Last Sunday, I began a new sermon series on polity or church government entitled: The Local Church: Governed, Led, Served, Edified. (To listen to the full series, click the link.)
We started with the longstanding Baptist conviction that the Bible’s teaching is for each church to be congregationally-governed. That is, the congregation is the final earthly authority under Christ’s divine authority. Passages like Acts 6:1-6, Matthew 18:17, and 2 Cor 2:6 reveal this biblical pattern. Assuming that there is a clear, regenerate church membership, we saw, then, that the congregation should have the final say on matters of: doctrine, membership, leadership and finances.
When it comes to congregationalism, though, there are two unwanted extremes. I would call them: 1) absent congregationalism and 2) hyper-congregationalism.
In the “absent” form, the church has no say in the decisions that are made. They are merely told by the leaders what will take place even on the most important of issues. In the “hyper” version, virtually every decision requires a church-wide vote – even small matters like toilet paper and light bulbs. As I said last week, that’s not called “congregationalism,” that’s called “we don’t trust our leaders.” Both extremes are unhelpful and unbiblical.
How, then, does a church know when a decision should be made by the whole church or entrusted to its leaders? The chart, below, is a helpful guide.
The “x’ axis (sorry for the math lesson) is labeled “Increasing Seriousness.” This refers to decisions ranging from those questions which are trivial (e.g. Which flowers do we display in the sanctuary?) to those questions which are crucial (i.e. What do we believe about the divinity of Jesus?)
The “y” axis is labeled “Increasing Clarity.” This spectrum considers how clear the issue is: biblically or practically speaking. Some decisions are extremely clear, especially in the Bible, (e.g. Should we accept non-Christians into church membership?”) and others are not as clear, such as matters of taste or preference (e.g. Should the pastor wear a suit and tie on Sunday?) Let’s take a closer look at each category.
1. Neither Serious Nor Clear
For starters, we have those issues which are “neither serious nor clear.” The Bible does not speak directly to these issues and there are, likely, a variety of preferences represented in the church. Such small matters should not distract the congregation from its main decision-making and are best entrusted to specific ministry teams, individual classroom teachers, committees, staff members, deacons or elders to decide. This can range from: what kind of offering envelopes do we have? What is the menu for our next Koinonia? What snacks do the preschoolers get in Sunday School? Who do we hire to fix the roof? Do we set the sanctuary thermostat at 68 or 70? There may be input given from individual church members but such decisions should typically be entrusted to teams or leaders within the church to decide.
2. Clear But Not Serious
The second category are those decisions which are “clear but not serious.” It is an issue that may be obvious (either biblically or practically speaking) but the issue is not serious enough to bring before the whole church. For instance, should we paint the building purple? Should we buy more toilet paper when we run out? Should we replace broken windows? Should we have the church vans maintained? Do we need a new computer when the secretary’s breaks? The answers to these issues are clear and obvious, thus, they can be easily decided by the leader or leaders who oversees that area of the church – especially deacons and elders.
3. Serious But Not Clear
These issues are of a more serious nature, and may even be in the Bible, but may not have a specific teaching or guideline. For instance, at what age should a person be baptized? Obviously, we believe that baptism is a very serious issue, but there is no exact age given. The approved church leaders (for instance, elders) would discuss and come to a consensus. Or, as you know, our deacons oversee the benevolence fund. Should they give a person $50 or $500? It’s clear, in the Bible, that we should help those in need and that deacons best serve in that way. But there is no specific amount of money given in the Scriptures. Discernment, trust, discussions and wisdom work together so that prudent decisions are made. Most such issues can be handled by the leadership. Some such issues may be clarified and discussed by the leadership but presented to the congregation for a final decision, depending on how serious it is.
4. Both Serious & Clear
These issues are both serious and clear. These matters are the ones clearly decided by local congregations in the Bible. Such serious and clear issues include (as I preached on last week): what do we believe (doctrine), who do we trust to lead us and oversee the day-to-day ministry (leadership), who is included or excluded from our midst (membership), and what do we give our overall money to (finances.) The Bible’s pattern is for the leadership to give sound, prayerful advice about the matter but, ultimately, for the church to decide.
(The chart & description are a slightly modified version from A Display of God’s Glory: Basics of Church Structure by Mark Dever. My deepest appreciation for his clarity and writings on this subject.)