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Sunday School: Elder-Led Congregationalism (Pt 1)

January 14, 2018 Speaker: John Bell Series: Sunday School: What is a Healthy Church?

Topic: Elder-Led Congregationalism

Big Picture: The bible places the authority of the elders inside the authority of the congregation since elder authority exists to help lead and equip the congregation to exercise their authority regarding the what and who of the gospel.  

  1. Authority of the Congregation
  2. There are different kinds of authority in the church.
  3. The authority of the keys of the kingdom belong to the congregation as a whole.
  • Matthew 16:18-19
  • Matthew 18:15-20
  1. Church membership (therefore) is an office, or job.
  • Job #1: Help preserve the gospel – (Gal. 1)
  • Job #2: Help affirm gospel citizens – (Matt. 18; 1 Cor. 5)
  1. The Church has office authority in discipline and membership (Matt. 18: 1 Cor. 5) and doctrine and leadership (Gal. 1).

In summary: Jesus grants the church authority to guard and protect the gospel, to affirm credible gospel professions, to unite such professors to itself, to bar or exclude non-credible professors, and to oversee the discipleship of believers. It has the authority to draw a line in the sand around those who give a credible profession of faith.

  1. Authority of the Elders

Authority of teaching and oversight

The congregation cannot wisely adjudicate the what and the who of the gospel unless they have gospel teachers teaching and giving oversight.

Responsibilities of elders

  1. The ministry of the Word - (Acts 6)
  2. The ministry of prayer - (Acts 6)
  3. The ministry of gathering and protecting – (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2-4; Heb. 13:17)

III. How Do These Fit Together?

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Eph. 4:11-16)


Answering Critiques of Elder-Led Congregationalism

Jonathan Leeman

 (1) The Bible explicitly gives authority to elders (e.g., 1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 3:7, 17). It does not explicitly give authority to congregations.

First of all, Matthew 18 explicitly authorizes congregations. There is nothing in the text to recommend reading “church” as elders, and there are several reasons not to (e.g., the numeric trajectory of verses 15–17; how the original readers would have understood the term ecclesia).

Second, Paul, remarkably, treats the congregations to whom he writes as equals. In 1 Corinthians, he says he has already passed judgment over the sinner (5:3), and then he calls the church to do the same (vv. 4–5; 12). So in Galatians 1 and elsewhere.


(2) Doesn’t Acts 15 present a precedent for a council of leaders exercising authority over multiple churches?

Acts 15 is a tough passage. But a couple of things are worth observing.


  • the so-called council does not consist of multiple leaders from multiple churches, but several delegates from Antioch seeking counsel from their mother church in Jerusalem.
  • the Jerusalem congregation is present.
  • the Jerusalem congregation consents to the final conclusion.
  • the text actually says nothing about how the decision is reached.
  • the apostles were present, and they claimed the Holy Spirit agreed with their decision!
  • Luke’s primary purpose in the passage is not to establish guidelines for polity, but to explain what the early church determined regarding circumcision and its role in salvation and church membership.


 Acts 15 offers no real instruction for church polity today; instead, the Holy Spirit-inspired, apostle-written letter that went out from the church in Jerusalem should be treated almost like any other New Testament epistle. It’s not binding as a matter of ecclesiological authority but as authoritative apostolic instruction that would eventually be canonized as Holy Spirit-inspired, apostolic Scripture.


Just consider: is the letter from Jerusalem binding on churches today by virtue of the authority of the church in Jerusalem, or by its inclusion in Scripture? The answer to that question will indicate what kind of authority the letter sent from Jerusalem bore—ecclesiastical or uniquely apostolic.


(3) The Bible tells church members to “submit to” and “obey” elders. To say the congregation has final rule reduces elder authority to a so-called advisory or influential authority, which is not really authority. In other words, congregationalists merely give lip service to elder authority.


The critique treats authority as one kind of thing when the Bible establishes several kinds of authority in the church, all of which work together. Elder authority, in the congregationalist conception, is real authority because

(a) God established it.  (Acts 20:28)   Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.

(b) It possess a heavenly and eschatological sanction, meaning Jesus will judge unlawful acts of disobedience to elder authority on the last day;

(c) That end-time sanction should weigh on a believer’s conscience

(d) A pattern of unrepentant insubordination to an elder is potentially grounds for church discipline.

(4) Congregationalism is inefficient and makes it hard to get things done.

Compared to other forms of church government, yes, congregationalism can be inefficient. But so is sanctification, and the inefficiency of congregationalism is, in essence, the inefficiency of Christian growth. Learning is inefficient.


Like a parent who is trying to help children grow in maturity, so a pastor’s job is not just to make all the decisions for church members but to lead them in good decision making. And, yes, that takes slow, careful shepherding work. A person who doesn’t have patience for that kind of work probably shouldn’t be a pastor. Business might be a good career.


 (5) There is no example of every member voting in the Bible.

2 Cor. 2:6: “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient.”

It’s difficult to know how Paul knew a majority acted unless there was a vote. In fact, what the Bible actually never shows is the session, the presbytery, the synod, or the college of cardinals voting! (Every form of polity employs some set of parties voting. It’s just a question of whom.) It is worth recalling, moreover, that voting is a form, not an element. And forms are somewhat flexible.


(6) It lets the sheep fire the shepherd (as with Jonathan Edwards). That doesn’t make any sense!

Then Paul doesn’t make sense, because that’s what Paul does. In fact, Paul tells the churches of Galatia to fire him or an angel from heaven for preaching a false gospel (Gal. 1:6-9) This doesn’t mean congregations can fire their pastors whenever they please. They need biblical grounds. Jonathan Edwards’s congregation was probably wrong to fire him, even if they possessed the right to fire him. Legitimate mechanisms can be used wrongly.


(7) Congregationalism fosters infighting and gives immature believers influence.

Perhaps, but it gives the immature influence only in the way that God’s gift of decision making to humanity gives the immature influence. You cannot make an omelet without breaking some eggs. The very opportunity to make decisions provides a platform for maturity and growth. Specifically, congregational rule gives the immature members the opportunity to exercise their submission muscles by learning to submit to the elders’ leadership, as well as their wisdom and discernment muscles, which they need to make decisions that are crucial to the integrity of the church. Elder leadership requires the elders to equip the church for this rule. Elder-ruled polities, on the other hand, deny the congregation this opportunity for training and growth.


More in Sunday School: What is a Healthy Church?

March 4, 2018

Sunday School: Elder-Led Congregationalism (Pt. 7)

February 18, 2018

Sunday School: Elder-Led Congregationalism (Pt .6)

February 11, 2018

Sunday School: Elder-Led Congregationalism (Pt. 5)