Our focus for this month is on the different forms of church governance systems. We started last week as we considered the different forms briefly to see what each looks like. Going forward, we will consider each of the forms in detail, looking at the unique features of each, what differentiates one from the others, and how each is deployed in practical church administration. Today, we will examine Congregational Polity, a system of church government that is peculiar to the Baptist denomination.

What is Congregational Church Polity?

Congregationalism is a form of church government or structure in which the local congregation is autonomous and directs its affairs internally, with no external interference or juridical influence. In other words, the final decision-making authority is in the hands of the local congregants and within them alone.1 Corinthians s describes a church’s position over matters of discipline, however, congregationalism is being remodeled worldwide and different forms can be recognized in different churches globally.

There is a single-pastor-led congregationalism plural-leadership form of congregationalism; and pastor-deacon-led congregationalism. The usual plural-leadership congregationalism practiced in the Nigerian Baptist Convention churches can be described as a ‘modified congregationalism’.

This is because there are other decisions for the daily administrative running of the church and for other functional roles that are taken without resorting to the regularly scheduled church business meetings. In essence, to achieve total congregationalism is rare.

Congregationalism as Practised in the Baptist Setting

For most of the Nigerian Baptist Churches, our form of congregationalism is plural leadership for local church governance. This form of congregationalism recognizes a network of cooperating Baptist churches in a local Association, Conference, and Convention.

For the local church, congregants decide critical issues of the church and make decisions as led by the Holy Spirit and guided by the local church pastor and leadership. This is done at a formal meeting often called at regular intervals(the church business meeting or church-in-conference). The meeting can equally be called in case of an emergency decision needing the members’ endorsement.

Some othertimes, the church leadership in instances of emergency can make decisions and report to the church-in-conference for final approval. We need to understand, however, that congregationalism does not set aside the spiritual leadership role of the clergy and the daily administrative functions of the pastor.

The church council as plural leadership (consisting of church-elected volunteer workers, deacons, committee/unit heads, and the pastor) often makes other decisions that are beneficial to the church ministry besides the occasional business meetings. Hence, this form of church government is not democratic governance or absolute congregationalism, but a Spirit-led congregational decision-making system.

Congregational church polity cannot be described as a democracy because those who gather as members of decision-making and ministry administration in a church-in-conference are expected Christians,’ the redeemed’ or transformed members of the body of Christ that are assembled to advance the church ministry.

This does not mean that there will not be many views expressed of course, there should be allowance for such gatherings; diversity of views, and maturing of faith. However, all participating members of a local church involved in the decision-making process are Christians and should regard the meeting as sacred to the Lord Jesus.

Decisions arrived at should continually reflect the mind of the Lord for the Church. Discuss how the congregational form of church polity could be delicate and may be open to abuse. Deliberate on the strengths of this form of church polity.

Why the Congregational Church Polity for the Nigerian Baptist Convention?

The Nigerian Baptist practices a congregational system of government. Apart from the fact that it is scriptural, it was more or less handed down to us by our parents the Southern Baptist Convention, USA. It is based on our belief that ‘Scripture alone’ is the yardstick for measurement and guide in the practice of faith (2 Timothy 3:15-17; James 1:18;1 Peter 1:23). It is also anchored on our belief in the ‘competency of the soul’ where the believer has the spiritual right to access God without an intermediary.

It must be noted that the local church’s autonomy is not ‘total ‘ church independence, and this is because no single local church can exist outside the other, especially in a cooperating unit of churches. Protestants also believe in the unity and diversity of the body of Christ, and that in the matters of church membership, all congregants are equal (Ephesians 4:4; 5:30).

This was the heritage handed down to the Nigerian Baptist Convention as a body of Christ and as a protestant and evangelical denomination. Let two members stand up to share what they have learned about congregationalism today.

Theological Perspectives for Congregational Church

One of the bases of congregationalism is that every individual Christian is a bearer of God’s manifold grace who can access God without any form of intermediary. The implication of this is that the Holy Spirit lives and guides believers (Romans 8:9,10; Galatians 2:20;1 Corinthians 3:16) individually and corporately to make decisions that will enhance the growth of the Church and bring glory to God. Below are some theological perspectives on congregational polity:

  • Competency of the soul and regenerate church membership.
  • The autonomy of the local church.
  • Capacity for every member of the church to rise and fulfill divinely endowed potentials.
  • Members are individually and corporately empowered for the mission.
  • Freedom of the local church to determine its constitution and bylaws; call and appoint its pastor, choose leaders for voluntary services, manage their finances, and determine its cooperation with other arms of the denomination and with other Christian bodies.
  • Capacity to accommodate cultural diversity within a particular denomination, yet reflective of God’s unity of the Spirit. Discuss how the congregational system of government can promote church growth.

The following are the merits and demerits of congregationalism:

Merits of Congregational Polity

  • The right of the local church to govern itself and make decisions in matters of church growth and development.
  • The leadership has little or no room to lord things over the membership.
  • The spiritual and regular administrative guidance of the pastor/clergy is not impeded despite the above.
  • The congregation has the right to call a pastor as led by God.
  • The local congregation has the right to withdraw the right of their local church pastor to lead them when they find it critically necessary to do so.
  • The local church has the right to nominate and appoint volunteer workers who will serve the church and the pastor, either as deacons or other lay workers without legislation from any higher authorities.

The will of the majority is respected while the voice of the minority is not silenced in a congregational form of church polity as they are led by the Holy Spirit.

Demerits of Congregational Polity

The following are some demerits attributed to congregationalism:

  • Much time and effort are sometimes required to arrive at acceptable decisions.
  • Individual views not taken into consideration can bring party spirit or division in the local church where those involved are not mature believers.
  • Where members are not properly informed and guided, decisions taken can plunge the church into error.
  • It can be easily abused by the pastor/clergy or lay leader in the context of cooperative functions. Some pastors have been found abetting their churches to disobey instructions that concern the corporate existence of the denomination.
  • A local church pastor can become egocentric and build an empire of members around himself at the expense of a denominational relationship and leadership.
  • It can become problematic when an unregenerate member of a local congregation is participating in critical decision-making for the church.
  • Despite the demerits of the congregational system of church government, discuss why it is still the best.

Conclusion

Every member of a local Baptist church and the cooperating units of the Association, Conference, and Convention must be fully educated on our operations and polity. We must ensure that generations of children, teenagers, adolescents, and youths are carried along with the model of our operations. This polity is biblical and most suited for church ministry.

Sustaining congregationalism is not just to keep the heritage but to let the upcoming generations become participants in our administrative polity. Baptist churches have held and benefitted from congregational polity for as long as it exist. The policy has driven our identity as Baptists, ‘people-of-the-Book’. God, helps the members to contribute meaningfully to the unity and peace of the church.