Count it all joy when you face various trials. --James the brother of Jesus

Thursday, May 08, 2008

A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Argument for Congregational Polity

This is my paper for the Ecclesiology course that I took with Dr. Patterson this Spring:


This paper will argue that congregational church government is revealed in the Bible, is theologically consistent, and is practical for implementation in the local church today. That is, the Bible teaches that the highest ecclesiastical authority on this earth is the local church, and that the authority of the local church is seated in the congregation as a whole. This thesis has been argued before by many Baptists of the past, as well as others in the Free Church tradition. In fact, it is not likely that any new ground will be covered in this paper, yet it is an important argument to be made. It needs to be heard again today.

The conservative resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention has brought about many wonderful results. One of these results has been a reinvigorated widespread sense of urgency for biblical fidelity. Along with this urgency has been a renewed interest in ecclesiology. This can be seen in the many conversations about Baptist identity, in the emphasis at the seminary level on Baptist distinctives, as well as in the ministry of the Center for Church Reform based out of Capital Hill Baptist Church. Mark Dever has labored there to encourage theological reform and the recovery of an authentic Baptist (and biblical) polity.

However, even with this renewed interest in historic Baptist polity, some “Baptist” churches have had doubts about the practice of congregational church government. Some have seen abuses of congregational authority and reject it on that basis. Others dismiss congregationalism as the effect that American pragmatic philosophy has produced in church life. However, it is almost humorous to think that authority for making decisions resting in a large collective group could be considered practical. It would seem that authority resting in the hands of just a few would be much more pragmatic. Such critics of congregationalism within Baptist life have maintained the practice of believer’s baptism and have striven for regenerate church membership, yet making a break with historic Baptist polity they opt for what might be called “elder rule.” John Hammett comments that “To a pastor who feels his congregation is obstructing his attempts to lead them in godly ways, elder rule might be very appealing.”[1] Such a church might still be considered congregational in the sense that it is independent of outside ecclesiastical authority; however, they reject that church authority is seated in the whole congregation. In such churches, the elders make the final decisions, and they are responsible for maintaining membership and discipline. This paper will argue that this understanding of church government (which may even be called semi-Presbyterianism) is deficient.[2]

The scope of this paper will be limited to the issue of congregational authority. Some congregationalists maintain that the Bible also mandates that a plurality of elders should lead, while others maintain that there is a general pattern of leadership by a single elder or pastor. This debate is outside of the scope of this paper. The more important concern for this paper is the seat of authority—not the structure of leadership. Though there is a pattern of plural leadership that seems evident, there is no explicit command in Scripture concerning the number of leaders that a congregation should have. However, this paper will argue that there is an explicit biblical command for local congregations to exercise congregational authority, and any form of church government which circumvents this command by delegation is in conflict with a Scriptural command.

There is also a terminology confusion that must be addressed here. This paper will not be able to fix the confusion that exists, but hopefully anyone who reads it will at least understand what is meant in this argument. By “elder rule,” this paper means a form of church government where elders make the final decisions, with or without the wisdom of congregational input. By “elder led” this paper means a form of government that has a plurality of elders, yet the final decisions are still made by the congregation jointly. The issue at hand is where authority is seated—in the elders, or in the congregation.

Biblical Basis

Congregational church government is the pattern revealed in the Bible and as such ought to be implemented today in churches that desire to pattern themselves after the New Testament churches. The texts used to argue for congregationalism have been well worn. This paper will use the same texts that are always used in this endeavor and will seek to gain insight from other able interpreters.

The idea that congregational church government is taught in the New Testament is not beyond being contested. Those who practice Presbyterianism and Episcopal forms of government would clearly reject that. Presbyterians would argue that the Bible teaches elder rule and connectionalism. Episcopalians and Catholics would likely argue that the Bible is ambiguous about church government. Over a period of years, God led the church to establish a hierarchical structure. In fact, Peter Toon argues that “the modern Anglican . . . does not see any blueprint for the polity and government of the church written in Scripture.”[3] Toon basis almost his entire argument for Episcopal government on church history and his claim that God divinely guided the early church to adopt that model. In contrast, Baptists have historically believed that congregationalism is a revealed doctrine. As noted by Baptist historian Gregory Wills, “They held authority immediately from Christ and administered it according to the pattern revealed in scripture.”[4]

Discipline Texts

The texts most commonly used to argue for congregationalism by 18th and 19th century Baptists were Matthew 18:15-18, 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, and 2 Corinthians 2:6.[5] These texts all treat the issue of church discipline. The biblical pattern for discipline demonstrated to earlier Baptists that congregational church government is biblical.

First, in Matthew 18 Jesus gives his disciples instructions for dealing with a brother in error:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matt 18:15-18).[6]

The key phrase here is “tell it to the church.” This is only one of two places in the gospels that the word ekklhsia occurs.[7] According to Jesus’ command, if the brother in error does not repent, the final redemptive measure is to bring it before the church. As Craig Blomberg has stated,

Ultimately, if the sinner remains recalcitrant, the entire church community must in some sense be made aware of the offense so that the rebellious individual has nowhere to hide. If even this procedure fails to bring repentance, then as a last resort Jesus commands the entire community to dissociate itself from the individual.[8]

Church discipline cannot be done in a corner. It is presumption to think that this practice can be delegated to anyone other than who Jesus specified.

In a government where authority resides in elders, the authority to discipline does not reside in the members jointly, but it is delegated to another. This kind of delegation may have good intentions. It may be motivated by a desire to prevent a scandal for the church. Yet, this clearly violates the pattern that Jesus commanded. Even a good motivation is not a warrant to abandon the command of Jesus in regard to discipline. Samuel Waldron makes this argument against Presbyterianism:

[Presbyterians believe] that the board of elders of a church legally and representatively is that church. Their decisions, therefore, constitute the decisions of the church. The consent of the church is not necessary to confirm or consent to such decisions, because the church has already given its consent in the decision of their representatives, the elders. . . . [M]atters of church membership and discipline may be decided by the elders alone. They are the church representatively in this matter. No vote of the assembled church membership is necessary.[9]

Waldron argues that this delegation of discipline has no biblical basis, is purely arbitrary, and actually contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture. Nineteenth century Baptist churchman, J. M. Pendleton, affirms the same thing: “the power of a church cannot be transferred or alienated.”[10] The other church discipline texts demonstrate the congregation’s authority to discipline even more clearly.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul gives directions to the Corinthian church to expel an immoral man who claimed to be a believer:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people-- not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler--not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you” (1Cor 5:9-13).

The first observation is that this letter, like most of the Pauline letters, is addressed to the whole church at Corinth. This is probably the plainest evidence that exists. Almost all of the Pauline letters were addressed to churches. In addition to discipline, Paul “saw doctrinal purity as a congregational responsibility.”[11] Paul does not delegate obedience in the matter of discipline to any other body, but it is to be the action of the whole congregation jointly. Specifically, the last sentence says “Purge the evil person from among you.” Paul, in no uncertain terms commands the whole congregation to perform this action. Richard B. Hays observes that Paul did not scold the immoral man or woman involved in the sin, but the whole congregation for being complicit.[12] Hays states, “The Corinthians are to gather as a community and take solemn action to exclude the incestuous man from the church.”[13] Responsibility for action lies with the gathered congregation.

Second Corinthians gives the most significant evidence for this joint authority for discipline. When it appears that the immoral man from 1 Corinthians has repented, Paul gives instructions for his readmission to fellowship. In this instruction he states, “For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough” (2Cor 2:6). This text begs the question, “majority of what?” The command to discipline in the first letter was given to the church as a whole. There was no direction for the elders to expel the man. Therefore, this text seems to indicate that the decision to discipline was made by a majority vote of the gathered congregation. However, Ernest Best rejects that this text indicates a majority vote. Rather Best argues that, “All the word signifies is that there was no serious opposition to the decision.”[14] Whether a formal vote was taken may not be knowable. It is clear that the action was taken by the whole congregation—not a committee. However, the idea of a congregational vote should not be thrown out. The concept of a majority lends itself to this idea. Margret Thrall states,

It may simply be that Paul had been informed of the taking of a congregational vote, which had resulted in support for the line he had urged (or demanded?) in his letter. If so, the phrase uJpo twn pleionwn may have come naturally to mind, without any emphasis on those who might have dissented from the decision, whether they supported a harsher sentence or a more lenient one.[15]

David Garland concurs that a congregational vote may possibly be what the term “majority” refers to here.[16] A majority implies an identifiable body from which the opinion is discerned. This may or may not imply dissent, but it does imply that the will of the whole congregation was clear.

Not only does this support that the authority for discipline resides in the congregation jointly, but it also supports the mere concept of church membership. Since church membership is not directly mentioned in the Bible, some might question the practice of keeping track of any membership role at all. However, this text clearly shows that the church of Corinth had some means of recognizing who they considered a part of their local body. It also indicates that they had some means of knowing the majority opinion on matters of membership and discipline. Whether they collected ballots, raised hands, or merely voice voted with a resounding “amen” may be in question, but clearly some means of voting must have been in place.

The clearest evidence for congregational authority is found in the fact that the New Testament congregations had the authority to maintain their own membership and discipline. This was held by such a notable Baptist theologian as John L. Dagg who said, “Each church for itself has the responsibility of admitting to its own membership. A single church may exclude from its own fellowship, as in the case of the incestuous member excommunicated by the church at Corinth; and the power to exclude implies the power to admit. The pastor has not the power; nor is it possessed by any ecclesiastical judicatory except the church itself.”[17] Mark Dever similarly sums up the common argument given by Baptists for congregationalism based on church discipline as follows:

Advocates of Congregationalism understand that the Bible teaches the local congregation is ultimately responsible for its discipline and doctrine. Disputes between members (Matt. 18:15-17), as well as matters of doctrine (Gal. 1:8; 2 Tim. 4:3), church discipline (1 Cor. 5), and membership, (2 Cor. 2:6-8), are all recognized as congregational matters. No other authority may obtrude itself into the position of giving final correction to the congregation or overruling them on such matters. Nor may the congregation delegate this authority to an elder or bishop or any other structure, thereby deferring their own accountability before God for doctrine or discipline.[18]

Baptists of the past clearly saw that the Bible teaches that congregations jointly held the responsibility for maintaining membership and discipline. The preceding biblical texts establish that the churches bear this responsibility with a reasonable measure of certainty. As J. M. Pendleton argued, “if the New Testament churches had the power and the right to receive, exclude, and restore members, they must have had the right to transact any other business coming before them. There surely can be nothing more vital to the interests of a church than the reception, exclusion, and restoration of members.”[19] The evidence already given in regard to church discipline has already made a sufficient case for congregational government, but this is not the only data available.

Selection and Commissioning of Leaders

Another biblical evidence for congregationalism is the indication within the biblical text that congregations called their own leaders. In Acts 6, the apostles called on the congregation to select from among themselves men to serve. Taking care of the physical needs of the church was distracting the apostles from the important work of preaching and prayer. This text has often been cited as the origin of the office of deacon, but it is not necessarily so. Whether it refers to deacons or not is irrelevant to the point that is at issue here. What is important is that they were selected by the congregation. The text says: “And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’ And what they said pleased the whole gathering” (Acts 6:2-5). Here the apostles addressed “the full number of the disciples.” That would most likely be all the believers or the whole congregation. New Testament scholar John Polhill comments, “Even though the Hellenists had the main grievance, the problem involved the entire congregation; and the apostles wanted total participation.”[20] The congregation is told to select men “from among” themselves. The congregation had a role in selecting their own officers. Finally, the process culminates when the text states that it “pleased the whole gathering.” If anyone had the authority to mandate a decision it would have been the apostles, yet Scripture records the important note that the consent of the congregation was gained before moving forward. Polhill also states, “It is important to note that the congregation made the selection. The apostles assumed the leadership in making the proposal, but they left final approval to congregational decision.”[21] Was this a vote similar to modern methods of ballot taking? That is unknown, and probably irrelevant. Luke’s account just indicates that consent of the congregation was given in some fashion.

Related evidence comes from Acts 13 where it records the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas. John Hammett states that “it seems that the church was involved in commissioning Paul and Barnabas to their work as missionaries, and upon their return, Paul and Barnabas reported to the church (Acts 14:27).”[22]

Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:1-3).

John Polhill comments that “In v. 2 ‘they’ likely refers to the entire Antioch congregation gathered for worship.” Then he states that “It is not clear who laid hands on Paul and Barnabas, whether the other prophet-teachers, the elders of the church . . . or the whole congregation.” It is possible that it was a smaller group who laid their hands on the two missionaries; however, in contrast to an ordination by elders, Polhill continues, “The gesture was more a symbol of the congregation’s endorsing the work of the two.”[23]

The final biblical evidence considered here will be from the counsel of Jerusalem, which is often pointed to by others to advocate connectionalism. At the counsel the apostles and the elders of the Jerusalem church met to seek the Lord’s direction on how to handle Gentile converts. Upon reaching a decision the text states, “it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas” (Acts 15:22). When the apostles spoke, it was affirmed by the congregation. C. K. Barrett says that the Jerusalem church was virtually the only church represented: “Here they meet sun oJlh th ejkklhsia, the whole body of Christians, that is, of the Jerusalem church; the church of Antioch had sent only a small delegation (15.2), and no other church seems to have been represented.”[24] According to T. C. Smith, “The opinion of James was judicious enough for the concurrence of the assembly. It seems that the final decision rested with the general assembly of the church in Jerusalem.”[25] It is evident from the text that “the church was involved in the discussion (vv. 4, 12) and decision (v. 22) of the group there.”[26] From this involvement an argument can be made for congregational authority.

The fact that churches are to call their own leaders has been recognized among Baptists from the beginning an is reflected in the 2nd London Confession which states, “The way appointed by Christ for the Calling of any person, fitted, and gifted by the Holy Spirit, unto the Office of Bishop, or Elder, in a Church, is, that he be chosen thereunto by the common suffrage of the Church itself.”[27] If early Baptists saw this principle as important enough to include it in a confession of faith it could not have been seen as a pragmatic approach but as a command of Christ.

Theological Arguments

This section will discuss the doctrines of the “priesthood of believers,” “regenerate membership,” and the kingship of Christ over his church. Each of these doctrines has implications for congregational government.

Priesthood of Believers

The priesthood of believers has been advocated by Protestants, including Martin Luther and others, since the reformation.[28] However, it is an often misunderstood and abused doctrine. It has been used by some to argue against any kind of theological or moral accountability within the church. If someone believes something heretical, or practices some kind of immoral behavior, they may seek to justify what they believe and to avoid church discipline by invoking the doctrine of the “priesthood of believers.” They claim that because of this doctrine, Christians ought not to judge one another in these matters. This was a major claim of moderates during the conservative resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention. Gregory Wills claims,

Throughout the twentieth century, [Southern Baptists] had placed the ideas of soul liberty and the priesthood of the believer near the center of Baptist theology. These doctrines, many Baptists urged, established the inviolable character of the individual conscience in matters spiritual: No person had a right to sit in judgment of another’s religious convictions. They meant that each person was free to embrace Christianity according to individual judgment and that churches and denominational organizations should tolerate those diverse judgments.[29]

However, the “priesthood of believers” is not a doctrine releasing people from accountability—in fact, the opposite is true. The priesthood of believers is a doctrine of responsibility.

This doctrine basically means two things. First, believers need no human mediator apart from Jesus Christ in order to be in right relationship with God. Jesus is the one mediator between God and man, and no other is needed—believers can go directly to him. There is no need for the priestly system or confession to priests of the Roman Catholic Church. Second, believers are all priests. Therefore, the “kingdom of priests” that Christ has redeemed is to act as priests in interceding for the lost world and in holding one another accountable. It takes no special ordination or spiritual power in order to hold fellow believers accountable—all it takes is the brotherhood involved in the New Testament church. In summary, the “priesthood of believers” means that believers have access to God directly through Christ, and that all believers are priests to one another and to the lost world.

If all believers are Spirit indwelled and have been given this responsibility of priesthood, then it logically follows that the basic unit of local Christian community, the Church, is collectively responsible and competent to make decisions. This doctrine is evidence that all believers in the community are equal and together they equally bear the responsibility for governing the decisions of the church. John Hammett states that “The priesthood of all believers is seen by many as the strongest support for congregational government.”[30]

It is true that “each individual believer is also fallible.”[31] It is not probable that every decision of the congregation will be unanimous. It is probably the case that sometimes the majority of the congregation may be wrong. This is probably why many have chosen to abandon congregational government. However, in spite of human fallibility, the whole congregation is still held accountable for what goes on in the church. Not only will leaders be judged when a church abandons the gospel, but the whole congregation will be held accountable. This responsibility for a congregation will not be avoided by a claim that they merely followed the directions of their leaders.

Regenerate Church Membership

A commitment to regenerate church membership is why congregational government actually works best in Baptist settings. Though other denominations may have believed in only admitting members who had experienced conversion,[32] Baptists have been the most consistent in this principle. Baptists have historically sought to maintain regenerate church membership by baptizing only those who have given a credible profession of faith. The more closely the membership of the church resembles those who are actually regenerate, the less likely it is that the church will move in sinful directions. However, even in Baptist life, regenerate church membership has not always been guarded closely.

It is obvious that in a setting where regenerate membership is not emphasized and not implemented, congregationalism will have problems. If many or most of the members of a congregation are lost persons, there is no reason to expect that congregational decisions will in any sense resemble the revealed will of God. It is reasonable to assume that those who have abandoned congregationalism in Baptist life have done so because they have seen examples of churches run by the decisions of lost people. This is a legitimate criticism of congregational government; however, if congregation is biblical, its weakness is not a good reason for abandoning it. Rather than abandoning congregational government, Baptist churches need to reemphasize regenerate membership and church discipline. In the past, Baptist churches had been so committed to this principle that they were called bigots by other denominations. Though this is not a pleasant thing, within it was a “hidden complement.”[33] It would be better to be called a bigot for obeying the commands of Christ, than to compromise on biblical principles and be loved by everyone.

The Kingship of Christ

The argument for congregationalism does not maintain that a local congregation is the final authority, but that it is the final human ecclesiastical authority. This is recognized in the 2nd London Confession of Faith in the statement, “The Lord Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church, in whom by the appointment of the Father, all power for the calling, institution, order, or Government of the Church, is invested in a supream [sic] & soveraigne [sic] manner, neither can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof,”[34] Ultimately the congregation is ruled by Christ through the instrument of his Word. No man can usurp Christ’s authority. Paul said to the church of Colossi, “And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent” (Col. 1:18), and to the church at Ephesus, “For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (Eph 5:23). No congregation is free to make any decision which is in conflict with the commands of Christ the king and head of the church.

This has been understood and taught among Southern Baptist from at least the time of its founders. William B. Johnson, the first president of the S. B. C., argued as follows: “Each church as an independent body, so far as the control of any other body on earth is regarded, acts freely. To Christ, her only Head, Lawgiver and Ruler, is she accountable; no other authority may exercise any control over her. For her government, Christ has enacted a perfect code of laws for every possible case.”[35] The church, each individual congregation, is immediately held accountable to Christ.

This fact is relevant in the argument for congregational government because if the authority of the church is seated in any delegated authority, then there is an intermediary authority between Christ and his church. Such an intermediary authority is absent from scripture. Introducing intermediary authorities is an act of presumption because it has not been commanded. For churches that recognize the validity of the regulative principle, congregational government ought to be the only option. Christ is the head of the church, and no one else may take his place.

Practical Arguments

A few objections to congregationalism have been mentioned that seem to be based on how unpractical it may seem. While the most convincing evidence for congregational polity should be biblical and theological, there are practical reasons to implement congregational government as well. In fact, if congregational government is biblical, and if it really is commanded by Christ, then it should be expected to be practical in maintaining the health of the church. Pragmatism is never a good test for truth because methods might give the appearance that they work, yet be in conflict with the truth. However, if something is true it should be expected to work. Such is the case with congregationalism.

Drawing from Mark Dever and James Leo Garrett Jr., John Hammett identifies three specific benefits of congregational polity. Dever argues in his work A Display of God’s Glory that one of the practical benefits of congregational polity is that it provides a safeguard against a drift toward doctrinal and spiritual decline. He states,

Friends, the verdict of history is in. While it is clear that no certain polity prevents churches from error, from declension, and from sterility, the more centralized polities seem to have a worse track record than does congregationalism in maintaining a faithful, vital, evangelical witness. (Congregationalism’s record is particularly enhanced in the case when the purity and visibility of the church is protected through a biblical practice of believer baptism and a rejection of infant baptism.) The papacy has wrought havoc on self-confessed Christians. Bishops have hardly done better. Even assemblies, conferences, presbyteries, synods and sessions, when they have moved from being advisors to being rulers, have overstepped their scripturally-warranted authority and have brought more trouble than help.

Could it be that the gospel itself is so simple and clear, and the relationship that we have with God by the Holy Spirit’s action in giving us the new birth is so real that the collection of those who believe the gospel and who know God are simply the best guardians of that gospel?[36]

Dever raises a significant point. The conservative resurgence in the S. B. C. would have been impossible in a setting where authority resides at the top of the structure. Hammett comments, “The power that changed the course of the Southern Baptist Convention was the power of thousands of grassroots Baptists. They were mobilized and directed by very able leaders, but the determining factor was the actions of thousands of average believers.”[37]

This works on the denominational level, and it ought to work on the level of the local church as well. If a pastor is preaching heresy or living an immoral lifestyle, under congregational government the church can vote to remove that man. However, if the authority resides in the elders, either the church will suffer along until the man resigns or is removed by the other elders if they are willing and able to do so, or the members just leave and let go of any investment that they had in that church.

Dever also argues that in some sense all churches are congregational: “Every local congregation in Christendom, from Greek Orthodox to Pentacostal, from Roman Catholic to Baptist, from Episcopalian to Lutheran, from Presbyterian to Methodist, is congregational in nature. They only exist as the people continue to participate in their activities.”[38] The leadership of a local congregation may have the ability to make all the decisions for the congregation, but if all the people leave, there will be no church. This is recognized by those who want to practice elder rule in Baptist life. It is simply wisdom to receive input from the congregation before making major decisions. Yet it is best if this input is more than just recognition of wise leadership principles. Given the biblical and theological basis above, the documents of a local church ought to acknowledge that final ecclesiastic authority resides in the congregation.

Hammett’s final stated benefit of congregationalism is an increased congregational loyalty. He states, “a lack of involvement and participation in discerning the direction of the church seem likely to weaken the sense of loyalty and commitment among the members of the congregation.”[39] If authority does not reside in the gathered congregation, but in the leaders, it seems that the result will be a loss of the idea that the church is the believers who gather. Instead, a top down authority structure would seem to result in spectators who “go to church,” rather than members who are the church.

Conclusion

This paper has argued on biblical and theological grounds in favor of congregational polity. An attempt has also been made to show that this structure is not only theologically correct but that it actually works in practical life. Biblical evidence is given which centers on church discipline and the selection of leaders. Theological evidence is given which uses the concepts of the priesthood of believers, regenerate church membership, and the Kingship of Christ.

If congregational government is truly the polity that is revealed in scripture then it should be expected to work, and it will benefit the health of churches. This paper is intended to be a brief articulation of this principle. It is hoped that others who may have opportunity to read this may join in advocating congregational polity and in trusting local congregations—led by the Spirit—to make the right decisions concerning whatever business that comes before them.




[1]John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel, 2005), 156.

[2]Ibid., 155.

[3]Toon, Peter, “Episcopalianism,” in Who Runs the Church? Four Views on Church Government, ed. Steven B. Cowan (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2004), 28.

[4]Gregory Wills, “The Church: Baptists and Their Churches in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” in Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life comp. Mark Dever (Washington, D. C.: Center for Church Reform, 2001), 20-21.

[5]Ibid.

[6]All Scripture quotations will be taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

[7] Donald Hagner, Matthew 14-28, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David Hubbard, vol. 33B (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1995), 532.

[8]Craig Blomberg, Matthew, New American Commentary, ed. David Dockery, vol. 22 (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1992), 279.

[9]Samuel Waldron, “Plural-Elder Congregationalism,” in Who Runs the Church?, ed. Steven Cowan, 118-19.

[10]J. M. Pendleton, Baptist Church Manual (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1966), 102.

[11]John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 147.

[12]Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation, ed. James L. Mays (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1997), 82.

[13]Ibid., 83.

[14]Enest Best, Second Corinthians, Interpretation, ed. James L. Mays (Atlanta, Georgia: John Knox Press, 1987), 23.

[15]Margret Thrall, II Corinthians, The International Critical Commentary, ed. J. A. Emerton, C. E. B. Cranfield, and G. N. Stanton, vol. I (Edinburgh, Scottland: T & T Clark, 1994), 176.

[16]David B. Garland, 2 Corinthians, New American Commentary, ed. E. Ray Clendenen, vol. 29 (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman, 1999), 126.

[17]John L. Dagg, Church Order: A Treatise (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: American Baptist Publication Society, 1871), 268.

[18]Mark Dever, “The Church,” in Theology for the Church, ed. Danniel Akin (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadmand & Holman, 2007), 835.

[19]J. M. Pendleton, Baptist Church Manual, 107.

[20]John Polhill, Acts, New American Commentary, ed. David Dockery, vol. 26 (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1992), 180.

[21]Ibid., 181.

[22]John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 148.

[23]John Polhill, Acts, 290.

[24]C. K. Barrett, Acts, The International Critical Commentary, ed. J. A. Emerton, C. E. B. Cranfield, and G. N. Stanton, vol. II (Edinburgh, Scotland: T & T Clark, 1998), 738.

[25]T. C. Smith, Acts-1 Corinthians, The Broadman Bible Commentary, ed. Clifton Allen, vol. 10 (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1970), 93.

[26]John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 148.

[27] William Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Judson Press, 1974), 287.

[28]John Hammett, “Human Nature,” in Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel Akin, 378.

[29] Gregory A. Wills, Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Chruch Discipline in the Baptist South 1785-1900 (New York, New York: Oxford Press, 1997), 4.

[30]John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 149.

[31]Ibid.

[32]Gregory Wills, Democratic Religion, 5.

[33]Ibid., 6.

[34]William Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, 286.

[35]William B. Johnson, “The Gospel Developed,” in Polity comp. Mark E. Dever, 175.

[36]Mark Dever, A Display of God's Glory (Washington, D. C.: Center for Church Reform, 2001), 38-39.

[37]John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 150.

[38]Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2004), 225.

[39]John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 151.

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