This is something that new church plants are going to have to consider. There are two main ways of approaching this. The first is to place decision making primarily in the hands of leaders, either the specific leaders of a congregation or leaders over a group of churches in a denomination, diocese or presbytery.
In reality, many churches find themselves somewhere on a continuum somewhere between decision making lying with the congregation and lying with the leaders. There are obvious reasons for that. We’ve recognised that certain people have been set aside for the task and that with the role of elder comes a certain Biblical authority. Church members are to submit to elders (1 Peter 5:5), obeying them and ensuring that their labour for the Lord is joyful (Hebrews 13:17).
At the same time, the New Testament points to the role of the whole congregation. Church members are not meant to be passive. Apostles, evangelists, pastors and teachers were given to the church not so the rest of us can sit back but so that we can be equipped for service. We are the ones who should be using our gifts to encourage and build one another up towards unity (Ephesians 4:10-13).
In 1 Corinthians 12, not only is it the whole church that are addressed concerning the gifts that they all have but it is also the whole church that are addressed concerning the need for discerning of spirits (12:1-3) and when it comes to the decision to excommunicate a member in serious and unrepentant sin, then the decision is made by the whole church body together (1 Corinthians 5 and Matthew 18:17.
My personal view, on the basis of these Scriptures is that there should be a sensible distribution of responsibility. First of all, we need to recognise the nature of authority that elders have, it is a teaching authority arising out of the specific gift they have been given. This means they have not been set over the church in some for of perpetual hierarchy. Rather by proclaiming God’s Word and by living Godly lives they teach by doctrine and by example. As a pastor I’ve always been clear that this means it isn’t for me to pronounce unchallenged on questions such as building projects or special events. It wasn’t for me to decide unquestioned whether we added a second service or whether or not we moved a congregation out of the existing building.
It’s worth commenting that this came with its costs. Not everyone like it when I didn’t pronounce that this or that idea was God’s will. However, I had no authority to pronounce as such. Of course, there will always be those who assume the pastor is driving through his agenda even when he is simply implementing the will of others. The other cost was that sometimes a decision didn’t go the way you expected it to and strongly wanted it to. Whilst in 2012, the church agreed to recommendations from the leaders to move to multiple services, in 2015, it became clear that the church would not agree to us moving to another site to allow one of our congregations space to grow beyond the very cramped space of our meeting hall.
Secondly, I believe that there are day to day and week to week decisions. One elder on his own should know what the overall guidance and boundaries are within the beliefs, values and vision of the church to be able to make a decision on the day about how to provide pastoral care in a given context. The elders will also make lots of decisions on a week to week basis about spiritual care and the deacons about practical care. You don’t want to be calling in the church members for every decision.
However, thirdly there are decisions that the whole church makes together. I’ve given a couple of examples already above but these decisions include staffing, church discipline and major projects. The church are involved because as we’ve seen, Scripture requires them to be and also because it makes sense, you want the whole church to come with you. It is important that when such a decision is needed that the church are responsible for the decision. It’s important that you don’t simply consult them and then go away and make a different decision as leaders. You have asked the church family to decide, so let them decide.
In a further post, I’m going to talk about the practicalities of how churches make decisions including a discussion about voting and super majorities.