I just finished reading Don’t Fire Your Church Members by Jonathan Leeman (2016). The book’s sub-title: The Case for Congregationalism. This is an excellent book on church polity and why it’s so important. I especially recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand what congregational church government is and isn’t, and why it’s a biblical model.
This book is a fairly scholarly treatment on church polity, but it is also filled with practical and pastoral guidance for your local church. After reading this book, you will be better equipped to help structure your church according to the bible’s teaching, and be able to give a biblical defense for your structures.
Why should you even care about church polity? Well, every organization has some type of polity. Leeman writes, “The difference between a local church and a group of Christians is nothing more or less than church polity. To argue for polity is to argue for the existence of the local church.” (18) I think that’s why a book like this so worth your time.
In a nutshell, Leeman argues that Jesus puts every church member into the office of membership, and this office holds the keys to the kingdom. That is to say, the church membership, as a whole, has the authority to affirm what the gospel is and who belongs to the gospel community. Leeman calls it the “what” and “who” of the gospel.
Leeman does well to set up several important presuppositions before getting to the key biblical texts that support this view. For example, Leeman states anyone given a responsibility must have the authority to carry it out. He also explains when talking about authority in the bible and in the church, there is not just one kind of authority. A congregation might have a “final” authority on certain matters, but the elders also have a very real authority of a different kind. Elsewhere, Leeman explains that no one has any authority in the church except for where God gives it. And that’s really the main question this book aims to answer: Who is authorized to do what?
Leeman then takes time to survey the whole of scripture to show how God gave office assignments to different people with each covenant in the bible. He argues: “The office of priest-king given to the federal head or Everyman Adam, which involved working and watching over the place where God dwelled, was further specified in the life of Israel, fulfilled in Christ, and has now been re-conferred on every member of the church.” (36) Our union with Christ, which is the gospel, places certain demands on the saints. These demands are better understood in the context of the whole bible.
Leeman then goes into key New Testament texts that show what congregations were authorized to do. Those key texts include Matt. 16:13-19 (the keys to the kingdom), Matt. 18:15-20 (priestly authority), Matt. 28:18-20 (kingly authority), Galatians 1 and 2 (removing false teachers), 1 Cor. 5 (excommunicating a false professor), and 2 Cor. 2:6 (deciding by majority), among other texts. In a future post, I hope to share in detail, what I’ve learned from these texts. Thanks to Leeman’s exposition of these texts, I have no doubt in my mind that God has given an authority to the whole church.
Leeman also offers guidance on how elders and the membership should relate to one another in a congregational church. (For more on what a congregational church can look like, I recommend my brother’s book: What is an Elder-Led Baptist Church? Eldership and Congregationalism Hand in Hand by Todd Morikawa)
I am thankful for Leeman’s book, and it is probably more important than you would expect from a book on church government.