded me something to say, and Sarah has awakened early this morning and afforded me time to say it.

I proceed somewhat without sufficient foundation, because I have not yet blogged extensively about my belief that congregational church governance is biblical polity. More on that at a later date. For now, I hope you will let it suffice for me to state without support a few conclusions I have drawn about New Testament polity:

  1. Christ is the one-and-only Head of the church.
  2. Four sources of authority are commended to us by Christ (although not equally commended)
    • Scriptural authority (consisting at the time of Christ of the Old Testament).
    • Apostolic authority (now enshrined in the New Testament scriptures).
    • Pastoral authority (more properly, presbyterian authority)
    • Congregational authority.
  3. Only congregationalism is capable of making room for all of those sources of authority.
  4. Not all congregationalism is the same—there are varieties of congregationalism that enshrine congregational authority without acknowledging the others—but the best and most biblical system falls within the broad boundaries of congregationalism.
Someday we'll have a good, in-depth conversation about these conclusions.

For the meantime, I wish to pose a brief discussion about the decline of congregationalism. Dr. Stan Norman, erstwhile professor of Baptist theology at NOBTS, has highlighted reasons that Baptists(?) are abandoning congregational church governance. I selectively restate them in my own words:
  1. They do not believe that congregational church governance is biblical.
  2. They do not believe that congregational church governance is efficient.
  3. They have witnessed the abuses of congregational church governance (i.e. ugly business meetings).
As I have stated above, some day Praisegod Barebones needs to host a discussion about whether congregational church governance is biblical. The reopening of this conversation is a sincere one, and I acknowledge that many of my readers will probably harbor questions as to whether congregationalism is biblical or merely cultural. Many will never have read or heard a strong case for the biblical foundation of congregationalism. When we have that conversation, I think it will be worth our while.

But I believe that other factors are at play here. The question of efficiency looms large over this discussion, especially as Baptists lust after the megachurch. Congregationalism becomes more difficult (in some ways) the larger the congregation. Norman posed the idea of congregationalism as discipleship, suggesting that efficiency is not the only (not even the most important!) measure of a concept's utility to the Kingdom. Who hasn't entertained the thought as a pastor that things would be much easier if we didn't have to mess with the trouble of a business meeting?

The question of abuse is another large issue. If you've been Baptist for very long, you've probably at least heard stories about horrible, meanspirited, congregation-splitting, Holy-Spirit-grieving business meetings. But I ask you, is this a problem of the format or of the participants?

Dealing with Congregational Conflict

The participants in our congregation are sinners. The leaders of our congregations are sinners. We are sinners—all of us individually. Because all of these statements are true, we are going to have conflict in our congregations. It seems to me that some short-sighted individuals have reached the erroneous conclusion that scrapping business meetings will do away with congregational conflict altogether or at least push it into the background and out of the public view.

But perhaps it is accomplishing the opposite. I have no way to know where the truth lies in the current woes at Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, TN (for more information on this situation, see Baptist Press here). As a fellow pastor I feel sympathy for Dr. Gaines's plight, but I know that he and I apparently hold widely divergent views of church and pastoral leadership. I refuse to draw a firm conclusion from all the way out here in TX. But I do know that a business meeting—even the worst, most contentious business meeting—is no uglier and no more public than this, or this, or other such sites that are springing up.

Are such websites coming soon to a church near you? To your church?

Christians are going to differ. Churches are going to face conflict. Neither you nor any guru that you might find will ever deliver up the magic potion to eliminate the ordeal of church conflict. The question is not whether your church will face conflict; the question is how your church will deal with conflict among its members.

Assuming that the Bible allows for such, wouldn't it be more productive and a better witness to allow believers to gather in…I don't know…some sort of meeting at which members had a forum to express their views and the church had an opportunity to resolve conflicts? Perhaps autocracy or oligarchy pose their own dangers for abuse—dangers as bad or worse than the inherent weaknesses of decision-making by a congregation of redeemed sinners.

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