A Lover’s Quarrel: Radical Congregationalism

Garrett’s sixth wish is —

Let us reject our radical congregationalism and become more responsibly organized for the tasks before us.

No local church, nor group of area churches, can do what the church as a whole can do. We have paid a heavy price for what we call “congregational autonomy,” given all our duplicate programs, ineffectiveness, and work left undone. …

If we were properly organized for missionary and benevolent work — with centralized ministires responsible to the congregations — the results would be remarkable!

Now, this isn’t as radical as it sounds. But it is pretty radical.

Let’s consider the alternatives.

First, we could organize missions as we do. One church selects a missionary as his sponsoring congregation. Other churches send the missionary money via the sponsoring church. The missionary comes home once a year and visits all the supporting churches. Some withdraw support because they have other budgetary priorities or split or are unhappy that he believes in the Holy Spirit or whatever. He goes around finding support from other churches. 

Meanwhile, his sponsoring church has no expertise in supporting a missionary. They can’t help much with tax issues, with his struggles to learn the local culture, or even give him adequate financial support when the exchange rate goes south.

Some other missionary may well show up in his town and start competing with him, even teaching a different doctrine and declaring him apostate.

Or he may desperately need help from a couple of additional missionaries but have no means of recruiting the help.

Second, we could do what the Churches of Christ are beginning to do. We could have a nonprofit organization recruit and support missionaries. The nonprofit would have on staff experienced former missionaries who coach and counsel the men and women in the field. The nonprofit would handle most of the fund raising. And the nonprofit would assure that missionaries are sent where they are most needed.

The nonprofit helps match the missionary up with a sponsoring congregation, which not only helps fund the work but provides support by sending members to visit and assist. The missionary is thus under the oversight of an eldership, but the eldership is supported and equipped by an organization with genuine expertise.

It’s not really a missionary society as there’s no voting and no meetings. Congregational participation is strictly voluntary, and if the churches get unhappy with their work, they’ll withdraw support and support another nonprofit or go it alone.

Third, we could do what the Christian Churches do (correct me if I’m wrong). Churches would band together to form a missionary society, which would be run by the churches. Staff would do much the same thing as described regarding nonprofits, but the staff would be answerable to the member congregations.

Most of the churches in a given state or region would all work together to form a single society and to cooperatively send missionaries together.

Now, this is precisely the sort of organization that Alexander Campbell helped form late in his career and that he very actively promoted and supported. It’s also the very sort of organization that helped lead to the split with the Christian Churches in 1906.

The advantage (or disadvantage) of this structure over the nonprofit structure is that the congregations exercise more direct control and there’s more of an expectation that congregations participate and support the society. 

Fourth, we could operate as the Baptists do. They form state-level conventions, which have no authority over congregations at all. But they all help pay for the convention’s work, which is to oversee various ministries that the Baptists do together — missions, affordable housing, orphanages, etc. Participation is voluntary, and the churches appoint representatives to meet annually to set policy. Sometimes the churches dramatically restructure the convention when the central office loses touch with the congregations.

Now, the advantage of the Baptist model is that you effectively have one-stop shopping. The churches oversee the convention and the convention oversees the ministries. The disadvantage is that when the convention goes bad, everything goes bad. 

All these models preserve congregational autonomy. And all these models have disadvantages. But the last three are all demonstrably superior to what we’re doing now.

And the problem is about to get worse. You see, big churches don’t really need the nonprofit, society, or convention to do a good job with missionaries or whatever. They can do all this themselves. And it’s easy to find examples of large churches withdrawing from cooperative efforts so that, for example, they support a missionary all on their own. This works well for the missionary and the church — but not so well for missions in general as no one is assuring that missionaries are being sent where they are most needed or providing the level of expertise that only a large church or a regional or national organization can offer.

As the bigger churches withdraw from cooperative efforts, the smaller churches get left trying to take on projects that they just don’t have the resources to handle. We’re a church of 680, and we struggle to find the volunteers and expertise we need to do a proper job with missions, etc. We need help. Therefore, most churches need help.

In looking at cooperative models, the easiest is the nonprofit model. It requires only that someone with a vision start the organization, hire staff, and find people willing to support it. The problem is one of accountability. How do you know how well your money is being spent? What doctrine is being taught? What success the organization is having?

The problem with the society and the convention models is the tendency of congregations to use these organizations as places to debate doctrinal disagreements. The Southern Baptist’s national convention has had its internal disputes widely publicized because of this.

As a result, my inclination is to go to the nonprofit route, even though it tends to create competing organizations. But then, competition is not always a bad thing. It forces the competitors to do a better job.

My biggest reservation is that there is no assurance that much-needed organizations will be formed. While we have organizations that do missions in some locations, I’m not sure the globe is covered well. And I’m afraid there are a number of very weak organizations that should be killed, but donors have no basis on which to judge them.

The solution — were it possible — would be to have a vigorous church press that not only cheerleads for the strong organizations but also challenges organizations to demonstrate their merits. I mean, if the press doesn’t insist on audits and proof of results, who will?

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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7 Responses to A Lover’s Quarrel: Radical Congregationalism

  1. Royce says:

    While being historically portrayed as the axis of evil by most coC'ers, Baptists have for many, many years had a missions program unequaled in the world.

    My friends tell me the fastest growing evangelical group in Africa is the Assemblies of God. They too have a united front to meet the personel and monetary demands of missions.

    In my view the greatest problem any coC cooporative missions effort faces is as Garrett hinted. It is much more difficult to unite in purpose and support when the message is not clear. Many of our folks are still debating what the gospel is. Getting wide agreement on preaching about Jesus, and the church of Christ and all of the "salvation issues" included (too many to list..) is near impossible. Other groups just go preach the life, death,burial, and resurrection of Jesus and what God has done for sinners through Him, a much easier message to rally around.


  2. Joe Baggett says:

    The old system of autonomy was a joke anyway. While we had no organization as the Baptists do, we have doctrinal police in the form of the GA, the CC and the Schools of preaching. If one congregation did or said something that was not considered to be the truth you were wrote up marked as false teachers and disfellowshipped. So our system of independent churches was a joke.

  3. Jay Guin says:

    Very true, Joe. As one wag put it, the Churches of Christ don't need bishops. We have editors!

    It's still true that those who refuse to toe the line get lambasted in bulletins, pulpits, and publications. The wise eldership ignores all that stuff. If you let fear of slander keep you from doing what you think is right, well, you'd may as make the preachers down the road into your elders.

    True autonomy is only realized when the elders lead the church according the scriptures, not the scruples of preachers with venomous pens and sulfurous mouths. Pay them no heed. Their power comes from our acting as though they matter. Realize that they don't and suddenly they have no power. It's an effective strategy.

  4. Jay Guin says:

    Well said indeed. Amen, amen, amen.

  5. dellkimberly says:

    I often wondered what it meant when it was said that a preacher had gone off the "deep end". One day it came to me. It meant he had forsaken the unwritten creed held as gospel by all the autonomous congregations…………

  6. Matthew says:

    I read this book a while ago, I really loved it. Being a newcomer to the rich history, the book was informing. I really liked the FHU story.

  7. Jay Guin says:

    We have an unwritten creed?? I thought that's what the Gospel Advocate and its ilk were for — to tell us what the new rules are so we toe the line before being declared apostate by a church down the road.

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