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.]