Congregational government and missional church

The excellent BUGB news sweep highlights Mark Driscoll in Belfast [link opens MP3 download] offering his views on congregational government and missional church life. The headline ‘it is almost impossible to be both congregational and missional’. Some thoughts occur to me in listening, that seem worth recording just because Driscoll makes mistakes that seem to me to be endemic:

1. This is an off-the-cuff response at a Q&A session; we should not treat it as his considered and final word on the subject. That said, Mars Hill have chosen to make the MP3 available; the comments are published, with no rider to the effect that ‘I wasn’t sure about how well I handled that one,’ so they are fair game for discussion and response.

2. The most astonishing and worrying thing about the comments is that they are entirely pragmatic. Faced with the question of the most appropriate mode of church government, Driscoll’s response is not to turn to the Bible, or to think theologically about what God calls the local church to be, but to ask what works (where ‘works’ is defined as adding numbers to one particular local congregation, with no consideration of the edification of the saints, the transformation of society, or the wider mission of the church). As a convinced congregationalist, when it comes to church government, my fundamental response to Driscoll’s comments is indifference tinged with sadness. Indifference, because we are called to be faithful, not successful; sadness because someone who commands a great deal of attention as a Christian pastor could, even if only on one occasion, be so publicly negligent of Scripture and theology.

3. It is apparent that Driscoll has not troubled to understand congregational government before criticising it. He repeatedly characterises congregational government as if it were an exercise in democracy: ‘everyone gets a vote’; this is a fundamental misunderstanding: congregationalism takes its stand on the Lordship of Jesus in the local congregation. (Tolmie entitled his chapter on the rise of Independency in London in the 1640s ‘King Jesus’.) Because we experience the present Lordship of Jesus, and covenant together to follow only Him, we eschew any who would call themselves a leader in the congregation as simply and precisely an anti-Christ. Of course, there could then be a debate – the only worthwhile debate about church government – concerning how the congregation hears the urgent and present call of Christ: is it through hierarchy, even male-only hierarchy, or does Christ dwell with all His people, and speak through each, as He shall choose? Driscoll does not even mention the call of Christ on His local congregation.

4. Which leads on to a crucial theological consequence of congregational government. Congregational government assumes and insists that all believers are equally competent, or equally incompetent, when it comes to knowing the mind of Christ. Driscoll mocks congregationalism on the basis that someone who knows nothing about a subject is given a vote. Absolutely, because the question in hand is never ‘What do I think the best thing to do about this is?’ but always ‘What is the call of the Lord Jesus to this people in this situation?’ A question we are all, of course, incompetent to answer – but the Lord Jesus has poured out His Spirit, and so sons and daughters prophesy, the young see visions and the old dream dreams – even slaves, male and female, refused any part in the decision-making process by the culture around, are given the Spirit and so can hear the voice of the Lord callling His church.

5. Driscoll claims that congregational government is impossible in a congregation of over 200. This is of course, as he must know, simple rubbish – there are many congregational churches significantly larger than this, and if he can’t imagine how that could work, well, the limits of his imagination are not interesting data. It may be, however, that there is a practical upper limit for a properly-functioning congregationalism; suppose it was 200, what of it? There is neither example of nor command for a congregation larger than this in the New Testament; megachurches may feed the founding pastor’s ego, and further his/her reputation, but it is not clear at all that they are especially successful in feeding Christ’s sheep, or in furthering Christ’s mission. Perhaps every congregation should, on reaching a certain number of members, plant out, or divide itself, because this is a part of the call to be faithful to Christ? If that were so, it would not be an argument that Christ’s call is wrong or misdirected.


  1. andygoodliff
    May 18, 2011

    Take that Driscoll!

    • Steve H
      May 18, 2011

      Is that a proposal for next year’s Eurovision entry?

  2. ruthg
    May 18, 2011

    Thank you; I kind of felt all this, but it is so helpful to have it laid out clearly and theologically

  3. europeanmission
    May 18, 2011

    Thanks for blogging about this, Steve. Excellent points on his lack of understanding of, and appreciation for, congregational polity and life. I’ll look forward to listening to the podcast and getting to grips with his arguments for this form of polity being less than missional.

    • Steve H
      May 18, 2011

      Welcome, Darrell, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. I think he does indicate a real problem for us, that our people need to be taught how to be congregationalist.

  4. Chris E
    May 18, 2011

    This was similiar in tone to his arguments for a multisite model of church here:

    Generally the arguments being extended are pragmatic.

  5. Jason Sexton
    May 18, 2011

    Great points, Steve, all around. But I wonder if Driscoll is not referring to an earlier baptist/congregationalist model, one going hand-in-hand with a stronger form of voluntarist covenantalism, that still exists in a number of places? Confessedly: haven’t listened to the audio yet.

    • Steve H
      May 18, 2011

      Well, I cited London in the 1640s, and could take it back to Ainsworth’s True Confession of 1596; there isn’t a whole heap of earlier congregationalism than that…

      • Jason Sexton
        May 18, 2011

        For most Americans, a hundred yrs is a very long time! I was actually thinking of 19th and 20th c. voluntarists, many in the US. A few folk accused Grenz of the same kind of voluntarism, incidentally, which actually wasn’t there. But the characterisation [of voluntarist congregationalism] against baptists, congregationalists & independent evangelicals is nothing new, and seems to only cultivate stronger evangelical reactionary currents with bigger personalities. There still seems to be some baptist groups [in the US?] who continue to embody the kind of ecclesiology that Driscoll seems to be reacting against, however, although I’m not convinced his current solution is any better. But the issue/s in Driscoll’s mind may actually be two separate ones that are often lumped together – ie, voluntarist entry into the covenant community/congregation vs. voluntarist government within the congregation. You made another helpful point in the comment to Darrell, that what it means to be baptistic and congregational needs quite a lot more teaching. Seems high-time for you to write the book on ecclesiology that everyone’s waiting for, Steve!

  6. Lucy Peppiatt
    May 18, 2011

    Thanks for posting on this Steve – so nice to read something thoughtful. I thought it was interesting that his predominant image for congregational was ‘adversarial’ – meet, vote and fight! He’s obviously worried about anyone who might disagree with him, cause chaos and prevent him from getting his own way and women, children, and other ignorant members of the congregation are clearly the greatest threat – hmmm, being Mark Driscoll, he might have a point!

  7. Jordan
    May 18, 2011

    Steve, thanks for bringing clarity to this issue and doing so with a charitable yet honest tone. Admittedly, I’ve typically avoided the issue of church government after seeing so many peers argue over what seem to be pointless details. Your post not only helps clarify things with Driscoll but raised this issue for me in new and significant ways. Many thanks

    • Steve H
      May 19, 2011

      Hi Jordan, I hope Wheaton is treating you well.
      In a wood at the bottom of our village are two monuments, commemorating seven people who were killed (an archbishop murdered; six covenanters executed in a quasi-judicial revenge attack) because they disagreed over church government (and not that much else) back in the 1680s; it is an issue that can generate more heat than light.
      That said, churches need governing! We’re going to come to a decision one way or another, and I think that bringing in a bit of theology before we get too pragmatic has its merits…

  8. Radical Believer
    May 18, 2011

    “3. It is apparent that Driscoll has not troubled to understand congregational government before criticising it. He repeatedly characterises congregational government as if it were an exercise in democracy: ‘everyone gets a vote’; this is a fundamental misunderstanding: congregationalism takes its stand on the Lordship of Jesus in the local congregation.”

    Steve – I agree with this in theory, but the problem in many congregationally goverend churches is that the members – and even the leaders (lay and ordained) have made exactly this mistake. Congregationalism does not equate to democracy in theory, but in too many churches it does in practice.

    There are other dangers in congregationalism too: those who shout loudest prevail most often; bullies can and do prosper and so on.

    That said, I too am committed to congregational government, believing that, at its best, it has uch to commend it, not least its requirement that we listen carefully to one another as we listen carefully together to discern the leading of the Spirit.

    • Chris E
      May 18, 2011

      Here’s an amusing take from Michael Spencer, on how some baptist business meetings can end up:

      FWIW I think much of the problems I’ve seen with congregationally governed churches (most of which did really devolve to one member one vote), could be addressed by the sort of rigorous attention to entry and exit procedures that Mark Dever has described in various places.

      This coupled with a systematic discipleship scheme of some sort – which is admittedly easier if your church has a confessional background, like some Reformed Baptist churches.

      • Steve H
        May 19, 2011

        Welcome, RB, and thanks to you both for commenting. I wrote the post, as I said, because the misunderstandings are endemic – amongst Baptist church members as well as others. As I commented above, we need to teach our people how to be congregational, and to the extent that we have failed, or not even tried, some of Driscoll’s criticisms hit home…

      • Steve H
        May 19, 2011

        Chris, Michael’s piece is characteristically wonderful, but notice how in the face of everything he still thinks the church meeting is absolutely necessary?

      • Chris E
        May 19, 2011

        Oh, i agree – as I do about the importance of educating the congregation as to their responsibilities as members.

        I’m not sure that most churches know how to go about this, even if they believe it to be a goal worth pursuing.

    • Mark McIntyre
      May 20, 2011

      “There are other dangers in congregationalism too: those who shout loudest prevail most often; bullies can and do prosper and so on.”

      I very much agree with this statement. I have had bad experiences in congregational churches where the largest givers seem to want the largest influence. I’m still waiting for my first good experience in congregational government.

      Also, can someone lay out the Biblical basis for congregational government? It was referred to in the article but not clearly stated.

  9. mike wells
    May 19, 2011

    Stop Press!! Mark Driscoll mouths off about a topic he has little grasp of.
    Seriously though, sometimes I wonder whether his belligerance is as calculated and manufactured as Joel Osteens white white teeth

  10. Ashley
    May 19, 2011

    Thoughtful post, thank you. I concur that many in British Baptist churches (or at least those I’ve experience of) remain ignorant of what we’re doing when we meet together. Part of the problem might simply be that many in our Baptist churches aren’t Baptists. It’s an oft-quoted (but proven??) point that people join a Baptist church for all sorts of reasons (number of children, style of worship, for example) but rarely because of it’s Baptist tag / identity. Having said that, even dyed-in-the-wool (their description) Baptists seem largely ignorant of what we’re actually trying to do in our meetings, with people talking about winning and losing the vote a sad indictment of the fact that the label ‘adversarial’ is often true. And while I agree that more teaching is needed, I suspect I’m not alone in responding, I’ve tried and tried (for nearly 8 years in one place) but rarely did it get through to more than a handful of people!

  11. Rev Joe Haward
    May 24, 2011

    Thank you for this Steve. John Colwell said to me that all church meetings should be unanimous because if all of us are genuine in our desire to discern the mind of Christ, then when we can see an agreement between the majority of God’s people in the local church then we should lay down our own agenda and be willing to go with how the Spirit appears to be leading. It seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit.
    Really good post, thanks again.

  12. Steve H
    May 24, 2011

    Thanks for commenting, all – and welcome to those who have not been by before.
    There is a tradition of congregational government by consensus (some Mennonite and Society of Friends traditions, from memory). I am unsure about that: it assumes a maturity in discipleship on the part of every church member which my Augustinian pessimism finds it difficult to believe we will ever achieve. Although – that should not stop us trying: I was in a church meeting recently where a secret ballot was taken with one person voting against; would there not have been something profoundly Christian about stopping at that point, asking to hear his/her doubts, and spending time praying and reading Scripture together to see if they could be overcome?
    If not consensus, though, how about this: the challenge of congregationalism is to ensure that all people in the congregation are granted the ability to participate in the shared task of discerning the mind of Christ. So we could split the congregation into small groups – perhaps homegroups; perhaps ministry groups; perhaps on demographic grounds; perhaps randomly – and ask each small group to pray and read and talk together until it was prepared to come saying, ‘we believe this is the mind of Christ on this question’. This might not be unanimity, but a point where doubters are prepared to be reconciled to the decision offered. Only when every small group (‘caucus’?!) can confess this conviction do we move forward.
    Or how about instead of voting we allow each member to take up one of three stances: ‘I believe this is God’s will’; ‘I am unsure’; ‘I believe this is not God’s will’, and then engage in a process of group mediation to get to a point where no-one is opposed, and only a few remain unsure.
    I don’t know if it still in print, but I have on my shelf a book called ‘The Mennonite Mediation Manual’ (or similar) which has literally dozens of ideas for bringing a group of people to consensus.

  13. Marcus
    Jun 10, 2011

    What an interesting and thought-provoking post. Historically Baptists have always believed in both congregationalism and the role of church officers. Many problems seem to arise when the relationship between the responsibilities of the two are not clearly understood.

    That the NT teaches that there are various spiritual gifts given for building up the body is not in doubt. That one of them is gift of leadership is similarly not in doubt. It is curious that congregationalism that ought to TEND to trust people with spiritual gifts of leadership, frequently TENDS not to. In a way that is unusual with regards to other spiritual gifts. People are usually happy to let those with financial acumen handle the money, those with gifts of helps handle practical hospitality. Why not those with gifts of leadership and discernment have a major say in strategic matters of leadership and discernment?

    Is it because too many precisely understand congregationalism as one person one vote? Which works well when there is a good general level of maturity, but not when a large percentage have been allowed a stake in the decision-making process who are not mature disciples with a clear sense of the vision and values of the church. In that case multiple agendas arise out of spiritual immaturity and people confuse seeking the mind of the Lord with holding out for their personal preferences or ensuring their own comfort. Under those circumstances it is hard to see the mechanism tending towards a missional mindset rather than away from it.

    I agree that theologically it doesn’t have to be so, but in practise it often is. Given this, what does the practise demonstrate we are doing wrong in teaching our churches how to be properly congregational?

  14. Jonathan Balmer
    Dec 27, 2013

    I know this is a “necro-post” of sorts but I was wondering on your thoughts on mega-churches and cults of celebrity pastors in general.

    I have heard some say it is trying to replace the office of bishop missing in evangelicalism: where we don’t have dioceses, where we have spurned magisteriums, we invent them.

    Evangelicalism does seem a bit more likely to create celebrity pastors. Perhaps it is partially the result of not rotating pastors like Methodists and other more hierarchical churches do– but even when a mega-church pastors spurns congregationalism he’s usually still a free-church evangelical.

    What are your thoughts when it comes to ecclessiology and megachurches/ celebrity pastors?


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