Is the Church a Democracy?

Cross and American flag Is the church a democracy? This is a question that my husband and I have been mulling over this week. While a seemingly abstract question, or at the very least random, the way you answer this questions has a LOT of implications for your individual life. Just hang with me and I’ll explain how.

At the heart of this question is the location of authority within every church. Assuming God and Scripture to be the highest authorities, the question of democracy asks whether the next level of authority lies in the hands of church leaders, or the congregation. On this matter, there is a fairly wide spectrum of churches. On the one end you have Catholics, for whom there is a trickle down structure of authority that finds its head with the Pope. On the opposite end you have denominations like Baptists, who give a lot more freedom to the individual congregation. Contrary to popular opinion, the Southern Baptist Convention does not rule over or dictate the lives of Baptist churches. Historically, Baptists churches have taught the autonomy or independence of the local church, which means Baptist churches can look as different as the people in each congregation. That’s why you hear about crazy fringe churches in the news that don the name “Baptist.” They aren’t reflecting a wider Baptist tradition, but instead their own congregation’s fringe beliefs. Baptist tradition gives congregations that freedom.

So we are presented with two extremes: all the authority lies in the leadership, or all the authority lies in the congregation. Given our country’s ideas about government, we tend to buck against any structure that gives absolute power to a higher ranking authority figure. And I can sympathize with that. There has got to be accountability. Unchecked power leads to corruption.

However, I’m not sure full-fledged democracy is the answer either. In Scripture we see a couple examples of democracy, and they’re not positive. In Exodus 32 the people took a vote so Aaron acquiesced to the consensus: he gave them a golden calf. In 1 Samuel the popular consensus was to appoint a king over Israel, so God gave them one: Saul. Throughout Scripture, the popular consensus was often a sinful one. That’s why God so frequently sent prophets to hold His people accountable. Without strong, godly leadership, they were like sheep without a shepherd. They strayed.

So while I am by no means Catholic in my understanding of authority, I am also wary of a truly democratic model of the church. But here’s where this issue really applies to each and every one of our lives: If we believe the authority of our local church lies first in the congregation, and not in the hands of leaders on whom God has granted authority, we give ourselves an out. We give ourselves permission to not follow the leading of our pastors and the movement of the church. Say the church sets out a vision for its people–the leaders feel called to serve the community more, give sacrificially to a cause, or send more people on the mission field—but you don’t “feel called” to this particular vision, so you don’t participate. The church’s larger vision is irrelevant to you. You simply don’t listen because you are the “decider.”

This is deeply problematic to me. I don’t want to overlook the individual circumstances of people’s lives, but this approach to church leadership can also reveal a tremendous lack of trust in God. If you serve a church that has systems of accountability for its leaders (that is to say, there are no blatant abuses of power at work in your church), then passages like Hebrews 13:17 provide our direction. We are to “obey our leaders and submit to their authority.” If they call the church to a vision of outreach that is Scriptural, we aren’t given a “what if” clause. We are called to follow.

While this might sound scary to some people, as if I’m affirming a kind of blank-check power to our church leaders, there is an alternate way of thinking about it. If God has given you leaders to guide you, teach you, bless you and grow you as a vehicle of His Holy Spirit, but you constantly defer to your own judgment about what is best, then you’re missing out on a blessing. You’re missing out on an opportunity to exercise faith in ways that you might not have considered on your own.

The purpose of me writing this is not to resolve the tricky question of church polity–how a church should be structured. There are strengths and weaknesses to every model in the book because we are all sinners serving a sovereign, redemptive God. What I DO want you to consider in the face of all these questions is your own view of authority. Has it been shaped more by your culture or by Scripture? Leaders are not perfect, but God calls us to submit to them without providing an escape clause. If we can do this responsibly and without bitterness, I suspect we will find blessing and new spiritual depth through our obedience to Him.