Congregationalism: Part 1 – Authority Taken Away

keysHow should a church govern itself?

I never put much thought into this until I moved from a congregationalist church to an elder-ruled church. To put it in the simplest of terms, in an elder-ruled church, the elders hold the highest authority in the church, while in a congregationalist church, members have authority in certain decisions that even the elders must submit to. This is of course all relative to the ultimate authority of Christ, as the head of the church. I know there are other models of church government (Episcopalian, Presbyterian, etc.) but my focus will be on congregationalism and the elder-rule model, both of which are independent church models with a plurality of elders (or at least they should be). I will also focus on the issue of authority within these two models.

Is one polity more biblical than the other?

In my study, it appears that both models of church government are biblically informed, and both have important similarities. For example, both models say elders should lead the church, and members should submit to their teachings and recommendations (Heb. 13:17). But I think congregationalism is the more biblical model, and it allows church members to experience and understand the gospel in ways the elder-rule model does not. I think the difference depends on who is authorized to do what.

The authority of elders in the elder-ruled model is primarily based on examples in the early church as described in the New Testament. This model teaches the elders have the authority to manage the church’s membership as Paul excommunicated an unrepentant sinner in 1 Cor. 5:3-5, or as Titus rejected a sinner in Titus 3:10-11. Some say “the church” in Matt. 18:17 refers to the council of elders as representatives of the entire church. If that’s the case, that would be a clear instruction for the elders to exercise final authority over removing a member. They also believe elders have the authority to appoint elders as Paul and Barnabas did in Acts 14:23, as was done to Timothy in 1 Tim. 4:14, and just as Titus was directed in Titus 1:5. Practically speaking, elders in an elder-ruled church have the responsibility and authority to decide who is a member of their church, and who isn’t, as well as who is an elder and who isn’t.

As a congregationalist, I believe the congregation as a whole, has the final say in their membership and eldership. In the following posts, I’ll go over the scriptures that lead me to that conclusion, but first I want to say why it even matters.

If elders have the final say in who the elders are and by extension, what gospel is being preached, and if elders have the final say in who is or isn’t member of the gospel community… what ministry is the congregation really entrusted with? If elders are supposed to equip the saints for the ministry, but have final authority over the main elements of ministry, who is really doing the ministry?

In Don’t Fire Your Church Members, Jonathan Leeman states:

When Jesus places the keys of the kingdom into the hands of the gathered congregation, he grants every member the ability to do his or her job. After all, possessing the responsibility to do something requires the authority to do it. (104)

To hand final rule of the church over to the elders fires Christians from the work that the Holy Spirit has equipped them to do and that Jesus has authorized them to do with the keys of the kingdom. (121)

Next, we will look at how authority was given in the first place.

Posted in Church Membership | Leave a comment

Book Review – Don’t Fire Your Church Members

dontfireyourchurchmembersI 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.

Posted in Book Review, Church Membership | Leave a comment

My First Year of Marriage

anniversaryToday marks the first anniversary of my marriage!

So how’s marriage, you ask?

It’s both wonderful and difficult… and thanks to the wise words of those that mentored me… that’s pretty much what I expected going into marriage. Still, I’ve learned a lot from my marriage and I’m sure I’ll learn more in the coming years.

Here are five observations from my marriage thus far:

I am really selfish.
The bible teaches that a primary effect of the sin in us, is that we live for ourselves, rather than for Christ (2 Cor. 5:14-15). As a single person, it’s often hard to tell how selfish you really are. When you’re single, it feels natural to do things for yourself and worry mostly about yourself. It’s still a selfish lifestyle, and it’s still sinful, but you hardly notice.

In marriage, I quickly realized how selfish I am. I often did things for myself before I did things for my wife. I had myself in mind when making decisions, and I would forget to gather my wife’s input. I would plan around my schedule, and not so much my wife’s. All because that’s how I lived for 30+ years… for myself. It was wrong then and it is wrong now. I should be loving my wife like Christ loved the church… selflessly.

There are many opportunities to serve your spouse.
Once you realize how selfish you are, you begin to realize how there are endless and daily opportunities to serve your spouse. A single person can strive to serve others daily, but in marriage, you don’t even have to leave the front door.

I can say nice things to my wife in the morning, plan things for her, do things with her throughout the day, prepare her meals, take my wife out on dates, study the bible with her, meet her friends and family, figure out what she needs, try to meet those needs… and I can do this any day and every day. There’s no excuse not to exercise the grace and love of Christ with my wife nearby.

It’s a simple thing to stay together.
At my wedding, I remember my pastor saying that it’s a simple thing to commit to your spouse in marriage. It’s not an easy thing, but it’s a simple thing. And that’s true. As a married man, I have one simple task everyday: Stay with my wife.

I think this is important to remember because marriage can be stressful at times, and being faithful and committed to my wife doesn’t mean I have to solve all my marital problems. It just means: I will stay with my wife. So I will commit myself to her and work on my marriage daily.

It’s hard work to stay together.
As my pastor said, marriage is a simple thing, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Staying committed to a spouse means you are going to do the hard work of dealing with any and all marital issues and conflicts.

I’ve learned first-hand that it is hard and humbling work to deal with conflict in marriage. It’s hard work to communicate effectively. It’s humbling to admit and address my own faults (of which I have many). It’s humbling to show grace when you wish you could vindicate yourself. It’s a constant reminder that I need and depend on the grace and love of Jesus Christ.

Marriage is a blessing in a life that’s not about marriage.
Marriage is not only hard work. Marriage is not mainly hard work. Rather, marriage is a very special blessing. It’s a blessing to spend time with my wife and best friend. It’s a blessing to be loved by someone. It’s a blessing to worship God with my wife by my side. And what amazes me, is that I was already loved more than I need!

God loves me. Jesus laid his life down for me. I am a child of God, free to worship my Father in heaven every day. That’s what life is all about. And yet… on top of all that… I am still blessed with a wife. Wow… all I can say to that is… God is so good.

Posted in Other | Leave a comment

Don’t Preach ‘Sola Bootstrapsa’

bootstrapsStephen Colbert once said:

I believe in pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. I believe it is possible — I saw this guy do it once in Cirque du Soleil. It was magical.

That’s a funny reminder that pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps is an idea based on an impossible task. Yet too often preachers ask people to do exactly that, forgetting how central Christ is to moral behavior. With good intentions, they encourage and exhort their congregation to do good and moral things like: “Serve others before yourself,” “Manage your time and pray more often,” or “Do what Daniel did in the face of trials.” Clearly, these are good things, but they preach it without relating it to the work of Christ. We are left to believe that if we just pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, doing good by our own merit, then God will be pleased. Bryan Chapell, author of Christ-Centered Preaching, says:

Sola bootstrapsa messages are wrong, and faithful preachers must not only avoid this error but also war against it.

They’re more than wrong. They’re anti-gospel. They’re sermons from hell. We cannot please God by our own merit. We have to fight that lie.

Again, I understand that preachers are not intentionally trying to leave Christ out, but they are leaving Christ out. Chapell says it best:

Preachers may protest, “But I assume my people understand they must base their efforts on faith and repentance.” Why should we assume listeners will understand what we rarely say, what the structure of our communication contradicts, and what their own nature denies?

Amen. We need to hear more about Christ. Here are three biblical reasons why:

  1. All scripture is about Jesus
    In Luke 24:27, it is revealed that throughout the Old Testament, starting with Moses, the scriptures are referring to Jesus Christ. Some would say that every passage in scripture relates to the work of Jesus Christ in some way. Chapell teaches that every passage is either predictive of the work of Christ, preparatory for the work of Christ, reflective of the work of Christ and/or resultant of the work of Christ. If all scripture relates to Christ in these ways, then surely you must preach about Christ in every sermon, to some degree.
    (See this 4-minute video for more on Luke 24:27.)
  2. All scripture is about how Jesus saves us
    In 2 Tim. 3:14-15, Paul says to Timothy that all scripture is able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. This makes sense if all of scripture relates to the work of Christ which our salvation is based on. All believers come to faith through knowledge of the gospel and all believers need to hear the gospel regularly.
  3. Paul only peached about how Jesus saves us
    In 1 Cor. 2:2, Paul says that he wanted to know nothing among the Corinthians except for Jesus Christ and him crucified. John Piper clarifies:

    It does not mean that the only thing he mentioned in his 18 months in Corinth was the cross, because again in this letter he scolds them for not understanding other things too.
    I think what it means is that whatever else he knew, whatever else he spoke about, and whatever else he did, he would know it and say it and do it in relation to Christ crucified.

    We should follow the apostles example and try to preach primarily about Christ crucified, rather than the wisdom of man.

Posted in Other | Leave a comment

The Labor of the Farmer

harvestingIs sanctification (the making of our holiness) a work of God or is it our own effort of obeying God’s commands? The bible teaches that it’s both. Though, it’s easy to over-emphasis one or the other. Today I’ll just say something about our own effort.

God uses the means of your effort to accomplish your sanctification. And it’s by God’s grace that you enjoy and benefit from those means.

Some ask: If God can change our hearts, why doesn’t he just automatically make us live holy lives? I think the answer is: Because we don’t live in a cartoon world… where spaghetti and meatballs rain from the sky and money grows on trees. Scottish theologian Henry Scougal says:

All the art and industry of man cannot form the smallest herb, or make a stalk of corn to grow in the field; it is the energy of nature, and the influences of Heaven, which produce this effect. It is God “who causeth the grass to grow, and herb for the service of man;” and yet nobody will say, that the labours of the husbandman (or farmer) are useless or unnecessary.

It’s true. We never deny the work of those who prepare our food. When we pray to God over our meals, we thank God for providing it all, for we know all food is ultimately created by him. But we also thank God for using the cooks to prepare the meal. We recognize that someone had to not only cook the food, but go to the store and buy the ingredients. Someone had to harvest and plant or raise the raw ingredients. It all amounts to a lot of work and effort that God used as a means to providing your meal.

Therefore, we should not be surprised that God uses our own effort of obedience to God’s laws and commands to grow in holiness. Obedience to scripture is the means God uses to affect our holiness.

God doesn’t control our bodies like puppets or manipulate our minds with hypnosis. Nor is it impossible or pointless to strive for holiness. God uses our actual effort to accomplish his plan of our sanctification.

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling –Philippians 2:12

Posted in Other | Leave a comment

Making the Tree Good

newtreeIs sanctification (the making of our holiness) a work of God or is it our own effort of obeying God’s commands? The bible teaches that it’s both. Though, it’s easy to over-emphasis one or the other. Today I’ll just say something about the work of God.

Sanctification requires an inward and supernatural change that God gives graciously to those who have faith in Christ. Charles Hodge says:

Sanctification in its essential nature is not holy acts, but such a change in the state of the soul, that sinful acts become more infrequent, and holy acts more and more habitual and controlling. This view alone is consistent with the Scriptural representations, and with the account given in the Bible of the way in which this radical change of character is carried on and consummated.

To illustrate, he says:

It is the making the tree good, in order that the fruit may be good. It involves an essential change of character.

Therefore, sanctification is not merely changing your actions, but taking on and depending on a new nature. If all you did was change your outward actions, it would be like taking colorful fake plastic fruit and attaching it to a dying tree. The fruit is counterfeit and of no real value. That’s not a picture of sanctification. The tree needs new life if it is to produce good fruit.

Sanctification must come from an inward change and an inward change can only come from the supernatural power and grace of God.

for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. –Philippians 2:13

Posted in Other | Leave a comment

Grammar School Knowledge of God

When I sin, it’s because I don’t know God enough. John Piper gets it exactly right in the video clip below:

Posted in Other | Leave a comment