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Church Government: Congregationalism

One of the most common forms of church government is commonly referred to as “Congregationalism.” What is Congregationalism? At the heart of Congregationalism is the belief that local congregations are to govern their own affairs. This stands in contrast to both Episcopacy and Presbyterianism. Within the scope of Congregationalism there are a variety of ways in which the relationship between local church leaders (whether one or several pastors or elders or a combination of both) is construed. In this regard the spectrum reaches all the way from a full-fledged democratic model on the one hand to elder rule on the other, with various forms of church leadership and congregational rule or participation in between these two extremes.

In the congregational model, local churches sometimes have elders (as in Presbyterianism), yet there are no larger outside governing bodies. At the same time, churches adhering to congregational polity often opt to associate in form of conventions and to cooperate with outside agencies, though these hold no authority over individual congregations. This cooperation enables churches to engage in strategic ministry, demonstrating “in a visible way their belief in the oneness of the larger body of Christ” (Hammett, Biblical Foundations, 145). Among the churches practicing congregationalism are the Churches of Christ, Bible Churches, many non-denominational congregations, Baptists (including Southern and General Baptists), and churches carrying the title “Independent.”

In churches practicing congregational polity authority is vested in the church as a whole, although it is a matter of debate to what extent the church is able to delegate this authority to church leaders and whether or not church leaders’ authority is derived from the congregation or directly from Christ. Typically, in a congregational system the church does the following: (1) select, appoint, and, if necessary, remove church leaders; (2) (help) guard pure doctrine; (3) exercise church discipline and decide on church membership; (4) participate in major decisions affecting the entire congregation (Dever, Display of God’s Glory, 31–43). Usually, the congregation operates in democratic fashion by way of regular church business meetings at which each member has an equal voice and vote. It is often noted, however, that some of these procedures may owe more to the political democratic system than New Testament teaching.

In a representative form of the congregational model, an effort is made to balance authoritative leadership with genuine congregational participation. In this approach, it is the elders who have ultimate authority, not the congregation. The elders consult the congregation on important matters and involve them in the decision-making process, but in the end the elders’ decision obtains. It is recognized that the congregation’s participation in the selection of elders does not necessarily amount to an exercise of authority and that the New Testament teaches congregational participation but not necessarily congregational rule. It is also noted that elders hold positions of authority as church members, so that local elder authority with congregational participation is not based on a clergy-laity distinction but is consistent with the notion of the priesthood of all believers.

The two major models practiced in Congregationalism in a variety of permutations are: (1) single-elder or pastor; and (2) plural-elder leadership. In the single-elder model, the church votes into office one (senior) pastor who oversees the congregation (Akin, “Single-Elder-Led Church,” in Brand and Norman, Perspectives on Church Government, 25–86). While the congregation retains final authority, in practice the senior pastor wields considerable power due to his public teaching office. In addition, deacons are chosen to assist, and in some cases supervise, the pastor, though assigning to deacons authority over the pastor clearly conflicts with New Testament teaching. In the latter case, deacons form a “deacon board” taking the role of a body of elders.

In the plural-elder model, several elders and/or pastors are chosen to oversee the congregation. Within this model, there is considerable variety as to the way in which the authority of the elders and/or pastors is construed. Some take the notion of the priesthood of all believers to imply that no one should have authority over individual believers (pure democratic model. Others view the elders’ authority as derived from Christ, not the congregation, and believe the church is called in Scripture to submit to those serving in this office (White, “Plural-Elder-Led Church,” in Brand and Norman, Perspectives on Church Government, 255–96).

In certain cases there are two bodies—an elder board and the pastoral staff—that meet periodically to determine the direction of the church. Some churches have only lay elders while pastors comprise the full-time, paid staff of the church. In another scenario the elders include both pastors and lay elders, or a church may have only pastors but no lay elders owing to the belief that a special divine call is required. In some cases a corporate board model may prevail where the elder board rules the church, often without sufficient accountability to the church and without adequate congregational input into decision-making. In the plural-elder model deacons serve under the authority of the elders.

Adherents to Congregationalism build their case on the following considerations. (1) In the New Testament “there is no superior organizational level to which churches are accountable” (Hammett, Biblical Foundations, 146). No clear New Testament evidence exists to suggest that local churches were governed by an outside body. The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 should not be regarded as a permanent paradigm for regional authority. (2) The authority to exercise church discipline is assigned to the local church body rather than to regional elders or bishops (Matt. 18:15–17; 2 Cor. 2:6). (3) The New Testament local church chose qualified men to meet practical needs (Acts 6:1–6), commissioned Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:1–3), and was involved in the discussions and decision of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:4, 12, 22).

Objections to Congregationalism include the following. (1) Proponents of Episcopacy contend that Congregationalism does not take sufficient account of the fact that the earliest apostolic churches and those of subsequent centuries were hierarchically governed. Congregationalism reflects modern democracy rather than apostolic and post-apostolic tradition. (2) Advocates of Presbyterianism object that the New Testament vests more authority in elders than proponents of most forms of Congregationalism allow (Rom. 12:8; 1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:7, 17, 24); and that (3) the Jerusalem Council did not merely issue suggestions but rules to be followed (Acts 16:4). (4) Against those who define Congregationalism as congregational rule, it is objected that many of the above-cited texts cited in support of Congregationalism only mandate congregational participation but not necessarily congregational rule.

The question of how the church should be governed in part hinges on whether sole authority is assigned to the New Testament or one holds to the dual authority of Scripture and church tradition. The New Testament stipulates two church offices: (1) elder (presbyteros) or overseer (episkopos) or shepherd (poimēn; authoritative); and (2) deacon (diakonos; non-authoritative). In the patristic period the authoritative office was gradually bifurcated into bishop and presbyter (priest), with the former being in authority over the latter. A clergy-laity distinction prevailed that was challenged by the Reformation notion of the priesthood of the believer. Over the centuries three major approaches to church government took shape: (1) Episcopacy; (2) Presbyterianism; and (3) Congregationalism.

These models differ as to whether the chain of authority moves from the top down (Episcopacy; in a modified form, Presbyterianism, plus hybrid models seeking to balance elder authority with congregational participation) or from the bottom up (Congregationalism). To advance their argument, proponents claim support from biblical teaching and, in the case of Episcopacy, also church tradition. It appears, however, that neither a strict hierarchical nor a thoroughgoing congregational model is entirely in keeping with New Testament teaching, which seems to favor a combination of authoritative leadership and genuine congregational participation. However one resolves the question of church government, there are important practical implications for the life of the church and the ministry of individual believers.

Brand, Chad Owen and R. Stanton Norman, eds. Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity. Nashville: B & H, 2004.
Dever, Mark E. A Display of God’s Glory: Basics of Church Structure. Deacons, Elders, Congregationalism & Membership. Washington, DC: Center for Church Reform, 2001.
Hammett, John S. Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005.

Note: The above piece is a copyrighted excerpt from the entry “Church Government” in the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization (ed. George T. Kurian; Blackwell), authored by Andreas Köstenberger.

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