The First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs, Mississippi, has become the pariah of the Southern Baptist Convention. On the eve of their wedding, Charles and Te'Andrea Wilson were forced to relocate their ceremony to another church's meeting house in order to placate the objections of racists within the congregation. Shameful.
The title of this post refers to James MacDonald's blog post from months ago in which he declared that "Congregational Government Is from Satan." Indeed, for all I know, MacDonald might be reading about FBC Crystal Springs and thinking that the situation in Mississippi is a prime example of exactly what he was talking about.
But the real problem with FBC Crystal Springs is that it appears that they are NOT practicing congregationalism. Rather, they are suffering from a malady that I call "pseudo-congregationalism." Pseudo-congregationalism is a system in which the official structure of the church's polity is congregationalist, but the church actually functions in a manner that avoids the key components of true biblical congregationalism: submission to the lordship of Christ, prayer, free collaborative discussion, strong pastoral leadership, and decisive congregational voting. From what we've heard about the decision to relocate the Wilsons' exchanging of vows, it appears that there was no vote taken, no call to corporate prayer issued, no congregational discussion held, no courageous resolve on the part of the pastor, and (consequently) a decision came forth that was contrary to the will of Christ. Pseudo-congregationalism really IS from Satan, and he uses it to dastardly effect.
Let me explain why these key elements of biblical congregationalism would have made a positive difference in Crystal Springs.
A Decisive Vote: I choose to doubt that this congregation would have actually voted to deny the Wilsons the opportunity to marry in the church's meeting space. Because there has been no vote, there is nobody to take responsibility for this decision. Because there is nobody to take responsibility for this decision, everyone in the church is under suspicion.
The victims instinctively recognize the need for congregationalism. In this interview (Be sure to watch the video; don't just read the text) Charles Wilson responds to the suggestion that only a troublesome minority in the congregation raised opposition to his nuptials: "When you talk about the minority…How many is the minority? Was it half of the church? Was it three-quarters of the church? I don't know. Honestly, I don't know!" The witness of this church is sullied and unclear, and even the local TV station opines, "Many believe there would have been no controversy if there had been a vote within the church."
Of course, there's the possibility that a vote within the church might have favored some racist policy to exclude the Wilsons and other black people from being able to get married in the church. I think that's unlikely (for reasons I'll mention below, I doubt the troublemakers would even have spoken up in such a meeting), but it is possible—would have even been PROBABLE a century ago in the preponderance of churches throughout our nation. But even if the vote had gone the wrong way, at least the people behind this horrible decision would have to take responsibility for it. As things stand at present, the culprits are the anonymous "some people" who always dominate churches governed by pseudo-congregationalism.
In contrast, the Apostle Paul was able to state definitively that "the majority" (2 Corinthians 2:6) in the Corinthian church had enacted punishment upon an errant member (the offender in 1 Corinthians 5, perhaps?). Biblical congregationalism facilitates biblical accountability.
This church needs to understand that they are not riding out a storm by faith. That's the wrong metaphor here. The storm is of their own creation. They're facing a decision. They need to decide it. By a vote. With no ambiguity remaining once the matter has been settled.
Free Collaborative Discussion: When the people of the congregation know that they make all of their decisions through voting, they also know that they'll have to persuade their fellow congregants if they want their viewpoint to prevail. In most congregationalist churches, somebody is going to have to make the motion. Somebody else is going to have to second it. For decisions that are controversial at all, people are going to have to rise in the midst of the congregation and make a case for or against the policy.
The result is that, whether shameful racism would have prevailed in the vote or not, individual members of FBC Crystal Springs either would have had to go on the record in support of racism or would have had the opportunity to declare their principled opposition to this proposed travesty. As it stands now, every member of the congregation is under a cloud of suspicion. Am I the only one who watched that video and wondered how many of the people who are publicly decrying the church's action NOW were among the people who were PRIVATELY supporting racism before? People act differently when they have to take public responsibility for their views. Business meetings can provide this kind of accountability, or you can wait for TV cameras to provide it.
Wilson expresses his own frustration with the unavoidable uncertainty that hangs over this congregation now. He knows that the individuals responsible are extremely unlikely to identify themselves in an open vote: "How're they going to go in and have a head count? Ask the person, 'How are you going to have a head count? How are you going to stand up and say, 'Yes, I voted no."?'" Wilson's right: That's not likely to happen at this point. An honest discussion held among the full congregation would have provided the clarity he desires.
In Acts 15, facing a strikingly similar question of race and the gospel, the Jerusalem church called a meeting at which full and free discussion took place. In the Jerusalem meeting, as far as we can tell from the biblical account, the opposition to Paul and the gospel, in spite of having caused so much trouble up to that point, didn't even have the courage to dare to speak their wrongful views before the apostles and the congregation.
The first words of Acts 15 are "some men"—the anonymous "some men" of pseudo-congregationalism. The episode ends with an official letter endorsed by the apostles, the elders, and the congregation. Good congregationalism does that: It dethrones sinister cabals of "some men" and subjects them to the will of the Lord by the authority He has granted to His congregation. Light makes cockroaches scatter. Free collaborative discussion can be a balm to wage medicinal war against the sinful ills of human agenda in Christ's church.
Strong Pastoral Leadership: MacDonald's presumption is that congregational church government and strong pastoral leadership are mutually exclusive. Not so. In this case, a commitment to true biblical congregationalism would have empowered this pastor and would have bolstered his courage. Here's his mistake (and we all make them): He said, "I didn't want to have a controversy within the church." If we take Pastor Weatherford at his word, he was trying to avoid a messy conflict between racists and Christians in the church, knowing that each party had "strong feelings" on the subject.
And let me say it, lest anyone be misled by my little article: Congregationalism is not the way to avoid controversy in the church. If you want to avoid controversy, you will avoid votes on anything but the mildest of questions. You will avoid public discussions unless everyone who speaks is guaranteed to speak on the same side of the issue.
And yet, internal controversy is precisely what this church desperately needs if it will be healthy at all. Was there ever a better story to illustrate the truth of 1 Corinthians 11:19? "There must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you." Sometimes it is a pastor's job to love holiness more than peace. Clearly this is about pastorally loving the Wilsons enough to take a courageous stand on their behalf. Clearly this is about pastorally loving the innocent member of FBC Crystal Springs whose reputation is unjustly besmirched by this episode. Perhaps less clearly to all observing, it is also about loving the racist members of FBC Crystal Springs, whose primary discipleship need at the moment is that it "become evident among them" that they are not among "those who are approved."
In a pseudo-congregationalist system, these few members have purloined unto themselves the right and authority to intimidate this pastor without any congregational mandate. Pseudo-congregationalism shuns the formal in favor of the informal, for the informal is so much easier to manipulate. In a true system of biblical congregationalism, a pastor can have the confidence to tell troublemakers to take it to the church or shut their traps.
That's not to deny that sometimes even the majority of the congregation stands on the side of wrong. But even in those situations, congregationalism can provide the right environment for strong pastoral leadership to take place. A good friend who is a pastor recently resigned his church immediately following a particularly baleful vote in the church's business meeting. An associate pastor of the church was confronted for wantonly carnal behavior. All of the lay leadership of the congregation (their personnel committee, deacons, etc.) supported the ouster of this associate pastor, who really needed to go. But he was able to play upon the sympathies of the congregation and won a close vote that would otherwise have required his termination. My friend knew that he could not lead a church that would make such an endorsement (and neither could I), so he immediately tendered his resignation.
Some might point to such an episode as a failure of congregationalism. In a sense, it is, since the action of the church departed from the will of Christ, who ought to be her head. Nevertheless, the action of the church formed the setting for one of the strongest actions of pastoral leadership that my friend has ever taken, in my opinion. My pastor-friend taught the members of that congregation—especially the ones who had barely lost their attempt to do the right thing—the importance of taking principled stands, even at risk to one's own livelihood, for the sake of the gospel and the church. My friend wasn't afraid of controversy; he was willing to stand up in the storm and do the right thing. It is in controversy that pastoral leadership is proven and put on display—or revealed to be lacking.
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul exercised his strong apostolic leadership to tell the church precisely what to do. He did not, however, presume to do it himself. He would settle for nothing other than the action of the congregation to discipline its wayward member. It is, after all, supposed to be pastoral LEADership, not merely pastoral DOership. In healthy congregationalism, congregational decision-making is a benchmark of discipleship. The pastor must lead the disciples so well that they see for themselves the wisdom of following Christ at each step of the church's mission and they take positive action to embrace those steps and take ownership of them as the disciples they are called to be.
Corporate Prayer: By "corporate prayer" I do not mean to signify, necessarily, the moments when a congregation gathers in the same room and somebody voices a prayer for them. Rather, I'm talking about those times when an entire congregation is praying, even if they are doing so individually in their prayer closets, with a united focus on the same question or matter of prayer. Pseudo-congregationalism makes rush decisions in the middle of the night to placate "some people" and avoid controversy. In contrast, true biblical congregationalism sets aside time for corporate prayer before addressing important or controversial decisions. At FBC Farmersville, we publish the agenda of our business meetings in advance for this very reason. Although a member may introduce any item of business in our business meetings, if it has not been placed on the agenda in advance (and any member can place anything on the agenda in advance), then our constitution prevents us from voting on it at that meeting, since we have not had time to pray about it.
I don't doubt that Pastor Weatherford prayed about what to do in response to these graceless critics, whoever they were. I suspect that he prayed long into the night. But this is the key weakness of episcopal or presbyterial (or, worse, in this case, oligarchical) church polity: Even good, godly pastors sometimes can't pray enough when they're all alone in praying. We pray better for God's guidance when we all pray for it together than when the congregation is kept uninformed and denied the opportunity to seek the Lord for guidance.
In the New Testament, the church was nimble to pray in moments of crisis. In Acts 12 the congregation convened on the very night that Herod was planning to bring Simon Peter forward to do him harm. God answered their prayers and miraculously freed Peter from the jail. When, after we kept what would have been our first adopted child for twenty-four hours, the birth-mother changed her mind and took him back from us, FBC Farmersville assembled for prayer on our behalf within a few hours. Even in times of crisis, when decisions must be made quickly or when circumstances are thrust upon us, we are better off when we all pray together before we act or react.
Submission to the Lordship of Christ: The goal of any worthy system of church polity is to have the church find and obey the will of the Lord. At this point it is important to clarify that the problem at FBC Crystal Springs is really only secondarily and tangentially a question of civil rights. Yes, wrong has been done to the Wilsons, but far greater wrong has been done to Jesus Christ. In pseudo-congregationalism, the need of the timid to avoid controversy, the need of the compliant to be liked by all, the need of the aggressive to dominate, the need of the marketer to project the right image, and the need of the financially dependent to safeguard the money supply all take a back seat to the RIGHT of Jesus Christ to be Lord over His church.
It is here that congregationalism intersects with church discipline. If the membership of the church extends freely to those who are disinterested in the Lordship of Christ (not the same thing as those who just see things differently from me) because they have never submitted to His lordship by receiving the gospel or have demonstrated by their behavior that their carnality is leading them away from obedience to Christ as Lord, then gone is the one mechanism by which biblical congregationalism can work—the action of the Holy Spirit among genuine believers who are listening carefully to Him.
Unless they repent, the members of FBC Crystal Springs who opposed this wedding on racist grounds need to be disciplined out of the church. So long as they remain in such a spiritual condition, they are not qualified to contribute to the mission of the church, to identify themselves as representatives of the gospel, or to aid the church in seeking the Lord's will. Congregationalism in which such people have ANY say is a recipe for disaster.
There are many victims of pseudo-congregationalism. Innocent members like the Wilsons are victims of it. Many suffering pastors are the victims of it. But among the greatest victims of psedo-congregationalism is true biblical congregationalism. So weakened is the wheat by the spread of this noxious weed that drastic measures are required to revive it. We cannot look too smugly in the direction of Crystal Springs. Pseudo-congregationlism holds sway in many congregations that haven't made this big of a blunder yet. May the tragic unfolding of this sin-drama in Mississippi awaken us all to the need to rise up and defend the Lordship of Christ against all challengers in our churches.