Speaking of congregationalism, pastor Shannon O'Dell was quoted this week in Baptist Press (see here) as saying, "If there is one thing I could say to the rural church it is: The reason they don’t grow is that they are structured un-biblically." Of course, O'Dell apparently equates congregationalism with its worst manifestation, "Families in power want all the power in the small local rural church with no responsibility—you’re so trapped you can’t move forward." O'Dell instead favors a system of church governance in which he is in charge. He makes his contrast pretty plainly: "Most churches are structured for it to be congregationally led or democratic. God’s order states: #1 God; #2 the pastor; then the elders, deacons and trustees."
Is it true? Is there no biblical basis for congregationalism? Did our spiritual forefathers just make it all up? I don't think so. There is a biblical case for congregationalism, and I find it compelling.
I must say first, there is no biblical basis for the "Families in power want all the power..." kind of system. But judging congregationalism based upon its worst exemplar is unfair. The equivalent would be for me to judge O'Dell's system by examining the history of the papacy. Maybe that's not the most helpful way to pursue the dialogue.
Even if I have no desire to defend the abuses of congregationalism, I submit that the Bible assigns certain governance duties not to the pastor or the deacons (did I miss the part about "trustees" in the Bible?), but directly to the gathered congregation. In an effort to present a comprehensive study, I admit that I am presenting points of varying weights. Some of these points are pretty much unavoidable. Others have more wiggle room for interpretation. Taken as a whole, I believe that they make a strong biblical case for congregationalism.
The very meaning of the word churchThe word ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) was, prior to Jesus' appropriation of it at Cæsarea Philippi (Matthew 16:18), a political term. Ἐκκλησία conjured up for Hellenics the same thoughts that come to American minds at the mention of the phrase "town hall meeting."
The meaning of any word is a complex phenomenon, defined only by the idiosyncracies of the people who employ it. I am not saying that, because the Greeks used this word in such-and-such fashion, it necessarily defines a church as a local voting assembly. But there is no internal evidence favoring any other understanding of the word over this one. Since Jesus forewent terms like synagogue and deliberately borrowed this Greek political term, and since there is no evidence that any other meaning for the term is dominant, I find it reasonable to believe that the idea of a democratically voting local assembly of people constitutes at least some part of what Jesus meant when He chose to refer to the institution that He founded as an ἐκκλησία.
Church discipline is a function specifically reserved to the congregation by the very words of Jesus. The first individual mentioned in the passage has the right to bring an accusation. The two or three people of stage two have the right to serve as corroborating witnesses. But only the church has the authority to exclude. No matter the size of that congregation, even if it consists only of two or three people, Christ has promised that the authority of heaven lies behind congregational decisions about such matters.
15 If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.
19 Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.(Matthew 18:15-20, NASB)
I know that Jesus' statement opens a can of worms embodied in a thousand what-ifs. The impasse between J. R. Graves and R. B. C. Howell from 150 years ago gives us a situation to which it is difficult to apply Matthew 18:15-20. Certainly there is plenty of devil in some of the details. However, the point is that Jesus did not say "tell it to the elder" or "tell it to the apostle." Rather, He commanded to bring matters of church discipline to the assembly (ἐκκλησία, "church").
Thus, I believe that the New Testament requries that congregations regulate their own membership.
The Corinthian ScandalWhat Jesus described in principle, Paul applied to a specific situation in the local church in Corinth:
What makes this passage especially interesting to me is Paul's self-restraint when he deals with a subject that falls within the Christ-assigned jurisdiction of the congregation. Paul wants this guy kicked out, and not six months down the road, either. But Paul won't (can't?) just exclude this egregious sinner. Rather, he tells the church that they must do it "when [they] are assembled." The congregation has to meet. At the beginning of verse 5, the NASB makes the rather unfortunate insertion of the words "I have decided." These words do not appear in the Greek text. I think it makes more sense to take the infinitive translated by "to deliver" as giving the purpose of the meeting. Paul insists that the congregation assemble and handle this matter of church discipline as a congregation.
3 For I, on my part, though absent in body yet present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present. 4 In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus…
12 …Do you not judge those who are within the church? 13 But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves. (1 Corinthians 5:3-5, 12b-13, NASB)
By the way, they did so by holding business meeting. I don't mean that they read minutes. I don't mean that the Corinthian church had a dusty copy of Robert's Rules of Order sitting nearby. But we do know that they voted, and we do know that a majority vote carried the day. How do we know? Because the remainder of the story appears in 2 Corinthians:
Thus, it seems clear to me that, in the New Testament church, the congregation and only the congregation—according to the specification of Christ Himself—had the authority to regulate the membership of the church, which it did by holding votes and following majority rule.
6 Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority. (2 Corinthians 2:6, NASB)
Of course, I direct you back to the first post in the series. Such a system is only biblical so long as the goal of the majority is to submit to the rule of the only One who is Head of the church.
I'm sleepy. More later. In our next installment, we'll look at the congregation's role in the selection of its leadership.