James MacDonald just delivered what I thought was a very good sermon in the SBC 2012 Pastors Conference. In general, I would say that the program has been superb, and I'm very thankful for Grant Ethridge and the entire Pastors Conference team.
MacDonald said that he is a "Baptist by conviction," and immediately after the sermon, Ethridge asked that Kevin Ezell go back to the Green Room and sign MacDonald up into the SBC. I couldn't help but recall, as that conversation was transpiring, MacDonald's declaration last year that "Congregational Government is from Satan." I want to be a man who passes over opportunities to tear down a brother, but I also want to be a man who takes opportunities to teach. In the latter interest, and not in the former, I contribute the following:
Being a Congregationalist is a condicio sine qua non of being a "Baptist by Conviction." The Baptist movement is an ecclesiological movement. Congregationalism comes in bewildering variety, but Congregationalism in the broad sense is part of what it means to be a Baptist. Congregationalism is one of the things about which we feel a Bible certainty. That's why the Baptist Faith & Message is direct and clear on the matter.
It's important to say so, not to hate on James MacDonald, but because we Southern Baptists are great at forgetting what makes us who we are. This episode in his life is a chance to remind all of my Southern Baptist readers that we are congregationalists, and that those who are not congregationalists are not us, even though we may love and appreciate those outside our fold.
Although I disagree with MacDonald's argument against Congregationalism, I am actually sympathetic toward it. MacDonald's major motivation throughout the article, it seems to me, is the statement that he made as his fourth reason, "Congregationalism Crushes Pastors."
Who can argue with that?
Last week I spent several hours with a young man who claims to be a Christian but is not in church. He began to tell me that he had had some bad experiences in churches. I love it when people tell me that, as though I could not possibly relate, since I'm a pastor. Nobody knows about bad experiences in churches better than pastors do. I sympathize with MacDonald, because I too have seen men who wanted and tried to be a good pastor who have been crushed in congregationalist church processes.
But maybe churches weren't created primarily for the comfort of pastors. Maybe Jesus' intention was not to put a big red "Easy" button on the desks of pastors. Maybe, as men like Stan Norman have been declaring for years, the congregationalist system has biblical advantages for the task of discipleship, which I think IS the Great Commission purpose of the church.
If you conclude that congregations exist at the pleasure of pastors, then congregationalism is not going to be your preferred form of church polity. If, however, you believe that pastors exist at the pleasure of Christ's body, then I think that much of MacDonald's argument will be unpersuasive to you. But it is unescapable that all of us who love the Lord and who love His church will mourn over the ways that Satan has wounded pastors (who are disciples, too, after all) and scandalized them. Some of them, perhaps, needed to be pruned out of a ministerial role in which they had no business to begin with, but some of them have been driven out by wicked men, and that's an unavoidable truth. My heart, just like MacDonald's, is grieved over that, and although I think that he has drawn wrongful conclusions about the matter, I am thankful for his sympathetic heart toward struggling pastors.
Pastors need accountability. Episcopal and Presbyterial government is used by Satan, as well, and others have already made this point well, so I need not belabor it. Ecclesial dictatorships are not biblical.
By the way, I have not undertaken to rebut MacDonald's unsupported claim that congregationalism is unbiblical, but I will happily direct you to Jonathan Leeman's well-written article, which addresses that question toward the end.
Perhaps MacDonald has changed his mind about congregational church government. If so, then welcome to the SBC, Pastor MacDonald! But I do think it is important that we—as cordially as is possible—remember and reiterate that we are congregationalists.