The final of Tony Payne’s 4-part miniseries about church and apostolic ministry.
A good friend who shall remain nameless (but was in fact Col Marshall) sent me a brief message after one my recent articles about the heavenly church. Knowing my love for golf he wrote:
Having teed up the church ball so nicely I can hardly wait to see how straight you hit it, neither slicing (‘high congregationalism’) nor hooking (‘low congregationalism’).
I’ve edited Col’s message to replace the names that he put inside those brackets, and who represent those two understandings or tendencies about church. Truth be told, I also could have put my own name inside both of those brackets at various points in my life (in fact, if I’m honest, on various days of the week). Col wants me to write about this issue that has been burbling away among Reformed-evangelical pastors and leaders (and in my brain) over the past 15 years or so—and who am I to resist a holler from the Marshall?
Church in Two Registers
So what are these two approaches to being ‘congregational’ and what might a fairway-splitting drive between them look like? (See the Postscript for a brief note about the labels I’m using in this post, and why I’m not really happy with them.)
By ‘high congregationalism’, I mean the idea that the actual physical gathering of the local congregation is definitive for our thinking about ‘church’. As a Sydney Anglican, this strand of thinking is in my bones, via the teachings of Donald Robinson and Broughton Knox. They insisted that the New Testament word ekklesia (‘church’) always meant an actual gathering of people, and that accordingly the local congregation or assembly was the earthly expression of ‘church’, not a bishop or a denomination or a vague worldwide entity (one of the issues in their context was the debate about the value of ecumenism and the World Council of Churches, but that is a story for another time). For them, the regular weekly gathering was the earthly get-together that visibly expressed the heavenly assembly around Christ; it was the household that visibly expressed the heavenly household of God; it the assembly that bore witness to (still-motley-but-unified) ‘new humanity’ created in Christ. (And this would be as true of a traditionally structured Sunday congregation in a church building, as it would be of an underground house church in China with very lean or minimal structures associated with it.)
For Robinson and Knox, the regular weekly gathering was the earthly get-together that visibly expressed the heavenly assembly around Christ; the assembly that bore witness to the ‘new humanity’ created in Christ.
I’m almost always a high congregationalist on Sundays. I’m reminded every week that there is something irreplaceably important about this particular group of people that I’m committed to—that I pray with and stand next to and rejoice with and speak to, with whom I sit under the word of God as it is read and preached, and with whom I also get together for mutual encouragement during the week. On Sundays, I remember that there’s something precious about these particular newcomers and fringe-dwellers that God has given us to love and to evangelise and to welcome in; and something noble and necessary about these particular pastors who teach and exemplify the word of Christ in our midst. Apostolic ministry is people ministry, and these regularly assembling people are the ones that God has given me to love.
In this sense, nearly everyone I know is a ‘congregationalist’ of some stripe, and especially so at the moment. As we observed in last week’s Payneful Truth, there are not only many tangible benefits of actually getting out of the house and gathering together in a particular place, but also a thousand intangibles that we often don’t appreciate.
However, for my high congregational friends (and me on some Tuesdays and Thursdays), the centrality of the local, gathered congregation goes a little further and has other implications. It makes you think twice, for example, about multi-site and multi-service churches—about whether you have them at all, or at the very least how they should be organised. If the gathered congregation is of defining importance, then surely the identity and integrity of each congregation should be recognized. In other words, isn’t a ‘church’ with multiple services or sites actually a ‘fellowship of churches’? If so, then shouldn’t each one of those congregations have its own character and membership, and its owns elders or leaders who take responsibility for shepherding this particular flock, and to whom this flock submits (Heb 13:5)? For some of my higher congregationalist friends, this means that the path to growth is to build each congregation as a unit, and then to plant new ones (or rejuvenate other assemblies)—rather than multiplying services within one local ‘church’ structure.
My low congregationalist friends (and me on Mondays and Fridays) lean harder into the other aspect of what we’ve been talking about in recent posts here at The Payneful Truth—that Christ is building his heavenly church not only through the activities of local assemblies, but also through the various ways that apostolic ministry happens between and beyond those local assemblies. On this view, the local congregation (as an actual assembly) is a very important thing, but it is not the only thing—evangelism, edification and all sorts of different ministries take place in the world beyond the assembly, and indeed between and among different assemblies (the New Testament is full of this). For my low congregationalist mates, the urgency of the great commission drives us to organise our churches in a way that pursues this larger purpose in creative and effective ways. For example, the pastoral leadership structures of a ‘church’ might not be tied to each individual congregation, but span across various church services or congregations, working on the various key purposes that are being pursued (hence, ‘mission pastors’, ‘youth pastors’, ‘discipleship pastors’, and so on). Lower congregationalism sees this flexibility as being necessary (and justified) by the urgency of reaching the lost, and by the freedom the New Testament seems to allow in structuring church leadership.
Christ is building his heavenly church not only through the activities of local assemblies, but also through the various ways that apostolic ministry happens between and beyond those local assemblies.
Strengths on Both Sides
I’m attracted to both of these tendencies because of their obvious strengths. High congregationalism recognises the extraordinary importance of the group of people with whom I ‘congregate’ week by week—and in particular how as a fellowship we are responsible for each other’s spiritual growth and perseverance (led by our pastors). We are like a spiritual household that is committed to one another in ongoing edifying love—the ‘household of faith’, whose good I am especially obliged to work for (Gal 6:10). I’m reluctant to embrace a model of apostolic ministry that downplays this.
Then again, it’s easy for high congregationalism to downplay the opportunities for apostolic ministry among and beyond congregations. Low congregationalism very reasonably asks whether the model of pastoral leadership in the New Testament is so clearcut and prescriptive as to rule out various congregations banding together to share buildings, finances and collegial spiritual oversight (as Anglicans have traditionally done in their ‘parishes’ and Presbyterians in their ‘presbyteries’). And this kind of teamwork is very powerful in making the most of the gifts that God has given us—not just financial and property gifts, but the strengths of various pastors and leaders working together to lead their congregations in mutual edification and in evangelising the world. So I’m also reluctant to embrace a model of apostolic ministry that ties the earthly assembly and the heavenly assembly too tightly together—that limits the possibilities for congregations to work together within the one ‘parish’, or that generally treats the apostolic ministry that happens outside or between individual assemblies as of secondary significance.
The more I think about the New Testament’s emphasis on the heavenly assembly of Christ, the more it leaves me thinking that there is a shot available down the middle of the fairway—a ‘heavenly congregationalism’ that avoids the trees on one side and the bunker on the other.
This brand of congregationalism recognises the importance of both ways in which Christ builds his heavenly assembly—through the apostolic ministry that takes place among a group of people who actually gather in local assembly, as well as the apostolic ministry that is active between, among and beyond these various assemblies.
A ‘heavenly congregationalism’ recognises the importance of both ways in which Christ builds his heavenly assembly
On the one side, this would mean giving due weight to the identity and mutual responsibility of each gathered congregation, and to have pastors or elders who lead the apostolic ministry within that congregation by their doctrine and life. But (on the other) it means being skillful and organised in working out how to work together cross-congregationally—in shared resources, structures, ministries and leadership—for the sake of effective ministry and mission.
Pulling off this shot down the middle may not be easy. For me, finding the fairway never is. But if the New Testament is to be our guide, I think it’s the path God calls us to, for the sake of building and growing the church to which we all primarily belong: the heavenly body of Christ.
Postscript on Terminology
A note about the labels ‘high’ and ‘low congregationalism’. I struggled as I was writing this piece to find good labels for the two tendencies I wanted to describe. ‘Congregationalism’ has a long history, and is often associated with a particular view of church government (namely, that final spiritual authority resides with the members of the congregation, not with an externally appointed elder or pastor). I didn’t want to open that can of worms, but what other term to use? Also, I chose ‘high’ and ‘low’ as a (hopefully!) non-pejorative way of talking about the two ways of approaching the place of the ‘congregation’ in ministry. If I’ve offended anyone, my apologies (but please direct all correspondence to Col Marshall).