Right now I am reading Gregg R. Allison’s book on ecclesiology, Strangers and Sojourners: The Doctrine of the Church. It is a really helpful book and I am looking forward to posting a review of it in a couple weeks.
One of the things that I have found excellent about this book is that in the course of discussing what the Bible teaches about the church, he makes a point to integrate the headship of Christ with the human authority structures of the church (Church Government, or Church Polity as it has been traditionally called). I just wanted to highlight a couple of really helpful quotes that demonstrate his emphasis on this. First, on page 252, he says,
“Though it may go without saying, the head of the church is Jesus Christ who, by virtue of His ascension, was given as head over all creation to the church (Eph. 1:19-23). […] John Webster urges that the church needs to divest itself of ‘the notion (which very deeply affects much ecclesiology and theology of ministry) that at His ascension Jesus Christ as it were resigns His office in favor of human ministers, and that henceforth the church is the real centre of ministerial agency. […]’”
But for Allison, the fact that Christ’s ministry is not replaced by the church’s ministry does not mean that there is no place for human service. He goes on to say that “This truth does not eliminate actual human ministry, which is ordained by Christ Himself, in the church” (253). Allison quotes John Calvin as saying that “He [Christ] uses the ministry of men to declare openly his will to us by mouth, as a sort of delegated work, not by transferring to them his right and honour, but only that through their mouths he may do his own work—just as a workman uses a tool to do his work” (ibid.).
This is such a helpful passage for me, because he connects the present headship of Christ over the church with the human instruments He uses to lead the church. Another place where Allison makes this connection well is in his chapter “A Model of Church Governance,” where he argues for an elder-led congregationalism under the headship of Christ. What I really love is that as Allison describes his model of church government, he begins with Christ. He says,
“First and foremost, Jesus Christ is the head of the church. Though this should go without saying, the sinful tendency for churches to forget that they must be about the purpose of Christ and not their own agendas compels me to state the obvious. Moreover, this recognition of the ultimate authority of Jesus Christ is not a mere perfunctory nod to his sovereignty over the church. Rather, the reality is worked out as churches pray fervently and seek intensely the mind of Christ for them. Church pastors, servants, and members seek always to make Christ’s will their preeminent focus.” (304-305)
He goes on to explain that congregationalism, although it functions through democratic process, is not a pure democracy. He quotes P. T. Forsyth who says that “no society which gives Christ the regal place the church does can be a democracy. It is an absolute monarchy. […] The Church…is not a democracy…It is based on total surrender to an absolute monarch and owner in Christ” (307-308).
I find this discussion really edifying. It is really helpful to remember that congregationalism is not really a matter of a church voting to do whatever the people want, but of the congregation as a whole seeking Christ’s will for the church. God rules His people through His Word, the Bible, and His Spirit. Under the leadership of the people whom God gifts and uses to teach and lead and shepherd His people, the congregation as a whole participates in the decision making of the church as they seek to live out Christ’s will for His bride.