Congregational Government Does Not Equal Democracy

One of the core distinctives we claim to hold as Baptist churches is that of congregational government, a form of decision making that allows every member to participate and share in the process.

Simply put, it is the belief that Jesus (the head of the church) is able to speak to his people and that as we – the church – listen to him together we will discern his will for us. It means all of the community is able to participate in decision making according to their ability to listen to the spirit. This process becomes harder as a group grows larger but I see the underlying principle as very healthy and wise.

One of the critiques of CG is that is stifles leadership and makes everyone walk at the pace of the slowest person. I tend to think this is not CG working well. In a healthy community CG doesn’t preclude leadership – in fact it creates a forum where leadership can be both expressed and tested.

Perhaps the biggest achilles heel is that this form of church government so easily gets equated with democracy – “one member one vote” (because the systems of our society in which we participate require the process to finish with a ‘vote’.)

So in a perfect world ‘Baptists’ would decide on core issues by prayer, listening to God, discussing and debating and then discerning what is being said. There wouldn’t be a ‘vote’ – simply a conversation that led to a conclusion. However the addition of a ‘vote’ means that there is now power available to lobby groups and the availability of that power means that some of our worst sides get exposed.

At its worst CG finishes up as shameful bun fight and a disgrace to who we claim to be, but at its best it is a beautiful expression of the identity of the church. While I don’t think you can make a compelling biblical case for CG anymore than you can make a case for decision making by rolling a dice, (ok – maybe a bit… ) I do think it is a compelling vision for a church to aspire towards.

I haven’t been to a ‘members meeting’ at Quinns yet so I’m not sure of the ethos with which we function but thise post gives you an idea of what I hope for…raging bull download

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12 thoughts on “Congregational Government Does Not Equal Democracy

  1. Too often we think of government in the sense of decision-making, agenda-setting and control. Invariably that makes our ecclesiology political. If the only reason we gather is to make decisions and agree visions, then it’s only ever going to be about votes (who gets them and how they are used).

    I wish we did a better job of explaining our “system” in terms of the accountability and remit – that the agencies of the church are agencies of the congregation, that the authority and wisdom of the church resides in the gathered body and so on. But, there’s usually too many decisions about building projects to be made before those kinds of conversations can get off the ground.

  2. Yeah that’s a good point Fernando. Our system does set us up to behave in these ways.

    So the challenge I guess is to somehow undo the system so we have less adversarial meetings.

  3. A year or so ago when I was considering moving, I thought to myself “I hope my next church is not another baptist church, I’m tired of the long boring meetings”. Well the one I moved into is a bappo, and the meetings are even longer and more boring than before!

    The tragedy in my case is that the older generation are happy to do meetings the long way, and this unwittingly excludes the under 50s who have no time for that. So the baptist tradition of including everyone actually excludes some of those who ought to be around.

    Large churches are often the opposite, with people happy to ratify the leaders’ decisions, even when it’s controversial most ppl don’t want to rock the boat.

  4. hi Hamo

    i guess my take on church decision making is that the elders should lead the whole church in making decisions. Complete consensus is obviously the ideal, but you can’t have a system where one obstinate member can hold up the making of a decision indefinetly. In such cases, the elders have to say “This is what we’re going to do UNLESS someone can come up with a GOOD reason not to”. Otherwise I do think you are not allowing the eldership to exercise the loving leadership described in the NT, as modelled for instance in the decision making in Acts 15. Here the leaders clearly made the decision but it was in discussion with and agreed to by the whole church.

    The problem with this elder led decision making is that this also can be open to abuse. Here’s three examples:

    1. The elders pre-discuss the decision with a select group of other church members, then come to the church with a pre-made decision already saying “unless anyone has a good reason, this is what we’re gonna do”. As so many already seem to be on board, others in the congregation feel intimidated and are frightened to speak out their reservations publicly for fear of seeming to be ‘out of step’ with the rest of the church.

    2. The elders make a decision to employ a new full time worker. The meeting to agree this isn’t open to all church members – some aren’t even told that there is a meeting happening and afterwards aren’t told what decisions where made.

    3. The elders make decisions on appointing people to leadership roles but don’t feel the need to communicate the decision to everyone in the congregation involved. Months later, some members of the church still haven’t been told…

    All of these may sound hypothetical, but I can sadly and personally testify that they are not. Such ‘lording it’ over the church – for that is what it boils down to – causes deep hurt and division which certainly doesn’t model the love of Christ or NT teaching on what a church should be as a community of light.

    NEVERTHELESS, I still believe that the NT model is for decisions to be made by ‘the elders leading the whole church’ – it just requires humility to be more prominent than it often is.

  5. Great post and comments. Theologically, I see the good points that both Hamo and Goblin bring out. Biblically, though, I agree with Goblin that the example seems to be more of an “elder/deacon” led church in scripture, in Acts, as well as the letters to Timothy and Titus. Unfortunately, the dangers that both of you bring out are very real. As I was reading your post, Hamo, the thought that occurred to me is that, eventually, if you don’t have a vote, somebody has to make the call as to what the Spirit seems to be saying. If we were to combine these too ideas (C.G. and Elder/Deacon), I would say that the conversation should happen, then the elders would make the final decision based on their time of prayer and fasting together. There are no easy answers, because we continue to struggle with the battle between the H.S. and our flesh. Even Paul seemed to see these problems, considering his letters to the Corinthians and Timothy and Titus. Still, I’m convinced that, even with all it’s problems and dangers, Elder/Deacon leadership – because it’s Biblical – would seem to be the way to go.

  6. Great post Hamo. I guess the important thing is that allowing every member to have a say in the process is not the same as saying every member’s opinion carries equal weight on an issue. I for one don’t believe that should ever be the case. I like consensual leadership, but am never going to confuse that with democracy. At the other end of the issue however, is the abdicating of decision making by the cong to the leaders. It would seem to me that a lot of baptist church members are happy to get on with their own lives, turn up at members’ meetings and vote whatever the leadership has preordained.

  7. I agree with Eric that some meetings can get very long (unfortunately for most, I don’t find this boring – too much of a sociologist for that!!), but I wonder if they are long because they don’t happen often enough?

    I was at a work related meeting a few weeks ago where people from all over the state had gathered. A tight and organised (and relevant) agenda had been formed, but it didn’t take long for the day to dissolve into story telling, particularly from people looking for support for difficulties that had been arising. I observed then that the agenda was superfluous, because no-one could focus on it without these stories being aired before we get to the ‘making decisions’ bit, and that was going to take time.

    When a large(ish) group gets together only a few times a year, there is lots to discuss, and (often) lots of complaints to make, because there may not have been a suitable place to make them previously.

    I think CG can be at it’s democratic best, and assist the leaders to lead with wisdom when they are often, and (comparitively) short.

    I would advocate for a monthly/6-weekly meeting that happens during the normal Sunday Event time. That way, it’s still only taking the 90-120 minutes, prayer and worship (not necessarily singing) and other corporate bonding activities can be included, and there can be no excuse for a leaderhips to not know what people think. It would help a leadership to make their priority list more relevant, in terms of what decisions need to be made, and what can be delayed for some time.

    Theories are great and all, but would it work in practice?

  8. I had a yarn yesterday with an old time Baptist this gentleman has been and done just about every job the union has, he made a couple of points about cg that i think are relevant.

    In his opinion the version of gc that we have today is not what was intended, i agree with him our cg’s today tend to be mapped by personal agendas. He said to me we need to get back to our baptist roots and teach members what the one person one vote system actually means and to approach cg in a state of prayer and humility seeking Christ’s guidance, i know its sorta like teaching ppl to suck eggs but i think that he is spot on. I realise this is in a sense a reiteration of your post but coming from a well respected senior member of the union who has always held the welfare of the body first i thought it would be a good comment.

    bless ya’s

    ps: i have been disaffected with the union for a long time and the gentlemans words to me made me realise that i the only way top fix something is to participate.

  9. hey toddy

    yeah i know mate but i wish the union would realise that we are in the 21st century and things are not good and if the union is to survive there must be change not just from the congregations but from “rivervale in the bap cave” as well.

    More support for the revs who are sq pegs with no round holes to fit into rather than just leaving them on the fringes. We need a direction that is inclusive of the community not exclusive, thats why the union is dying slowly and painfully.

  10. How do you ‘come to a decision’ if you don’t vote. The ‘any objections’ approach is just a negative vote isn’t it?

    I entirely agree that congregationalism cannot biblically mean that all voices within the congregation are equal (the elders are to lead). But the danger of a culture where there is no vote will come in when the elders start leading the church in an unbiblical direction. that is where congregaitonalism is great, if the congregation have been used to being taught that they have a responsibility to call their elders to account if they wander away from the gospel, or act incredibly foolishly.

    this requires teaching as to the interplay between congregation and eldership.

    One illustration that Mark Dever helpfully uses is that the elders hold the steering wheel and the congregation the emergency break.

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