Congregationalism is one of the areas of church government Southern Baptists have debated in recent years. Many arguments over congregationalism tend to reduce to disagreements over being led by a single vs. that of a plurality of pastors. The debate further reduces to pastor/elder-led vs. pastor/elder-ruled. As you might imagine, there is much disagreement in this areas.
In my estimation, the arguments are framed in light of the roles of church offices while ignoring the actual functions those offices carry out. For example, some argue for single, pastor-led congregationalism against a congregation led by a plurality of pastors/elders claiming such a church is pastor/elder-ruled. Yet, the same person ignores what is essentially another form elder-rule: a deacon-ruled congregation.
In light of the above, consider Mark Dever’s explanation of congregationalism. Note that Dever is a proponent of a church being led (not ruled) by a plurality of pastors/elders.
The fundamental responsibility under God for the maintenance of all aspects of public worship of God belongs to the congregation. Whether in settling disputes between Christians (Matt 18: 15– 17; Acts 6: 1– 5), establishing correct doctrine (Gal 1: 8; 2 Tim 4: 3), or admitting and excluding members (2 Cor 2: 6– 8; 1 Cor 5: 1– 13), the local congregation has the duty and obligation to promote the continuance of a faithful gospel witness. No body outside of the whole congregation has this same degree of responsibility. While leaders within a congregation have their own special responsibilities before God, even the smallest of congregations which takes upon itself the task of providing and listening to the regular preaching of God’s Word, and of practicing baptism and the Lord’s Supper, necessarily takes upon itself responsibility for the right practice of membership and discipline, even over those who are called to be its leaders. While congregations may and do err in fulfilling these responsibilities, the responsibilities do not cease to belong to them. No other body, either inside or outside the local church, may finally remove these obligations of duty from the congregation as a whole. Toleration of erroneous teaching (particularly in regards to the gospel), neglect of baptism or the Lord’s Supper, and carelessness in admitting or dismissing members are all the responsibility of the local congregation.1
You may ask where Dever’s position leaves the church pastors/elders given the broad responsibilities of the congregation. Dever briefly answers this question a few pages later under the subheading “Elder Ruled or Elder Led?”
The final responsibility of the congregation does not contradict or undermine the elders’ general leadership, but it provides an opportunity to confirm it when it is right and to constrain it when it is in error. This position is called elder led.
Rather than seeing a senior pastor as being in competition with a group of elders, or the elders and the congregation disputing about limits of authority and responsibility, this last position, which is my own, posits that they can all work well together. The congregation recognizes and submits to the elders. On matters that are important and clear, the elders and congregation should normally agree; and when they do not, the authority of the congregation is final. On matters that are less clear, the congregation should trust the elders and go along with them, trusting God’s providential work through them. Churches always benefit from clearly delineating and agreeing upon everyone’s responsibilities and obligations.2
Dever offers a biblically insightful look at church government though no set-up will work perfectly given our flawed human execution.
How would you improve Dever’s congregational model?
Here I blog…