Friday, April 15, 2011

Equal Elder Rule vs. Congregationalism

Much of the motivation for promoting equal elder rule comes from the desire to avoid unscriptural single pastor rule. That debate, however, ignores the concept of congregationalism, in which the congregation as a body rules. Opponents of equal elder rule point this out quickly, that equal elder rule is still rule by a few men at the top, when the New Testament gives us a concept of leadership that is more congregational.

Here's the rub: congregationalism is like communism. It's never been tried in its true form. Like communism, congregationalism usually stops at the point where a strong leader is guiding the group, but full control never actually gets turned over. The man in charge stays the man in charge and that's the way it is.

The reason for this is simple: most people are followers. Most people are sheep. Some will question leadership, some will oppose leadership, but most will meekly "baa" and go whatever direction the leader(s) takes them. This is the Achilles' heel of any democratic system.

I am not a sheep. Maybe I used to be a long time ago; but I am not any longer. When I sit in a church a watch people soak in nonsense from the pulpit it makes me upset. When I go to church and watch people jump onboard with the latest church push without asking questions it makes me sad.

That pure congregationalism is impossible vis-a-vis the typical human nature is shown clearly in the Scripture. Remember at Mt. Sinai the people of Israel said they did not wait to deal with God directly, they would rather that Moses tell them what to do. Nothing has changed!

This is not to say that a church should not be organized around congregational principles, and that the elders MUST rule. But there should be multiple equal elders, so that when the people invariably begin to follow and idolize them, they can be held in check, and held accountable.

Again, this is WHY the New Testament pattern is multiple equal elders in each church.

I say multiple "equal" elders, because I want to distinguish it from a hierarchy of elders such as a pastor at the top and assistant pastors under him. Then, when the people invariably come to expect them to rule, there will be "equal elder rule," not "single pastor rule," which is destructive and abhorrent.

Some might criticize my position as too pessimistic. Certainly, it could be said, such a "vacuum of power" is a concept that takes root among worldly estimations of leadership. Didn't Christ say that the greatest among us will be our servant, in direct opposition to the Gentile form of power that lords it over another? So then my position is taking for granted that the church will buy into the world's concept of power and rulership.

Well, here is where is gets even sadder. That's true! The basis of the egalitarianism that Christ identifies with his disciples and, by extension within the church at large, is based on service. But not just any service, but service to one another. In-reach service. "Each joint supplying" service.

Pastors, in their quest for growth, exchange this type of service for organizational service. That is to say, service now becomes primarily an outreach affair. Inward service is neglected/assumed/put in second place.

But wait a minute, you say. Aren't I advocating a "our four and no more" concept of church?

Absolutely not! Let's welcome the lost with open arms! But the assembly of believers exists to take care of itself, first and foremost. Evangelism is incidental to the assembly, as individual believers go out into the world.

Let me bring it all back in. Pastors give their assemblies a corporate mission/vision/purpose, co-opting "every joint supplieth" service into outreach ministry involvements. Christian service goes from defining the assembly to advancing corporate mission, thus in turn requiring corporate rulership.

The members of the church begin to require a CEO type leadership from their pastor at this point, and that's what they get. And frankly, most pastors aren't up to it, and burn out. In the quest for growth lies the seeds of their destruction.

It may seem like I am offering two different explanations. That's true, but it only serves to show that this situation is the fault of both pastors and members. Pastors that adopt a mission/vision/purpose for the church outside of itself deprive themselves of the opportunity to develop that "every joint supplieth" service that, in defining the church, ensures the continuity of congregational rule. On the other hand, members who view the church as just another organization expect out of pastors great and mighty things, and put them up in place they have no business being. All of these tendencies can be guarded against somewhat through the concept of equal elders.

The church exists for itself. Evangelism is incidental. Anything else requires a level of organization and rulership that subverts New Testament church polity. This is the hidden, unexplored issue that confounds much of the debate between equal elder rule and congregationalism.

Lastly, this is an issue that transcends denominational lines. We all ought to consider these things.

No comments: