The Practice of Christianity in the Local Church
The practice of Christianity apart from a proper theological foundation, firmly rooted in the Word of God written, builds on uncertain ground. The success of Christ’s Church depends upon the clear, explicit articulation of the historic biblical gospel.
God’s Governance, Not Man’s
Congregationalism is often misunderstood to be a kind of church democracy where everyone has a vote and the church is governed by majority rule. While this description is true to an extent, it is a blatant misrepresentation of the deeper truth of the Congregational model of church government. Christ’s church is not governed by majority rule, but by Christ alone. Congregationalism conforms to God’s will as long as church decisions conform to God’s rule.
This, however, does not mean that Congregationalism is without human leadership. Churches are to be governed by pastors, elders and deacons with the blessing and approval of the congregation, in conformity to Scripture.
Equality Before God
One of the primary tenets of Congregationalism is that all believers are of equal status before God. In regard to this three things must be observed and followed for Congregationalism to remain true to the gospel.
First, we must honor the principle that only born-again believers can be members of Christ’s Body, the Church — universal and triumphant. Regeneration is a necessary criteria for church membership. In as much as members are not regenerate, the church falls into corruption. Unregenerate people are not led by the Holy Spirit. Where the majority of church members are unregenerate, they are given to mob rule, and are able to out vote the leadership of the Holy Spirit. This is not only a potential danger, but has happened many times in history. However, the danger of the abuse of authority does not out weigh the need to maintain sensitivity to the Spirit’s leadership.
Second, it must be recognized that the equal status of believers before God does not mean that all believers have the same function and authority in the church. Status is not the same as function or authority. Nor does function or authority confer superior or inferior status upon some of God’s people. Equality before God is not a matter of power, but pertains to sin, guilt, repentance, and humility. We are all equally guilty of sin before God.
The equal status of believers before God means that each church member must be in complete and, therefore, equal submission to God and His ordained agencies — primarily to Scripture, but where men wield an authority given by Scripture, then to those men, as well.
The biblical model (Ephesians 5 and 6) is: elders and deacons in submission to Christ, husbands in submission to elders and deacons (in the Lord), wives in submission to husbands (in the Lord), children in submission to parents (in the Lord). All are to be equally submitted to Christ through an ordained authority. Where this submission is not in evidence, the Body of Christ — the Church — is corrupt. That is, it is rusty and cannot function properly.
Equal status before God is reflected in Congregationalism by the practice that each church member has equal voice and vote. The Holy Spirit is equally able to reach and lead each regenerate member. The principle of the wisdom of Proverbs is maintained “in the multitude of counselors” (Proverbs 11:14). Yet, the assumption and necessity is that each member is regenerate.
Another danger within Congregationalism is the temptation to disregard the ordained structures of authority and function (the spiritual leadership of elders, deacons, and husbands) because of a misunderstanding of the believer’s equal status before God. Again, equal status does not justify the disregard of family or church authority. Nor does God-given authority justify its abuse.
It must also be a matter of understanding and practice that God’s ordained authority operates by inspiration and not by domination. God’s leaders serve, they do not lord over others (see Matthew 20:25-26). All biblical submission must be submission to Christ through a regenerate, ordained authority, i.e. elder, deacon, born-again husband.
Third, the purpose of Congregational polity is to encourage, support and follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit. In other words, Congregational churches are not to be led by majority vote, as if the church is in a political contest. Rather, each born-again church member is to study God’s Word, seek the leading the of Holy Spirit, and only then to vote his or her biblically informed conscience in matters of arbitration.
Division in the Body (the Church) indicates the failure to adequately seek the Lord’s will regarding the matter causing division. Rather than move forward on the basis of a divided vote regarding some issue, the church should enter into further prayer and Bible study regarding the matter. Division in Congregational churches should not be a call for action, but must be seen as a call for additional spiritual discernment. To force a vote or call for action in the face of division is a sign of corruption because it ruptures the integrity of the Body (the Church). Of course, this practice can only work where the church is truly regenerate.
More than simply vote on a matter, Congregationalists must be ready and able to biblically and theologically justify their position — to convince others or to be convinced by others, because it is in the process of biblical and theological justification of the concerns at hand that Congregational polity calls upon the leadership of the Spirit. Consequently, only when those who have voting privileges are regenerate — in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and actually seek and obey the leadership of the Holy Spirit — does the Spirit actually lead. The failure of any one aspect of Congregational polity can diminish the leadership of the Holy Spirit and open the church to potential error and corruption.
Because belief determines behavior, errors of belief result in lapses of moral and organizational behavior. Congregationalism is a very effective means of allowing the church to be led by the Spirit, but it is also falls easily into error unless each church member actively and honestly pursues the leadership of the Holy Spirit in his or her own life.
Head Of The Church
Jesus Christ and only Jesus Christ is the real head of each local church — not the pastor, not the elders, not the deacons, not the majority vote. The church functions correctly only when the pastor, elders, and deacons are in full submission to Jesus Christ, God’s Word.
If Jesus Christ is not your head (Lord) and the head (Lord) of your family in both theory and practice, you are neither regenerate nor Spirit-led. Christ’s leadership begins in the family, and must be evidenced in the family (see Ephesians 5:22-ff) before it is granted in the church.
Congregationalism is rooted in the theology of the Protestant Reformation. The clarity and comprehensiveness of that theology is the key to its success. The only effective foundation of any local church is a clear, orthodox (right) expression of historic theology. Theology requires knowledge and understanding of God. Theology is the first fruit of a personal relationship with the Lord. In personal relationship we come to know the Lord. When churches (God’s people) stray from classic, biblical Christianity they produce the fruit of error — sin and heartache.
Our beliefs guide our conscience, and our conscience guides our behavior. Immoral and ungodly behavior evidence a misinformed conscience. And a misinformed conscience is reformed by orthodox (right) belief. The church becomes dictatorial when it focuses upon the enforcement of moral behavior because real morality is always self — imposed by one’s own conscience. Therefore, the church’s correct area of function is the teaching of orthodox (right) belief or historic doctrine. Errors of practice and behavior are indications of errors in belief.