How Does Congregational Polity Work Best?
• Discipleship —Congregational polity hinges on the participation of the members: the laity. Because of the historic emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, Baptists have long emphasized the importance of church members reaching out to the world as priests, evangelists, missionaries, teachers, ministers, servants, and in all endeavors, to be Christ’s ambassadors. Therefore, it is crucial that Baptist churches pay careful attention to instructing new believers in the faith and to disciplining their members so that they may come “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13, NRSV).
• Education —Christian education is a corollary to discipleship. Discipleship is following Christ. Education is an element of that following which leads to our transformation. Often, churches define education as only Bible study, which is profoundly important. However, Christian education must encompass an understanding both of the biblical text and of how that text, lived out in the body of Christ, encounters the world. This means church history, theology, and yes, church polity. To work at its best, congregational polity requires an articulate, engaged, theologically literate, spiritually committed membership.
One problem many churches face is a false distinction between “business” matters and “spiritual” matters, as though the governance of the church is somehow unconnected to the work of the kingdom of God. In truth, the everyday matters of the church—from choosing deacons and pastors, to organizing the budget—are profoundly spiritual issues that will shape how well the church functions as the body of Christ.
• Honest Dialogue—I continually hear Baptist young people ask the question, “Why can’t we all just get along?” They deplore dissension and conflict. Often, their solution is to imitate an ostrich. They want to hide their heads in the sand or run looking for a place where peace and harmony reign. Their attitude is probably representative of the average Baptist. I urge them to view conflict as an opportunity rather than as an obstacle.
Jesus promised us we would see conflict and suffering. When we bring our individuality and struggles together in corporate life, there will be differences. In the heat of the moment, it may seem easier to sweep the conflict under the rug or abdicate the decision to a strong leader. It is not a spiritual high road to ignore the conflict or to “let the pastor decide.” Both of these options deny the responsibilities that come with being a part of the body of Christ.
The key is not how to eliminate conflict, but how to deal with conflict in a healthy manner—not how to “smile and get along” but how to disagree with grace. Congregational polity functions best in an atmosphere of open dialogue. Church members should practice talking together about important issues that affect their faith. Dialogue can be accomplished in any number of ways. Business meetings, newsletters, round-table discussions, and other methods of communication are crucial in the life of a Baptist church.
One congregation introduces important theological issues with dramatic presentations and invites the members to dialogue openly about the concepts raised. Some congregations have “family discussions” or “table talks” on Wednesday nights where the church can study difficult issues and discuss them. Unfortunately, church business meetings often become heated because these are the only avenues for open dialogue in the life of the faith family.
These discussions should not be free-for-alls, of course. Choosing a wise moderator is extremely important. Churches should adopt a code of conduct for their community discourse, emphasizing such virtues as kindness, gentleness, respect, compassion, and thoughtfulness. The community should not tolerate sarcasm, slander, or cruelty when it meets together as the family of God. All things should be bathed in prayer. Being Christian does not mean that we cease thinking, talking, or even disagreeing. It means that we conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.
Congregational polity means we cannot abdicate our personal responsibility before God to be concerned about, or to participate in, the life of the church. We must apply our whole hearts and minds to the issues that face us. We must move on from milk to meat. The church must follow the pattern of Israel who “wrestled with God.”
The freedom of the local church brings with it responsibility. We are the body of Christ. We are to show Christ to the world. The blessing and the curse of congregational polity is that the local church is only as powerful as the passion of its people, its vision only as far reaching as the gaze of its members. Congregational freedom carries with it tremendous potential which balances on the radical notion that individual believers will be conformed to the image of Christ.[Editor’s Note: This article was in printed circulation and was sent to us by several members along with a slew of other papers. It is probably excerpted from BaptistHistory.org]