Church Politics, Powerplays and Pouting – Part 2
Being an ordained minister, a former pastor and a Southern Baptist to-boot, I have witnessed first-hand the effects of church politics. We sometimes refer to those involved as “the old guard” or the “pillars of the church”—they are the church politic at large, the unspoken governing committee. This group can make or break a spirit with a pointed finger or a false accusation. When I was working full time at one particular church I remember thinking to myself how wonderful and friendly and loving the people were. They were so welcoming and accepting … if you were one of them.
I guess it slipped my mind on more than one occasion that the church I was serving was also the very church I grew up in. It wasn’t until I had left this church that I realized what had been staring me in the face all that time. I was one of them.
Church leadership in the twenty-first century is often misguided. When leadership is based on power and numbers and community-clout, it doesn’t meet the expectations of Christ. In my eyes, it is not too far from the idolatry shown so vividly in Babel. Just as the Babylonians set out to claim their own glory, so does the modern church politic. Thankfully, we are not beyond repair. With a healthy balance of reflection, reverence, reconstruction and patience, God can transform us.
Our first priority ought to be to dissect the leadership structure we currently have. No pastor should view himself as CEO. No church member ought to feel like a majority shareholder. Simply put, Christ calls us to be servants, not figureheads put on pedestals. Jesus gave us a guideline that in order to be a leader—we must first be servants. I have seen many scriptures engraved on pulpits across the country, but what I haven’t seen is Mark 9:35, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and servant of all” (TNIV).
We also need to revise the constitutions and by-laws and maybe even get rid of them. I am not calling for holy-anarchy; I am simply suggesting that we need to create a new structure for leadership that allows the church to be a movement again. We need to follow a model of community that embraces relationships over programs and paperwork. We need to waste less time discussing our campuses, buildings, buses, sound equipment, tech equipment, insurance policies or whatever else we find most amusing at the time. We should spend more time including and less time incorporating. As long as we model our church after corporate standards we will nurture the institutional mentality.
Next, and perhaps most important, we need to realize that we are all transformed in and through Christ. Leadership is not about “lording over people” but coming under Christ for His glory. The older I get the more I realize just how flawed I am, and my need for continual transformation. We need to live beyond our humanity. Our churches need to embrace life-transformation over structural details. The truth is the church exists for Christ’s glory—not for man’s.
Comparing the Two Leading Pentecostal Churches
Today there is very little difference between the two churches. You would find their beliefs and worship services almost identical. Both are Pentecostal denominations which means they believe in a post-salvation experience called the Baptism with the Holy Ghost where the believer is filled with the Holy Spirit and speaks in tongues. Originally, the Church of God comes from a Holiness Movement background and put great emphasis on a crisis experience in the believer's life of deeper surrender and consecration to God in Holiness known as sanctification which was a doctrine taught by John Wesley and the early Methodists. They taught that you needed such and experience after being saved before you could be a candidate to be filled with the Holy Spirit. They taught three experiences: Salvation, Sanctification, and the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. The Assemblies of God on the other hand, coming from a Baptistic background taught only two experiences: Salvation and the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. They believe that sanctification is a gradual experience in growth throughout the entire life of the believer and not a specific crisis experience after salvation. Today in the Church of God, both views exist now with the majority of people now believing the way the Assemblies of God have always believed. Another difference between the two churches was that the Church of God believed and practiced "foot washing" (just like Jesus washed the disciples feet after the Last Supper) as and ordinance alongside Communion and water baptism, whereas the Assemblies of God never did. This practice still exists in the Church of God, but it is becoming less and less frequent and common in many places.
The principal difference today between the two denominations is the form of church government. The Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn) has a centralized or episcopal type form of government while the Assemblies of God has a congregational form of government and each local church is autonomous within the fellowship of the Assemblies of God.
Church Misunderstood ekklesia
SOME BASIC FORMS OF CHURCH GOVERNMENT
There are a few basic forms of local church government in the world today. Yet there are many variations to each form and also the combination of forms. We hear heated debates, contending on which kind of government is of God and which is not, turning the church into a political arena, giving opportunities for the enemy and self-centered manipulators to gain control of the ministry. The result - loss of zeal, diversion from God’s purpose, church splits and innocent casualties.
This lecture attempts to diffuse the confusion on such issues, hoping that the knowledge imparted here will help God’s people to tide over some rough spots or manage some growing up pains. Let’s first familiarize ourselves with the few basic forms of government. The key to identify the form is not who is at the pulpit, or who holds the money, but who is the real decision making power.
1. CENTRALIZED form of church government is where a central council has much authority over the running and ordinances of the local congregation. This is typical of denominational mainline churches where the pastor is appointed and regulated by the directions and rules of the central council. This kind is usually one with a long history and has established branches.
2. PRESBYTERIAN form of church government is where the local church is governed by a board of elders which has final authority over every aspect of the church, including the appointment and work of the pastor.
The pastor may or may not be a member of this board. This kind of church may be denominational or independent.
3. CONGREGATIONAL form is where the majority rules, the democracy style of government where the people vote to elect their pastor and the church board to administer the affairs of the church. It is usually an independent church.
4. PASTORAL form of government is where one is in authority, with the board or elders or deacons in the advisory and co-laboring capacity.
The pastor receives from and is directly accountable to God, and he runs the ministry according to his depth and knowledge in God. It is usually an independent church. The person may not be a pastor in his primary call, but it is considered as pastoral in that the pastoral function has a more dominant role and the vision is more localized, called to raise a church in a particular place and time.
5. APOSTOLIC form of government. Apostle means "one sent out", one with an outward thrust and a pioneering or restoration cutting edge, the edge that causes revolutionary impact and can either be of a new movement or a work of extensive scale, or even both. The leader is a commander with a mandate and an extended vision which is usually cross-cultural or global, but not always. He has to be one raised and equipped for the job and for the hour. He usually presides over a council of fellow ministers that has direct calling and anointing for the thrust, covering the 5-fold ministry in varying degrees. It is a patriarchal and theocratic government, where the Word of God reigns supreme, where the leadership is strong and the followership intelligent, where revelations from above chart the course and the leader is directly accountable first to God. Is he also accountable to the people? Yes, but not in the same way as he reports to his God. The spiritual authority of his leaders is derived very much from ministerial calling even though seniority is respected.
Dynamism, life and drive are clearly visible in such churches. It is usually an enlargement of the pastoral government with a revolutionary mandate. The leader is usually called the senior pastor with different ranks of anointed pastors and leaders working with him. The title "pastors" here may mean spiritual leaders with diverse ministries.
What Does The Bible Say About Government?
The Lord was very clear in His Word about how He wishes His church on earth to be organized and run. First, Christ is the head of the church and its supreme authority (Ephesians 1:22; 4:15; Colossians 1:18). Second, the local church is to be autonomous, free from any external authority or control, with right of self-government and freedom from the interference of any hierarchy of individuals or organizations (Titus 1:5). Third, the church is to be governed by spiritual leadership consisting of two main offices—elders and deacons.
“Elders” were a leading body among the Israelites since the time of the books of Moses (the Pentateuch). We find them making political decisions (2 Samuel 5:3; 2 Samuel 17:4,15), advising the king in later history (1 Kings 20:7), and representing the people concerning spiritual matters (Exodus 17:5-6; 24:1,9; Numbers 11:16,24-25). The early Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX) used presbuteros for “elder.” This is the same Greek word used in the New Testament that is also translated “elder.”
The New Testament refers a number of times to elders who served in the role of church leadership (Acts 14:23; 15:2; 20:17; Titus 1:5; James 5:14), and apparently each church had more than one as the word is usually found in the plural. The only exceptions refer to cases in which one elder is being singled out for some reason (1 Timothy 5:1, 19). In the Jerusalem church, they were part of the leadership along with the apostles (Acts 15:2-16:4).
Zodhiates, in his The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament, defines this group of elders as follows: “The elders of Christian churches, presbyters, to whom was committed the direction and government of individual churches, equal to episkopos, overseer, bishop (Acts 11:30; 1 Timothy 5:17).” Thus, Zodhiates equates an “elder” to an overseer or bishop (as episkopos is translated). He sees the term elder as referring to the dignity of the office, while bishop or overseer denotes its authority and duties (1 Peter 2:25; 5:1,2,4). He notes that in Philippians 1:1, Paul greets the bishops and deacons but does not mention the elders (because the elders are one and the same as the bishops). Likewise, 1 Timothy 3:2, 8 gives the qualifications of bishops and deacons, but not of elders for the same reason. Titus 1:5 and 1:7 seem also to tie these two terms together.
Concerning the word pastor (poimen), in reference to a human leader of a church, it is found only once in the New Testament in Ephesians 4:11, “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers.” Most associate the two terms pastors and teachers as referring to single individuals having both traits. Zodhiates, in his definition of poimen, states that the term pastor refers to the “spiritual guide of a particular church.”
There are two passages (Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:1-2) that tie all three terms together and would seem to indicate that all three terms refer to one and the same office. As indicated above, deacons are a separate group of servants of the church and have a list of qualifications that are in many ways similar to that of bishop (1 Timothy 3:8-13). They assist the church as needed, as in Acts 6.
It would seem from the above passages that there was always a plurality of elders, but this does not negate God's gifting particular elders with the teaching gifts while gifting others with the gift of administration, etc. (Romans 12:3-8; Ephesians 4:11), nor does it negate His calling them into a ministry in which they will use those gifts (Acts 13:1). Thus, one elder may emerge as the “pastor,” another may do the majority of visiting members because he has the gift of compassion, another may “rule” in the sense of handling the organizational details, etc. Many churches that are organized with a pastor and deacon board perform the functions of a plurality of elders in that they share the ministry load (with deacons teaching Sunday School classes, etc.) and work together in some decision-making. In Scripture you will also find that there was much congregational input into decisions as well. Thus, a “dictator” leader who makes the decisions (whether called elder, or bishop, or pastor) is unscriptural (Acts 1:23, 26; 6:3, 5; 15:22, 30; 2 Corinthians 8:19). So, too, is a congregation-ruled church that does not give weight to the elders' or church leaders' input.
In summary, the Bible teaches a leadership consisting of a plurality of elders along with a group of deacons who serve as servants of the church. But it is not contrary to this plurality of elders to have one of these elders serving in the major “pastoral” role. God calls some as “pastor/teachers” (even as He called some to be missionaries in Acts 13) and gives them as gifts to the church (Ephesians 4:11). Thus, a church may have many elders, but not all elders are called to serve in the pastoral role. But, as a part of the elders, the pastor or “teaching elder” has no more authority in decision-making than does any other elder.[i]
Government in Israel
Israel is the only country in which Judaism is the religion of the majority of citizens. According to the country's Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2005 the population was 76.1% Jewish, 16.2% Muslim, 2.1% Christian, and 1.6% Druze, with the remaining 3.9% (mainly immigrants from the former Soviet Union) not classified by religion.
As of 2007, 10% of Israeli Jews defined themselves as Haredim; an additional 10% as "religious"; 14% as "religious-traditionalists" ; 22% as "non-religious-traditionalists" (not strictly adhering to Jewish law or halakha); and 44% as "secular" ." Among all Israeli Jews, 65% believe in God and 85% participate in a Passover seder . However, other sources indicate that between 15% and 37% of Israelis identify themselves as either agnostics or atheists.
Israelis tend not to align themselves with a movement of Judaism (such as Reform Judaism or Conservative Judaism) but instead tend to define their religious affiliation by degree of their religious practice.
Of the Arab Israelis, as of 2005, 82.7% were Muslims, 8.4% were Druze, and 8.3% were Christians.
The Orthodox Spectrum
The spectrum covered by "Orthodox" in the diaspora exists in Israel, again with some important variations. The Orthodox spectrum in Israel includes a far greater percentage of the Jewish population than in the diaspora, though how much greater is hotly debated. Various ways of measuring this percentage, each with its pros and cons, include the proportion of religiously observant Knesset members (about 25 out of 120), the proportion of Jewish children enrolled in religious schools, and statistical studies on "identity".
What would be called "Orthodox" in the diaspora includes what is commonly called dati ("religious") or haredi ("ultra-Orthodox") in Israel. The former term includes what is called Religious Zionism or the "National Religious" community (and also Modern Orthodox in US terms), as well as what has become known over the past decade or so as Hardal (haredi-leumi, i.e. "ultra-Orthodox nationalist"), which combines a largely haredi lifestyle with a nationalist (i.e. pro-Zionist) ideology.
Haredi applies to a populace that can be roughly divided into three separate groups along both ethnic and ideological lines: (1) "Lithuanian" (i.e. non-hasidic) haredim of Ashkenazic (i.e "Germanic" - European) origin; (2) Hasidic haredim of Ashkenazic (mostly of Eastern European) origin; and (3) Sephardic (including mizrahi) haredim. The third group has the largest political representation in Israel's parliament (the Knesset), and has been the most politically active since the early 1990s, represented by the Shas party.
There is also a growing baal teshuva ("returnees") movement of secular Israelis rejecting their previously secular lifestyles and choosing to become religiously observant with many educational programs and yeshivas for them. An example is Aish HaTorah, which received open encouragement from some sectors within the Israeli establishment. The Israeli government gave Aish HaTorah the real estate rights to its massive new campus opposite the Western Wall because of its proven ability to attract all manner of secular Jews to learn more about Judaism. In many instances after visiting from foreign countries, students decide to make Israel their permanent home by making aliyah. Other notable organizations involved in these efforts are the Chabad and Breslov Hasidic movements who manage to have an ever-growing appeal, the popularity of Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak's organization and the Arachim organization that offer a variety of frequent free "introduction to Judaism" seminars to secular Jews, the Lev LeAchim organization that sends out senior yeshiva and kollel students to recruit Israeli children for religious elementary schools and Yad LeAchim which runs counter missionary programs.
At the same time, there is also a significant movement in the opposite direction towards a secular lifestyle. There is some debate which trend is stronger at present.
Geneva, during the period of John Calvin's greatest influence and the Massachusetts Bay Colony of the "Puritans" had many characteristics of Protestant theocracies.
THE RIGHT FORM OF CHURCH GOVERNMENT
What is the Right Form of Church Government?
The right form is the specific form that God wants them to be, at a certain point and time in its growth development and in its history, and a price for change may be needed to be on the move with God. The leadership and the people must themselves find out how they were started, what is the vision that God has given them, what God wants them to be and the direction in which they are heading. Whether that leadership should be singular or plural, consolidated or shared at the specific point and time. A singular leadership can develop into a plural one and vice versa. Where hearts are sincere, God will speak and vindicate.
Whatever forms they are in or moving into, they must be theocratic, in that the ministry must always allow God's Word and revelations to take precedence at all times and over all things. The functioning forms do not necessarily determine its legitimacy before God. The question is whether God or man is ultimately in charge and whether the Holy Spirit is moving freely in that ministry, whether the church is moving in the intended purpose and into what God is doing universally. This itself would give an indication of whether the present form is what it should be and leaders are who they should be. In this lesson, we are not dealing with erroneous leaders or followers, which will be covered later. We are here concerned about the scriptural validity and practicality of the various forms of church government.
As a matter of concern, it is not usual for the Holy Spirit to be able to move freely in the congregational form of government in that the congregation (the body) who is to be led is now appointing the leadership (the head), and holding the ultimate authority and power over the whole ministry. Psalm 103:7 tells us that God makes known His ways (inner working) to Moses (leadership) and His acts (results) to the people of Israel (congregation). Circumstantially, this form may be the initial or transitional form, but should not become the permanent form of government. For example, when there is a sudden loss of the leader without the appointment of successors. It may be also when legal requirements dictate that the church functions by the majority votes of her members. In such a case, the church’s constitution may appear to be congregational, but functionally, the leaders are the ones that influence and guide the general body to spiritual decisions. For this reason, I say it is not so much the outward form that matters but whether in finality, God’s decisions are being carried out. In practice, whatever the case may be, if God’s legitimate leadership is not ultimately installed into its right place, the church would soon be plagued with much problems (Judges 21:25). Are there churches that are like that? Yes, plenty, in varying degrees, with the decision making authority shifting to and fro between the visible leaders and the people or some influential individuals, especially when the decision making authority is not scripturally defined, identified and taught.
The central form of government is usually the result of the development and establishment of successful movements and revivals, and would have a large accumulation of manpower and material resources. The mandate of the ministry had been the cutting edge that brought about the enlargement. But here is also where strength can become weakness. For that which is entrusted to the carrier of the move can be developed to such extremity and prejudice as to leave little or no room for another new wave of the Holy Spirit to take off within that denomination. The denominational, doctrinal and organizational pride thus become a rut so entrenched, that the organization ambles along like a sluggish aging elephant, slow or impossible to adopt new moves. For this reason, God has to start a new work from without, to meet the challenges of time and to carry out His scheduled plan. But alas, many mighty moves end up in denominational ruts. No matter how big we become, we have to stand by Him and not Him by us.
There’s nothing wrong with denomination, the enlargement is what it should be, a more powerful vehicle for God’s work. But if it is sluggish, it’s not because it’s big. Rather, it is because the governmental power is not in the hands of those who evolve new visions but in the hands of bureaucratic maintainers of the old vision. The same setting applies to the Presbyterian form of church government. The difference is that the latter seems more plural in decision making. If the board of elders are true vision bearers, well and good. The church will still be doing God’s will after some rounds of committee debates to reach a consensus. Otherwise, a visionary pastor will have to gain favor and prevail with his earthly bosses in order to do the will of God in heaven and to bring about God’s purpose for the next tenure.
But again, it is not without hope. Denominational barriers are breaking down, and their leaders are softening their denominational stand to be more open, to accept others and to accommodate new revivals, while holding dear to what was once entrusted to the ministry. If they would not be as a donkey (direct carrier) of the new moves, or be as those that will lay down their garments (lives) to pave the way for the new moves, at least they should be as those bystanders that shout Hosanna and such would still be blessed in some way.
Every existing ministry leadership must discern what God wants them to be at a certain point and time in the growth development, and align itself into a form suitable to be part of what God is doing world-wide, if not actively, at least supportively. The ministry that subscribes to this will be one that will still be blessed. For where God is moving, there His providence, protection and enlargement will be.
In these later years, we see an emergence and better acceptance of the independent movement of pastoral and apostolic churches, individually of smaller scale, springing up world-wide, each having a direct call and mandate from above. We are beginning to see these "nobodies" arising like Davids, and as prophesied repeatedly earlier, these that we long to see, are rising up in variations and varieties, adding flavors and colors to the Kingdom. Looking from Heaven’s perspective, it is truly the spectacle of the last days, with the Holy Spirit orchestrating the entire movement in perfect harmony, ushering in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. If you are called to pioneer an independent church, it will most likely be the pastoral or apostolic form that God is showing you.
In conclusion, it is not so much the outward forms that matters, but rather if the churches are to attain to their fullness in victories and purpose, they will have to be founded and regulated by true biblical principles that should ultimately be reflected in the governmental form.[ii]
Theocracy means literally ‘the rule of God’ and the term was invented by Josephus (ad 38-c. 100) to describe the ancient Hebrew constitution and the role of Mosaic law. However, if you do not literally believe that the law has been handed down by God on tablets of stone, it may be difficult to accept theocracies on their own terms. A more secular version of the meaning of theocracy is that it is priestly rule. Arguably, however, the more important distinction is between regimes that have religiously revealed laws or policies unchallengeable even by a popular majority or by an inherited monarch, and regimes that do not. (It should be noted that even such regimes which claim that their laws are divinely ordained and thus immutable do not make this claim in respect of all laws. For example, the Islamic Shari'a recognizes a category of positive law, the mubah, covering such matters as driving on the right, which are religiously neutral. See also Islamic fundamentalism; Sunni; Shi'i.)[iii]
Theocracy Is a Form of Government.
Theocracies are either oligarchies or autocracies by the ruling priests. For believers, theocracy is a form of government in which divine power governs an earthly human state, either in a personal incarnation or, more often, via religious institutional representatives (i.e.: a church), replacing or dominating civil government.  Theocratic governments enact theonomic laws.
Theocracy should be distinguished from other secular forms of government that have a state religion, are influenced by theological concepts, and monarchies held "By the Grace of God".
A theocracy may be monist in form, where the administrative hierarchy of the government is identical with the administrative hierarchy of the religion, or it may have two 'arms,' but with the state administrative hierarchy subordinate to the religious hierarchy.
Some democratic political parties and other organizations advocate reconstruction of governments as theocracies. See the article on the Islamic party. Other alleged examples include the Unification Church and Christian Reconstructionism.
Since theocracies are considered oppressive in democratic societies, states or political parties are sometimes called theocracies for rhetorical or propaganda purposes. For example, the book American Theocracy alleges that the United States is a theocracy.
The History of Theocracy
The word theocracy originates from the Greek θεοκρατία (theokratia), meaning "the rule of God". This in turn derives from the Greek words θεος (theos, from an Indo-European root occurring in religious concepts), meaning “god,” and κρατειν (kratein), meaning “to rule.” Thus the meaning of the word in Greek was “rule by god(s)” or human incarnation(s) of god(s).
It was first coined by Josephus Flavius in the 1st century to describe the characteristic government for Jews. Josephus argued that while the Greeks recognized three types of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and anarchy, the Jews were unique in that they had a system of government that did not fit into those categories. Josephus understood theocracy as a fourth form of government in which only God and his law is sovereign. Josephus' definition was widely accepted until the enlightenment era, when the term started to collect more universalistic and undeniably negative connotations, especially in Hegel's hands.
The first recorded English use was in 1622, with the meaning "sacerdotal government under divine inspiration" (as in Biblical Israel before the rise of kings); the meaning "priestly or religious body wielding political and civil power" is recorded from 1825.
The word has been mostly used to label certain politically unpopular societies as somehow less rational or developed. The concept is used in sociology and other social sciences, but the term is often used inaccurately, especially in popular rhetoric.
In the most common usage of the term theocracy, some civil rulers are leaders of the dominant religion (e.g., the Byzantine Emperor as patron of the head of the official Church); the government claims to rule on behalf of God or a higher power, as specified by the local religion, and divine approval of government institutions and laws. These characteristics apply also to a Caesaropapist regime. The Byzantine empire however was not theocratic since the Patriarch answered to the Emperor, not vice versa; similarly in Tudor England the crown forced the church to break away from Rome so the royal (and, especially later, parliamentary) power could assume full control of the now Anglican hierarchy and confiscate most church property and income.
Taken literally or strictly, theocracy means rule by God or gods (but is commonly used as the generic term). The more specific term ecclesiocracy denotes rule by a church or analogous religious leadership.
In a pure theocracy, the civil leader is believed to have a direct personal connection with God. For example, a prophet like Moses ruled the Israelites, and the prophet Mohammed ruled the early Muslims. Law proclaimed by the ruler is also considered a divine revelation, and hence the law of God. An ecclesiocracy, on the other hand, is a situation where the religious leaders assume a leading role in the state, but do not claim that they are instruments of divine revelation. For example, the prince-bishops of the European Middle Ages, where the bishop was also the temporal ruler. The papacy in the Papal States occupied a middle ground between theocracy and ecclesiocracy, since the pope did not claim he is a prophet who receives revelation from God, but merely the (in rare cases infallible) interpreter of already-received revelation. Religiously endorsed monarchies fall between these two poles, according to the relative strengths of the religious and political organs.
Secular governments can also coexist with a state religion or delegate some aspects of civil law to religious communities. For example, in Israel civil marriage is governed by Jewish religious institutions for Jews, by Muslim religious institutions for Muslims, and by Christian religious institutions for Christians. India similarly delegates control of marriage and some other civil matters to the religious communities, in large part as a way of accommodating its Muslim minority.
The End of Theocracy
Government by divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided. In many theocracies, government leaders are members of the clergy, and the state's legal system is based on religious law. Theocratic rule was typical of early civilizations. The Enlightenment marked the end of theocracy in most Western countries. Contemporary examples of theocracies include Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Vatican.[iv]
The Move to a Congregational Church
Congregational churches are Protestant Christian churches practicing congregationalist church governance, in which each congregation independently and autonomously runs its own affairs.
Many Congregational churches claim their descent from the original Congregational Church, a family of Protestant denominations formed on a theory of union published by the theologian Robert Browne in 1592 and arising from the Nonconformist religious movement in England during the Puritan reformation. In Great Britain, the early congregationalists were called separatists or independents to distinguish themselves from the similarly Calvinistic Presbyterians, and some congregationalists there still call themselves "Independents".
According to the congregationalist theory of the history of the Christian Church, the early disciples of Jesus had little or no organization. Congregationalists believe that in the centuries after the Lord's ascent, attempts to gain influence over all the churches were made by leaders in centers like Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Byzantium, and Jerusalem. Typically, congregationalists view this supposed accumulation of power to be complete by the year 1000 AD, with the bishop of Rome claiming authority over all Christendom, and many churches throughout the western part of Europe submitted to his authority. The churches of eastern Europe, all of Asia, and Egypt likewise had been gathered under a hierarchy of bishops, but retained their independence from the pope, according to this view.
Congregationalists sympathetically interpret various dissident movements among the western churches, that were suppressed throughout the Middle Ages. By the sixteenth century, political and cultural changes had created a climate in which the Roman church could no longer suppress the protests of men such as John Wycliffe, John Hus, Martin Luther, and John Calvin against alleged church abuses. These reformers advocated a return to the simplicity and sincerity they saw described in the New Testament Church, which congregationalists believe is fulfilled in the congregationalist model of church governance.
There are difficulties in identifying a specific beginning because Congregationalism is more easily identified as a movement than a single denomination, given its distinguishing commitment to the complete autonomy of the local congregation. The idea that each distinct congregation fully constitutes the visible Church can, however, be traced to John Wyclif and the Lollard movement which followed after Wyclif was removed from teaching authority in the Roman Catholic Church. The early Congregationalists shared with Anabaptist theology the ideal of a pure church, which made adult conversion experience important for full membership in the church, unlike other Reformed churches. As such, the Congregationalists were a reciprocal influence on the Baptists, differing from them in that they counted the children of believers in some sense members of the church unlike the Baptists, because of baptism.
In England, the Roman system of church government was taken over by the king, who declared himself to be the head of the Church. Robert Browne, Henry Barrow, John Greenwood, John Penry, William Brewster, and John Robinson were notable people who, in defiance of royal command, established churches separate from the Church of England. With the demise of the monarchy, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) was officially declared the statement of faith for both the Church of England (Anglican) and Church of Scotland (Presbyterian). The Congregationalists created their own version of the Westminster Confession called the Savoy Declaration in 1658. The underground churches in England and exiles from Holland provided about 35 out of the 102 passengers on the 'Mayflower', which sailed from London in July 1620. They became known in history as the Pilgrim Fathers. The early Congregationalists sought to separate themselves from the Anglican church in every possible way and even forwent having church buildings. They met in one another's homes for many years.
The Pilgrims sought to establish at Plymouth Colony a Christian fellowship like that which gathered around Jesus Himself. Congregationalists include the Pilgrims of Plymouth, and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which were organized in union by The Cambridge Platform in 1648. These settlers had John Cotton as their most influential leader, beginning in 1633. Cotton's writings persuaded the Calvinist theologian John Owen to separate from the Presbyterian church, after which he, among others, became very influential in the development of Congregationalist theology and ideas of church government. Jonathan Edwards, considered by some to be the most important theologian ever produced in America, was also a Congregationalist.
The history of Congregational churches in the United States is closely intertwined with that of American Presbyterianism, especially in New England where Congregationalist influence spilled over into the Presbyterian churches farther west. Some of the first colleges and universities in America, including Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Williams, Bowdoin, Middlebury, and Amherst, all were founded by the Congregationalists, as were later Carleton, Grinnell, Oberlin, and Pomona.
Without higher courts to ensure doctrinal uniformity among the congregations, Congregationalists have been more diverse than other Reformed churches. Despite the efforts of Calvinists to maintain the dominance of their system, some Congregational churches, especially in the older settlements of New England, gradually developed sentiments toward Arminianism, Unitarianism, Deism, and transcendentalism. By the 1750s, several Congregational preachers were teaching the possibility of universal salvation, an issue that caused considerable conflict among its adherents on the one side and hard-line Calvinists and sympathizers of the First Great Awakening on the other. The first Unitarian church in America was established in Boston, Massachusetts in 1785 (although in a former Anglican parish) and by 1800, all but one Congregational church in Boston had Unitarian preachers teaching the strict unity of God, the subordinate nature of Christ, and salvation by character. Harvard University, founded by Congregationalists, itself became a source of Unitarian training. Eventually, the Unitarian churches, prompted by a controversy over a theological appointment to Harvard, separated from Congregationalism in 1825; most of its descendants now hold membership in the Unitarian Universalist Association, founded in the 1960s by a merger with the theologically-similar Universalists, another group dissenting from Calvinist orthodoxy.
Thus, the Congregational churches were at the same time the first example of the American theocratic ideal (and subsequent evangelicalism) and also the seed-bed from which American liberal religion and society arose. Even still, many Congregationalists in the several successor denominations to the original tradition consider themselves to be Reformed first, whether of traditional or neo-orthodox persuasion.
In 1931 the Congregational Churches and the General Convention of the Christian Church, a body from the Restoration Movement tradition of the early 19th century, merged to form the Congregational Christian Churches. The Congregationalists were used to a more formal, less evangelistic form of worship than the Christian Church members, who mostly came from rural areas of the South and the Midwest. Both groups, however, held to local autonomy and eschewed binding creedal authority.
The Problem with Congregationalist Church Governance
Congregationalist polity, often known as congregationalism, is a system of church governance in which every local church congregation is independent, ecclesiastically sovereign, or "autonomous." Among those major Protestant Christian traditions that employ congregationalism are those Congregational Churches known by the "Congregationalist" name that descended from the Anglo-American Puritan movement of the 17th century, the Baptist churches, and most of the groups brought about by the Anabaptist movement in Germany that immigrated to the U.S. in the late 18th century. More recent generations have witnessed also a growing number of non-denominational churches, which are most often congregationalist in their governance. In Christianity, congregationalism is distinguished most clearly from episcopal polity, which is governance by a hierarchy of bishops. But it is also distinct from presbyterian polity, in which higher assemblies of congregational representatives can exercise considerable authority over individual congregations.
Theological Foundations of Congregationalism
Congregationalism expressed the viewpoint that (1) every local church is a full realization in miniature of the entire Church of Jesus Christ; and (2) the Church, while on earth, besides the local church, can only be invisible and ideal. This first, foundational principle by which congregationalism is guided results in the extreme limitation of authority, confining it to operate with the consent of each gathering of believers.
Although "congregational rule" may seem to suggest that pure democracy reigns in congregational churches, this is usually seldom the case. It is granted, with few exceptions (namely in some Anabaptist churches), that God has given the government of the Church into the hands of an ordained ministry. What makes congregationalism unique is its system of checks and balances, which constrains the authority of the minister, the lay officers, and the members.
The authority of all of the people, including the officers, is limited in the local congregation by a definition of union, or a covenant, by which the terms of their cooperation together are spelled out and agreed to. This might be something as minimal as a charter specifying a handful of doctrines and behavioral expectations, or even a statement only guaranteeing specific freedoms. Or, it may be a constitution describing a comprehensive doctrinal system and specifying terms under which the local church is connected to other local churches, to which participating congregations give their assent. In congregationalism, rather uniquely, the church is understood to be a truly voluntary association.
Finally, the congregational theory strictly forbids ministers from ruling their local churches by themselves. Not only does the minister serve by the approval of the congregation, but committees further constrain the pastor from exercising power without consent by either the particular committee, or the entire congregation. It is a contradiction of the congregational principle if a minister makes decisions concerning the congregation without the vote of these other officers.
The other officers may be called "deacons", "elders" or "session" (borrowing Presbyterian terminology), or even "vestry" (borrowing the Anglican term) — it is not their label that is important to the theory, but rather their lay status and their equal vote, together with the pastor, in deciding the issues of the church. While other forms of church government are more likely to define "tyranny" as "the imposition of unjust rule", a congregationally-governed church would more likely define tyranny as "transgression of liberty" or equivalently, "rule by one man". To a congregationalist, no abuse of authority is worse than the concentration of all decisive power in the hands of one ruling body, or one person.
Following this sentiment, congregationalism has evolved over time to include even more participation of the congregation, more kinds of lay committees to whom various tasks are apportioned, and more decisions subject to the vote of the entire membership.[v]
There is a better way to ‘do’ church without politics but with the streamlining that politics provides: it’s called ‘government,’ and is representative of the Kingdom of God, a divine, supernatural institution, as opposed to human constructs.
Politics vs Government
What politics tries to do but can’t because it is a human idea, the Kingdom of God can do by God’s order and His government. Here are some closing suggestions.
Rather than suggesting we all remodel our form of church government, let me suggest that we follow the Apostle Paul’s injuctions, instead.
Do what makes for unity and peace. Work to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Seek peace, pursue it. Compromise when necessary and use it as a means of trusting Father God to work it out. Remember that gossip kills influence and is a plague, a cancer, a virus that contaminates the entire body. No matter how enticing, do not participate in gossip and do not kill or hinder the influence of a church leader – you will be held accountable.
Remember that the five-fold ministry gifts are not employees – they are grace gifts from above that hold delegated authority from the Throne. Learn, therefore, to collaborate. Even Father God has said, ‘come, let us reason together.’
Freddie Steel – Pastor – Life Church of Chicagoland
Leadership and Structure
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