Thursday, October 13, 2011

Why Congregationally-Led Churches Are a Bad Idea

I don't know if you've ever seen the movie "Village of the Damned," starring Christopher Reeve. In the movie, these genetically engineered children end up controlling the adults and taking over the town because the actual adults are afraid they might be killed if they step out of line. You might be surprised to know that many pastors experience a somewhat similar situation in their congregations today, only the threat is being fired (i.e., the threat of their livelihood and ability to secure another ministry job after being fired).

The reason why they're in this position is because we have a lot of misguided theology concerning the nature of church leadership. Let me just point out three things:

1. We think that pastors are the employees of the church and that the congregation is made up of his employers.
2. We think that every person in the congregation (usually every official member), as the employer of the pastor, should have an equal say in the direction of the church.
3. We believe that supporting multiple, full-time elders financially is a waste, since the congregation can function as the advisory committee to the pastor.

All of this is neither biblical, nor is it a good idea in attempting to apply biblical ideas that need church leadership to function biblically in order to "work" the way God designed them to do so. So let's take each one at a time.

1. According to Scripture, the elder is not an employee of the church. He is to be supported by the church as a missionary is supported, but the church is under his authority. He is not under theirs (1 Tim 5:17; 1 Pet 5:1-5). Hebrews 13:17 says,

Obey  your leaders, and submit [to them]; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.

Now I ask, How can you obey your leaders and submit to them if you are their employer who holds their very jobs/livelihood in the balance? How can they shepherd the flock and rule it well if they have to continually consider everyone else's opinion, and be afraid when they go with one opinion over another? Submission is giving up your authority to let another rule in your place. The elder doesn't have jurisdiction over all things, but he does have jurisdiction over sin and falsehood in the lives of his congregants, and unless he is able to function without fear of losing his job, he cannot function as an elder (i.e., he cannot lead).

2. We are told that many congregations in the Scripture are of an immature nature. They don't seem to know their spiritual right hand from their left, and many are just plain not Christians at all, but still seek to be a part of the visible church. If the majority of a congregation is immature, why would it be a good idea to let them lead and direct the church? Why must all of their opinions be heard? Should they not be quiet and learn? Should they not learn submission rather than be attempting an assertion of power? If a congregationally-led church has a majority of immature believers, either in faith/theology or practice, then your church is being led, not by the elders, but by the most unqualified to lead.
According to Scripture, the elders are chosen, precisely, because they are spiritually mature individuals in both faith and practice (1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-11). Hence, they are most qualified to lead. Input from the immature usually hurts more than it helps.

3. Hence, congregants can't just fill in to replace a body of full time elders (even picking the more mature men in the congregation often times is not picking those who are qualified biblically to be elders).

According to Scripture, the term "pastor" describes a gift and an activity, not the office of elder. We call the office "pastor," but he is really an elder. Hence, we must ask whether the Scripture indicates that we should have just one or multiple elders. The Scripture seems to indicate in many places that multiple elders are in view within a congregation, not simply one. This gives each elder community (i.e., spiritual support in fellowship and accountability) that he then can extend into the community as a model of the larger community. This gives each elder time to ponder the Scriptures sufficiently to shepherd the flock rather than having to "quickie" study everything in the Bible. This also gives him support in disciplinary matters, as he will need it if he is to guard the congregation from willful rebellion that will lead it to a certain corruption and death.

Some of the problem might be that everyone thinks he or she's called to "help" the elder shepherd the church. So even if others are not, he or she is. This is the problem, I think, that we have reaped from our view of the "calling" I spoke of before. No one is called to the office of elder. People desire it, but must be qualified to fill it. If he is not qualified, he should consider himself under that authority, and not assert himself into the functions of the office.

Multiple (qualified) elders also give the congregation some level of trust with the eldership, as they are not simply trusting one man, but multiple men who have given themselves over to the Word of God and prayer. This doesn't mean that absolute trust will be given in our culture (and I'm not sure if in our culture it is ever possible to not be somewhat congregational because of our radical mistrust of authority), but we should set up the biblical model and teach its truth anyway, as that to which we should aspire.

What congregationally-led churches do is flip this model on its head. They isolate pastors (if they have elders, they are often men, who although are well meant, are simply not qualified or they are elders on a temporal basis--i.e., there is a lesser opportunity for community and shared pulpit ministry). They assert their authority over the pastor, so that he conforms to their will, which is not necessarily the will of God. And, hence, they stunt their own growth. The congregationally-led church is just as good as a church that has no pastor at all. He's just a figure head, a puppet of the congregation. He can neither rebuke in his teaching nor discipline in the life of the congregation. His ministry has been rendered useless to the congregation.

So here's what we need to do: Think biblically. The pastor is one of a plurality of full time elders that you should aspire to install for his sake and for yours. He is not an employee, but a messenger of God to you. In fact, the Book of Revelation refers to him as an angel, and Peter talks about reviling the authority of church leadership as reviling angelic authority. He is a minister of heaven, not your employee. Support him accordingly. And this support needs to be both financial (1 Tim 5:17) and spiritual (through the election of multiple elders).

Now, I realize of course that most churches have a mixture of the two models presented above, but let me ask you this: Shouldn't we do the best thing God has set us to do? Should we really settle for what we're doing now because we think it's fine the way it is? Maybe you just can't see the effects of something that is broken because that snapped wire just hasn't caught on fire yet, but it will in due time.

You may also find this post offensive, as though you need someone to lead you, but be offended by Christ, not me. He's the one who refers to you as sheep (the most dependent domestic animal alive--and I'm putting that nicely). He's the one who set elders over you to shepherd you and commanded you to obey them as they who rule over the congregation and watch over your souls. Are you offended when your heart surgeon tells you can't operate on yourself because you're inadequate for the job? Are you offended when he doesn't ask for the candystriper's advice on how to perform surgery on you? He is uniquely qualified. His job cannot be substituted with lesser qualified candidates without serious consequences occurring. I realize that every person thinks he or she knows what's what in our culture, but that's not the way Scripture presents us. We are in need of elders if we are to grow in Christ. Without them, or without them exercising freely their role to guard our souls, we are left to fend for ourselves. How many sheep do you know are capable of fending off a wolf by themselves? Good luck on that one.

So, no, I don't think it's a good idea to have a congregationally-led church, and I don't think it's just another model absent of devastating repercussions.

You might simply ask, But what if the elders are corrupt? But I would simply say that you have more of a chance of the elders being corrupt if you do not follow the guidelines in Scripture in appointing them and ignore the multiplicity of elders that can keep each other accountable. Elect godly men who are qualified and they won't need your help governing each other. What's the alternative? Being a village of the damned? I've seen it, both on TV and in the church, and it's not something I ever want to go back to.

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