James MacDonald: Congregationalism is from Satan

Posted: June 9, 2011 in church, ecclesiology, theology

James MacDonald recently posted an article at his blog entitled, “Congregational Government is from Satan.”  In it, MacDonald argues (quite bluntly) that congregationalism, as a system of church government, is not only unbiblical, but downright harmful to the life and health of the local church.

Here are his main five points, with an excerpt from each:

1) Congregational Meetings Are Forums for Division
When church life is going well, the leaders of a church struggle to get a quorum for decision making. When things are going wrong, every carnal member lines up at a microphone to spew their venom and destroy the work of Christ in the church…Good people being held hostage by bad people, minorities hijacking the majority because a set of ‘by-laws’ get higher regard than the Scriptures.

2) Voting Is Not Biblical
The right to vote may be an American right given by the Constitution, but it is not a kingdom right given in the Word of God. It may be a tradition of some wonderful streams of church history, e.g. Baptist, but it is not biblical. There is not a shred of biblical evidence for a congregation voting on what its direction should be, but many church members believe it is their ‘God-given right’ to stand in judgement over the Pastors and Elders that are seeking to lead them.

3) Eldership Is Sometimes Unpopular
Elders are responsible to “shepherd the flock” (1 Peter 5:2), which is often a very dirty job. Calling out sin, dealing with those who have fallen and seeking their restoration (Galatians 6:1-4), these responsibilities put Elders in positions where doing the right often means doing the unpopular…The Elders spend the majority of time trying to keep these blasphemous enemies of the gospel in line and often finish their term of leadership crushed by the weight of unrelenting criticism.

4) Congregationalism Crushes Pastors
Statistics tell us that Pastors move every 2-3 years and that a pastor typically leaves a church because of 8 people. If you wonder how just eight people can so resist and refuse and ruin the calling of a gifted and trained messenger of the gospel then you have not spent much time in congregational settings…I could retire now if I had banked a hundred dollars for every time a Pastor wept to me on the phone or in person about the crushing weight of a local ‘church boss’ who would not listen to Scripture or reason or God’s Holy Spirit.

5) Priesthood Not Eldership of All Believers
A significant plank in the platform of biblical protestantism has been the priesthood of all believers…Sadly, though, this has led in many congregations to the Eldership of all believers—where each person, regardless of training, giftedness, fruitfulness, experience, etc., considers their thoughts about the future of a given congregation to be of equivalent value…It’s impossible to reconcile that process with: Hebrews 13:17 “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give an account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.”

MacDonald concludes with this exhortation (his emphasis):

Down with congregational government. Not the people who believe in it or appreciate its history, not the good or bad people who try to function well in a bad system—down with the system itself. Let’s send congregational government back to hell where it came from. It’s unbiblical, unhealthy and too often a tool of Satan for the discouragement of good Pastors, godly Elders, and local churches everywhere.

For a defense of congregationalism, see Mark Dever’s book, A Display of God’s Glory (free PDF).

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Comments
  1. Dan Miller says:

    Response from a congregationalist…

    1) Congregational Meetings Are Forums for Division
    
True. Pragmatic argument. James’s objection on this score is vital to understand. Wherever Scripture gives us freedom, we should attempt to increase the ability of the elders to “watch for the dogs” and decrease the opportunity for these dogs to cause division. This is something that really deserves discussion.

    2) Voting Is Not Biblical

    Not true. And even if it is, voting is not necessary for congregationalism.

    3) Eldership Is Sometimes Unpopular
    
ok.

    4) Congregationalism Crushes Pastors
    
This is objection #1 as a chronic condition.

    5) Priesthood Not Eldership of All Believers
    Right, but irrelevant. Congregationalists believe that Scripture puts action on many things in the hands of all believers, not elders.

  2. Matt Tully says:

    1) Agreed.

    2) Not that I am disagreeing with you, but you haven’t provided a biblical basis for this claim (just like MacDonald). At this point, both parties are simply asserting an undemonstrated “fact.” I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on MacArthur’s comments:

    “Biblically, the laying on of hands was done by the recognized leaders of a church. In this way they identified themselves with those who were becoming leaders. But the process of identifying leaders may also have involved the people. Acts 14:23 says, “When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” The word for “appointed” in that verse is cheirotoneo, which literally means “to choose by raising hands.” It is the same word used to describe how votes were taken in the Athenian legislature. It came to mean “to appoint.”

    Some feel that the use of cheirotoneo implies that a congregational vote by show of hands was taken. That is forcing the word. The context of Acts 14:23 indicates that only Barnabas and Paul (the antecedents of the pronoun they) were involved in the choosing.

    Second Corinthians 8:19 uses cheirotoneo to describe the appointment of an unnamed brother “appointed by the churches” to travel with Paul. There the plural “churches” indicates that he was selected not by a single congregational vote, but rather by the consensus of the churches of Macedonia–probably as represented by their leaders.

    So using the term cheirotoneo in an exaggerated, literal way is not sufficient to support the idea of the election of elders by congregational vote, although the assent of the congregation may be implied.”

    http://www.gty.org/Resources/Positions/P11_Answering-the-Key-Questions-About-Elders?q=elders

    3) Ok.

    4) Agreed.

    5) Yes, but I think MacDonald’s thoughts do need to be considered. Regardless of where we fall on this issue, we should think very carefully about the Bible’s teaching on the extent/nature of the authority the elders possess, especially in contrast to the authority of the congregation as a whole. As MacArthur would say, we must be careful that the “sheep” aren’t leading the “shepherd.”

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