Mega-church pastor James MacDonald posted (June13) a deliberately provocative article: “Congregational Government is from Satan.” In a note introducing his thoughts, which serves as a warning about what follows, MacDonald writes, “The tone of this post is intentionally aimed at engaging those who are engulfed in this system of church government that neither honors the Scriptures nor advances the gospel.” MacDonald calls the congregational form of church government a “forum for divisions,” and says that voting by church members is “not biblical.” This form of criticism is not new. Several well-known mega-church leaders have said the same for decades now. Some even teach churches how to rid themselves of this form of government in seminars aimed at ending congregational practice. (I’m not making this up!)
I have seen more than one local church division in the midst of such a heated debate over the form of government a church will adopt. While I am no friend of congregationalism, per se, I have to wonder why we need another controversy over church government in broader evangelicalism. (Add this to our growing list of preferences turned into dogmas we debate and divide over!) MacDonald is strong in his beliefs on this point, as he is in just about everything else he teaches. You have to love his passion and strong desire to get the work done. He is admired for good reason.
MacDonald strongly criticizes church members who resist the ministry of their elders, asserts that the system whereby churches take a vote crushes pastors, and in general lays out what he believes to be the biblical form of church government. He affirms his belief in the priesthood of all believers but believes that elders rule and people should submit. He says he is not attacking people but a system. I believe his article bears this out but he nonetheless knew it would create a storm, thus his introductory note. Storms can be good things but in many cases they are unnecessarily divisive and unhelpful to the mission of Christ.
While none of this is new the context of this controversy is significant. I have no intention of addressing the specifics of this post. Others can do a far better job of that. Plus, this debate will only concern a small handful of people, at the end of the day, who like or dislike James MacDonald and his approach. What does profoundly distress me is the actual impact this will have, especially in the Chicago area, on specific congregations I know and love. More and more people will take strong sides on an issue that offers us no substantial biblical hope that it will be resolved. The best response I’ve read on this controversial post, at least so far, comes from my good friend Michael Mercer on the very popular site The Internet Monk. Michael will give you a balanced, and quite humorous, take on the MacDonald post. We could stand some serious humor here, especially when these kinds of debates start to heat up. Take a deep breath, calm down and laugh before you proceed.
A discussion on church government is worthwhile but written in the form that James MacDonald has chosen it will invite emotional reaction, which it has already received from the comments posted online. I fear that in such a over-heated context both reason and perspective will be too easily lost. Christians have debated this one for a long time and no end is in sight, at least from what I can tell. Meanwhile the world watches us debate and argue and forms a stronger opinion about why our gospel is irrelevant to their lives.