Is Congregationalism from Satan?

Pastor James MacDonald wrote a short blog post last week titled “Congregational Government is From Satan.” The main point of his argument is pretty well summed up in the title. He really believes that “congregational government is an invention and tool of the enemy of our souls to destroy the church of Jesus Christ.”

Congregationalism holds that the final court of appeal in the local church is not a bishop or a pope (as in the Roman Catholic or Episcopal churches) and not an elder, board of elders, or general assembly of elders (as in Presbyterianism). The final court of appeal in matters of discipline, doctrine, dispute, and membership is the local congregation itself. Congregational churches tend to operate through democratic processes, but it’s a misnomer to call such churches “democracies” in the strict sense.

Pastor MacDonald contends that this form of church government is not only the “tool” of Satan, but that it is also the “invention” of Satan. This is significant because he is not merely contending that congregationalism can be co-opted by Satan for evil purposes. MacDonald argues that congregationalism itself finds its origin not in the Bible but in the machinations of Satan.

I am a Baptist Christian and therefore also a congregationalist. I have had a lifetime of experience in congregational churches, and I don’t know any congregationalist who would disagree that congregationalism can be co-opted and used as a “tool” by Satan. I have seen “town hall” meetings turned into shouting matches and venues for slander. I have known good pastors turned away from carnal congregations who did not want the word of God preached to them. I have seen far too many congregations derelict in their duty to discipline wayward sinners. There can be no doubt that abuses of congregationalism are rife.

But that is not the same thing as saying that congregational government itself is from Satan. And yet, that is precisely what McDonald is arguing. While I am thankful for McDonald’s transparent concern for the gospel and for biblical ministry, he couldn’t be more wrong on this point. Here’s why.

There is a fundamental flaw at the heart of this argument. McDonald’s evaluation is driven more by pragmatic observation than by the Bible. In other words, he has seen examples of congregationalism in practice, and he has concluded that it doesn’t work. It creates forums for division, it crushes pastors, and it negates pastoral authority. His argument goes like this. He supports his thesis that “Congregational government is from Satan” with five observations:

1) Congregational Meetings Are Forums for Division
2) Voting Is Not Biblical
3) Eldership Is Sometimes Unpopular
4) Congregationalism Crushes Pastors
5) Priesthood Not Eldership of All Believers

If you read his discussion under each of these points, I think you’ll find that at least three of his five reasons are not biblically founded, but pragmatically founded. He observes abuses of congregationalism and reasons backwards that there must be something unbiblical about congregationalism itself. But we could level that argument against any form of church government. Believe me; I could multiply anecdotes of Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Elder Rule models that have gone seriously awry. Every polity can be used by Satan so long as there is sin in the world. But susceptibility to corruption is no way to make a final judgment about any of these forms of government. On that criterion, they all fail miserably.

At the end of the day, the question we have to answer is this. What does the Bible teach us about God’s aim for the administration of His church? But McDonald helps us very little on this point. He has no serious engagement with the biblical arguments in favor of congregational polity. For that reason, this blog post falls really flat.

For a great exposition of how congregationalism emerges from the scriptures, I would recommend to readers a short booklet by Mark Dever, A Display of God’s Glory. You can purchase it from Amazon.com, or you can download it for free from the 9Marks website. This little booklet not only introduces you to the best biblical arguments in favor of congregationalism, it also explains how that polity relates to pastors, deacons, and regenerate church membership.

I am grateful that Pastor MacDonald has opened up a conversation about a serious subject, but I hope readers will take some time to press a little deeper into this issue. The health and vitality of the local church is at stake, and there is hardly anything more important than that (Ephesians 5:26-27).

[Jonathan Leeman has written an excellent response to McDonald. Read it here.]

25 Responses to Is Congregationalism from Satan?

  1. Donald Johnson June 13, 2011 at 8:34 am #

    As I see it, the basis for thinking congregationlism works is the (historic) Baptist idea of Soul Liberty, that each believer has the responsibility to interpret Scripture and live faithfully according to how their own understanding. Since I see this idea being eroded in many Baptist congregations, I would be interested in seeing how those congregations see this subject.

  2. Greg Alford June 13, 2011 at 9:28 am #

    Somewhere last week I was reading a blog post concerning this issue and the comment made was something to the effect of “The N.T. teaches Every Member a Priest, not Every Member an Elder.”

    I think that is a profound observation, and something we Southern Baptist need to recognize… (now if only I could remember where I read that???)

    Grace for the Journey,

  3. Eric Schumacher June 13, 2011 at 9:47 am #

    Great response, Denny. From James’ response to you on his website, it appears that he is surprised that “serious bible students” would defend congregationalism as biblical. Good news is, he’s preparing a response. Let’s hope a biblical discussion ensues and brings clarity and health to the church.

  4. Nate June 13, 2011 at 10:03 am #

    MacDonald seems to desire to stir up controversy and/or to elevate himself as a “celebrity” pastor with his remarks.

    Many of us, who come from baptist circles, could probably speak of difficult congregations we have been part of. I have been the pastor of both an elder-led church and single-elder model and there are pitfalls with both. MacDonald is naive to believe that an elder-led church can’t be the hand of Satan just as easily as a single-elder (pastor) congregational church. As Mark Dever noted, every church is congregational because they will vote with their feet.

    MacDonald should be grateful that he lives in a country without a national church (especially if that national church didn’t have his government type). Has he not read history? Furthermore to boldly state that congregationalists are the spawn of Satan (and Southern Baptists are the largest congegational church in this country) is beyond wanting to have a conversation about church government.

    If MacDonald really believes this, then he is also saying Satan has been intrically linked to one of the largest missionary movements in the history of world because of the SBC’s International Mission Board, all created and ran through Congregational churches. Yeah, I’m sure Satan has that plaque on his wall.

    MacDonald needs to reread Mk 9:38-41 and pray that his church keeps preaching the gospel and that he and his elders quit casting stones at other churches.

  5. Phil June 13, 2011 at 10:46 am #

    Good morning, Denny. Rev. MacDonald’s post was interesting. I did note that while sniffing dismissively at any suggestion that Congregationalism could be biblical, he didn’t offer an significant biblical rebuttal for why it wasn’t. If someone is going to declare that Satan is the author of a particular form of church polity, one would hope he would offer some sort of biblical support for that kind of all-encompassing broadside.

    If I read you correctly, you are supportive of Congregationalism as a helpful and even biblically rooted form of church polity. You wrote, “At the end of the day, the question we have to answer is this. What does the Bible teach us about God’s aim for the administration of His church? ”

    Will you be addressing yourself more fully to this topic with your own biblically-rooted defense of Congregationalism?

  6. Richard Hagen June 13, 2011 at 10:49 am #

    Thanks for this response to MacDonald’s critique.

  7. Denny Burk June 13, 2011 at 10:53 am #

    Phil,

    I probably will if MacDonald responds with a substantive critique of the biblical case for congregationalism. In the meantime, readers should read the booklet I linked above.

    Thanks,
    Denny

  8. Dillon June 13, 2011 at 11:00 am #

    One thing of interest that I noted in the comment section on James Macondald’s blog were his requirements for membership at Harvest.

    My question is – are each of those ( and others I’m sure ) biblical as well?

    That’s not meant as a critique but a curiosity. I’m a regular listener of Walk in the Word and have found his programs and teaching very, very, edifying.

    My point being, simply, if he’s calling things in other churches satanic perhaps he should ensure his own house is in order first.

  9. Ted Bigelow June 13, 2011 at 11:48 am #

    Hi Denny,

    Thanks for your ministry, brother.

    I’ve written a book on this topic, The Titus Mandate, based on Titus 1:5. In it I argue for eldership and provide a straightforward interaction with the Scripture texts used to affirm congregationalism. I would support James MacDonald.

    2 quick points:

    1) I’ve been a pastor in both governance types. Only one, eldership, allows you to function biblically instead of politically.

    2) The arguments from Mark Dever are not always persuasive. He argues Gal. 1:8, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than what we have preached to you, a curse be on him!” is a passage showing the congregation’s responsibility to protect the gospel. It isn’t. See Tom Schreiner’s words on Gal. 1:8 in his new commentary. But Dever is (IMO) forced into that because there is no passage of Scripture teaching, by precept or example, that the leaders should submit to the congregation. Instead, the New Testament always teaches the church to submit to the elders.

  10. Kevin June 13, 2011 at 11:56 am #

    I have only really seen 2 things from MacDonald before; this and the interview that he and Driscoll did with Dever on multi-site churches. Unfortunately, in that video, he and Driscoll came across like a couple of school children (and I like Driscoll). This doesn’t really elevate his status in my mind at all. I might have to follow Dillon and listen to some of MacDonalds teaching so I can hopefully have a better opinion of him.

  11. Nate June 13, 2011 at 2:51 pm #

    So Ted, let me get this right. You stated you agree with MacDonald.

    Here is MacDonald’s statement. “NOTE: the tone of this post is intentionally aimed at engaging those who are engulfed in this system of church government that neither honors the Scriptures nor advances the gospel… I have come irreversibly to this conclusion: congregational government is an invention and tool of the enemy of our souls to destroy the church of Jesus Christ.”

    So Ted, you believe congregational churches are the devil’s tool as well? Because that is what MacDonald is saying. Therefore, anything that congregationalists have done in the name of the Lord is actually the work of Satan.

    This is not a disagreement about governance, this is as stark a statement as the differences between Catholic and Protestants were at the Reformation and Catholics were killing Protestants.

    Let’s be clear: MacDonald believes Satan is the head of congregational churches. Everyone should read carefully what MacDonald is saying. He is not saying we have doctrinal disagreement, he is saying congregationalists are serving Satan, not Christ.

    So is that what you believe Ted, and others?

    NOTE: I did not ask if you believed in elder-led church government, but if you believed in MacDonald’s statements because they are not the same.

  12. Donald Johnson June 13, 2011 at 3:12 pm #

    My take is congregation governance is a debateable question and people can understand Scripture to teach different things. I am most familiar with the plural elder model, but am currently in a church with a congregational model. I do not think it is something to divide over and certainly not to claim one model is satanic.

  13. Jeri Tanner June 13, 2011 at 3:14 pm #

    I recently read The Titus Mandate and find the author’s (see his comment above) arguments to be biblically compelling. There is no NT account of the congregation voting. How could many of our Southern Baptist congregations, often with unregenerate or immature members, be expected to vote wisely? It seems right that biblically functioning elders would always be about instructing the congregation and engaging it in matters important to the church. But that’s very different from allowing the congregation to have the final say in important matters of church polity. I recommend the Titus Mandate–even though you may not agree with everything said or may draw different conclusions in the end, I believe it makes some important points that need to be considered.

  14. Ted Bigelow June 13, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

    RE: #12, Nate

    No, i can’t say I agree with that isolated comments that appears to express James’ conviction concerning polity, not people.

    But he isn’t alone – you should read “Satan’s Strategy to Curse Christ’s Congregation” by Dr. Keith Sherlin. It’s Kindle available too. His book is specifically addressed to SBCers – perhaps yourself?

    I do admire James MacDonald very much, as I do the SBC. I have also studied under many godly men at SBTS, like Danny Akin, where I obtained my doctorate

    So whenever you’re ready to discuss Scripture, and not win arguments, let me know.

  15. Eric Schumacher June 13, 2011 at 4:51 pm #

    Denny: Here’s my defense of congregationalism, if it would help your readers:
    http://www.northbrookbc.org/sermons/070211am.html

    Oh, and I think that the church lady needs a seat at the table for this discussion: http://youtu.be/TWHOIowtzXA

  16. Eric Schumacher June 13, 2011 at 4:59 pm #

    Ted:

    I have (congregationalist) Tom Schreiner’s commentary on Galatians. It’s great. I agree with what he says on Galatians 1:8.

    Here is what he writes on the passage you mention:

    “Excommunication by the church is not in view here but eschatological punishment meted out by God. It is evident from the strong language used that Paul does not consider the Galatian opponents to be believers, for they preach a different gospel. The curse Paul pronounces may also hearken back to Deut 13:1-11 where a false prophet who preaches apostasy is to be put to death. But such an allusion does not indicate that church discipline is in view. Rather, end time destruction from God himself will be the destiny of those who proclaim a false gospel.”

    I don’t think Tom’s correct recognition of “accursed” referring to eschatological judgement and not excommunication necessarily diminishes Dever’s argument. His argument, as I understand it, is that Paul is writing to the Galatian churches (congregations — not elder boards) to charge them to recognize the error and resist it. Thus, responsibility is put on them. It is not the “nail in the coffin,” but is supportive.

    And, please, are comments like, “So whenever you’re ready to discuss Scripture, and not win arguments, let me know” really helpful? I think Nate is trying to take James’ word seriously. James’ post is a strong word from a man who is a professional communicator, skilled in the selection and use of words, and written on a national platform after much consideration. It deserves such critique. And I think your comment would apply to James’ blog post (and aforementioned discussion on multi-site churches). I would hope you’re saying the same thing to James (which I haven’t seen you say)–and not just to those who differ with you.

  17. C.T. Eldridge June 13, 2011 at 5:21 pm #

    Denny,
    Thanks for this helpful post. I have not studied church polity to any significant extent, but in every conversation I’ve had with an elder-rule, Bible church pastor they have all reasoned similarly to MacDonald and give only pragmatic as opposed to biblical arguments. On the other hand every congregationalist I’ve had a conversation with mentions the discipline passages in Corinthians and the doctrinal responsibility of the Galatians.

    In a TGC 11 panel with Keller and Dever, Dever pressed Keller on 1 Cor 5 and the congregation’s responsibility to discipline the perpetrator in their midst. Keller replied that he would have to look at that passage again and compare it with the PCA Book of Church Order but that he wasn’t able to comment offhand.

    Interesting and important stuff. Thanks for bringing the conversation to your blog.

  18. Nate June 13, 2011 at 5:48 pm #

    Ted, you missed my point.

    I don’t disagree that we can have a legitimate discussion about single-elder vs. plural elder led churches and about congregationalism, but MacDonald loses any credibility whatsoever to be involved in that discussion with his comment, which was not isolated Ted.

    MacDonald was explicit to state it upfront and wanted to make sure everyone heard him loud and clear.

    He deserves to be condemned.

  19. Mike Bird June 13, 2011 at 5:57 pm #

    Denny,
    Sad to say it, but I think that # 4 is correct!

  20. donsands June 13, 2011 at 5:57 pm #

    I have a wonderful church I attend. We have two pastors, and we have two wardens. It’s an Episcopal Reformed congregation. And of course there is a hierarchy of bishops as well.

    Before this I was in an elder-ruled church.

    Congregational rule would be extra-biblical, but not demonic in my way of seeing the Bible.

  21. Ted Bigelow June 13, 2011 at 6:28 pm #

    RE: #17, Eric

    “His argument, as I understand it, is that Paul is writing to the Galatian churches (congregations — not elder boards) to charge them to recognize the error and resist it. Thus, responsibility is put on them.”

    Paul’s only address to the Galatians in this passage is reproof(!) at his amazement that they are deserting the gospel. There is nothing spoken about charging “them to recognize the error and resist it.” Of course they should, but it isn’t in the passage. What Dever does is take Paul’s words on judgment in v. 8 as a judgment men are to enact. Schreiner corrects him.

    This is what Dever writes:

    “Paul calls on congregations of fairly young Christians to sit in judgment of angelic and apostolic preachers (even himself in Gal. 1:8) if they should preach any other gospel…” (Display of God’s Glory, 37).

  22. Eric Schumacher June 13, 2011 at 7:10 pm #

    “Amazement that they are deserting the gospel” only makes sense if there is an underlying assumption that they “recognize the error and resist it,” which you grant.

    As to my question on the helpfulness of your response to Nate and the inconsistency of not saying as much to James…?

  23. Ted Bigelow June 15, 2011 at 12:19 pm #

    #23, Erik

    I’m lost – help me out here….

  24. Michael Corral July 20, 2011 at 9:49 am #

    I may not be as smart or educated as James MacDonald, but being a guilty sinner, I know sin. Having also made many mistakes in my life, and with God’s help, hopefully learning from them, and also with using the Bible as my guide and also relying on the Holy Spirit to hit my conscience button; I am now in a position where I can sort of sense a wrong decision or if an action will lead to sin or tempt me to sin. So I know that it is better to give the congregation the final decision rather than one man, or only a few men. Yes Mark Dever is the most correct in theology of all the men out there today, and I could easily rest in any of his decisions, but he is just a man and sin can attack anyone of us at anytime. Therefore, taking the power from his hands and his elders / pastors and putting them in to the congregation’s hands, it just seems to be the most prudent action.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Flotsam and jetsam (6/13) « scientia et sapientia - June 13, 2011

    […] of congregational government, sparked quite the response. Two of the more interesting are from  Denny Burk and 9Marks, both of which argue that MacDonald’s arguments are more pragmatic than […]

Comment here. Please use FIRST and LAST name.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes