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I’m sometimes chided by folks for being a congregationalist. Yeah, I know. Can you believe it? But it’s true. Some folks really don’t believe the Bible teaches congregationalism, or at least models it in some places. Some won’t even admit the Bible teaches anything about church governance.

I have one friend, a Baptist committed to elder rule (yeah, I know, right?), who ridiculed congregationalism as deriving more from American one-man-one-vote civics.  This brother, not an American, makes a good case that some forms of polity basically mimic the political polity of the countries in which they were developed.  He does it with a great accent, too.  Accents, of course,  makes everything sound more intelligent.  And in some cases, there appears to be some truth to his claim.

But can we really equate congregationalism with a kind of pooled individualism?

I’m sure that’s what it amounts to in far too many churches.  I’m sure that for many earnest Christians, American civics lessons have somehow blurred together with “that one sermon the pastor preached a while back on church government” to result in a fair amount of politicking and vote-getting in the church.

But, congregationalism is not the same as pooled individualism.  A good pastor friend and faithful shepherd brought this home to me recently.  He described a church meeting where the vast majority of the congregation wanted to follow the leadership while four members held the body hostage by insisting they have “all the information” the leaders had.  They announced their inability to support the leadership or vote without all the data.  In God’s goodness, the congregation carried on with their support of the leaders, making important decisions along the way.

Were these person’s practicing congregationalism in their insistence to know all that everyone else knew before making a decision?  No.  They were, as my friend put it, being individualists.  They weren’t considering the congregation at all.  They weren’t trusting the rest of the body or the leadership.  They were trusting themselves.  And they were announcing as much on the floor of a members’ meeting.  There was a kind of egoism at work that obscured their view of the whole.

Now, let me hasten to say that sometimes the vast minority sees a thing more clearly than the whole.  That’s why we want to work against group think.  And no one should side with the church or the leaders when it’s clear the church and/or leaders are heading into sin.  But if we’re in a congregational context, we should remind ourselves of a few important truths lest we become individualists pretending to be congregationalists:

1.  Our overarching aim is to build up the body of Christ, not merely to represent our own interests;

2.  It’s necessary that we trust our leaders and show them proper respect for their work’s sake rather than hinder them like some opposition party slowing “the other side’s” agenda;

3.  Those around us also have the Holy Spirit, prayer, the Bible, and gifts of discernment, so it’s probably humble and wise of us to assume they could be correct or acting wisely and we could be wrong or acting foolishly;

4.  Sometimes congregations get it wrong, and that’s okay if we’re not talking about sin and serious doctrinal error; and,

5.  If it is a matter of sin or false teaching, the congregation and each member in it has the responsibility and right to graciously and resolutely defend the truth and work for restoration.

These are a few things for us rowdy congregationalists to remember lest we find ourselves on the receiving end of Titus 3:10 warnings and rebuke.

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5 thoughts on “Congregationalists and Individualists”

  1. Ted Bigelow says:

    Hi Thabiti,

    Did you hear the one about the Congregationalist who wanted to repair his broken marriage by patterning it after his church? Both he and his wife got a vote. Every time he asked his wife “do we have a motion” she brightened up and said, “Absolutely! I have joy, sadness, guilt and passion, you sensitive man, you!”

    Turns out what she really needed was tender-hearted shepherding by someone who would love her where she was. She really just needed servant leadership.

    Your friend with the accent seems right. As we compare the forms of church governance we cannot help but see that they really do follow the form of the world’s governance in vogue at the time. Episcopalianism still follows the Roman system of governance while connectionalism resemble the feudal systems of lords and serfs. Congregationalism follows a more consistent democracy.

    We live at a point in church history where voting rights are, well, “rights.” Yet there is only one instance in the Bible of voting and it resulted in murder (Acts 26:10). No matter. Move along folks. Nothing to see here.

    As discomforting as it is, the NT church established by Christ and the apostles had no voting and no Robert’s rules of order. We see no budgets passed and no governing privilege extended to the congregation. For many of us children of democracy this is awful!

    So we set up and manage our churches with the fallen systems of the world in unbelief. As a result they quickly conform themselves to the world and live on for a season in the strength of the flesh. And if somebody claims our way is unbiblical, well, we will provide disconnected Scripture inferences as proof for our system.

    Scripture actually teaches a single pattern of church governance that is abundantly clear and it is called eldership. The major texts are Acts 20:17ff, Acts 21:18ff, 1 Tim. 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, 1 Pet. 5:1-4 and many other minor ones.

    Eldership is also the neglected step child of polities. When the multiple view books come out on polity they combine eldership with congregationalism – which is only a variation of congregationalism.

    So here we live with our beloved congregationalism. It feels so right. Church meetings climax in a vote feel sacred – a “holy consensus” as Paige Patterson would say. And even though there is no example or command in Scripture to do these things we right books and blogs advocating them.

    And then we turn around and chide the infant Baptists for claiming their practice is biblical when they have neither command nor precedent. Time to turn the mirror on ourselves.

  2. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

    Hi Ted,

    Thanks for stopping by and adding to the conversation, even making it entertaining!

    Just a couple quick points:

    1. I think we see voting at least implied in 2 Cor. 2:6. And even if we argue against voting in that passage, what is undeniable is that the congregation (“the many,” “the majority,” etc.) took the final action in this membership matter/discipline. So, that’s just one instance in favor of some congregational government, imo.

    2. Even if we can find instances of voting in the NT church, that does not render the church a democracy. The church is decidedly not a democracy. Christ is the only Head of the church and He rules by His word. But, we must not then with knee-jerk speed acts as if the congregation has no responsibility in the administration and implementation of church life, particularly on matters of membership, calling leaders, and even neutral matters like approving budgets. It seems abundantly clear to me from Matthew 18:17 and 1 Cor. 5 and 2 Cor. 2 that the congregation effectively acts and rules in matters of membership.

    And I think we can be healthy congregationalists without bending the knee to the baals of American-styled democracy. In fact, the only way to be a congregationalist is one believes it best represents the precepts and patterns of the Scripture.


  3. Ted Bigelow says:

    Hi Thabiti,

    Did you hear the one about the Congregationalist, the Pope, and a Rabbi? All 3 duck into a bar to avoid the rain and decide to order drinks and wait the storm out.

    The Pope and the Rabbi order wine, but the Congregationalist orders a milk in order to show these two men what obedience to the Bible really looks like.

    It works great! The Pope and the Rabbi are amazed at their friend with the white moustache and ask him, “Why did you order the milk? We are in a bar, you know!?”

    To which the Congregationalist answered, “Have you not read the Scripture, “Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; And you who have no money come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk?”

    “And that’s why I abstain from wine and drink milk.”

    When the Pope and Rabbi heard his answer they told him that Isaiah also spoke of free wine and not just free milk. Licking the white off his lips, the Congregationalist immediately turned to the bartender and asked, “Got any Welch’s grape juice back there?”

    As I said, congregationalism is entirely based on Scripture inferences, like the one you raised. But 2 Cor. 2:6 wasn’t written to teach congregationalism. In distinction there are entire paragraphs of Scripture written to teach eldership (1 Tim. 5:17-25, Titus 1:5-9, for example).

    There isn’t anything said about a collectivized majority action in 2 Cor. 2:6, or a majority vote. It would be just as fair to claim that a majority of the people in the church closed a door in the man’s face, issued individual restraining orders against him, or that a majority stayed away from his meat business. The idea of a group action, or a vote, is all personal conjecture.

    But there is no need for conjecture since Paul tells us exactly what the majority of people did. They gave the man a “punishment” (v. 6). The word translated “punishment” occurs 30 times in the New Testament and always refers to a spoken reproof. It never refers to a written reproof, nor a “concrete penalty” such as a vote for expulsion, but only and always brotherly correction of a verbal nature. The meaning of 2 Corinthians 2:6 then is straightforward. The majority of the congregation gave the man a spoken reproof of brotherly correction. This reproof reflects their obedience to the Lord’s teaching in Matthew 18:17a, specifically, the third step of church discipline.

    If we were truly sensitive to 2 Cor. 2:6 we would ask the question, “What about the minority of the church? What disobedience did they evidence, and how should that disobedience have been handled?”

    There is simply no way to reconcile Congregationalism and Scripture. Have you not read Hebrews 13:17? Congregationalism sanctifies occasional disobedience to the Holy Spirit. It’s not only OK to overrule the elders at times, congregationalism calls it biblical.

    Just like drinking milk and not wine.

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Thanks Ted. I have read Hebrews 13 and Galatians 1 and 2 Corinthians 2 and Matthew 18. Hebrews calls members to submit to their elders; it does not treat the elders as infallible such that the congregation would always be wrong to disagree with them. We know how that belief tends to abuse, don’t we?

      I’ve also read 2 Corinthians. 2 Corinthians 2 clearly says “the majority” issued a punishment to the offending brother. Now, here’s my question: If the majority does not do this, is there any real correction of the brother? Or, if the majority refuse to affirm their love for the brother and receive him back into fellowship, is he a part of the membership? Of course not. So, then, the congregation exercises a responsibility over the membership that is inescapable. We see the same thing in Matthew 18:17, Titus 3:10 and elsewhere.

      If we were to take your logic to its conclusion and adopt your posture of looking only to the precepts and not also the examples of the scripture, then we would not know what an elders’ meeting looks like or be able to say much about how elders should shepherd.

      Suffice it to say, we disagree. Let’s leave it there.


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Thabiti Anyabwile

Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor for Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC and a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

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