What would you do if you had a long-standing attender, who recently left his wife and moved in with his girlfriend, show up on communion Sunday? That happened during my first year as a senior pastor. How does a local church hire its first part-time staff members after years of paying only a single pastor? That question came up recently. What would you do if a member of your church left their husband accusing him of emotional abuse/neglect, refused to meet with any sisters in Christ or the elders, then started dating someone else, and then submitted her resignation for membership? That happened too.
Who makes decisions in such situations? What decisions go before the entire church body? What tasks fall to appointed leaders? Jonathan Leeman, a veteran writer on all things ecclesiology, weighs in:
Practically speaking, that means the gathered assembly should probably not waste its time debating the color of curtains or approving photocopier purchases. It means they have been tasked with receiving and dismissing members (the who [of the Gospel]), with ensuring that the teachers are teaching biblical doctrine (the what [of the Gospel]), and by inference, with being involved in any significant decision that sustains or directs that church’s existence as a gospel-bearing witness.
In short, the keys of the kingdom belong to the membership of a local church. Bishops and presbyters are not invested with the authority; the local church is. The church (according to the pithy and theological accurate song) is the “people….I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together.” Or as Leeman defines, “A particular church is a gathering of two or three witnesses who together testify to the name of Jesus and to their shared membership in him. They do this by preaching the gospel and by employing the keys of the kingdom through the ordinances.” (italics original)
Let me give three reasons you should read Don’t Fire Your ChurchMembers.
#1: Leeman offers biblical rationale for duties that the local church body should be doing. Even if you are not convinced that congregationalism is the biblically-stipulated polity, you should consider Leeman’s arguments for the responsibilities of church members, individually and corporately.
#2: Leeman makes a compelling case that congregationalism takes seriously all the blessings of the New Covenant (cf. Jer. 31:31-34) and thus, that New Covenant people are capable to make authoritative decisions for a church. Likewise, Leeman warns if we take away New Covenant responsibilities from New Covenant people, they will not mature or serve, as they should.
#3: Leeman challenges elder-pastors to lead, but not do, the work of the flock (cf. Ephesians 4:10-12). This was by far the most convicting theme for this already-convinced adherent of congregationalism. I am quick to do the work of ministry rather than equip the saints to do the work. Because it is hard to communicate and invite the congregation into importance decisions, I often by-pass them, and thus, I miss out on the congregation’s full participation. Sure, I’ll let the congregation eventually vote or eventually affirm decisions (the bylaws require it), but I’m seeing ways I need to equip the saints now so they can help exercise authority more faithfully in the future.
This glorious mystery, the church, is God’s means to display His wisdom to the visible and invisible world. Let us serve this glorious gift well.