Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Congregational Primer

When we speak of a "congregational" church or government for the church, there are a number of ideas that may come to mind that are not healthy. While I would never want to opt for some outside authority, either denominational or hierarchical, to make decisions for local fellowships, we have not always taken time to consider what that should or should not look like.

Some of us have grown up with a “political climate” as our model—this is wrong. Having a congregation of believers prayerfully consider what is to be done and then express their combined wisdom should not involve adversarial politics, because we are all in this together. It may involve animated discussion of the text of Scripture, how interpretations are formed, what the ramifications of interpretations or decisions might be, and so on. But it should never be about winning and losing, but humbly participating. If our path is the one chosen, we are thankful that God gave that wisdom. If our path is not, we are equally thankful that God has guided the church. And we only question a decision that is clearly opposite the teaching of Scripture--and such questioning may require us to move to another fellowship if the matter is of primary importance (the kind of matter that affects salvation, for example).

Some of us have grown up with a complacent attitude—this is also wrong. Many of our younger members aren't really interested in church government, and yet those who lead the church have such a tremendous impact on what we are all taught, how we prioritize for ministry and money spent on ministry, how we staff the church, and so many other important issues. Complacency in congregational churches will lead to both unchecked leadership and a much greater influence on direction by the smaller portion of the congregation that exercises its ability to vote and make choices. If that small group has an agenda, that can also be very dangerous. The church needs its members to care about its direction. It is wonderful when people trust their leaders, but the choice of trustworthy leaders has to be made by the congregation.

So, how should a congregation approach a decision about a change, as we are doing now?

Normally we should hope for unity, and we should accept a strong consensus. And if we believe our leaders are acting in good faith to implement plans and directions according to their understanding of Scripture, they should receive the benefit of the doubt with an attitude of godly submission. It should never be the thought that a "unanimous" vote would somehow be too much like a rubber stamp! I'm afraid that someone (or a few someones) in our church must think that, because in ten year's time, the only matter to ever receive a unanimous approval in a ballot vote has been the acceptance of the annual meeting minutes--and that has not even received a unanimous approval every year. How is it that God might have led someone to vote "No" on a deacon  or a pastor or a missionary candidate that every other member in the church who voted said "YES" to--every time we vote? It makes me wonder if this demonstrates a love for the unity of the church that Paul said was so important in Ephesians 4? I love this church, and even when suggesting things that may not pass unanimously, I want to do all I can to encourage agreement. When someone finds nothing--not a single deacon candidate, a single budget, or a single special action that they can support, I don't think the problem is with congregationalism or with the rest of the church. 

So, is there ever a time when you should vote “No” on a change?  Here are five suggestions…

  1. Vote no if a proposal violates Scripture
  2. Vote no if the status quo is a superior, biblical approach
  3. Vote no if you do not trust the teaching or the motives of the pastor(s)
  4. Vote no if you do not trust the wisdom of the leader that made the recommendation
  5. Vote no if the change will endangers the flock
I would think that most of these should be obvious. I would also hope that any person who held one of these reasons would love the church and its leaders enough to share their concerns or biblically confront them in the cases of 3, 4, and 5. 
What about positive reasons to vote “Yes?” Here are five more suggestions...
  1. Vote yes if you believe the proposal lines up with Scripture
  2. Vote yes if you see biblical and practical rationale for the change
  3. Vote yes if your pastors have shown trustworthiness in decisions
  4. Vote yes if your leaders have a record of showing good judgment
  5. Vote yes if you see potential benefits of the change for the flock
Finally, consider these principles to help a congregation and its members (that would be you) to act and decide issues biblically.
  1. Study the issues in Scripture
  2. Listen to what leadership has to say
  3. Pray (and fast) for wisdom, unity, and blessing
  4. Be willing to follow the congregation’s decision
  5. Submit to your leaders as they implement decisions
  6. Humility for everybody!