Thursday, April 3, 2008


At 9 Marks, Greg Gilbert writes about church governance. I've been parliamentarian for a variety of organizations, political, union, and denominational, and his conclusions make sense to me. Every one of us belonging to a denomination that has congregational polity can recall a divisive debate about something that — in the long run — signified nothing but that seriously damaged relationships within the congregation. Our own congregation's worst debate was about the choice of a new hymnal. Gilbert:
I've told the story here before of the raucous business meeting at our church where we had a knock-down-drag-out congregational...discussion...on whether the baptistry curtains ought to be left open during the Sunday morning services so people could see the mural of the Jordan River. We actually voted on that question, and we lost a few members over it, too. (The curtains stayed closed.) [....]

In the years since those halcyon days, our church has moved to an elder-led, congregational government, and we’ve had to think through the question of just how elder-led the church ought to be. What kinds of things should the church vote on? Everything? Nothing? What decisions should the elders and other church officers be able to make without a congregational vote? I would argue (right now, that is—I could be convinced otherwise; that’s what blogs are for, right? Discussion.) that there are really only five things a congregation ought to vote on, three of which I see clear biblical instruction about, and the other two of which are mainly prudential. Here they are:
1. Membership and Discipline. Two sides of the same coin. The congregation as a whole ought to decide who is a part of its fellowship and who is not. This is clearest in the biblical teaching about church discipline. In Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5, it is the church as a whole that makes the decision to exclude someone from its membership. Moreover, they perform that discipline by voting. (Note Paul’s use of the word “majority” in 2 Corinthians 2:6.) Given that, it only makes sense that the congregation ought to vote also on who comes into its fellowship.

2. Leadership. I don’t see anything explicit in the New Testament—either by command or example—about the church voting on its elders. But it’s clear that they did elect, or at least somehow “choose from among themselves,” their own deacons in Acts 6. From that, and also from the fact that an erring elder is to be rebuked publicly (1 Timothy 5:20), I’d argue that the congregation as a whole ought to choose its own leaders. They ought to vote on their elders and deacons.

3. Doctrine. In Galatians 1, Paul holds the whole congregation accountable for what is taught to it. If false teaching is allowed to take root in the church, it’s the whole congregation’s fault. Moreover, the church as a whole is to anathematize false gospels, as well as the teachers who teach false gospels. Thus I believe the congregation ought to vote on adopting or changing its statement of faith.

[4. Budget.] This is less clear to me than the others, but I still think it’s wise for the church to vote on its budget. That’s partly for legal reasons, and partly because it just seems good for the church to “own” its spending plan. The fact is, they’re going to “vote” on the church’s spending plan anyway, with their giving or lack of it, so it seems good to do it up front. Besides, perhaps there is some biblical precedent for this--even if not formal--in the Macedonians “pleading” with Paul to let them spend money for a contribution to the poor saints in Jerusalem. (See Romans 15:26 and 2 Cor. 8:3-4.)

[5. Rules.] This is also a matter of prudence. Though there are obviously some rules a church of Jesus Christ is bound by Scripture to follow, and you don't see churches voting on by-laws in the New Testament, it seems a good idea to have the church formally agree to the rules by which it will operate. That means voting on its own constitution and/or by-laws. For our church, this meant voting to adopt a constitution that fairly strictly (though not entirely) limits congregational votes to these five areas. In other words, the congregation voted to delegate a whole lot of decision-making responsibility to its officers, keeping in its own hands only those things which Scripture explicitly or implicitly puts in its hands—along with a couple of other things for prudential reasons.
The result of all this has been that our Members’ Meetings are wonderfully encouraging times now. The congregation knows where it must exercise authority, it knows what it has delegated to others, it votes on the important matters it is charged with voting on, we hear reports from officers about other decisions that have been made and implemented, and we don’t get bogged down with “bitty” little motions, discussions, and votes under “New Business.” [more]
Today the small congregation of which I am part has an annual meeting that lasts about twenty minutes with others called ad hoc to deal with important matters. Otherwise decisions are left, with a good deal of informal consultation, to the pastor and the officers.

Church Matters: The 9Marks Blog

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