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Is Congregationalism a Democracy?

By Paul Alexander

I recently had a phone conversation with a pastor friend who was beginning to dread his church’s monthly business meeting because the members wanted to get their two cents in on minor details like which upholstery looks best on the pews. My friend’s experience could probably be multiplied exponentially across America. Thousands of pastors are dealing with the same situation. We try to gradually change the character of the business meetings, but it seems like the whole conversation goes back to square one when someone hauls out the self-justifying observation that the church is a democracy. How can we move the conversation forward? Is congregationalism a democracy?

There are some striking resemblances, but the biblical answer is no. Biblical congregationalism is democratic in the sense that it is not strictly monarchic (rule by one), oligarchic (rule by a few), aristocratic (rule by the fittest), or anarchic (rule by no one), but rather government by the people (the demos). It is the gathered local assembly that is the final court of appeal, not the pastor or the elders, and not a deliberative body outside or above the local church. The local congregation is sovereign to rule its own affairs. Biblical congregationalism is also democratic in the sense that each member of the church has one vote to cast on certain issues that touch the corporate life of the church. Every member has a voice, and the members have a corporate responsibility to select worthy men to lead. So biblical congregationalism bears some close resemblances to a democratic form of government. But it also bears some significant contrasts.

In a congregational system, the gathered assembly is only the final court of appeal in matters of discipline (1Cor 5:1-13), doctrine (Gal 1:6-9; 2Tim 4:3), personal dispute (Matt 18), and church membership (2Cor 2:6). It is in these specific areas that the similarity of congregationalism to democracy is most apparent, because it is here that members are biblically responsible for casting their votes according to how biblical principles are brought to bear on corporate decisions.

Yet there is a significant sense in which even a congregationally governed church is also a monarchy, Christ being the benevolent King and the members his willing and submissive subjects. Christ alone is the true head of the church (Eph 1:22; 4:15; 5:23). And again, there is a significant sense in which a congregationally governed church is also an oligarchy or aristocracy, overseen by a plurality of Christ’s qualified under-shepherds, the body of elders (Acts 14:23; 20:28; Phil 1:1; Titus 1:5; 1Peter 5:1-5). In fact, this is exactly how the Cambridge Platform conceived of church governance back in 1648.

This Government of the church, is a mixt Government (and so hath been acknowledged long before the term of Independency was heard of): In respect of Christ, the head and King of the church, and the Sovereaigne power residing in him, and exercised by him, it is a Monarchy: In respect of the body, or Brotherhood of the church, and power from Christ graunted unto them, it resembles a Democracy: In respect of the Presbytery and power committed to them, it is an Aristocracy .

Usually when the claim is made that the church is a democracy, significant aspects of both biblical congregationalism and political democracy have been overlooked. Biblical congregationalism includes leadership and spiritual oversight by congregationally recognized elders. Congregations are responsible for the doctrine they listen to, the disputes they allow to fester, the discipline that must be carried out on unrepentant members, and the regenerate quality of their church membership. But the congregation is also responsible to obey its leaders and respect their authority (Heb 13:17). God has given elders to the congregation as a blessing, and they must be free to exercise their God-given authority for the health of the church and the purity of its corporate witness in the surrounding community. Every church member is responsible to obey their authority so that their work will be a joy and not a burden, and so that they may give account to God with a clear conscience. Elders do function most biblically in the context of congregationalism; but congregationalism also functions most biblically under the godly, wise, loving authority of biblically qualified elders.

Biblical congregationalism also recognizes that the congregation is not the infallible guide to faith and practice (2Tim 4:3). That role is reserved for God’s Word. Even though we have been raised up with Christ, we are still fallen. Jonathan Edwards’ congregation in Northampton, MA was free to fire him, and they did so; but they were wrong to do so. Congregational decisions are not right simply by virtue of being made by the congregation. Vox populi (the voice of the people) is not always tantamount to vox dei (the voice of God), which is why the leaders of the church must be those who are “able to teach” from God’s word the “doctrine that conforms to godliness” (1Tim 3:2; 6:3).

Of course, democracy also includes the idea of authority. True democracies have presidents, governors, mayors, legislators, judges, courts, and all sorts of other authority structures that are good for the people they govern. No one objects to the exercise of such authority because we know that without it, anarchy (or worse) would soon ensue. America is a free country, but it is also a country governed by responsible authority. Even in a democratic system, there are leaders who do the leading – elected officials who do not necessarily ask for every constituent’s opinion before making decisions that affect them. The demand of some church members to “have their say”, rooted in the contention that the church is a democracy, is often transparently sinful.

It would be wrong to think of biblical congregationalism in terms of the three branches of democratic government – the executive, legislative, and judicial – as if the executive corresponds to the pastor, the legislative to the elders, and the judicial to the congregation, or some such arrangement. Nowhere is such a scheme modeled for us in Scripture. Nor is it biblical to think of authority relationships in the church in terms of the checks and balances system built into a democracy. This idea often comes to fruition in the establishment of two deliberative bodies in the church – the elders and the deacons, or the deacons and the committees, or the elders and the committees, or the elders and the congregation, or another parallel structure. Both groups deliberate separately to make decisions, the thought being to mirror the two houses of a democratic legislature that keep each other accountable. The impulse for accountability is laudable, but the application is not biblical. Nowhere do we find in Scripture two sets of deliberative bodies in the church. Multiple deliberative bodies in the church only serve to complicate the decision-making process and breed disunity.

So congregationalism, while bearing some important resemblances to democracy, is nevertheless not a democracy. The practical question, then, is how to move from being a functional democracy where everyone feels like they have to vote on the upholstery, to biblical congregationalism where the congregation trusts their leaders and business meetings are used to discuss issues of membership and ministry. A few practical steps might help.

  1. Teach . Take a couple Sunday or Wednesday nights to teach on biblical congregationalism – elders, deacons, authority relationships, member responsibilities, and the like. Make books and booklets available on the topic. Give a couple away at an evening gathering. Model graciousness in speech, humility of mind, and holiness in character. Continue to preach expositionally on Sunday mornings. Expositional preaching – taking the point of the passage as the point of the sermon – is one of the best ways to cultivate trust in your leadership among the congregation, because they can see that your ideas don’t originate with you. They originate in Scripture.

  2. Pray . God loves to see us depend on him for change in our churches. It’s how he ensures that He will get all the glory.

  3. Love . People will be more amenable to change if they are sure that you love them. Exercise hospitality – have people in your home, go out to breakfast or lunch with them, let them get to know you. They’ll trust you more if they can see that you love them.

  4. Plan . Have a specific agenda for business meetings, and organize them by the giving of reports to the congregation. The idea of reporting to the congregation emphasizes the accountability of the leaders to the gathered church. The congregation is always given opportunity to ask questions or discuss, but the flow of information is primarily from the leaders to the congregation. Here’s how we organize our bi-monthly business meetings at Capitol Hill Baptist in Washington, DC.
  1. Prayer and Church Covenant
  2. Acceptance of minutes from previous meeting
  3. Current Financial Report
  4. Administrator’s Report (facilities, etc…)
  5. Children’s Ministry Report
  6. Deacon’s Report
  7. Elders’ Report
    1. Missions Report
    2. Seminary Recommendations
    3. Officer Nominations
    4. Officer Elections
    5. Membership
      1. Care List
      2. Members to be Removed
      3. Members to be Added
    6. Comments by the Pastor
  8. Any Other Business
  9. Close in Prayer
  1. Cultivate broad based unity on biblical church leadership (elders and deacons in the context of congregationalism). Don’t rush it here. Give people time to come around. You’re building for the next 100 years. Taking 5-7 now will be well worth it later.

  2. Nominate elders and deacons to be recognized by the congregation. A biblical leadership structure delegates decision-making authority to the elders and deacons in all areas save discipline, doctrine, personal dispute, and membership issues. This delegation is a substantial help in clearing the business meeting agenda of issues like whether or not we should cater the next church picnic.

  3. Be Patient. It may take 5 years or longer to change the leadership structure of your church, or two years to change the organizational structure of your business meetings. Stick with it. Keep preaching. Keep praying. Keep developing relationships. Keep leading for healthy change at a suitable pace. Our ministry is one of patient instruction (2Tim 4:2).

Paul Alexander is a Contributing Editor for 9Marks Ministries.