I believe congregational church government is the New Testament model. The New Testament at the very least provides the congregation with the authority to: 1) elect its leaders; 2) accept members; and 3) dismiss members. I add a fourth right of the congregation from common sense which is the right to approve the budget. The basis for Congregationalism can be seen in both individual passages of Scripture and in two larger scriptural themes. Individual verses like Acts 6:1-7, 11:22, 13:1-3, 15:1-3, 1 Cor. 5:4-7, 2 Cor. 2:6-8, and 2 Thess 3:6 show local congregations acting to govern themselves and order their affairs. The larger scriptural themes are the priesthood of the believers and the autonomous actions of New Testament churches demonstrating only voluntary connectionalism.
First, the New Testament provides the congregation with authority to elect its leaders. Acts 6:3 in the selection of the first deacons states that the multitude, “chose out from among them” and verse 5 indicates the choices of the congregation being appointed. In addition, Acts 15:22 says, “Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren.” We find consistent belief in the right of the congregation to choose its leaders in Baptist life, but support for this principle comes from theologians outside the Baptist circle. John Calvin in the Institutes of the Christian Religion on page 1066 stated that Acts 14:23 demonstrated congregational affirmation “by a show of hands in every church.” This is his interpretation of the Greek word usually translated “appoint” but which carries the meaning of “choose or elect by the raising of hands.” In addition, he noted that Cyprian implied congregational affirmation by insisting that the choosing of the bishop be done in the presence of the people.
Second, the New Testament presents the authority of the congregation to accept members. Rom 14:1 states, “Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things.” This letter is not written to the elders or leaders of Rome, but is written to “all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints” (1:7). Another example of the authority of the church to accept members comes from the New Testament example of church discipline given in 2 Corinthians. After the discipline had worked successfully, Paul urged the church at Corinth to allow a member back into its fellowship by reaffirming their love for him in 2 Cor 2:6—8. These verses also indicate the discipline had been “inflicted by the majority.” Lastly, the power to exclude and readmit disciplined members indicates the authority to admit new applying members. Thus, the congregation possesses the right to accept members.
Third, the New Testament presents the authority of the congregation to dismiss members. Matt 18:17 says, “And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” This verse does not say tell it to the elders or to the leaders but states “tell it to the church.” There are those who respond that this verse only indicates that the information should go to the congregation and that the congregation does not have the right of discipline or dismissal. I disagree, and I believe the 1 Corinthians further clarifies the disciplinary process. In 1 Cor 5:2 and 6, Paul rebukes the congregation for being “puffed up” and “glorying.” He tells the congregation, “when you are gathered together…deliver such a one to Satan.” This surely implies the congregation’s right for discipline and dismissal. Furthermore, 2 Thess 3:6 states, “But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us.” The brethren received the command to withdraw from a “brother” who walks disorderly. For these reasons, I conclude that the congregation possesses the right to discipline and dismiss members.
Congregationalism also rests on the larger scriptural theme of the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet. 2:9), in which all believers possess the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:17), and thus can receive guidance of the Lord and have direct access to the Lord without the need of a human intercessor. This presupposes a congregation of members who are all regenerate and in touch with the Holy Spirit otherwise known as regenerate church membership.
In my opinion, some are turning to elder rule or a representative form of church government and creating two problems rather than fixing the problem of maintaining integrity in the membership through proper church discipline.
Others choose to abandon congregational church government because they have experienced situations where every light bulb and every dollar spent was voted upon. This certainly limits efficiency and provides for conflict in churches. I believe that biblical congregationalism maintains the rights listed above. I believe it is wise to have the congregation approve the way money is being spent in the form of approving the budget once a year. This allows the members to understand how the money they contribute is used and increases trust. Beyond that, I believe wise congregations entrust to committees or pastoral staff the decision making authority over minor matters of church business.
I believe the concept of congregational church government is scriptural and that is why I believe in Baptist church polity.