Congregationalism in the Bible

Posted: October 27, 2014 in Practical/Theological

For the last year I have been working for a Congregational Church. Church government is not often seen as a core issue of belief, but it is a decision that has to be made and so I’d like to explore the scriptural basis for congregationalism.
There are three basic forms of church government: Episcopal, Presbyterian and Congregational, and we should note that these forms of government go well beyond the denominations that bear those names. The episcopal form, found in Anglican, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox is a top down government where the leadership is appointed. Here decisions are made by leaders, and the higher leaders appoint lower leaders. The Presbyterian system is representative government, such as we find in the United States government. Here the decisions are made by the leaders, but the leaders are selected by the people. Congregational form of government means that the whole community decides together on what to do, what we might call a true democracy, though it often requires more than a slim majority for decisions. The only place this really exists in America is when some New England towns do town meetings.
Often reasons given for the congregational form of government wherein issues are brought before the whole church body for everyone to vote on, is that the Holy Spirit can speak to any believer and that voice needs to be heard. Others cite the equality among believers. Beyond these, theologians who favor congregationalism cite a number of passages.
When the first church needed to select seven men to serve at tables, commonly referred to as the first Deacons (the the word Deacon occurs later) The Apostles, undisputedly given authority, gave the task of selecting these men form. “Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them” Acts 6:3 NIV. Many point to this as a time when if anyone had a right to appoint people, it would be them, but they deferred to the congregation.
The New testament epistles written to whole churches (vs. those written to individuals) where meant to be read to all the church. These included commands to make decisions, such as in 1 Corinthians when Paul tells them to excommunicate someone. Jesus also appeals to the congregation when seeking decisions on settling disputes and church discipline in Matthew 18:17. This is also true of the instructions about the ordinances (also known as means of grace or sacraments) such as in 1 Corinthians 11
Appeals to a congregation in a day and age when the average laymen was uneducated and often illiterate show us the force of the congregational argument. This also was not merely for deciding policy, but for decisions as important as excommunication. This is helpful, because during the middle ages “the church” often referred to the magisterium ruling the church, rather than to the whole gathered Body.

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