Thursday, July 14, 2011

Congregational Voting

In my last entry, I suggested the possibility of a mature membership, thus negating many of the problems Dr. MacDonald correctly addressed in many, if not most, congregational structures. But my argument has a weakness, namely it does not provide a biblical example of such a membership. We will, therefore, turn to three of the most cited passages in support of congregationalism: Acts 6:2-5, Matthew 18:17, and 2 Cor. 2:6. Once again, I will use a conversational format to engage with Dr. MacDonald’s blog. Let’s start with him:
(Dr. MacDonald’s Blog). Voting Is Not Biblical
The right to vote may be an American right given by the Constitution, but it is not a kingdom right given in the Word of God. It may be a tradition of some wonderful streams of church history, e.g. Baptist, but it is not biblical. There is not a shred of biblical evidence for a congregation voting on what its direction should be, but many church members believe it is their ‘God-given right’ to stand in judgement over the Pastors and Elders that are seeking to lead them. Even Mark Dever, a personal friend, champion for congregationalism, and credible scholar admits, “But the functioning of a purely congregational system is both unwieldy and lacking biblical support. Instead the establishment of a body of elders to serve in the day-to-day leadership in spiritual matters, serving at the pleasure of the congregation, enables us to maintain both the traditional distinctive of congregational life and the clearly biblical structure of elders.”
****(Rusty). Dr. MacDonald is correct in his assertion that much of what we call congregationalism is simply a sanctified form of American democracy. But I do not agree that there is not a shred of biblical evidence for voting. There is, at least, a shred. Let’s look at the three above mentioned passages.
Acts 6:2-5: “So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” 5 This proposal pleased the whole group.”
In this passage, the Twelve Apostles asked “all the disciples” (v. 2) to “choose seven men from among” them to be the first deacons (v.3). Granted, the passage doesn’t say there was a vote that happened, but some democratic mechanism for choosing was certainly used. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that a congregation of committed “disciples” (that is, mature believers who are serious about God) should be involved in the selection of officers for the church body. It should also be pointed out, however, that the Apostles (who at the time were in the role of Elders) held final veto authority on the selected candidates. In Acts 6:6, we see the Apostles (Elders) confirming the vote by praying and laying their hands on the candidates. So, this was not an extreme democratic procedure, but a congregational affirmation process. Recently, at First Free, we made a motion to do away with a purely popular vote process of appointing candidates for our elder level roles at the church (Council and Elders) and moved to a more exhaustive screening process complete with congregational nomination, congregational affirmation, and pastoral/elder confirmation.
Matthew 18:17: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” This passage shows the culmination of the quintessential scriptural process of church discipline. The context gives a normative pattern for conflict: 1. Go to the offender privately. 2. If unresolved, take one or two godly witnesses (many argue these witnesses should be elders). 3. If still unresolved due to unrepentance, present it to the church. Clearly, the passage indicates that the church body has some role in the discipline of an unrepentant, disruptive member. But, again, no vote is specifically indicated. When combined with other passages (ie. 1 Tim. 5:17), it seems reasonable that the leaders of the church who serve and represent the congregation should handle the mechanics of this process and at some point present such situations to the congregation in a report format. Recently, at First Free, we had an unrepentant member removed from church membership due to disciplinary action on the part of the Elders. During our business meeting, we asked all non-members to exit the room and then reported the action to the church body. While no vote took place, the congregation was made aware of the situation appropriately and in accordance with the clear instruction given in the passage to “tell it to the church.” This passage, however, is admittedly weak if used as a defense for a congregation voting on all decisions of the church.
2 Cor. 2:6: “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him.” Again, we have a situation concerning church discipline in which the congregation is clearly included. There can be no doubt that some sins are of such a severity that it becomes necessary for an entire congregation to be made aware of them. We know from 1 Tim. 5:19-20 that gross sin by a Pastor is definitely to be stated publicly to the congregation. Other examples also seem to apply (as in perverse sexual sin, see 1 Cor. 5). Voting may be a part of the idea here as in a congregation voting to remove the one disciplined. This could arguably be an application of the idea of punishment being inflicted on him or her by the majority. However, the passage does not state any procedure of congregational voting and more naturally lends itself to appropriate “shunning” by a congregation for blatant and damaging sin to the body. For example, a Sr. Pastor caught embezzling large amounts of the church’s finances or an Elder abusing children in the church without remorse or repentance should feel the strong disapproval of the church body. This is a “punishment” that Paul teaches as appropriate in certain egregious situations. But, again, voting on all church decisions is not clearly articulated or endorsed by the passage.
Since these three passages are often prominently used to support congregationalism, MacDonald's theological disagreement with congregationalists is understandable. However, just because these passages don’t clearly promote voting per se, we can't make the argument that they forbid voting. And they certainly do endorse the idea of congregational participation, or, at the very least, congregational affirmation. I, therefore, do not agree with Dr. MacDonald that congregationalism is necessarily satanic or that it is without a shred of evidence in the Bible. But I am persuaded that many of the congregational patterns in our churches are counterproductive, inefficient, and, at times, sinful and should be seriously evaluated.

Another passage that is also cited as a primary scripture in favor of congregationalism is 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
I will elaborate on this passage in my next entry.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

What if the "Congregation" is all Mature?

In response to Dr. MacDonald’s Blog entry on Congregationalism, I felt it would be best to directly interact with it in a conversational style. That is to say, I’ll post his blog in thought units and then respond immediately to them. My comments will be marked with the following ***. I will also deal with each point in separate blogs, so this subject will be on our radar for some time.

Dr. James MacDonald - Blog
"NOTE: the tone of this post is intentionally aimed at influencing those who are engulfed in this system of church government that neither honors the Scriptures nor advances the gospel.

***(Rusty)I think it’s important to note that Dr. MacDonald qualifies what he is talking about. Specifically, he’s addressing a church government “that neither honors the Scriptures nor advances the gospel.” In another blog article, Dr. MacDonald further defines this government as one in which the congregation actually rules the church, trumping all elder and pastoral authority to the point where Robert’s Rules of Order are more important than the Bible itself. He is addressing a form of extreme democracy in the church where issues of theological importance are left in the hands of a voting system where every member has equal authority regardless of spiritual maturity. He is not addressing a church government with leaders who encourage congregational participation and even voting on certain issues (ie. the selection of elders). Note the following quote from Dr. MacDonald, “Clearly the congregation has a role in church life. Those who believe in Elder rule should recognize this participation by the congregation and the need to bring them into important church actions. However, a role of participation is a long way from final authority, voting, and Robert’s Rules of Order. Congregational participation under Eldership is not congregational government and the conversation would be advanced if proponents would stop using this passage (Matt. 18) to defend the most common configurations of congregationalism today.” It should also be pointed out that Dr. MacDonald’s post is, by his own admission, a “rant” and not an exhaustive theological treatise on the subject. Make no mistake about it, James MacDonald knows the Bible well and is highly intelligent. It is likely that most of us would be smashed to pieces in an actual debate with him and end up sucking our thumbs and crying “MaMa!” afterwards. This is not to say he’s correct. Just because someone is an excellent debater doesn’t mean he’s right. But, he’s no theological novice and his arguments should be taken seriously. Note his response to some vicious criticism that came his way after this post, “Many commented demanding I refute the biblical passages used to defend congregational government, as though I had failed to do so because I was not able. Oh please, it was a rant, not an air-tight argument (as many rightly observed). Ranting is okay on a blog, isn’t it? (Crazy how even some blogs that pride themselves on their hyperbole and sarcasm can’t see it in others.)”

MacDonald Blog again: That’s right! It’s actually the title to a book I have had percolating in my mind for a long time. After almost 30 years in ministry I have come irreversibly to this conclusion: congregational government is an invention and tool of the enemy of our souls to destroy the church of Jesus Christ. So there, I have said the strongest part of the message first; now some commentary.
1) Congregational Meetings Are Forums for Division:
When church life is going well, the leaders of a church struggle to get a quorum for decision making. When things are going wrong, every carnal member lines up at a microphone to spew their venom and destroy the work of Christ in the church. I saw it growing up, and I have seen it since in churches that are fighting to survive and do something courageous for their future. Good people being held hostage by bad people, minorities hijacking the majority because a set of ‘by-laws’ get higher regard than the Scriptures. Satan does want to rip church unity to shreds like a devouring lion (1 Peter 5:8). He is accomplishing that again and again through a system of church government which elevates the fleshly and the worldly—often even those who no longer attend—to a status of influence equal to the most spiritually and biblically-minded in any congregation.

***(Rusty)When I interviewed at First Free, Rockford, I was asked how I thought a church should be run. My answer was that I believed the best way was to follow a “Staff Led, Elder Protected, and Congregation Fulfilled” model. It has been my experience that every healthy church I’ve ever seen or served in had a similar model of church leadership and I made it clear that this would be the ideal I would influence First Free toward. Dr. MacDonald states, rather vividly, some reasons why I believe in this model. Recently I was talking to another pastor of a large church in our area about their church government. After years of hard work and uncomfortable church meetings, he had finally led his fellowship to an efficient and effective leadership model. As we were discussing it, he stated the problem with the church’s previous government succinctly with a memory of his childhood. He said, “When we were kids, we’d sit in the balcony during business meetings. We loved it because we got to watch our parents in the circus down below.” He described memories of church members assaulting one another during business meetings and the microphone being handed out indiscriminately to anyone who wanted to share “their concerns.” For the kids, it was a show full of drama, posturing, and appalling attacks the likes of which would make Congress blush. I’ve seen this in churches I’ve attended and have no doubt such displays are disastrous for the church and grievous to the heart of a loving God. There can be no doubt that any church government that encourages such a travesty in the Body of Christ is, at best, dysfunctional and, at worst, sinful. I completely agree with Dr. MacDonald on his point that our churches cannot in any way elevate fleshly and worldly voices to a place of influence that Scripture clearly assigns to the most spiritually mature. However, what if all the members of a church had a level of maturity that would be considered highly developed? What if the membership process was carried out so skillfully that only those who are truly devoted to Christ and His Word have a voice in such meetings? I think Pastor Rick Warren’s insights into the three concentric circles of every church is helpful here. There are three groups that overlap in every church: The crowd, the congregation, and the core. The crowd includes everyone who shows up for Easter. The church is their church insomuch as when they attend church, they go to this particular church (however, this may be as little as once a year or quarter). These are usually not the mature Christians of the fellowship, and often they are not saved at all. The congregation consists of those who regularly attend the church weekly, but are not involved in the programs greatly. They value worship on Sundays and may even be growing spiritually, but they are not committed to the fellowship enough to give sacrificially or serve in any meaningful capacity. These are typically more mature than the crowd, but probably do not possess leadership-level maturity. The core is the faithful, sacrificial, regular, and biblical members of the church. They are sold out for Christ and have demonstrated as much through their lives. These people are the mature and are, typically, in healthy churches, the leaders of the church. The church’s leadership posts are usually filled by such people and, biblically, they should indeed be given greater authority. Also, it should be noted, that Pastors, Staff, and Elders (or Church Council in First Free’s structure) should be heavily screened and tested to ensure that they embody this group and are, therefore, the most mature (or, at the very least, represent well the most mature) in the church (see 1 Tim. 3).
The problem I see with Dr. MacDonald’s critique at this point of the discussion is that he doesn’t seem to make allowance for the possibility that the core (which may number more than the Pastor, Staff, and Elders—that is to say, there may be more mature people in a church than offices they can fill) could conceivably be the membership, and, therefore would be led of the Lord in a congregational business-meeting setting. This is one of the issues with which I’m currently challenging our leadership. I want to know that all leaders are very serious about God and are spiritually mature. I also want to have a more excellent process by which to evaluate the maturity of those we nominate for office. And, I’m pushing for a more rigorous membership process. There have been times I’ve been puzzled with how individuals could have possibly become members of our church when serious flaws in character are so readily apparent by their actions. Due diligence is often not followed when it comes to membership, and this should be taken more seriously in all of our churches. Dr. MacDonald’s blog further strengthens my resolve to move away from popularity contests for leadership positions and hyper-democracy (ie. anyone can go to the microphone, even if clearly dysfunctional) in the future.