Congregational government and missional church

Posted on May 18, 2011

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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.

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