In this quote, Scottish theologian P.T. Forsyth warns against viewing the church as a democracy, which he sees as a fundamental misunderstanding of the very nature of the church. His concern wasn’t with congregationalism or the idea of churches voting on major decision (Forsyth himself pastored a congregational church), but with the fact that understanding the church as a democracy makes us think of the church as being all about the people (democracy literally means “rule of the people”), whereas we must always remember that the church belongs to God and owes him, and him only, absolute obedience. Essentially, he fears that the democratic impulse stems from a desire to shirk that responsibility and be our own highest authority.
Although I have a hard time believing that congregational churches are the only ones who tend to forget that God is the one in control, having attended a congregational church all my life, I think this is a warning that we all need to hear. As much as I value congregational participation in church governance, it can, and often does, contribute to an atmosphere that is people-centered (everyone needs to have their say and we must keep everyone happy) rather than God-centered, a democracy rather than a church.
No society which gives Christ the regal place the Church does can be a democracy. It is an absolute monarchy. Less might be said by us about freedom, and more about obedience in the spirit of freedom….But the religion as well as the politics of a democracy always tends to wreck on its determination to own no authority which does not proceed from itself, and to hold nothing true but what it can promptly understand and prove on the individual scale to an untaught logic. It tends to resent excellence, to be at home with mediocrity, to idolise comfort as the rich do luxury, and to be suspicious of the king, the competent, and the prophet….But the first condition of religion is authority. It is an authority before it is a liberty. The fundamental difference between a Church and a democracy lies thus in the principle that no numbers can create a real authority such as the Church foresees, whereas democracy as such will listen to no authority but what its numbers and majorities do create….
[The Church] demands a ready and willing and absolute submission to authority, it demands obedience, which a democracy gives but partially, grudgingly, critically, or temporarily. The Church…is not a democracy. It is not based on natural right, or natural fraternity, or natural ideals. It is based on total surrender to an absolute monarch and owner in Christ, which is not natural and not egoist, and not easy.
P. T. Forsyth, Lectures on the Church and Sacraments (Longmans, Green, and Co., 1917), pp. 10-11