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Congregational Principle Changed

By Lance Laughton

Prior to the year 2000, the Baptist Principle relating to congregationalism read as follows;

The Principle of CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH GOVERNMENT, namely, that a 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.

Directory, Policies and Statistics Handbook, 1999-2000

At the Baptist Union Assembly held in Krugersdorp, the principle of Congregational Church Government was discussed and modified to read 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 recognise 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. This principle further recognises that each member should participate in the appointment of the church’s leaders, and that a constituted church meeting, subject to the direct Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of Scripture, is the highest court of authority for the local church.

Directory, Policies and Statistics Handbook 2016-2017

By comparing the two statements, one will readily notice that the major change is the clarification regarding the role of elders and deacons.  That is, that both the biblical offices of elder and deacon are included for the first time and that each is broadly clarified and perhaps more importantly, distinguished one from the other.  Dr. G. C. “Piff” Pereira notes that “this clarification was certainly necessary because the old statement was open to gross misapplication of the true Scriptural understanding of the Principle.”  He adds, that the new statement “has gone a long way to clarify the true and underlying understanding of the pre-2000 statement.”  

I assume that this clarification had been blurred by a long history of having both the pastor (typically only one) and deacons operate constitutionally as “the executive” of the local church as if they have the same function.   Pereira records another reason, “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… True, he is their servant; only because he wants to be, not because he is made such by “bosses.”

It is also interesting to note that the words “function” and “functioning” appear three times in the new statement and not once in the old one.  Clearly this was necessary clarification and a necessary distinction.    

At the same time, two aspects were retained and indicate their critical importance for Baptists; the fact that, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the “constituted church meeting is the highest court of authority for the local church,” and the fact 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.”  These two aspects are at the very core of congregationalism and without these, a church cannot be said to be congregational.  

Bibliography

Pereira G.D. undated The Role of the Leader in the Context of Congregationalism. Baptist Principles & History (2017), 96-105. Johannesburg, The Baptist College of Southern Africa.