Congregationalism

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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…

Mark

  1. Dever, Mark (2013-11-26). The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Kindle Locations 1266-1276). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  2. Ibid., (Kindle Locations 1474-1481).


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tim Scott May 2, 2014 at 10:41 am

Mark, thanks for the article. I recently saw all of this work itself out in my life. I was just called to serve a congregation as their preaching and teaching pastor. The elders led in examining my qualifications and theology and then I was brought before the congregation for a time of question and answer. They were encouraged to ask any questions that they felt were pertinent. They did and there were some great questions (not just, what is your favorite color type theological questions) and in the end, based on their elders recommendation, the church voted for me to become their next preaching and teaching pastor. This process was one of the most awe inspiring things I’ve ever witnessed. This congregation clearly trusts their elders, loves them and follows their leadership because they have shown themselves worthy of being followed and trusted. This, I believe is how it should work in every area of church life.

2 Mark Lamprecht May 2, 2014 at 12:54 pm

Wonderful story, Tim. Thanks for sharing!

3 Doc B (J B Boren) May 5, 2014 at 1:56 pm

I love Mark Dever’s work on ecclesiology. I love to hear Mark preach and teach. I doubt there is a better spokeman on these matters anywhere in the SBC today. But I have one small problem with the quote above. I fear Dr. Dever has participated in a bit of unintentional double-speak.

He says that when the congregation and elders disagree, the congregation has final authority. Then he speak of a time when a matter is ‘less clear’. This implies that the matter will be one where there is disagreement; after all, if there’s not, everybody is happy and there’s no question about who has final authority. But if there is disagreement on an unclear matter, Dr. Dever has already said the congregation should have final authority. So on what basis can he say the congregation should defer to the elders?

4 Stephen June 12, 2014 at 3:31 pm

A little late to the article, but I wanted to respond to Doc B above. I think in the phrase “important clear,” Dever is referring to matters that have very clear questions and answers, perhaps yes/no types. Such as, “Should Rev. X be our new pastor?” That is a clear question with a clear answer, so the congregation should have authority on it. On the other hand, “which classes should we offer in the next quarter” is a less clear question, and one suitable for a leadership team to discuss and come to a conclusion on without needing the final approval of the congregation.

5 Scott July 9, 2014 at 1:20 pm

I think Dever is spot on with 1689 Reformed Baptist ecclesiology to which I adhere heartily. As a note, Strauch’s book on Biblical Eldership seems to be coming from an “elder-rule” perspective in contrast to what Dever, and the biblical data suggest, as “elder-led.” I think there are Baptist churches out there, and Reformed Baptist churches at that, that operate, as I have once heard it described, like a “poor man’s presbyterianism.” They affirm the autonomy of the local church, the priesthood of every believer, the keys of the kingdom resting with the church, but when it comes to how the elders and congregation relate, they are inconsistent at best. Sadly, many Baptists, because of a lack of historical resources regarding the covenants (which play directly into ecclesiology) have had to learn their covenant theology (and ecclesiology) through Presbyterian eyes and give it a Baptist twist. The majority of writers on covenant theology and ecclesiology are presbyterian. But a great read on this is “Who Runs the Church” by various authors (one of which is Sam Waldron) and A Modern Exposition of the 1689 also by Dr. Waldron.

Also check out http://www.1689federalism.com

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