Elder-led congregationalism, I propose, is Jesus’ discipleship program.
The First Half of Jesus’ Discipleship Program: Congregational Responsibility
In order to understand what elder-led congregationalism has to do with discipleship, we need to think about its two halves. The congregationalism half requires you, the average church member, to take responsibility for other church members. It gives you this job.
In order to do your job, you must know the gospel. You must study the gospel. You must protect the gospel’s ministry in your church. And you must work for the gospel’s progress in the lives of your fellow church members and with outsiders. To put it another way, you must watch over your church, keeping it consecrated to God, just like Adam was to watch over the garden and Israel’s priests were to watch over the temple, keeping them consecrated to God.
To be clear, I am assuming that possessing responsibility comes from possessing authority. A person is not responsible to do something they have not been authorized to do. Don’t tell me I have a job if you won’t give me the authority to do my job! That’s like telling me to clean a building without giving me the keys to the building.
The fundamental claim of the congregationalism half, then, is that the gathered church possesses authority because Jesus expressly authorizes it and because he makes every gospel believer responsible for proclaiming and protecting his gospel and his gospel people.
The Second Half of Jesus’ Program: Elder Training
Yet think about this: who trains and equips gospel-believers to do their jobs? Who teaches them the gospel and how the gospel applies to every area of life? Who trains them to discern between true professions and false ones, so that they can keep the church consecrated to the Lord?
Pastors or elders!
That brings us to the elder-led half of Jesus’ discipleship program. The congregation needs its leaders to train them in doing their jobs. Listen to how Paul puts it: Jesus “gave some to be . . . pastors and teachers, for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12). What do pastors do? They train. What do the saints do? The work of the ministry. The two parts work together:
Elder-led ——> Gives you job training
Congregationalism ——-> Gives you a job
This in a nutshell is Jesus’ discipleship model. Or we can put it mathematically:
elder leadership + congregational rule = discipleship.
Add these two variables and you have Jesus’ program for discipleship.
People worry that congregationalism involves putting the church’s decisions into the hands of its least mature members.
It is true that if pastors do not train the saints, yes, their people will be immature and make bad decisions. But it is the very fact that elder-led congregationalism does not permit leaders simply to impose their will on the members, even the immature ones, that forces the leaders to do the work of training. Jesus’ program requires the leaders to teach and explain and equip and shepherd and woo their members toward maturity and the ability to make good decisions. The members are like 16-year-olds with car keys. You had better teach them to drive carefully, mom and dad! Don’t blame the congregations for bad driving. Blame their teachers.
A church that gives all authority to its leaders hurts its own culture of discipling. Forsaking their own authority, the members become less responsible. They inch toward passivity and complacency and eventually worldliness. They leave the church less protected.
Meanwhile, the pastors who take away authority from their congregations, ironically, surrender one form of their own leadership by doing so. They are supposed to work hard at training the church to use its authority maturely. But if they relieve themselves of this responsibility, sure, their job will be easier, but they are not being the leaders that God intends.
Is biblical congregationalism a democracy? No, it is a mixed government—part monarchy (rule of the one), part oligarchy (rule of the few), part democracy (rule of the many). Jesus is King through his Word; the elders or pastors lead; and the congregation has final (human) say on certain crucial matters. And it is precisely the dynamic between the one, the few, and the many that cultivates a culture of discipleship, and that guides immature church members toward maturity.
Do you see? When Jesus and the apostles talked about church government, it wasn’t just a discussion of bureaucratic decision-making. It was most fundamentally and importantly a matter of discipleship!
This article is a slightly modified excerpt from Jonathan Leeman’s new book Understanding the Congregation’s Authority.