We have seen, over the past few weeks, that elder plurality is desirable in every local church. In fact, it is the Biblical model. We have seen that the Biblical responsibilities of the elders in the local church are to lead the church doctrinally, lead the church practically concerning church discipline and vision and direction, and to shepherd the body by teaching the whole counsel of God as revealed in Scripture.
With the responsibility and weight of leadership in the church placed on the elders’ office, I wonder if there is any proper place for congregational decisions to be made. Is democracy in the church something that has been derived from the Bible or something that we adopted from the political philosophies of the previous three-hundred years? If it is biblical, what is a healthy degree of congregationalism and why? If it is not, what are the dangers?
There are a few verses in Scripture that describe for us a sort of congregationalism. We keep in mind as we read these references that all of them are descriptive and not prescriptive. So, there may be a variety of congregational (or not) models that are not contrary to the Scriptures. Furthermore, while plural eldership is prescribed for Christ’s church, decisions or approval of the congregation is only ever described.
In Acts 6, we see the story of the first Deacons being promoted. In verse 3, it was the elders (the apostles) who came up with the idea for the congregation to select seven men of good repute to handle a task so that the elders could focus on the ministry of the word. The seven men were brought before the apostles and approved by them for their specific areas of service in the church.
In Acts 15, we see the elders make a doctrinal decision for the assembly of Christ-centered churches. When messengers were being sent to deliver news of the decision to the gentile believers, the congregation, along with the elders, found it desirable to send men along with Paul and Barnabas to deliver the news.
In Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5, we see that the congregation is involved in the final measure of church discipline. I’ve never actually had to go this far with church discipline.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15 and Hebrews 13:17, we see that the congregation has the responsibility to esteem the elders and appreciate their hard work (letting them do this work joyfully and not with grief) while encouraging the fainthearted, helping the weak, and being patient with everyone.
There are a couple things that we never see the congregation making a decision about. The first is the appointing of elders. Elders were always appointed by other elders and were measured, not according to a church’s job description or desired personality type, but according to the qualifications given in 1 Timothy 3. Next, we never see the church voting on matters of finance, building, programming, direction, policies, or on changes to legal documentation. Granted, the early church did not have to deal with some of these things. Simply because these things are not listed in Scripture does not make it a sin for congregations to vote or agree on these things. Even though, Biblically, elders are appointed by other elders according to Biblical qualifications, it may be prudent to have a congregation affirm those who are appointed.
If the elder-overseer-pastor-theologians in the local church are to be training the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:12), the sort of congregationalism I see described in Scripture is the sort that complements the leadership of the elders. There are very few things that congregations actually need to vote on or formally approve. In every case that we see a congregational vote in the Scriptures, the intention is either a matter of excommunication after the process of church discipline or a matter of selecting people for specific ministry tasks so that the elders can focus on the ministry of the word. When it comes to selecting others from within the congregation for a specific place of service, the selection of the congregation doesn’t seem to be very formal at all. We tend to make church government much more complicated than it needs to be. Is congregationalism biblical? The answer is both yes and no. Whatever governmental model any local church body develops for itself, we do so with wisdom, practicing discernment. The local church is to be elder-led. The whole of the congregation is to be trained to do and be participating in God’s ministry on this earth.