Let's first consider the question of leadership. Where does the power in both of these systems really lie?
Historically, Baptists have always practiced congregational polity. This means that the congregation, not the pastor or deacons (the misunderstood role of deacons will be the topic of another post), should be the final authority on ALL matters. In my experience, the constitutions of most Baptist churches have a clause that says exactly that. However, it has also been my experience that many Baptist churches fail miserably at putting this into practice. There seems to be a feeling that if the pastor and/or deacons decide something, the church must follow it. Interestingly, even if the decision violates the church constitution, it is often allowed to stand. Sadly and more importantly, even if the decision violates the teachings of the Bible, it is often allowed to stand. The pastor acts more like a CEO than the shepherd of his congregation and the congregation put their faith in him (or her), rather than in the Lord. Congregations like these often place "congregational health" above the truth. I prefer to side with Martin Luther who said, "Peace if possible, truth at all costs." Secrecy and lies only poison a congregation; they do not, and cannot, heal.
Congregational polity does have a weakness, however. It requires a very educated congregation. It requires a congregation that knows the Bible -- a congregation that is willing and able to listen to its leaders with a critical ear. Christianity is not as simple as some would like for us to believe. For most questions, there is not "an answer," rather there are multiple answers. This makes a lot of people very uncomfortable. They want to come to church and be told what the answers are -- they don't have the time or desire to study themselves - that's what pastors and Sunday School teachers are for. This is why congregations follow leaders who are not following the Bible: they simply do not know better.
In the next post, we'll move from local churches to the national government.