Thursday, January 26, 2012

Coming to Consensus

In his article Congregational Government is from Satan, James MacDonald asserts that congregational voting is not biblical. Certainly he is correct if we are looking in the New Testament for the traditional motion & second, all in favor and the majority rules; Robert's Rules of Order and all that. But does congregational participation have to look like that? Can it take some other form and that form be found in the Bible? If so, then this strike against congregationalism falls. Does "voting" (congregational decision-making) exist in some other form? Consider the following examples and whether there is "a shred of biblical evidence".

Acts chapter 1. The Lord has ascended to heaven. The church is waiting in an upper room. Peter, a leader and an apostle, posits replacing the suicidal Judas with one who has been with them from the baptism of John. "They" -- the men and brethren to whom he was speaking, the 120 disciples, appointed two to set before God, and "they" (the same group) gave forth their lots. The lot was cast into the lap, and the disposing of it was by God.

Acts chapter 6. A problem had arisen concerning fair distribution to the Grecian widows. The apostles called the multitude (church/congregation) together. They were exhorted to select seven men to appoint over this distribution to see that it was done equably. The "whole multitude" was pleased and they came to an agreement together, choosing seven men to set before the apostles.

Acts chapter 10. Peter was sent of God to preach at the house of Cornelius, a Gentile. He had to be convinced through a vision to go. As he preached the Holy Spirit fell on the hearers, demonstrating God's approval. Though an apostle with authority to baptize, Peter still sought the consensus of those he brought with him, asking, "Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized..."

Acts chapter 13. The church at Antioch is unified in sending Paul and Barnabas to wherever God called them. They receive the message of the Holy Spirit and act upon it together. They send them forth with spiritual, moral and (sometimes) material support.

Acts chapter 15. First we find a church in Antioch disturbed by a doctrinal deviation. Yet by consensus they send Paul, Barnabas and others to Jerusalem, and even provided for their journey ("brought them on their way"). The church at Jerusalem came together to consider what certain brethren who went out from them (v. 24) were teaching in other places regarding salvation and circumcision. Paul and Barnabas were present from Antioch and testified of Lord's work among the Gentiles. Peter recounted his calling to preach to the Gentiles at Cornelius's house. James offered his counsel. Together "with the whole church" a solution was reached and a statement made.

I Corinthians chapter 5. A wicked act of fornication is reported in the church, and Paul exhorts them to put away this wicked person from their congregation, to be done by consensus "when ye are gathered together." (Cf. Matt. 18:17; II Cor. 2:6-8)

Congregational consensus is found in these places, a process of coming together in agreement by effective communication. Consensus decision-making fits well with the New Testament concepts of unity and one-anothering, regenerate church membership, servant leadership, individual accountability, the church as a body of gifted members, as well as the use of the word "ekklesia," a called-out assembly. The workings of New Testament congregations confirm the example of "congregational government" (i.e. congregational involvement in decision making). This must be understood within its context. Christ in the head of the church, and the church is governed by Him mediated through His word, which is inspired, profitable, and sufficient for faith and practice. The elders are the preachers and teachers of the word, and the church should judge "whether those things are so (Cf. I Cor. 14:23,27-31; Gal. 1:3-10)." In modern practice, congregationalism is sometimes extreme and at odds with the biblical revelation. But extremism should be corrected to the center of God's word, without going to some other extreme.

Within the purview of the congregation we find them involved in exercising discipline (I Cor. 5:3-5), selecting officers (Acts 1:23; 6:5), providing doctrinal and practical clarification (Acts 15:22-29), sending messengers (cf. Acts 11:22; 15:2,22), affirming the call of God (cf. Acts 13:1-3) and receiving Christian itinerants, ministers and members (II John 10; Acts 9:26; Rom. 16:1-2; Gal. 6:1). Sometimes congregations use their idea of "congregationalism" to step outside their purview (or to just revel in the flesh), such as usurping the role of the Spirit in sending His ministers. The churches did not tell Paul and others where to preach. They acknowledged and affirmed the call of God and left them to be guided by the Spirit. They did not tell the apostles and elders what to preach. They preached the Word, the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:2027-28; II Tim. 4:2). They did not tell them how to preach -- they are to teach doctrine, reprove, rebuke, exhort. A congregation has no right to step into the sphere of what the Spirit and Word directs (though they are to use discernment of what is being preached).

There is no need to defend modern practice. Let us abide by New Testament example. Congregationalism that ignores godly leadership, biblical exhortation, wise counsel, and the office of the eldership is only a distant cousin to what is found in the inspired revelation. Church government that consigns congregational consensus to the devil is no cousin at all. A church government model that puts its authority in the "staff" (many of which are not biblical offices) is a model of practicality and expediency rather than orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

Some verses are claimed to be at odds with what the New Testament congregations practiced, and so nullify the practice. That is bad interpretation. James and others may think that it is impossible to reconcile congregational decision making with scriptures like Hebrews 13:17 ("Obey them that have the rule over you"). Au contraire. The scriptures reconcile them whether we can figure it out or not. They never needed reconciling! The "at odds" is in our interpretation, not the Bible. The scriptures indicate that those thus commanded also participated in the decision-making process. Go thou, and do likewise.

1 comment:

Moses Kimani said...

Thank you for your words of wisdom. I especially appreciate how you clarified the role of the congregation. When looked at against the Biblical list of roles for the elders, we see an ekklesia fully alive.