Church government can stir up feelings of anxiety in some as they remember contentious business meetings that frac-tured churches. For others, it is the singular issue that separates them from other like-minded believers. Some denominations follow the bishop, while others follow the elders. Others still adhere to the self-rule of the local congregation. But what does the Bible say?
Jonathan Leeman presents a persuasive case for what he calls "elder-led congregationa-lism" in his new book in the Church Basics series by 9Marks called Understanding the Congre-gation's Authority. While I do not completely agree with Leeman's conclusions and coverage of the issue of congregational authority, I still recommend the book for several reasons. Here are 4 reasons to read Understanding the Congregation's Authority.
1. To understand the congregational model in light of all of redemptive history. Leeman does a superb job of showing from redemptive history how authority rests in every member of the church to protect and promote the who and the what of the gospel. In other words, Leeman argues that the church congregation has the authority to decide who should be affirmed or disaffirmed with church membership based on what it has decided is a true confession of the gospel. While his final argument is drawn primarily from Matthew 16 and 18, he effectively tracks the course of that argument throughout the Old Testament as a precursor to church government, and the use of congregational rule in the New Testament.
2. To understand the gravity of church membership. You cannot read this book and look at church membership as just another organization you belong to. When every person in the congregation collectively utilizes the keys of the kingdom that Jesus taught in Matthew 16 and 18 - when the congregation looses and binds - clearly the decisions of the congregation have an eternal weight. If what we loose on earth is loosed in heaven and what is bound on earth is bound in heaven, we have some serious decisions to make. Considering the weight of the argument in favor of congregationalism, this makes church membership a very grave matter indeed.
3. To understand the important role every church member plays in protecting and promoting the gospel. If you are a member of a church, you have a job to do. Yes, that job does include considering every profession of faith - every confession of Jesus as the Christ. It does include those times when a member's actions fail to align with that profession and the church must step in to "discipline" the member. But it also includes those times of pleading with the lost to come to Christ. Leeman does a great job explaining how every member is important, and that a member's vote is not piecemeal or insignificant. It is part of using the keys of the kingdom.
4. To understand the balance between congregational rule and submission to spiritual leaders. Leeman's treatment of this issue is probably the best part of the book. While it seems like a paradox to say that the congregation is in charge but it must submit to the authority of its pastors, it only seems that way. In short, pastors show the congregation how to use the keys of the kingdom (to which the congregation submits) and the congregation does it (which is the exercise of its authority). This neither means that the congregation becomes a rubber stamp in approving the actions of the pastors, nor does it mean that the pastor can be overbearing to get things done in the church. When the balance is out of whack, biblical church government breaks down.
While Leeman made a persuasive case for elder-led congregationalism in established churches, there remain contexts in which I believe other models of church governance are appropriate, and I believe that there are other ways in which congregational rule can manifest itself than just in terms of who is and is not a member of the church. Paul told Titus to appoint elders in the churches in Crete (Titus 1:5). While Leeman may be correct that the term "appoint" implies congregational consent in Crete, the fact remains that those churches existed before Titus appointed elders. The implication from the passage is that Titus oversaw all of those church, as if he were a bishop of sorts. It not only seems to be the biblical case, but also a matter of pragmatics in church planting among people of limited Bible knowledge and access that in a church's infancy there may not be sufficient spiritual maturity to identify false teachers, properly navigate the minefield of church discipline when it is necessary, and so forth. While the elder or bishop in those contexts should show how its done rightly so that the church matures into one in which the congregation can take the keys of the kingdom, every congregation that is formed doesn't appear to be automatically able to make wise use of those keys. Congregational rule should be the goal in such cases, but it does not appear to be automatic.
Furthermore, Leeman's presentation focuses primarily on membership decisions - both in terms of those entering the church and those exiting the church. There are a multitude of other contexts in which the congregation should exercise authority. Leeman's presentation inadequately addresses things like church budgets, ministry priorities, and other administrative and operational aspects of the church.
In any case, this is a book I can recommend. It forces readers to deal with issues that are uncomfortable in terms of what church membership means. Nevertheless, those issues are biblical and should be utilized in churches to ensure the purity of the bride of Christ. The material is presented in such a fashion as it is easy to understand, regardless of whether it addresses every context in which congregations should exercise authority or every context in which strict congregationalism may not yet be appropriate.
Dr. Jonathan Leeman is an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. and is the editorial director at 9Marks. I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
Onward, by Russell Moore, is a refreshing analysis at the state of Christianity in America in light of the moral revolution, and a clear and convincing ecclesiology and ethic that the church should adopt. His argument is premised on the notion that the "Bible Belt" is fraying - that Christians are no longer (if we were ever) a "moral majority." He notes that the movement by that name was not a religious movement, but a political one that included people who desired a return to Judeo-Christian American values, but did not necessarily profess Christ or seek to advance His kingdom. His assessment serves as an indictment against a church improperly focused on utilizing state power to make Christian behavior and thought normative when the Bible depicts the gospel as abnormal by the standards of the world. Here are 7 reasons to read this book:
1. To align social, cultural, and political engagement with a proper balance between American citizenship and the Kingdom of God.
In setting forth several pillars of Christian ethic, Dr. Moore superbly ties them back to the Kingdom of God and the need to acknowledge that while the Kingdom is here in colonies and embassies which we call the church, it is not yet here in full. While we should stand against injustice and defend the "least of these," we cannot expect that the law will institute the Kingdom in full. Only Jesus can do that when He returns, so by expecting governments to do it invests them with authority that does not belong to them. Until His return, the church has the keys to the Kingdom, not the state. We cannot admit just anyone to the Kingdom. Scripture has set forth those requirements, and we must be consistent in how we admit people to our churches. As Dr. Moore points out, our vote for who we receive as members of our churches is as or more important than our vote for who should be President.
2. To rediscover the strangeness of the Gospel.
The church no longer exists in a culture that understands it. For many years, church membership was normative. Now, that is not the case, which presents an amazing opportunity. People should not be drawn to the church because of our sameness with the world, but because of our strangeness to the world. We believe in a dead Man coming to life after having born the wrath of God for the sins of all who would believe in and call on Him. That's strange! We also live in a manner consistent with our calling as children of God, which to the world is equally as strange. If we see that the church is supposed to be different, we can begin to cling to what makes us distinct - the gospel.
3. To put the impetus against abortion and other issues on human dignity.
The pro-life movement is another example of political alliances that do not necessarily exclude people outside the faith. The reason the church should stand against abortion isn't because it's the position of the Republican party, but because we are made in the image of God. Every time an abortionist legally kills another child, the image of God is defaced. That said, we must carry the underlying principle into other arenas as well, such as in how we treat immigrants, racial equality, and so forth.
4. To better articulate the need for and parameters of religious liberty and freedom of conscience.
As we become more and more strange to the culture, attacks on religious liberty will grow more frequent and intense. We must strongly defend religious liberty for all people, not just those who believe what we believe. The ability of the state to prohibit one Hindu from practicing his faith is the ability to prevent all Christians from practicing theirs. As such, we must be able to refuse to do those things which Scripture clearly teaches against. We must stop using Scripture to justify the platform of either political party when Scripture leaves the issue open to conscience and pragmatics. Dr. Moore's focus on religious liberty across all areas of the ethical pillars he discussed is superb.
5. To develop a more holistic theology of the family in a culture that is constantly redefining it.
It is clear that culture is trying to redefine family. Dr. Moore provides a holistic theology of the family as part of the mystery of the Kingdom of God that the church must adhere to. While this includes a stand against same-sex marriage, it also includes a stand against adultery and domestic abuse, as well as an active participation in adoption, foster care, and the like.
6. To evaluate the effectiveness of how we engage our culture.
Too often, we mimic the world in how we engage, including the temper tantrums that we think only demonstrate our passion for an issue. Dr. Moore demonstrates from Scripture that our engagement is to be kind and gentle. This is not a matter of weakness, but a matter of strength. We will not persuade others to Christ by yelling at them or degrading them because of their beliefs right now. Instead of talking about them, we need to talk to them. We cannot be merely civil - we must be kind.
7. To grow.
I have grown as a result of reading this book. I left convicted that often times my response to the corporate, cultural sin that we see today has been angry. Instead of loving others and being kind, I've often begun to despise them because of their beliefs. This is not appropriate. I have been refreshed by reading a theologically and biblically solid argument in favor of consistent, biblical, missional, Christian behavior and cultural engagement. I think you will grow too.
A Word of Caution
I can only give the book four out of five stars because Dr. Moore limited his audience somewhat by presenting very complex arguments utilizing a very advanced vocabulary. I have degrees in both theology and law, but I still had to look up some words. I also found myself having to go back and re-read several pages or even an entire chapter in order to feel comfortable that I comprehended the argument. As such, this is far from light reading. If you're up for the challenge, go read this book!
Dr. Russell Moore is the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
In recent headlines, states across the country are passing state versions of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In my home state, the Arkansas General Assembly is getting slammed for passing similar legislation, and our governor is under immense pressure to veto the bill. The primary opposition is coming from the GLTB community. I support HB 1228 because it protects religious freedom. However, since it fails to strike a proper balance between protecting Christians' fundamental need to avoid being an accessory to sin and otherwise treating all people as made in the image of God and therefore worthy of love, acceptance, and respect, I do not believe Christians should let this law be the standard by which they treat others. Scripture must set that standard.
You can read HB 1228 here. In a nutshell, it protects individuals, businesses, and religious institutions in their right to practice or observe their religion, including "the ability to act or refuse to act in a manner substantially motivated by a person's sincerely held religious beliefs" from any state action. The bill defines state action as "the implementation or application of any law, including without limitation state and local laws, ordinances, rules, regulations, and policies, whether statutory or otherwise, or other action by the state or any political subdivision thereof and any local government, municipality, instrumentality, or public official authorized by law in this state." In other words, no one in government may pass a law or rule which would require a religious person to act or refuse to act in violation of his or her sincerely held religious belief. The only exception was set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972), in that the government can prohibit such action if that prohibition is essential to further a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that governmental interest.
The chief gripe against this proposed statute is that it would allow Christian business owners to refuse to sell goods or services to anyone who is a practicing homosexual because it violates their sincerely held religious beliefs. Conservative evangelicals have long held that Scripture's teachings on homosexuality clearly place the practice as contrary to the will, holiness, and perfection of God, and I hold to that position as well. However, I do not believe the Bible condones refusing to do business with those who do not follow God's requirements in most circumstances (emphasis on the word most).
In short, Christians must treat people as they would want to be treated while refusing to be an accessory to sin. In some situations, the determination of how the Christian should act is simple. Christian grocery store owners and managers should not refuse to sell groceries to a practicing homosexual, even though this bill would allow it. Doing so is by no means making the store owner or manager an accessory to sin. Likewise, Christian restaurant owners should not refuse to sell their food to a practicing homosexual, nor should Christian barbers and hair stylists refuse to cut a practicing homosexual's hair. On the other side of that coin, however, Christian bakers must absolutely have the right to refuse to bake a cake for a homosexual wedding because doing so would make that baker an accessory to sin. Christian wedding photographers should likewise have the right to refuse their services to a same-sex couple. Christian churches should have the freedom to only perform wedding rituals for couples that meet the definition of marriage provided by Scripture.
Although this standard is painted as a bright red line, that line is not necessarily as clear as one might think. Should Christian lawyers refuse to draft a will that leaves the property of one person in a same-sex couple to the other? Should Christian accountants refuse to prepare and file a joint tax return for a same-sex couple? Should a Christian landlord decline to lease a house or apartment to a same-sex couple? These are the questions that Christian ethicists, theologians, and pastors must debate and the answer to which must ultimately be left to the individual conscience of the Christian who is faced with the situation.
In each instance, there will be varying opinions. Some Christian lawyers may feel that writing a will for a same-sex couple looks too much like a family affair and conclude that he or she would be an accessory to sin by writing it. Christian accountants may feel similarly about preparing and filing a joint tax return for a same-sex couple. Others may conclude that whether two people of the same gender are having sex has little to do with what happens to their property when they die or the manner in which they file their taxes.
But in either case, it is the individual's conscience before a holy God that must make the final decision. Not the government. Not the church. The individual. If a person cannot stand confident in their decisions as pleasing to God or ashamed in their decisions as displeasing to God, that person cannot practice religion. It is from interference in these moral decisions that society at large must be protected. This is why I support HB 1228.
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I follow Christ. I have a beautiful wife Megan and three wonderful children, Harrisen, Rebekah, and Carter. I have an M.Div. from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, am licensed to practice law in several state and federal courts, and live in Rogers, Arkansas. I write a blog and produce a podcast. And I do it all that others may know Christ.