How has COVID-19 and Lockdown Affected the Implementation of Congregationalism in our Churches
At this time, in the year 2021, we as Baptists have faced a huge challenge to the principle and practice of congregational church government, in that the lock-down has made it very difficult to hold members meetings, particularly for bigger churches. Here are a few of the difficulties:
Congregations That Can’t Congregate
South Africa went into a hard lock-down on the 26th March 2020. This was necessitated to curb the spread of the COVID-19 corona virus. Under the lock-down conditions, all gatherings were prohibited, and that included churches. This was supposed to be for 21 days, so that the health services could ready themselves for the effects of the pandemic. Churches were only allowed to gather again from the 1st of June and then with a maximum of 50 people. Again, on the 28th June 2020, and December, the country was shut down, and churches were closed, only being allowed to reopen on the 2nd February 2021, again with a restriction of 50 people. This coupled with the reluctance of many vulnerable people (such as older people and others with health problems) to venture out into public or gatherings of any kind, has crippled the local churches in their attempts to gather in any normal way, or to hold church members meetings.
The practical way in which all local Baptist Churches in South Africa operate, is by way of the members agreeing to a set of rules for that local church, the ground rules that govern the way they will conduct themselves. This set of ground rules is the constitution of that local Baptist Church. Most, if not all Baptist Church Constitutions require a minimum number of members meeting in the year, including an annual general meeting. Because of the restriction on church gatherings, meeting the constitutional requirements became practically impossible. Thanks to technology, it has been possible to broadcast services on the internet, or via WhatsApp. However, holding members’ meetings on internet platforms would disenfranchise members who are poorer, or happen to have bad internet access on any particular day, or who are technically challenged. This has put most, if not all Baptist Churches in South Africa into a position of being unable to meet the requirements of their respective constitutions.
Rulers Who Can’t Rule
Moreover, because the members of churches have not been able to meet for members’ meetings, they have also been unable to appoint leaders into the roles of pastors, elders or deacons. Nor have they been in any position to be able to look into any matters of church discipline. The members of local congregations are supposed to rule in these matters, but have not been able to. Congregations that have not been able to meet, are congregations that have not been able to govern.
Leaders Turned To Rulers
Because of the perceived crisis described above, many church leaders have turned from their role of leading, to a role of governing. Elders have taken on the role of hiring and firing of pastors, without the involvement or even the knowledge of the congregation, bypassing the normal processes of call committees, church debates and voting and maybe even labour laws of South Africa.
A Way Forward
We (church leaders) may do well to slow down, not acting rashly. Remembering that we have been appointed by the congregation to serve, not to lord it over anybody, but to serve as leaders and teachers. The crisis may only be a perceived crisis. These are extra-ordinary times, and they do prevent us from being able to have members meetings as soon as we would like. However, church constitutions are set up to serve the members, not the other way around. This crisis will pass, most churches have leaders who have been put into place. Aside from gross misconduct and falling into sin, these leaders should be able to continue in those positions. If we look at the example of the church at Antioch in Acts 14 and 15, who looked to the church at Jerusalem for guidance, it was a process that took time. There was no instant solution like sending an e-mail or picking up the phone. We can learn from them by setting aside our desire for instant gratification, and bide our time. We will be able to meet again in due course. Therefore, elders and deacons should not usurp the authority of the local congregation. The time will come when the congregation will be able to meet again, and those of us who are leaders will have to answer for the way in which have conducted ourselves since the congregation put us into those positions of servanthood.
Craig Botha serves as an elder at Grace Baptist Church Kempton Park.
Photo – Central Baptist Church Pretoria during lockdown.