Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Congregationalism and the Head of the Church

“Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord” (Baptist Faith & Message 2000, VI).

I was thinking about our congregational polity this morning in the shower (don’t judge!). Two brief flashbacks came into my mind:
  • First is that of being grilled by a Presbyterian professor in a DMin seminar. “Isn’t that just mob rule?” he asked me (he was a pretty aggressive guy...the most aggressive of any professor I’ve had). I wasn’t sure how to answer that honestly...because I’ve seen decisions made by congregations that certainly seemed that way.
  • Second, a few years ago we were in the process of hiring an associate minister. This congregation where I serve had a conflict in its past between ministers. Several people came up to me and said, “be careful not to hire anyone who will want your job.” Honestly, that statement amused me – because we have congregational polity! I was hired by a majority vote from the congregation, and it would take a majority vote of the congregation to remove me and replace me! I’m not sure the ambitions of a potential new staff member should be my greatest concern if I was worried about job security (which I was not).

Congregational polity’s an interesting thing. While it seems – on the surface – to put a heavy emphasis on the free will of man, a biblically accurate understanding of Christ as the Head of the Church (Ephesians 1:22; 5:23; Colossians 1:18) means that it lifts up the sovereignty of God as He manifests it through the free decisions of human beings! We say things like, “the Lord speaks through the majority vote.” A dubious assertion (how many understand it), but still a common one.

I get asked about how we are supposed to reconcile the sovereignty of God and the free will of man at least once a month (usually more), and all the while our congregational polity (as we ideally confess and understand it) is a picture of that theological reconciliation. I’m assuming here that congregationalists don’t think they are the head of the church through their democratic voting...I’ll speak to these “practical atheists” in a moment.

Christ is the Head of the Church + congregational polity = a strong understanding of the providence of God! Who knew?!

“Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, Who is the First Cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; so that nothing happens to anyone by chance, or outside His providence [including democratic church votes], yet by His providence He orders events to occur according to the nature of second causes [including democratic church votes], either necessarily, freely, or contingently...as the providence of God in general reaches to all creatures, so, in a more special manner, it takes care of His church, and governs all things to the good of His church” (1689 Baptist Confession 5.2,7). God the Son manifests His sovereignty (the First Cause) through the democratic votes (the second causes) of His Church to their ultimate good.

Anything less than this understanding seems to place the decisions of the congregation above (or, at best, on equal footing) with the authority of Christ the Head of the Church! A church member casting a vote outside of a prayerful, Scripture-searching, fear-of-God, Kingdom-centered attitude is a rebellious insurrectionist against the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ! Think about that next time you’re grumbling that the vote on carpet color didn’t go your way!

What about the votes that are wrong (and by that I mean that my view ended up being the minority)? That happens, I know. It’s happened to me a few times (in a congregational polity the pastor only gets one vote, too, you know). Well, I have a high view of the sovereignty of God and understand that He uses second causes (like votes) to accomplish His purpose – even if that purpose is to discipline a congregation for its narrow-minded worldliness or to humble a pastor who thinks his influence over the people is bigger than it is. So often He confounds us to humble us, teach us, correct us, or draw us closer to Himself (and further away from our stubborn desire to be in charge). Let me switch gears a little by way of illustration. It’s always fascinating and amazing to me how God assembles this congregation. We’ve have emergent types come (voluntarily) to sit for years under the teaching of this Reformed Baptist preacher. Folks have joined who are more politically-active than I am, like church programs more than I do, prefer different music, have different eschatological views, are non-Calvinist, etc. I’m never threatened by them, and don’t insist Darth Vader-style that they join me on the dark side or anything. When folks very different from myself willingly and even joyfully sit under teaching they shouldn’t like at all for long periods of time (and maybe even join the church), I ask God, “what are you teaching me in this season? How are they guiding us as a congregation into more perfect Christ-likeness?” You see, I trust His sovereignty. When an emergent, or politically-passionate, or dispensationalist is brought by God into this covenant community, I look to the Head of the Church for wisdom, guidance, and vision. He’s building His Church, and His sovereignty shines especially when she’s not made up of clones of myself! I’m not going to compromise my preaching/teaching to accommodate these different flavors, but I’m not going to argue them into submission, either. I’ll keep preaching/teaching the way I have been and trust the power of the Spirit through His Word. He is the Head of the Church. I am not. He – through the democratic vote of a richly varied congregation – has placed me in the pulpit for this season of the life of this congregation, and I will serve Him with as much faithfulness to His Word as I possibly can, being the chief of sinners in this family of faith.

Let me say this about those who think votes don’t require prayer, Scripture meditation, consistent attendance in corporate worship or Bible studies, Kingdom focus, or submission to Jesus Christ the Head. You may have a right to vote, but I don’t condone it or respect it. Your opinion on the state of things and the direction we should be going is merely that: your little opinion. When I called you a “practical atheist” or “rebellious insurrectionist” above, I meant it fully. Be warned: God may use your godless vote to discipline or mature His people for His glory, but He’ll still judge you for your paganism. The Bible’s full of examples of how God’s used this double-edged means of working through second causes. I don’t know of any specific examples of this in our congregation these pleasant days of unity, but for anyone else out there, the warning’s been issued. You are "responsible and accountable Christ as Lord," and He loves His Bride enough to die for her. He is wholly dedicated to her holiness (Ephesians 5:27). Don't think you can use her to build your own little kingdom without consequence.

I’m glad to hear the congregation vote on things. Recently my “Sunday afternoon” congregation 98 miles south of here voted to be far more generous to our state convention’s children’s home than I would have ever suggested. I rejoiced and marveled at their willingness to be more generous than myself. I wasn’t resistant to the idea – I just wasn’t thinking as big as they were and needed to get a larger vision! That sort of thing happens often. God fills His congregations with people and then speaks through them in ways, approaches, ideas, and visions greater than those I have as a limited little man. And I give Him glory and thanks every time it happens.

Congregational polity. Just like the democratic process in this country, it’s easy to unceasingly complain about those in office (elected by the majority of our neighbors!) and the current state of things. Unless you look to Who’s actually in charge. May we in democratically-guided congregations learn to be teachable, humble, and thankful to the First Cause Who is working through the second-cause votes, even when they seem to run counter to His revealed wisdom at first glance. The voice of the glorified Jesus speaks in Revelation 2-3 to problem congregations, and we benefit from the warnings...but He also speaks to congregations right on track, and we benefit from their examples. Christ the Head speaks to and through His Church. Are you prayerfully seeking Him in the minutes of the business meeting? He’s speaking. It’s either encouragement and vision or warning and correction, but He’s speaking.

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