James MacDonald and Congregationalism: An Apology

A few years ago (2011) James MacDonald wrote a blog-post entitled “Congregational Government is From Satan.” His intent was to make a point about congregationalism and its weaknesses. What he wrote was not merely overstated rhetoric, but it was untrue and hurtful. For these reasons, I never commented on it.

A few days ago MacDonald wrote a follow up post under the title “Elder Rule Church Government is From Satan, Too.” He writes, “This post is for the purpose of apologizing and explaining how I have come to regret it [that earlier post].” This is something worth commenting upon. There are many statements made on blogs, but not many apologies. When this is done, it is noteworthy. (Although I affirm the confession, I don't care for the title as it is more overstated rhetoric. Better to title the post with the apology. But the important matter is the confession, not the title!)

The essence of MacDonald’s lesson learned is as follows:

The potential for damage to a church seems likely in both models [congregationalism and elder rule] if a lack of humility is resident in those participating in the governance. In such cases, it is the condition of people’s hearts and not the model of governance that gives Satan an advantage in his efforts to damage the work of Christ in that body. My best thinking these days is that the Elders are wise to include congregational participation as a regular part of their church governance. When matters facing the church are difficult or must remain private to protect an individual, the congregation does well to trust the Elders they helped nominate and to pray for God’s wisdom among the Elders. When the decisions have far-reaching implications for the entire church family or when the Elders struggle to reach consensus, a review by the church membership for greater wisdom in seeking the mind of the Lord may lead to better decisions and greater unity among the entire church family.

EFCA polity is congregational. When I teach EFCA History, Theology and Polity, I teach what biblical congregationalism is, along with its strengths and weaknesses. This is not to say that other forms of polity are unbiblical, but rather that we believe congregationalism best and most faithfully aligns with the biblical teaching (which proponents of other forms of polity, e.g. elder rule, believe is true of their own position). But I also state that what is accurate practically is that with godly, humble, dependent, interdependent, servant leaders, virtually any polity will work, while with ungodly, prideful, arrogant, independent leaders no polity will work.

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