Monday, 18 February 2013

Church Government: Conclusion

Note: This is the seventh and final post of the series on church governments, which began as I sought to understand the distinctives and issues of various church government systems. You can read the first six as listed below.

  1. Introduction and Anglicanism
  2. Presbyterianism
  3. Breakthrough
  4. Single-elder Congregationalism
  5. Plural-elder Congregationalism
  6. Reality-check
So, I've finished the book. I found the book to be helpful not because it was an exhaustive study on the church government, but because it highlighted various differing points, and they in the end sharpened my own approach to the issue of the church government.

As I was getting closer to finishing the book, however, I had to resist the temptation to give up on thinking further and coming to a conclusion of my own. I thought, "hey, these great Christian theologians can't agree, and so, how can I hope to get the right answer? Perhaps I shouldn't treat the church government as an important issue. Maybe whatever works is ok for a church? After all, my heroes in the faith come from various denominations, not just one!" Thankfully, I managed to resist that temptation.

So, have I come to a conclusion? I believe I have, but it doesn't mean that I am final on this. Like everything in our lives, I leave a door open for the bible to further correct my view. With the conclusion I came down to, at least for now, I can happily say that my conscience is clear. I hope no one reads what I below and simply take it as their own, but at the same time, I will be glad if they are helped in thinking this issue through, as I had been through the book.

Before I start on the main points, let me briefly list the three contentious issues which seemed to divide the four views.

1) Bishops "above" church elders (pro bishop? Anglicans. anti bishops? the other three)
2) Independence of a local church (totally independent? Congregationalists. not completely independent? Presbyterians or Anglicans)
3) Number of elders in a local church (single elder is norm? Single-elder congregationalists, and possibly Anglicans, plural elder is norm? Presbyterians, Plural-elder congregationalists, and possibly Anglicans)

As I closed the book, I was once again reminded that the most important question we need to ask was this: "What does the bible say?" That's the most crucial question.
One thing that struck me was the congregationalists' criticism on Anglican's low view of scripture. I don't believe Peter Toon has a low view of scripture, but he was criticised as by others. I think that is a misunderstanding on congregationalists part. The congregationalists were emphasising what is called the regulative principle. Simply put, it means that Christians must only worship God as the bible prescribes and no other way. This contrasts with the normative principle which says, we can worship God in many different ways as long as we do not commit what the bible forbids. I quite like the regulative principle and would choose that over the normative principle if I had to pick one. It seems the safer option for me. But I believe we need to be careful with it. You see, the question again, is "what does the bible say?" What does the bible say about the church government? This is before you decide on whatever principle you like and coming to the bible to find out what the bible says. If you like, you could ask, no you must ask, "what does the bible say about the regulative principle?", except you might be already putting to the bible a question that it's not interested in answering. I believe that the bible affirms the regulative principle some areas of Christian worship, but it is not a be-all-end-all kind of thing. The bible is the final authority, and if you are going to apply the regulative principle on the church government, you'll have to first find that the bible tells us to use the regulative principle on how to structure the church.

I cannot make this point strong enough in fact. Many Christians confess that the bible is the final authority in regards to the faith and that it is sufficient for believers to live God's way. Yet, we bring so many different ideas to the bible, and knowingly and unknowingly distort what the bible plainly teaches. Sure, we cannot understand the bible in a vacuum. We all bring certain presuppositions to the task of understanding the bible. What I am trying to guard myself against and warn others about is that these presuppositions should not be so strong that your bible actually depends on it. If you do that, you're inadvertently making your presuppositions the final authority, not the bible. So, what am I proposing here? Bring your presuppositions, your regulative principle even, if you like, but bring them soft, malleable, so that the bible will speak the final word. Your presuppositions, your principles, your rules and tools will be strengthened by the bible when they are in line with what the bible says, they will be weakened and even broken when they are opposed to what the bible says.

The biggest mistake with the congregationalists, I think, is that they already believe that they must only organise their church in the exact way the bible teaches. I am now convinced that the bible does not give a full, detailed picture of how to structure the church. So, if the congregationalists were to be truly consistent with their application of the regulative principle, they won't be able to structure the church at all. But they do! What they have done is that they went to the bible to find what they were looking for. When the bible does not give a detailed instructions on how to structure the church, to claim that the bible does is nothing less than adding to the bible.

I don't know enough to make a clear case for this, but my suspicion is that the profound disagreement between Anglicans and the rest (Presbyterians and Congregationalists alike, but particularly Congregationalists) actually stems from the historical relationship between the church and the state. Because the Anglican churches, through their bishops mainly, had a strong ties with the state, the dissenters had to work for the independence of the church from the state. That was a marvellous work. I am grateful for their work and sacrifices. However, now that the separation of the church and state and the religious freedom has been achieved (although some atheists will not rest until the government becomes anti-religion), I believe you do not need to reject bishops any longer. So long as they aren't domineering over local churches, and are faithful to the historic gospel of Jesus and working to further the gospel growth, they can be of good use for the churches. So, yes, I am not against the bishops. What if I was part of Presbyterian church or a Baptist? Will I demand a bishop? I don't think so. It is helpful to have bishops, but not so necessary to start instituting them when your denomination doesn't have them. There are other ways to fulfil similar roles I'm sure, even if not exactly the same.

So that's the first point of conclusion I've come to. Bishops are good, but don't fight to institute one if you don't have them. If you have them, make sure they are keeping with the gospel work.

The second point is whether to have a clear, structurally formal independence of local churches as congregationalists demand. All four views held that the local churches need to be in partnership with other churches. I think that's clear from the bible. The congregationalists, however, maintain that they need to be clearly, structurally independent of any other governing body, so that while freely partnering with other churches, they are not under some kind of obligations to submit to some higher church hierarchy. I am not convinced that this is necessary or better than the alternatives (Anglican or Presbyterian way). It seems to appeal to the independent, individualistic mindset of modern western culture, but I don't think the bible is so strong on the "complete-ness" of a local church that you should not bind yourself with some other churches. The local churches in Anglican and Presbyterian denominations run quite independently at the local level. The congregationalists argued in the book that in Anglican or Presbyterian structures, when one bishop or governing body makes a bad decision, the whole group of churches suffer. I understand that point with sadness in my heart (I think of liberal Anglicans and Uniting churches). However, the reversal isn't so much better as they seem to claim. In the absence of a bishop, or a trusted ruling body, I found independent churches (congregational, baptists, non-denominational, etc) to be a bit of hit-and-miss when it came to their teaching and practice. I found it more difficult to recommend an independent church to a friend because I can't have much confidence unless I've attended it or know someone personally there, while with the Presbyterian or Anglican churches, I could be reasonably confident that at least their theological convictions fall within certain boundaries I have. Not all baptists or congregationalists churches are not-recommendable, of course! But it's harder to confidently recommend one for friends when I don't know much about them. They are, after all, independent.

So, this is my second point of conclusion. The local church does not necessarily need to be independent and having a higher church governing body over local churches is a good thing. Here, a kind of footnote might be necessary. Does this mean that the Roman Catholic way of church structure is a good thing, where the bishop of Rome is supreme over all the churches globally? No. The bishop, to be engaged in a gospel ministry at a local level, they should have a limited geographical boundary. Without that, a bishop will be abstracted away from the local needs, and will eventually be less useful to the church and be at risk of working to simply increase his influence over more churches and greater area. 

Thirdly, I considered the number of elders in a local church. Before I read this book, I had been convinced that the most important issue in a local church government was the presence of multiple elders. If a church didn't have, or affirm as the norm, the multiple elders, I thought it was clearly going against the scriptures. This was what made me uncomfortable to go into ministry in the Anglican church, as opposed to the Presbyterian church. However, I seem to have been too concerned with the exact terminology, rather than the actual role they were meant to fill. I still think it is important to have multiple elders in a church, but I now think that the exact term elder is not necessary. It's not the terminology that's most important here, but the role they fulfil. As long as there are people leading the church alongside the pastor and they fit the biblical descriptions of their character (eg. 1 Tim 3:2-7 and Titus 1:5-9), I can work with that. They don't need to have them right now even, but so long as there is a possibility for that to change, I'll be content. I also think it is important that the pastor should work with "elders" in a way that is not domineering or independent, but with a posture of submission, as is the norm (ideal?) in the Presbyterianism. But this has more to do with the maturity of the church and the character of the pastor and less to do with the formal structure.

So, that's my third and final point in conclusion. A local church should strive to have a group of mature Christians working alongside the minister, and the minister himself, more than anyone else, should empower and recognise their authority in the church, so that the leadership of the church will not fall to a single man.

Speaking on what the bible says can be a difficult thing sometimes and may require courage and discipline. But keeping mouth shut on the things that the bible is silent on also requires as much courage and discipline. The great reformation motto, Sola Scriptura itself isn't a rule that you just bring to the bible. That itself requires verification by the bible (and thankfully the bible does teach that!). And the bible does not give minute details on how we ought to structure the church. In this light, I came to the above three points. Because the bible did not prescribe an exact and detailed church structure, I don't think it is necessarily a sin to commit to one of the four ways of church government (interestingly, all four proponents seem to agree on this, even the congregationalists who invest heavily on the regulative principle!). This means that, in our societies where the separation of the church and the state and the religious freedom is achieved, we do not need to split over the structure of the church, as they did few centuries ago. I don't think anyone needs to change their denomination purely because of its standard church polity. So I am content, having moved a year ago from a Presbyterian church to an evangelical Anglican church, I see no need for me to move back to the Presbyterian church. Of course, it would have been fine to stay as a Presbyterian too! If I were a Baptist, I wouldn't (or shouldn't) have moved to a different denomination either if the only issue I had were the church structure. I would most uncomfortable working in the single-elder congregational church, but being a congregational church, if I were to be a pastor, I can, in theory, teach on the matter and persuade the congregation to institute multiple elders. This is exactly what had happened under the leadership of John Piper at his church and there are many other examples.
It seems that while the regulative principle sounds restricting, and the normative principle mischievous, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, when applied correctly is most liberating for Christians.

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