Community Bible Church is said to be congregationally ruled and elder led, but what does that mean for the church family – those who are covenant members of the body?
As we ponder this question, I think it is helpful to begin by briefly examining the three main structures of church government (polity): the episcopal, the presbyterian, and the congregational.
The episcopal model is one that is hierarchical where the chief local authorities are called bishops, practicing their authorities in the dioceses and conferences or synods. The bishop supervises the clergy within a local jurisdiction and is the representative both to secular structures and within the hierarchy of the church. Bishops are considered to derive their authority from an unbroken, personal apostolic succession from the Twelve Apostles of Jesus. This is the structure used by many major Christian Churches and denominations, such as Catholic, Eastern (e.g. Eastern Orthodox), Anglican and Lutheran churches or denominations, and other churches founded independently from these lineages. I grew up around the United Methodist Church, which is one example of a non-Catholic denomination that practices episcopal polity.
The presbyterian model is one that is elder-run (presbyter-run). Typically, original authority – that is the authority that the church believes Christ gave to it – is said to reside at the local elder level in this model of polity. Thus the “highest” authority in a presbyterian or reformed church (after Christ) is said to be the Elders of the church. Those who are elected to office are called the session or consistory (though other terms such as “church board” may apply) and serve their terms as the spiritual/theological/moral/visionary leaders of the congregation. Various Presbyterian denominations in our area exercise this polity, including the PCA, the PCUSA, and the EPC.
The third polity that we will consider is the congregational model of government, which is the model that CBC practices. Congregational polity draws its name from the independence of local congregations from the authority and control of other religious bodies. As one man summarized, congregational polity is as follows:
“The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines ‘congregationalism’ as ‘that form of Church polity which rests on the independence and autonomy of each local church.’ According to this source, the principles of democracy in church government rest on the belief that Christ is the sole head of his church, the members are all priests unto God, and these units are regarded each as an outcrop and representative of the church universal.”[i]
Churches organized with a congregational polity may be involved in conventions, districts or associations which allow them to share common beliefs, cooperate in joint ministry efforts and regulate clergy with other congregations. In the case of the CBC, we are part of the Evangelical Free Church of America, which, though it is often thought to be a denomination, is an association of autonomous churches united in our theological convictions (see www.efca.org for more).
CBC was planted in 1985 as a congregational church having this included in the church constitution:
CBC is committed to a congregational form of government. Jesus Christ is Lord and Head of the Church. CBC has the right, under Christ, to decide and govern its own affairs. The New Testament emphasizes the importance of the Body of Christ ministering through the spiritual gifts that have been given to each believer. “Congregational in government” means that CBC is Member ruled and Elder led.
Member ruled and Elder led. That begs the questions, “what is a member?” and “what is the difference between ruling and leading?” Let’s start by exploring membership.
At CBC we believe that the local church exists because of Jesus Christ. As we discuss in the Membership Matters class that is part of the membership process at CBC, “the Bible says that God’s redeemed people make up the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12; Eph 3:6; 4:12). Jesus Christ died for the ‘church’ (Eph 5:25). Not only did Jesus die for the church, but he is the head of the church, which is to say, he has authority over the church (Eph 1:22; Col 1:18), and Jesus has granted authority to the local church in the world (Matthew 18:18-20). The local church is the highest kingdom authority on earth, and as such, every follower of Jesus should identify themselves with Jesus as He works through the local church. Jonathan Leeman provides a helpful definition of the local church in his book titled Church Membership,
‘The local church is the authority on earth that Jesus has instituted to officially affirm and give shape to my Christian life and yours. Just as the Bible establishes the government of your nations as your highest authority on earth when it comes to your citizenship in that nations, so the Bible establishes the local church as your highest authority on earth when it comes to your discipleship to Christ and your citizenship in Christ’s present and promised nation.’”
Members are those who covenant together, sharing the same theological position (on “essential” doctrines, at least), mission, and core convictions. Members (by majority) have the final voice on all church decisions, including (but not limited to) the election of elders, election of deacons, call of senior pastor, annual budget approval, acceptance of new members & release of members, and the like. Those are some pretty significant decisions that the members make, so how do elders lead within that?
Take the one of the examples above, for instance. In the election of new elders, the current elders receive congregational nominations for elder candidates, organize candidate questionnaires and information-gathering, perform candidate interviews, and prayerfully discern the top candidates in a given cycle. The elders then publish contact information for the finalists (an invitation for the membership to complete their own process of decision-making) and present these top candidates to the membership for approval. In this case the elders are doing much of the leg work that would be difficult for an entire membership to accomplish (at CBC we’re talking 360 members) and then presenting the candidates for the all-important member approval. The elders are leading through the process, but the process culminates with the approval of the membership (which we often refer to as the “congregation”). In this way the elders lead, and the congregation rules. The same holds true for other examples in the church.
So the question remains, “what does that mean for the church family?” In short, it means that healthy membership is essential to a healthy church. If we were to enter a season where people did not value membership and covenant to membership, the very fabric of the church would fail. And if our covenant members don’t involve themselves in the functional decisions of the church, the church is failing to operate as a congregational body.
So the first point of application is pursue membership. If you consider yourself to be part of the CBC family, take the step to pursue covenant membership. While we value the opinions of the CBC regular attenders, it is only the voice of the membership that is authoritative. If you have questions about why membership is valuable, I would encourage you to attend our next Membership Matters class on October 21st, or contact me to grab coffee and discuss this more.
The second point of application is for our membership: take seriously your responsibility. Practically speaking, if you are a member, please make every effort to attend our quarterly Members Meetings. The next one is November 18th. In addition to being able to celebrate what the Lord is doing through His body, we regularly discuss items that aren’t appropriate for our Sunday morning gatherings. In the Members Meetings we vote to accept/release members, have financial updates/votes, discuss future plans, etc. As the Jesus-instituted Spirit-empowered authority that the church is, we need you to engage in the life of the church beyond attending and serving. We need the insight that you bring to discussions!
 Jonathan Leeman, Church Membership, p. 24-25.
[i] Who Runs the Church?: 4 Views on Church Government, Steven B. Cowan, gen. ed., p. 135, Zondervan 2004