What is a Congregational Church Government?
Congregational government, a form of church government, is democracy at its most basic level. This style of church government recognizes the authority of the people in the church in making the decisions of the church.
Historically, Congregationalists, Baptists, and other “free church” or “believer’s church” groups have opted for this style of church government. The epistles that were written to churches placed the responsibility for the church on the people. Paul says little in criticism of deacons or pastors.
Every believer has the responsibility of preserving church unity. Paul appealed to the entire church at Corinth ” I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” (1 Cor. 1:10).
He gave a similar responsibility to the Christians in Rome, Ephesus, and Philippi (Rom. 12:16; Eph. 4:3; Phil. 1:27). If the people were responsible for preserving unity, they must have a biblical responsibility for the church; hence they are the final seat of authority.
The preservation of church purity, especially in matters of faith and practice, also appears to be the responsibility of each individual believer. Jude wrote his epistle not to pastors, but “To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ” (Jude 1), i.e., the Christians.
His purpose for writing is clearly expressed in verse 3: “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3).
As the letter was addressed to the common Christian, anyone of us could place our name in the place of the three personal pronouns.
Closely related to the responsibility for purity and unity is the responsibility for correcting the erring saint. Early, Jesus makes it clear that anyone can bring a problem to the church if the problem cannot be solved with that individual (Matt. 18:15-19).
When the apostle Paul discussed church discipline in Corinth (1 Cor. 5:4-13; 2 Cor. 2:6-7; 7:11) and Thessalonica (1 Thess. 3:6-15), he wrote to the people, not to the pastors or deacons. The New Testament suggests that same authority be given to the church congregation.
The doctrine of the priesthood of believers in another argument for congregational government. Peter identified Christians as “a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9). This means that every believer has access to authority with God.
If this is so, then every believer ought to be able to discern the mind of God concerning a particular situation or decision facing the church. A congregational meeting is a meeting of priests to decide corporately what each has privately discerned to be the mind of Christ.
The bodies of believers are the temples of God today (1 Cor. 6:19-20). One of the key expressions in Paul’s writings recognized the indwelling presence of Christ in every believer.
Advocates of congregational government argue that God is therefore able to lead a church through any and every believer. Congregational government calls on all church members to express themselves on a matter.
In a church governed under a system of congregational government, there are at least four ways church members can influence their church. On important issues raised in congregational meetings, all members can vote.
On numerous occasions the people in the New Testament church made corporate decisions (Acts 1:23-26; 6:3-5; 13:2-3; 15:23). They also influence the church through those with whom they fellowship and those they shun. This includes both the formal and informal acceptance of others into the church.
A third way of influencing the church is through counseling and helping others with problems. Finally, the ultimate influence on a church is through leaving. Even though there are church splits or people leaving churches in our country, there is no illustration of this happening in the New Testament.
Problems with Congregational Government
One problem with congregational government is its tendency to lack direction. Also, it is sometimes inefficient and the church often stoops to the level of the mediocre, rather than reaching for the highest standard of excellence.
When a vote is taken, the issue is often modified to appeal to the majority of people. Because many church members are not themselves sure where they want their church to be five and ten years from now, they will often vote their preference without realizing how it affects the total church program.
Thus, for the most part, the congregation is passive to the greater objectives of the church while their decisions on relatively insignificant items may convince them they are moving forward.
Finally, the worst fault that can be leveled against congregational government is that everyone can be wrong. In Acts 15, the church at Jerusalem wanted to impose circumcision, and might have, if Paul had not objected.