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The Role of the Leader in the Context of Congregationalism

The Role of the Leader in the Context of Congregationalism

by Prof Piff Pereira

Introduction

One of the questions that always surfaces in the Baptist Principles class (at BTC) is the one relating to the role of the Pastor in a Church where the Principle of Congregational Church Government is upheld. They recognize that this principle can stifle good leaders and cause much frustration in their ministry. This same question has been faced by the Baptist Union of Southern Africa, forcing them at their Assembly of 2000 to re-state the Principle as follows:

The CONGREGATIONAL PRINCIPLE, namely that each member has the privilege and responsibility to use his/her gifts and abilities to participate fully in the life of the Church.  We recognize that God gifts His Church with Overseers (who are called Pastors or Elders) whose primary function is to lead in a spirit of servanthood, to equip and provide spiritual oversight, and Deacons whose primary function is to facilitate the smooth functioning of the Church.  The principle further recognizes that each member should participate in the appointment of the church leaders, and that the constituted church meeting, subject to the direct Lordship of Christ and the authority of Scripture, is the highest court of authority in the local Church.  

This is the statement we refer to when we now talk of Congregationalism.  The above statement has gone a long way to clarify the true and underlying understanding of the pre-2000 statement of the Principle. This clarification was certainly necessary because the old statement was open to gross misapplication of the true Scriptural understanding of the Principle.  The old statement was:

The principle of CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH GOVERNMENT, namely that the constituted church meeting is, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the highest court of authority for the local church; and that each individual member has the inalienable right and responsibility to participate fully in the life and government of the church, including the appointment of its leaders.

Yet, both statements affirm the underlying tenets of Congregationalism, namely: 

1. The constituted church meeting is the highest court of authority for the local church.

2. That each individual member has the right and responsibility to participate in the life of the church and in the appointment of its leaders. 

We shall therefore briefly mention the rationale of the 2000 statement of Congregationalism, giving its scriptural, theological and structural underpinnings, before we discuss the role of the leader in the context of this principle. If we classify Pastors, Elders and Deacons as leaders, already we conclude from the statement that leaders are to equip, provide spiritual oversight and facilitate the smooth functioning of the church. We will show that leadership need not be stifled in the name of the principle, and that stifling them will indeed go against God’s will for the church. Yet, at the same time we cannot discard the authority of the congregation, as this too, will go against God’s will and the spirit of the present principle. The role of the leader has to be considered within the context of the congregation who mandates that leadership.

Our approach will be to consider and explain the main verbal and adjectival (descriptive) clauses of the current principle in order to define the roles of leaders from within the context of the whole Principle of Congregationalism.  Congregationalism is biblically unavoidable and part of our Baptist heritage. God help us, in that context, to allow His appointed leaders to lead according to their biblical mandate and without being stifled, or stifling God’s people to be who they are in the Body of Christ.


1. Participating in the Life of the Church

Dennison and Pereira (2003:iv) assert that more and more men and women must be motivated to serve God and His people. It is not only needed for the survival of the Church as the Body of Christ, but as a witness of God’s goodness to the world who looks on. The Lord has blessed the Church to be an organism that is built up by its own members and by its Head, Jesus Christ. We are members of Christ and of each other (Rom.12:5) and by that are naturally servants of Christ and of each other.  

We who believe in Christ are one in Christ. We are members of His Body, and we exist for all the others in the congregation.  There is an interdependence of the members. Every member with his specific and individual gift, or gifts, is placed in the Body in order to build up the other members. As in the physical body where every member has to contribute to the well being of the body, so in the church every member has to contribute to the well being of the congregation, and ultimately to the Church at large. That contribution is called “ministry”. The Body of Christ is a united organism; alive and able to be built up by its own members who use their spiritual gifts as they minister.  

All God’s people are called and gifted to serve, and therefore all of them are ministers (Beasley-Murray 1992:86). The individual believer, whether leader or normal member, is therefore responsible for the growth of other believers, and they for his/her growth in knowledge, in service, and in devotion. In ministry, our obedience and service is an expression of our priestly duty towards God and others. Every believer is a priest (1Pet.2:9; Rom.25:27; 1Co.9:12 and Phil.2:30).

God has gifted us as servants in His household.  Through us He wishes to dispense His goodness to His people. We experience His goodness, individually as the Holy Spirit gives us spiritual gifts and enables us to be effective when we use our gifts; and corporately when our gifts benefit the whole congregation of God’s people (Eph.4:8-13; 1Co.12:7; 1Co.14:12; Rom.12:6-8 and 1Pet.4:9- 10). Spiritual gifts are therefore God’s gifts to the Church, and we are channels of God’s blessings to His people (Dennison & Pereira 2003:3). We agree with Bill Hybels (1994:14), that believers flourish in their service to Christ when they are serving in the area of their giftedness and in conjunction with their God-given uniqueness. Each believer is and makes a unique contribution to the Body of Christ. Each believer must be encouraged to serve God in a way that only he or she can.

When we use our spiritual gifts, it prepares God’s people for works of service. By practicing our gifts we help other believers to become useful in the Kingdom of God. We build up the Body of Christ as we strengthen and grow other believers in faith matters. We encourage other believers to become mature; that means we encourage them to become Christ-like. We foster unity in the Body when we use our gifts. It is unity which best characterizes the Church as belonging to Christ and as a community of peace (Eph.4:3).  Only when we have true unity can we enjoy true fellowship. True fellowship is free from selfish interests. We are a community in Christ. 

We therefore have, not only, by virtue of our belonging to the Body of Christ, the right to participate in the life of the Church, but we have also been gifted by God in such a way that the congregation of God’s people is greatly disadvantaged without our specific and unique contribution that each member makes. The community is most blessed as each member makes its contribution for the edifying of the body. To this end we must pray and encourage God’s people to be a living community in Christ.  This is what God intended for them to be.


2. The Highest Court of Authority

Spiritual authority comes from God. We have no spiritual authority unless it comes from Him. As Baptists we are saying that that authority is embodied in the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Therefore the highest authority is Christ. Here, however, we are talking about the highest court of authority.  In the context of the Principle of Congregationalism, the assembled congregation is the highest court of authority; and it follows more broadly, that the assembled body of churches is the highest court of authority for that particular association of churches. When it comes to the affairs of the local church, then it is the assembled congregation. When it comes to the affairs of the local denomination, then it is the assembly of the congregation-mandated representatives of the represented churches.  So, the authority goes wider as the assembly’s representation goes wider.  It shows that Cook is correct in his assertion when he says that it is wrong to assume that congregationalism means independence (1954:83). We believe in the inter-dependency of churches. Our focus here, however, is directed to the local church. We are not speaking denominationally.

Congregationalism argues that each church must be self-governing, directing their own affairs. The highest court that regulates this self-governing and directing is the meeting together of the congregation or the gathered church. Our Lord Jesus alluded to this principle when he said, Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them (Mt.18:19-20).  When the church gathers in the name of Christ it possesses an authority of agreement before God because of Christ’s presence. In the name of Christ means broadly that which is in the interest of Christ’s person, presence, will and purpose.  

Where the church is gathered, there are gathered the people of God who are the community of God, and the priesthood of God. The principle of the “Priesthood of All Believers” strengthens the importance of the gathered church, because every believer has access to God (Rom.5:2; Heb.10:22; Eph.2:18, 3:12; etc.). The church is more than a club, and more than a mere meeting. It is the gathering with authority of priests with their High Priest, Jesus Christ. The authority is only accorded when the congregation is in agreement in the name of Christ.  

It comes back to the cardinal truth that God’s people can only gather in the name of Christ if they aspire to be sensitive to the voice of their Shepherd. The sheep must know His voice. They must respond to His instructions. They must follow His leading. What is most needed in these days is for the church to feel the heart of God as they open their hearts to the love of God. The church must be open to the promptings of God as their consciences are quickened by the holiness of God. They must focus their minds on the truth of God so that they may dwell in the ways of God, and have their imaginations shaped by the Word of God. When the people of God are able to hear His voice and know His mind, they will be able to devote themselves to His purpose. Gathering in the name of Christ has a maturing affect on the people of God. In other words, the congregation must learn to live and gather as the “People of God”. Their life and their gathering must be marked by love and unity.

We know that our Lord’s words (above) were spoken in the context of church discipline. One of only two occasions where our Lord used the word ”church”, is here and in Mt.16:18. In verse 16 of our present text (chapter 18), Scripture demonstrates that for Jesus the church is the highest court of authority. What the church binds or looses on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven (v.18). Therefore, the church gathered in the name of Christ, has great authority. Moreover, the church gathered in agreement in the name of the Lord, will move the very hand of God. God will do for them as they ask.

The congregation’s unity in the Spirit is to be maintained (Eph.4:3-5). We do not have to create it.  We only have to maintain what the Holy Spirit has brought about. Unity is maintained when the body is together and in agreement in the name of Christ. When the unity is present then the church has authority to act. It is the simplicity of the gathered church that most seems to be in harmony with the teaching of Christ (Wright 1991:117). Moreover, the Spirit who brings about this unity, is the one who reveals to us the mind of Christ (1Co.2:16). The spiritual man is able to make judgments about all things; especially in the united body (1Co.2:15).

When the Apostle John warns the church against the antichrist, he recognizes that their strength and authority to withstand lie in the anointing of the community. He says: But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth … the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things … remain in him (1Jn.2:20, 27). What the community was taught by the Spirit through the Apostles not only was reliable truth, but was adequate to make them withstand the onslaught of false teachings and to remain in Christ. They may therefore trust their judgment in spiritual things.

That means that the congregation’s ability to make godly decisions is greatly enhanced by the gathering of individual believers who are mature (Heb.5:14). Mature Christians are those who have progressed in spiritual life and have become people of sound judgment and discernment. To leave all the decisions with the leaders is to stifle believers’ growth to maturity, not allowing them to become the discerning judges that God wants them to be. An intrinsic part of the congregation’s commitment is making good decisions. In Wright’s words, “The church is a fraternal, not a paternal, community” (1991:123).  

Even though the church is the highest court of authority, it does not preclude the need forleaders in the church. The church has to appoint its own leaders because the Scripture makes it abundantly clear that God has given us leaders (Rom.12:8; Tit.1:5ff). God help us as a church to know and apply the will of God in every appointment. God help us also to submit voluntarily and discerningly to the leaders whom we have recognized as called of God.


3. Recognizing Leaders who are Servants

Spiritual leadership is servant-leadership. Servant- leaders are leaders who most emulate our Lord Jesus Christ. He came not to be served but to serve (Mk.10:45). Servant-leaders know they cannot truly serve if they do not truly love whom they serve. If they love the Lord, they will also love His people. Servant-leadership recognizes that the authority of Christ is diffused by the Spirit throughout the body and not only located in those who lead. They recognize that Christ alone is the Head of the Church (see also Col.4:18), and every member is organically related by the Spirit to Christ. Every member has direct and free access to the Head. The headship of Christ is not to be obscured by the leaders in the Church. We agree with Dr. Pohlmann in his chapter when he speaks of servant leaders as those who give “power away for the ‘cause’ of the people’s gain and thus often receive affirmation in return”. This agrees with Tony Campolo who said at a seminar in East London (1995), “To love is to surrender power and to make oneself vulnerable”. That is the nature of servant leadership. Yes, while they strive to serve God’s people, they know that they are in fact God’s servants, and not the people’s.

Leaders need to be called. Their calling is from God. Leaders are called to serve God’s people. The recognition of that calling is confirmed when the people of God elect their leaders. The same can also be said differently; when godly people in obedience to God elect a leader, that leader is called by God. There should therefore no difference between “calling” and congregational “affirmation”. The latter confirms the former, and the former has the priority because it comes from God. Moses had to demonstrate his calling to  God’s people, and they had to be convinced of it (cf. Ex.4:1-9). One cannot be a leader without “calling”; neither without “affirmation”. Leadership-calling is not a private matter!

God gifts leaders with the necessary gifts so that they can lead His people well (Rom.12:7-8). 

The congregation needs only to recognize the calling through recognizing the gifting of their leaders.  Leaders need to be sure that it is God who has called them to lead, not their own egos or agendas (Rogers 2006:6). Leaders need the congregation to confirm God’s call by its outward call. Leaders need the congregation, and the congregation needs the leaders. They are to serve each other. That is how God designed the Church to be.

Blackaby & Blackaby (2001:8-9) observe that the religious community suffers a spiritual leadership drought. Because society at large is displaying a widespread and growing interest in

spiritual issues, true spiritual leaders are in demand. Citing George Barna, they say that the American church is dying due to a lack of strong leadership. This is probably true here in South Africa too. The primary reason why the church is losing influence is found in the lack of spiritual leadership. We urgently need spiritual leadership in order to seize the many opportunities and challenges presenting itself to the church in these days.

Position, power and personality are all misconceived sources of influence for leaders. Influence should not come because you have the position of leader. Too many leaders seek respect and believe it is their due by virtue of the position. Spiritual leadership is based on the

work of the Holy Spirit and on spiritual character (Blackaby & Blackaby 2001:88). Oswald Sanders asks a real probing question; “Should it not be the office that seeks the man, rather than the man the office?” (1967:11). Holding the position does not automatically come with God’s anointing. Nor can true influence come from a position of power. Strong-arm tactics do not work in the church. There are no spiritual dictators or dictatorships. People give authority to leaders when they choose to follow them, especially in the church. Though people voluntarily submit to those in positions of leadership, giving them the honour that the Word demands (Rom.13:1-2; 1Tim.5:17), they are not to obey their leaders blindly and unquestioningly. Nor should influence be exerted through a charming personality. Again we agree with the Blackabys when they say that “personality without purpose and charm without competence are recipes for ruin” (2001:93). God authenticates servant leaders. God said to Moses, I will be with you (Ex.3:12). God also said to Joshua, As I was with Moses, my servant, so I will be with you (Jos.1:5). Their achievements as leaders clearly came from God. Those who seek God’s affirmation receive true and lasting honor. Therefore, they do not need to defend themselves. God will vindicate them as they seek to please Him in everything they do. By that vindication He authenticates them, and lives will be changed through their leadership. People will be moved to align themselves with God’s will, and the leaders themselves will become increasingly Christ-like. They will encounter God in a real and sustained relationship. The godly leader is a person whose character is under-girded with integrity, and when people see his integrity, they will get a glimpse of God’s holiness. This is how God authenticates true spiritual leaders.

When a congregation has learned to recognize the voice of God, then leadership will not need to “sell” their vision/s; they will simply share with their people what God has shown them, and then allow the people to seek confirmation for themselves. If the people are intimate with the Lord, they will know God’s will when it is expressed by their leader. It is imperative for individual believers to hear God’s voice for themselves. Through the many individuals in the church, the leader will be affirmed when he operates according to God’s agenda. It is as good to have an affirming following as it is to have affirming leaders.

Leadership is influence. Spiritual leaders are to have a godly influence. They do not manipulate their followers. When leaders stop loving their people, they stand tempted to use them, to neglect them, and ultimately to discard or destroy them. Influence is a powerful thing. With influence comes a tremendous responsibility, because when people trust their leaders they give them the benefit of the doubt. People need to know that their leaders have their best interests at heart. The responsibility of leading people carries with it a frightening sense of accountability (2Co.5:9-11) (Blackaby & Blackaby 2001:176).

Therefore, the single most important thing a leader can do is pray. He must have the mindset that seeks to pray and let God do the work, without losing sight that leadership is indeed hard work. The responsibility of influence must drive him to his knees and to the Scriptures. It is critical that leaders base their decisions on prayer, biblical principles and the believing community’s confirmation. The Holy Spirit uses these in directing leaders. Prayer should always be the leader’s first course of action. Daniel was the good leader that he was (even of an empire) because he had the habit of praying at least three times a day (Dan.6:10). It is, and should be, no different for servant-leaders today. 

Defensive leaders learn nothing. We are instructed in Scripture to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger (Jas.1:19). Good leaders make every effort to invite discussion and feedback. It is so much better for us if that feedback comes from spiritually in-tuned people. The leader who invites discussion is often also willing to be accountable to those who give input. When he is willing to be accountable, he is also willing to be transparent. Transparent believers strive to steer clear from sin and hidden agendas as these negatively impact their testimony and credibility. Besides, since he fears the Lord, he will keep away from evil and deception (Prov.16:6). Servant-leaders know that they are ultimately accountable to God.

We may conclude that servant-leaders in the church are needed. Servant-leaders are under the authority of Christ. They are God’s servants. They are called and gifted for leadership by God himself. Their calling will be confirmed by God’s people. Therefore they do not need the mechanisms of position, power or personality to authenticate their calling. God authenticates them by His anointing presence and a God- glorifying influence. They rely on God’s affirmation, knowing that in the face of opposition, God will vindicate them. They know that theirs is the responsibility of moving God’s people on to God’s agenda by prayer, Scripture and the Holy Spirit’s guidance. They know that they are accountable both to Him who called them, and to those whom they lead.


4. Not a Mere Democracy

We agree with Denise Rogers (2006:3-4), who asserts that congregational church government is good in theory, but most Baptists do not experience its outworking in a good way. The reasons for this are manifold:

  1. Modern churches tend to be governed like businesses. Elders and Deacons are often chosen because they are good businessmen, and they make good business decisions rather than Spirit-led ones.
  2. Church members may be immature in their Christian growth. Lack of biblical knowledge and Baptist beliefs leave members without a proper understanding of the true meaning of congregational church government.
  3. Church meetings are notoriously badly attended due to apathetic and indifferent membership.
  4. Churches with large membership find it difficult to involve the whole congregation in its decision-making processes.
  5. They often vote people into leadership not knowing anything about their spiritual walk or leadership abilities. Often such elections are based on the popularity (or availability) of the person.
  6. Wright (1991:98) adds: Church meetings are often impractical. They have an inbuilt conservative bias which prevents the church responding swiftly or imaginatively to any initiative.

If a church can put its house in order with regards these matters, then it can do anything. It is precisely because agreement is what unlocks the dynamic of spiritual effectiveness. For them to work properly the people must be spiritually minded. The ideal for the churches is to have a system of government which is unable to work properly unless God is in it (Wright 1991:100). If God is going to be in it, then church government cannot be by mere democracy.

We recognize that the democratic system is to a large extent unavoidable, but it cannot be a democracy that goes by simple majority, which tends to put too much power in the hand of the one vote necessary to obtain a majority. This kind of democracy only has a numeric concern. It must seek to make the “democracy” an expression of what really is a theocracy. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, please allow us to explain.

Democracy, on the one hand, must be one that respects the people’s freedom. They must remain un-coerced in all decisions. After all, this is what the “Principle of Freedom of Conscience” demands. But democracy, on the other hand, does not mean that the will of the people is supreme. God’s will must be supreme, and the people must identify, and willingly submit, to His will. Their expression of the will of God is also the exercising of their democratic freedom within the church. It therefore opens us up to a position that is willing to respect what God is saying through each member who is not seeking his own will, but God’s will (Blackaby 2003:68).

Democracy, on the one hand, allows each person to have a say. Everyone’s opinion is valid. Yet, on the other hand, their say and their opinion must not determine the decision from a numerical standpoint, but from a “weight” standpoint; where all others “weigh” what is being said in order to establish whether this is what God is saying to them. In this case, “majority” is not the point, but consensus is.  Agreement is the point. It is a matter of, “What does God want?” rather than, “What do we want?” This is called discernment. Discernment can never be attained unless our desire is under-girded with prayer. Only a prayerful attitude will find the will of God, and will move the hand of God. With discernment we can even reject the word of an Elder and accept the word of an infant believer if it is in line with the will of God. Position isn’t the point; obedience to God is. What our statement affirms is that effective spiritual ministry must allow every believer to be used of God; as this will also reinforce the “Principle of the Priesthood of All Believers”. Democracy is nevertheless only confirmatory in  the church context. God help us, as His people, to make every effort to be a discerning people in our confirmation.

We are therefore challenged to re-consider the definition of the so-called “constituted” church meeting. Will the members be members of an institutional model of church, or will they be members according to the organic model? The former are those who are joined to the church by formal enrolment and claim their rights or give their input only on that basis. The latter sees membership as an inherent part of Christian existence. Being a member means being a redeemed, functioning part of the new community. Scripturally, the Church is a living body, guided by its Head, Jesus Christ and activated by the Holy Spirit – Rom.12:4-5; 1Co.12:12-13, 27 (Wright 1991:108).

There is thus a strong case for membership that refers only to the regularly attending and/or involved members who are in “good spiritual standing”. We know that this is easier said than done. Membership should nevertheless be “current”, and what is current can be determined by attendance and/or involvement. Therefore part of the conditions of membership should include an automatic termination after a specified period of non-attendance and/or non- involvement. The underlying reason for this is increasing the possibility of having spiritually- discerning members at these meetings.

Ultimately, our challenge is to create a truly deep spiritual tone at our meetings. Our problem is that we have separated business from spiritual. We speak of “business” as if it is not a spiritual activity.  Every discussion must seek God’s face and every decision His approval. We have to learn to hear the heart of God and distinguish His will in all our decisions. Sometimes His authority resides with the congregation (Acts 6:3); sometimes with the Elders (Heb.13:17); sometimes with an individual (Gal.2:11ff); sometimes with a prophet (Acts 11:28); and sometimes with the leaders and people together in harmony (Acts 15:28). The church that waits upon the Lord will find godly consensus, especially also, when commitment in membership is an expression of their love for 

God.  Should we not strive to blur the line between “business” and “spiritual” meetings? If we can do that, then decisions can come even during worship meetings.


5. The Role of Leadership

We now know how leaders ought to be, and how they ought to relate to God and His people. What then are leaders to do in the church? We shall look at what the leader’s functions are in the context of our discussion above. From there we will derive what the roles of leaders are.

5.1. Leaders must Lead with God-given Authority.

Yes, we cannot over-emphasize that leaders should be servant-leaders, but our understanding of servant-leadership should not mean that they should be leaders without authority. Servant- leadership has often been pushed too far that leaders were made doormats, and finallydestroyed. The shepherd leads the sheep with love and authority. His love for them allows him, as a servant on the one hand, to make sacrifices for them, and on the other hand to lead them to fertile and safe pastures. The sheep heed the voice of the shepherd. They respond when he calls them by name, and when he leads them out. When the shepherd goes ahead of them, theyknow how to follow.

Peter C. Wagner (1984:81f) appropriately reminds us that leaders are to be both humble and powerful. God gives grace to the humble, and he resists the proud (Jas.4:6). Our Lord shows that there is a possibility to reconcile these two, seemingly opposing, concepts when he said, Whoever exalts himself will be abased, and he who humbles himself will be exalted (Mt.23:12). Authority is not self-generated; God is the one who exalts. If we take the initiative to humble ourselves, God will respond by exalting us. We so easily accept the humility side of the equation, but not the power side of it. We do not recognize that we often reject God’s working in our lives when we do not allow him to exalt us when he wants to do so. Our Lord wants not only one side, but both sides to be true. He wants us to be servants to his people so that he can make us great among them (Mk.10:43). This is particularly true of those whom God has called to be leaders.

Many times the Apostle Paul referred to himself as a servant or as a slave. Yet his authority was awesome. He could say, for instance, Therefore I urge you to be imitators of me (1Co.4:16), and Follow my example (1Co.11:1) with great confidence and without apology because he saw no contradiction between the attributes of humility and God-given authority. If God has given one the task of leadership, Paul says, let him govern (rule) with diligence (Rom.12:8). Those who are being led, must respect those who are over them in the Lord (1Th.5:12), because they who direct the affairs of the church well, are worthy of double honor (1Tim.5:17).

The simplicity of taking God’s people on to God’s agenda, according to the Blackabys, is made possible by God’s working through the leader he has put in place. The gift of leadership is the special ability that God gives to certain members of the Body of Christ to set goals in accordance with God’s purpose for the future, and to communicate these goals to others in such a way that they voluntarily and harmoniously work together to accomplish these goals for the glory of God (Wagner 1984:88).

5.2. To Enable God’s People by Equipping.

The Pastor’s main function must be to equip God’s people for the work of the ministry (Eph.4:11-13) primarily through prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). Preaching the Word must be the area of our main influence. It is appropriate here to give one of my favourite quotes from one of my favourite authors, James Stewart (Heralds of God): 

“Let our preaching be purposed … 

to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God,

to feed the mind with the truth of God,

to purge the imagination with the beauty of God,

to open the heart to the love of God,

to devote the will to the purpose of God.”

To equip God’s people is to expose them to their usefulness in the Kingdom, and to facilitate that usefulness by preparing them for it. The area of their usefulness must be in the area of their giftedness. Leaders help them discover their spiritual gifts. Leaders best prepare their people through teaching, training and testing, before “commissioning” them. Yet, we have to be spiritually sensitive, and must not allow ourselves to stifle enthusiasm in the name of ill-preparation. God sometimes uses “unprepared” people; they somehow just learn on the job.

Equipping God’s people cannot happen without imparting to them the importance of loving God. Spiritual leaders must teach believers to love the Lord, to love His Word, and to love His people. To love the Lord, is the first and greatest Commandment. To love God’s people answers to the second greatest command. The Word of God helps us to define our relationship with God and man. If our usefulness is founded upon love, we are certain to be servants who will do all things as unto the Lord, and in the name of Jesus Christ (Col.3:17).

5.3. To Oversee the Spiritual Aspects in the Church.

Leaders in the church are leaders under the Spirit of God. Elders are also known as “bishops”, who have the duty as overseers. They oversee the flock. The New Testament describes it as a spiritual ministry that is concerned with a few things, namely, prayer, the teaching of God’s Word, defending the flock and disciplining those who fall into error.

Only when leaders are given to prayer and Bible-study, are they able with the mind of Christ to make the kind of input and decisions that please God. Most of the times such input and decisions will find the approval of God’s people also. When people have the mind of Christ, their decisions will be made by common consent of those leaders and believers after prayer and the study of God’s Word, and possibly even after fasting. In a unified way we are better to deal with problems in the church. The Eldership is to oversee these spiritual activities. Ruling as an Elder is a high calling (MacArthur 1989:69).

Billy Graham (1984:97) rightly recognizes that the underlying principle of all Satan’s tactics is deception. Remember that Satan often disguises himself as an “angel of light” (2Co.11:14). The shepherd must defend the flock from the evil one’s attacks. He warns his people of error. He has to, by the teaching of sound doctrine, establish the flock so that they would not be tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine (Eph.4:14). There are many deceivers and false teachers who forever seek to lead God’s people astray. The Pastor and leadership must keep these deceivers and false teachers out. They must be concerned about the spiritual purity of God’s people.

Spiritual leaders are to discipline those who have fallen into any kind of error that affects the church adversely. This is especially true of those who have succumbed to doctrinal error. 1Tim.1:19 records how Paul had given Hymenaeus and Alexander over to Satan so that they would not blaspheme. From 1Co. 5:5 we learn that the handing over to Satan has the purpose of having the sinful nature destroyed and the spirit saved in the day of the Lord. The person is abandoned to the devil that he might afflict him as he pleases. This abandonment was to be accomplished, not by some magical incantation, but by expelling the person from the church (see v13 and vv 7,11). Official ostracizing from the church is aimed at causing the person such anguish that it will bring him to repentance and to forsake his wicked ways.

5.4. To Facilitate the Smooth Functioning of the Church.

We have already understood from the principle statement that Deacons are given to facilitate the smooth functioning of the church. This is obviously not the responsibility of the Deacons alone, but also of both the leaders and the congregation. Administration, accountability, planning and programming are the aspects largely in focus here. 

5.5. To Facilitate a Community of Unity.

We agree with Tidball (1986:299) that one of the sharpest issues facing any congregation at the present time is the question of unity. To be more exact, it is a question of how to resolve the tension produced by a commitment to unity at the same time as a commitment to progress and purity. The fact that some are open to the winds of change, while the more traditional are more concerned with the insecurities and confusions created by change. The aim should be to have the needed progress without compromising the purity. It is in this context that the unity in the congregation must be maintained.

We are told to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph.4:3). We are asked to preserve the unity which the Holy Spirit has already given and one which is built into the heart of God and the gospel. True spirituality will maintain this unity, for it is the Spirit that unites us (Fee 1994:875). The leader’s task is therefore focused in the area of training God’s people in true spirituality and maturity through the teaching of the Word. When Paul addresses the problem of division (Phil.4:2), it is not because of too much, but too little, doctrine (v9). Also, the spirit and attitude is all-important. Those who cause division are likely to be those who are less mature, and those open to the temptation of spiritual pride. The former needs teaching and the latter needs to be withstood. Leadership would do both best.

5.6. To Help God’s People to Discern God’s Will.

Discernment of God’s will is purposed to obeying that will. There is no point in knowing God’s will and not doing it. The whole point in knowing the will of God is to do it. Discernment is also a truly spiritual activity. The things from God are spiritually discerned so that the spiritual person can make judgments about all things (1Co.2:14-15). One who seeks to discern the will of God must be in tune with the Spirit, for the Spirit alone knows the mind of God (1Co.2:11). What God has to reveal, he reveals by his Spirit (1Co.2:10). Spiritual leaders have to help believers discern God’s agenda for their lives and for the church. Again, the thrust here must be prayer (and at times fasting too) and the study of God’s Word.

5.7. To Encourage God’s People to be Who They Are in Christ.

Using the technical concepts of Pauline theology, we believe that the indicative must always precede the imperative. What you do must follow what you are. We must teach God’s people that they are a new creation in Christ (2Co.5:17). The old life and its ways have been put in the past, and everything has become new. Before we were dead in our trespasses and sins, but now we have been made alive in Christ (Eph.2:1-5). According to Stewart (1935:157) the key to the phrase “in Christ” is that Christ is the redeemed man’s new environment. He has been lifted out of his earthly lot into a totally different sphere, the sphere of Christ. It has the notion of belonging to Christ and it illustrates the union we have with him. Because we are in Christ all his benefits become due to us.

While we come to faith on an individual basis, the benefits of Christ are ours on a corporate basis too. Together we are one in Christ (Gal.3:28) and are built together as a dwelling for God through His Spirit (Eph.2:22). Leaders are continually to remind God’s people that they are both in the presence of God and that God is present in them. Therefore being who we are in Christ, is best expressed in holy living because we are holy; we are “clothed with Christ”. Yes, we are holy and therefore we do holy things. Believers must therefore walk in newness of life (Rom.6:4). They must no longer walk according to the old nature, but according to the Spirit. Walking in the Spirit is to walk according to the new nature.

5.8. To be an Example to the Flock

There must be godly people who are in the positions of responsibility in the church. Christ wants to rule his church through holy people. Unholy people just get in His way! God has always mediated his rule in the world through godly people. He now rules through the church, whose leaders are representatives of Jesus Christ in the world. The primary ingredient in church leadership is holiness. It takes time to make a godly leader (MacArthur 1989:87-88). 

The spiritual leader must be someone who is above reproach; one who is in control of himself, his household and his tasks. He must be prudent, respectable and hospitable (1Tim.3:2).

He must not be self-willed, quick-tempered, materialistic and contentious (Tit.1:7, 1Tim.3:3). He must be gentle, loving and devout (Tit.1:8). While the list cannot really be exhaustive, we have made it plain that a spiritual leader must be an example in righteousness and integrity.


Conclusion

We agree that the Principle of Congregational Church Government has been both misunderstood and misapplied. Its application in our churches amounted to what is really unbiblical. In the name of this principle it often created the feeling with unspiritual people that they are the Pastor’s employer and therefore his boss. He has to dance according to their music. They often treat him as a servant and doormat. True, he is a servant; only because he wants to be, not because he is made such by “bosses”. 

While the BU Assembly rightly re-stated the principle to clarify its true meaning, it wasn’t really necessary in an environment of biblical and spiritual people. It should have always been understood in the way it is stated since 2000. What it really means is that most of us were guilty of misapplying God’s Word in allowing the principle to degenerate to its misapplication. We should therefore make every effort to correct it among our churches. God’s people must be exposed to a better way. When we do so, we are surely to please our Lord and benefit our churches. In comparison to other forms of church government, Congregationalism as explained above will prove to be in closest conformity to the Word of God. After all, we are “the people of the Book”, so let’s be people of the Book!

May the Lord help our leaders and our congregations to be what God wants them to be. Leaders don’t have to be bosses either. We must uphold our belief in the principles of the priesthood of all believers and in the freedom of conscience. May the Lord help us to do his business according to his way. May He help us to be in-tune with the Spirit. In this way, we will best express the love and harmony the world so desperately needs to see. 

God seeks to bless us beyond what we can imagine, for He delights to make us the recipients of His blessings and the showpiece of His goodness. Let the world come to praise God when they see us blessed and a blessing to them.

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Bigbee, B.; Cousins, D & Hybels, W. 1994. Network. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

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Fee, G. 1994. God’s Empowering Presence. Peabody: Hendrickson.

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This article originally appeared in the South African Baptist Journal of Theology (2012) by G.C. “Piff” Pereira, pg.78-93, ISSN 1019-7990. Used with permission.

Article photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash


 

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