Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Should Congregations Vote, or Should Elders Rule?

I dare say that most Christians have never even considered this question. Christians tend to assume that the tradition they were raised with is Biblical, and may not even know that the other position exists. But it is a fact that many churches believe that the final locus of authority in a church rests with the congregation, and many others believe that the final locus of authority in a church rests with the elders. Now, there are extremes in both instances. On the one extreme is the congregational church with a consensus mentality, that functionally holds that no member should ever disagree with any decision made by the church; if one member disagrees, then the decision will be made to do nothing (effectively offending many others, who supported this direction, but I digress). On the other extreme is the elder's board that operates alone, without ever consulting the congregation, stomps around showing displays of power, and is not afraid to offend the most wise church member. Somewhere in the middle are elder-led congregationally ruled churches (e.g. Mark Dever), and elder-ruled, congregationally loving/listening/caring churches (e.g. James MacDonald). Ignoring the presence of a continuum, here are some denominations that hold to one or the other position:

Congregational Rule:
- Baptists
- Associated Gospel Churches
- Pentecostal Churches
- Christian and Missionary Alliance Churches
- Many others

Elder Rule:
- Brethren Churches (various streams)
- Harvest Churches (think, James MacDonald)
- Sovereign Grace Ministries Churches (think, C.J. Mahaney)
- Many others

Whatever your position, it is useful to think through the issue, especially if you have never considered other sides, or if you have never thought through your own position through a biblical lens (but rather, your traditional lens/cultural assumptions). Love him or hate him, James MacDonald has recently provided two blog posts that seek to refute congregationalism and argue for elder-rule.

In his first post, he uses hyperbole and anecdote to show how congregational church government can hold churches captive (i.e. when it goes bad).

In his second post, he interacts with various Biblical passages, arguing that elder-rule is the Biblical model, and also fills out what elder-rule practically looks like in the Harvest family of churches (i.e. they seek to be balanced in their use of authority and he gives many examples of how this plays out).

Again, whatever your position, you would probably benefit from thinking through MacDonald's articles. (And please, do not leave a comment attacking me for supporting MacDonald. I'm supporting thinking through this issue, and I'm not necessarily supporting even the titles he gave to his articles. But they have helpful content to those who want to think critically through this issue, so I commend them to you!) Here they are again:

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