Church Polity: Problems with Congregationalism
from “The Ruling Elder” by Samuel Miller
“It is a vain apprehension,” says the venerable Dr. Owen, “to suppose that one or two teaching officers in a Church, who are obliged to give themselves unto the word and prayer, to labour in the word and doctrine, to preach in and out of season, would be able to take care of, and attend with diligence unto, all those things that do evidently belong unto the rule of the Church. And hence it is, that Churches at this day do live on the preaching of the word, and are very little sensible of the wisdom, goodness, love, and care of Christ in the institution of this rule of the Church, nor are partakers of the benefits of it unto their edification. And the supply which many have hitherto made herein, by persons either unacquainted with their duty, or insensible of their own authority, or cold, if not negligent in their work, doth not answer the end of their institution. And hence it is, that the authority of government, and the benefit of it, are ready to be lost in most Churches. And it is both vainly and presumptuously pleaded, to give countenance unto a neglect of their order, that some Churches do walk in love and peace, and are edified without it; supplying some defects by the prudent aid of some members of them. For it is nothing but a preference of our own wisdom, unto the wisdom and authority of Christ; or at best an unwillingness to make a venture on the warranty of his rule, for fear of some disadvantages that may ensue thereon.
Dr. Owen further states, “It is evident that neither the purity nor the order, nor the beauty or glory of the Churches of Christ, nor the representation of his own majesty and authority in the government of them, can long be preserved without a multiplication of Elders in them, according to the proportion of their respective members, for their rule and guidance. And for want hereof have Churches of old, and of late, either degenerated into anarchy and confusion, their self-rule being managed with vain disputes and janglings, unto their division and ruin; or else given up themselves unto the domination of some prelatical teachers, to rule them at their pleasure, which proved the bane and poison of all the primitive Churches; and they will and must do so in the neglect of this order for the future.”
If in order to avoid the evils of the pastor standing alone in the inspection and government of his Church, it be alleged that the whole body of the Church members may be his auxiliaries in this arduous work; still the difficulties are neither removed nor diminished.
For, in the first place, a great majority of all Church members, we may confidently say, are altogether unqualified for rendering the aid to the pastor which is here contemplated. They have neither the knowledge, the wisdom, nor the prudence necessary for the purpose; and to imagine a case of ecclesiastical regimen, in which every weak, childish, and indiscreet individual, who though serious and well-meaning enough to enjoy the privilege of Christian communion, is wholly unfit to be an inspector and ruler of others, should be associated with the pastor, in conducting the delicate and arduous work of parochial regulation, is too preposterous to be regarded with favor, by any judicious mind. Can it be believed for a moment, that the all-wise Head of the Church has appointed a form of government for his people in which ignorance, weakness, and total unfitness for the duty assigned them, should always, and almost necessarily, characterize a great majority of those to whom the oversight and guidance of the Church were committed? Surely this is altogether incredible.
And if this consideration possess weight in regard to old and settled Churches, established in countries which have been long favored with the light and order of the Gospel; how much more to Pagan lands, and to Churches recently gathered from the wilds of Africa, the degraded inhabitants of the Sandwich Islands, or the miserable devotees of Hindoo idolatry? If in the best instructed and best regulated Churches in Christendom, a majority of the members are utterly unqualified to participate in the government of the sacred family; what can be expected of those recent, and necessarily dubious converts from blind heathenism, who must, of course, be babes in knowledge and experience, who are surrounded with ignorance and brutality, and have just been snatched themselves from the same degradation?
Even if the popular form of ecclesiastical polity could be considered as well adapted to the case of a people of more enlightened and elevated character, which may well be questioned; it must be pronounced altogether unfit for a Church made up of such materials. Now it is the glory of the gospel, that it is adapted to all people, and all states of society. Of course, that form of ecclesiastical government which is not of a similar stamp, affords much ground of suspicion that it is not of God, and ought to be rejected.
But further; if the greater part of the members of the Church were much better qualified than they commonly are, for cooperating in its government, would their cooperation be likely to be really obtained in a prompt, steady, and faithful manner? All experience pronounces that it would not. We know that there are few things, in the government and regulation of the Church, more irksome to our natural feelings, than doing what fidelity requires in cases of discipline. When the ministers of religion are called upon to dispense truth, to instruct, to exhort, and to administer sacraments, they engage in that in which we may suppose pious men habitually to delight, and to be always ready to proceed with alacrity. But we may say of the business of ecclesiastical discipline, that it is the “strange work,” even of the pious and faithful… It is work in which no man is willing to engage, unless constrained by a sense of duty. Even those who are bound by official obligation to undertake the task, are too apt to shrink from it; but where there is no particular obligation lying on any one member of the Church more than another to take an active interest in this work – the consequence will probably be, that few will be disposed to engage in the self-denying duty. When all are equally bound, all may be equally backward, or negligent, without feeling themselves chargeable with any special delinquency. And, what is worthy of notice, those who will be most apt to go forward in this work, and proffer their aid with most readiness, will generally be the bold, the vain, the ardent, the rash, the impetuous; – precisely those who are, of all persons living, the most unfit for such an employment. But even if it were otherwise; if all the members of the Church were equally forward and active, what might be expected in a religious community, when every member of that community was equally a ruler; and when the most ignorant and childish busy-body among them, might be continually tampering with its government, and fomenting disturbances, with as much potency as the most intelligent and wise? The truth is, in such a community, tranquility, order, and peace, could scarcely be expected, long together, to have any place.