Historical and Biblical Evidence for Elder Led Congregationalism

Historical evidence

Historical evidence carries absolutely no weight unless Scripture confirms it. That said, however, it is wise to consider those who have traveled the path before us to see if we might profit from their experiences and insight, as recommended by Proverbs 24:6, “in abundance of counselors there is victory.”

Working from present-day to Early Church history, it seems best to begin with some of the prominent and well-respected evangelical Christian thinkers of our day. In support of elder-led congregationalism, Mark Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, member of the Together for the Gospel group, speaker at the Shepherd’s Conference, and author of Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, states:

Jesus taught His followers in Matthew 18 that the final court for matters of disputes between brothers was the congregation. So we read in Matt. 18:15-17 that the final step is to “tell it” he said, not to the elders . . . but to the ekklesia, that’s the church, or the congregation, as Tyndale translated it – the assembly. . . Biblical elder-led congregationalism is distinct from the kind of elder-rule we see in many independent and Bible churches because it recognizes that finally it must be the congregation as a whole who takes responsibility for its life together—for disputes and doctrine, for discipline and membership. The evidence is slight, but consistent and clear.3

Pastor and theologian John Piper also agrees:

Under Christ and his Word, the decisive court of appeal in the local church in deciding matters of disagreement is the gathered church assembly. (This is implied, first, in the fact that the leaders are not to lead by coercion, but by persuasion and free consent [1 Peter 5:3], second, in the fact that elders may be censured [1 Timothy 5:19], and third, in the fact that Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5:4 depict the gathered church assembly as the decisive court of appeal in matters of discipline).4

Evangelical scholar and professor D. A. Carson, author of The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism, states:

In the New Testament, a final authority rests, in many cases, with the congregation. In 1 Corinthians 5, for example, there is an instance of church discipline that goes to the whole congregation, however much it may be instituted by the elders. Again, in Matthew 18, the Lord Jesus insists that when things come down to the crunch, you tell the conflict to the church. You tell it to the church – for not only is there wisdom in the whole church, but there is a final sanction in the whole church. . . In fact, in the New Testament, there is a running tension between the authority that rests with the church and the authority bound up with the elders/pastors/overseers. There’s a running tension because, quite frankly, either side can go bad.5

South Woods Baptist Church pastor Phil Newton writes in his book Elders in Congregregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership:

Plural eldership should not eliminate congregationalism.  It is true that some forms of plural eldership completely by-pass the congregation.  In the early church, however, the congregation was involved to some degree in all decisions.  The church is to hold the final authority, for instance, on matters of disciplining its membership (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor 5).  The church selected the deacon-prototypes upon the counsel of the apostles, thus providing a workable pattern for congregational involvement in recommending spiritual and temporal leaders (Acts 6:1-5).  After the apostles and elders established the church’s position regarding the problem raised by the Judaizers, the congregation became involved by approving the recommendation of sending messengers to the churches of Asia Minor as the official voice of the Jerusalem church.  The congregation as a whole was not part of the discussions or debates, but they were later informed, and affirmed the result of the council: “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas” (Acts 15:22).  Then it seemed good was a political term in the Greek world for “voting” or “passing a measure in the assembly.”6

Moving back in time to the 19th century, we can glean from the well-loved pastor Charles Spurgeon, also congregationalist, who shares in the same spirit in one of his sermons preached in 1861:

To our minds, the Scripture seems very explicit as to how this Church should be ordered.  We believe that every Church member should have equal rights and privileges; that there is no power in Church officers to execute anything unless they have the full authorization of the members of the Church.  We believe, however, that the Church should choose its pastor, and having chosen him, that they should love him and respect him for his work’s sake; that with him should be associated the deacons of the Church to take the oversight of pecuniary matters; and the elders of the Church to assist in all the works of the pastorate in the fear of God, being overseers of the flock.  Such a Church we believe to be scripturally ordered; and if it abide in the faith, rooted, and grounded, and settled, such a Church may expect the benediction of heaven, and so it shall become the pillar and ground of the truth.7

In the same century, we find that influential pastor and professor J. L. Reynolds published a book on church polity in 1849. In his discussion regarding the duties of a congregation he illustrates the spirit of elder-s a led congregationalism. He writes:

The Church possesses the right to choose its own officers. . . The evidence of the Scriptures in support of this position is clear and conclusive. They record instances of the election of an apostle, and of deacons, delegates, and elders, each by a popular vote. It need excite no surprise that the position has been vigorously assailed. The importance of the principle at stake, justifies both the attack and the defence. If the clergy have been invested with the sole power of appointment, they are right in contending for it. If, on the contrary, the Head of the Church has deposited this prerogative with those whose interests are most intimately involved in its exercise, it becomes them to resist clerical encroachment, with the vigilance and firmness of Christ’s freemen.8

An important document, the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, was widely used as a foundational confession by Baptist churches for centuries, a practice which continues in many Reformed Baptist churches today. Chapter 26 section 9 deals with the selecting of officers of the church, and it communicates a congregationalist approach. It states:

The way appointed by Christ for the calling of any person, fitted and gifted by the Holy Spirit, unto the office of bishop or elder in a church, is, that he be chosen thereunto by the common suffrage of the church itself; and solemnly set apart by fasting and prayer, with imposition of hands of the eldership of the church, if there be any before constituted therein; and of a deacon that he be chosen by the like suffrage, and set apart by prayer, and the like imposition of hands. ( Acts 14:23; 1 Timothy 4:14; Acts 6:3, 5, 6 ).9

The 1742 Philadelphia Confession of Faith reaffirmed these principles exactly:

8. A particular church, gathered and completely organized according to the mind of Christ, consists of officers and members; and the officers appointed by Christ to be chosen and set apart by the church (so called and gathered), for the peculiar administration of ordinances, and execution of power or duty, which he intrusts them with, or calls them to, to be continued to the end of the world, are bishops or elders, and deacons. (Acts 20:17, 28; Phil. 1:1)

9. The way appointed by Christ for the calling of any person, fitted and gifted by the Holy Spirit, unto the office of bishop or elder in a church, is, that he be chosen thereunto by the common suffrage of the church itself; and solemnly set apart by fasting and prayer, with imposition of hands of the eldership of the church, if there be any before constituted therein; and of a deacon that he be chosen by the like suffrage, and set apart by prayer, and the like imposition of hands. (Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 4:14; Acts 6:3, 5, 6)10

Also in the 18th-century, famous American evangelist Jonathan Edwards was congregationalist in his actual church governance,11 although we could locate no references to church polity in his sermons.

John Gill, 18th-century pastor and theologian, writes in his An Exposition of the New Testament commentary on Acts 6:3:

…this sort of officers, deacons, must be members of the church, and of the same church to which they are ordained deacons; and that they must be chosen to that office by the whole community, or by the common suffrages and votes of the people.12

And on 2 Corinthians 2:6-8:

[Excommunication is to be] inflicted by many, not by the pastor only, or by the elders or more eminent persons in the church, but by the multitude, by the whole congregation… [then, upon repentance and restoration,] let your reception of him in this kind and friendly way be with the full consent, and by the joint vote and suffrage of the whole church, for so the word translated “confirm” signifies;

for as the ejection of a person out of a church must be done by the decree and vote of the church, or it is not authentic, so the reception of a person into it must be in like manner; and since this was to be done by the suffrage of the church, the apostle beseeches and exhorts them to do it.13

Matthew Henry, commentator and clergyman of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, in his Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, on his notes on Acts 6:1-7, says:

They pitched upon the persons. It is not probable that they all cast their eye upon the same men. Everyone had his friend, whom he thought well of. But the majority of votes fell upon the persons here named; and the rest both of the candidates and the electors acquiesced, and made no disturbance, as the members of societies in such cases ought to do. An apostle, who was an extraordinary officer, was chosen by lot, which is more immediately the act of God; but the overseers of the poor were chosen by the suffrage of the people, in which yet a regard is to be had to the providence of God, who has all men’s hearts and tongues in his hand.14 (emphasis added)

Early Church History

Early Church history is important because it gives the modern-day church an opportunity to see what struggles were faced in the past. It can be very helpful in determining how early Christians applied biblical doctrine in church practice, and we can also learn about how we might avoid making the same mistakes they did. By no means is Early Church history equated with Scripture, but it can certainly provide valuable insight about Church practice immediately following the apostolic period. Considering these things, we would like to present several significant points of Early Church history regarding church suffrage in the choosing of church officers.

The First Epistle of Clement. The first discussed source is commonly called The First Epistle of Clement. This letter was written to the same Corinthian church to which Paul had written a short time before Clement’s epistle. In this letter, Clement is writing on behalf of the church at Rome. This fact is attributed by the Greek manuscripts, as well as Dionysius of Corinth who, as early as A.D. 170, references the letter as “previously written to us through Clement.”15

As to the date of the letter, there is little doubt that it was written around A.D. 96 or 97 at the end of Domitian’s reign.16 While this letter was written after the apostolic period, the author of the letter is clear that some of the apostles, namely Peter and Paul, were part of his “own generation”.17 These apostles, then, passed within the same lifetime as the author of this letter. Moreover, the author states that some of the presbyters at Corinth were they themselves appointed by the apostles.18 Knowing that this letter of instruction was in the same generation as the apostles, we can be assured that this letter gives us a helpful glimpse into Church life immediately following the apostolic period.  Now that a historical foundation has been laid for this letter, let us read the relevant text. Clement writes to the Corinthian church:

44 Now our apostles, thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ, knew that there was going to be strife over the title of bishop. 2 It was for this reason and because they had been given an accurate knowledge of the future, that they appointed the officers we have mentioned. Furthermore, they later added a codicil to the effect that, should these die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry. 3 In the light of this, we view it as a breach of justice to remove from their ministry those who were appointed either by them [the apostles] or later on and with the whole church’s consent, by others of the proper standing, and who, long enjoying everybody’s approval, have ministered to Christ’s flock faultlessly, humbly, quietly, and unassumingly.19 (bold, italics added)

Here we see that, according to Clement, the apostles were given the duty to appoint bishops (elders) “because they had been given accurate knowledge of the future.” The apostles had direct communication with God. This fact we see attested to several times in examples in the New Testament  (i.e., 1 Cor. 7:10; 1 Pet. 2:16-21). The apostles were able to directly appoint bishops because they were directly guided by the Holy Spirit. Therefore we cannot use examples of divinely inspired church officer election found in Scripture to develop procedures by which elders are chosen in the modern church. There are at least two reasons for this. (1) The elders are not the modern-day equivalents to apostles. The Early Church (and Scripture itself, as we’ll see) clearly distinguished between the two offices, and therefore it is an error to equate the two. It was recognized, as evident in Clement’s letter, that the office of apostleship had ended with the death of the apostles.20 (2) With the end of the divinely inspired leadership of the apostles, the church’s leadership was, as explained by Clement, solely dependent upon the bishops “with the whole church’s consent.”21 The Church was no longer led under the direct revelation of the Holy Spirit, as that aspect of Church life had ended with the apostles. While the office of apostleship has many similar qualities as that of the office of elder, the task of appointing elders by direct appointment of the Holy Spirit has not been transferred upon the office of elder.

The Didache. To further attest to this Early Church practice, we may look at another resource known as the Didache, also known as The Teaching of the Apostles. This early document dates around A.D. 50-160. Despite unsurety about the actual date of the document, it is widely accepted that the Didache was used by churches for centuries as a kind of catechism.22 Even the great staunch defender of the faith, Athanasius of the 3rd and 4th centuries, mentioned the Didache as suitable for catechetical reading. In the 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius, which is famous for its detailing of the books that should be included in the canon, section 7 of the letter details the books Athanasius considers to be non-canonical yet beneficial for “instruction in the word of godliness.”23

Here is the quote in full:

But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd.24 (italics, bold added)

Athanasius promoted the Didache as a supplement to the study of Scripture — certainly not as an equal to God’s Word, but similar to modern-day Sunday School material or devotional books that we use today. Even as supplemental material, the Didache gives us a picture of Early Church practices. Let us look at the section of the Didache which instructs congregational involvement in the selection of its officers:

14 On every Lord’s Day—his special day—come together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure. 2 Anyone at variance with his neighbor must not join you, until they are reconciled, lest your sacrifice be defiled. 3 For it was of this sacrifice that the Lord said, “Always and everywhere offer me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is marveled at by the nations.” You must, then, elect for yourselves bishops and deacons who are a credit to the Lord, men who are gentle, generous, faithful, and well tried. For their ministry to you is identical with that of the prophets and teachers. 2 You must not, therefore, despise them, for along with the prophets and teachers they enjoy a place of honor among you.25 (bold added)

The Didache explains that the church is to elect for themselves both bishops and deacons who are of a certain reputation. The election by the church as a whole is assumed, which suggests that this was simply the normal routine of the churches to which the Didache was addressed.

Catholicism and the Papacy. One other issue regarding church history and elections is the evolving history of Papal elections. We have already shown two documents illustrating the Early Church practice, immediately following the apostolic period, of electing church leadership via church suffrage. The studious John Gill also provides us with his research showing that this practice of church suffrage continued through the fifth century:

Song Clemens Romanus, who lived at the latter end of the apostolic age, says, the apostles appointed proper persons to the office of the ministry, “with the consent or choice of the whole church;” and this practice continued to the third century; in which century Cyprian was chosen bishop of Carthage, by the suffrage of the people;26 and so he says was Cornelius, bishop of Rome, in the same age; as was Fabianus, before him:27 the council of Nice, in the beginning of the fourth century, in their synodical epistle, to the churches in Egypt, ordered, that when any were removed by death, their places should be filled up by others, provided they were worthy, and such as the people chose; the bishop of Alexandria agreeing to and confirming the choice: in the same century Martin was chosen bishop of Tours, by a vast concourse of the people: indeed, the council at Laodicea, Can. XIII. in this century, ordered, that from thenceforward the people should not be allowed to choose their own ministers; which shows it had been practised before: yea, after, in the “fifth” century, Austin, in his old age, recommended to the people Eradius, to be his successor; which they showed their approbation of by their loud and repeated acclamations.28 (bold added)

It is clear from history that approval by the people during elections played a recognizable role in the early Catholic church.  This practice declined, however, and ultimately the Lateran Synod held in 769 officially abolished suffrage held by laymen in Rome, putting the capstone in the papacy’s supremacy.29 By 1139, during the Second Council of the Lateran, the Cardinals became the only body responsible for electing the Pope.30

As I will attempt to show in the next section, Scripture never allows or demonstrates that a group of men, separated from the rest of the body, have the level of authority to make decisions without the consent and suffrage of the whole church (including the elders), as the Catholic church practices. The only exception to this fact is when there is direct revelation from God. Even when there was direct revelation, as I will show, the church body was still actively involved in the decision-making process!

Biblical Evidence

κατακυριεύω. In attempting to define the authority of elders, one of the most helpful Scriptures can be found in 1 Peter 5:1-5 which states,

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

The word “domineering” here in the ESV is the Greek word katakurieuō. In its particular tense in the verse, the word means “to hold in subjection, to be master of, exercise lordship over”.31 This word is again used in Matthew 20:25, in referring to the style of lordship authority exercised by the Gentiles. Christ explained to the disciples that they were not to exercise that sort of authority. Rather, they were to act as servants. The late well-respected Presbyterian scholar and pastor Albert Barnes writes of this word, in his commentary on 1 Peter 5:3,

The word here used (κατακυριεύω  katakurieuō) is rendered “exercise dominion over,” in Matthew 20:25; exercise lordship over, in Mark 10:42; and overcame, in Acts 19:16. It does not elsewhere occur in the New Testament. It refers properly to that kind of jurisdiction which civil rulers or magistrates exercise. This is an exercise of authority, as contradistinguished from the influence of reason, persuasion, and example. The latter pertains to the ministers of religion; the former is forbidden to them. Their dominion is not to be that of temporal lordship; it is to be that of love and truth. This command would prohibit all assumption of temporal power by the ministers of religion, and all conferring of titles of nobility on those who are preachers of the gospel. It needs scarcely to be said that it has been very little regarded in the church.32 (bold, italics added)

As stated by Barnes, the type of authority that is of the same character as civil government is not allowed among the shepherds of the church. Peter expressly forbid it, and most importantly, Christ expressly forbid it. Ecclesiastical government and worldly government are explicitly distinguished from one another, and the Church is not to pattern their form of government after civil rule. Worldly governments make decisions for the people. In some cases, worldly governments seek the consensus of the people, at times even allowing for a vote at their discretion. Voting privileges are quite frequent in some governments, but even with those, the privilege of voting is afforded the people by the government leadership. Are these aspects of civil government that should be part of a local church? What does the Bible actually say on this matter?

Astonishingly, not one clear instance of church leadership suffrage without the suffrage of the whole church , except through direct revelation of God, is ever found in Scripture. Interesting, in his book, Biblical Eldership, Alexander Strauch writes,

“. . . the New Testament provides no example of elders appointing elders, perpetuation of the eldership is implied in the elders’ role as congregational shepherds, stewards, and overseers. Perpetuating the eldership is a major aspect of church leadership responsibility.”33

Even an author supporting elder rule admits that there is no Scriptural example of elders appointing elders. How can an aspect of the church that is so pivotal and utterly crucial to the life of a church be merely “implied” in Scripture? Granted, the Scriptures do not lay out church government in encyclopedic fashion, but the only biblical examples of church officer election always involve selection by the whole church.

Three Clear Examples From Acts.

Example 1. The first of these examples can be found in Acts 1:15-26. Here we find that the apostles have returned to Jerusalem. In these verses Peter explains to a body of approximately “120 persons” (v. 15) that Judas Iscariot must be replaced. If church leadership carries the final authority for selecting new leadership, then why did Peter bother to (a) explain the situation to over one hundred “brothers,” (b) have the group as a whole put forward Barsabbas and Matthias as candidates, and (c) have the group as a whole cast lots to determine who was to be the replacement apostle? Didn’t the apostles have the authority within themselves to replace Judas? This question is not answered in the text, but what is clearly illustrated in this example is that this group of brothers (which included the apostles) in Jerusalem wholly participated in the selection of church leadership.

Late pastor and theologian J. L. Reynolds agrees on the matter:

If the apostles had considered themselves authorized, in any case, to act upon their own responsibility, it would have been on this occasion, when a vacancy was to be supplied in their own body. But we hear nothing of the apostolic power of appointment. They settle at the outset the principle which is to determine such matters, by committing the choice of an apostle, under God, to the people. The Church at Jerusalem was vested with the appointing power. Even if this extraordinary case were an exception, it would not negative the evidence in favor of popular suffrage, which is derived from other instances.34 (bold, italics added)

Example 2. The second example can be found in Acts 6:1-6. This is, of course, the most well known passage used to support congregational participation in the election of church leaders. As tritely used as it may be, it is nonetheless Scripture and therefore worthy of the same consideration as any other biblical text. There are at least two very important points to consider in this passage. (1) As with the previous example, the whole body of believers consented together to choose (not affirm) seven men of service. (2) It is clear that the apostles offered a solution that the body not only submitted to, but was also “pleased” with. Verse 5 says, “And what they said pleased the whole gathering. . .” Broken down, the pattern of the situation goes something like the following: ‘The church leadership called for a change in leadership based on the concern that they were lacking in their service. The body was pleased with what the apostles had to say. The body submitted to their leadership. The body voted on seven men. The apostles also approved of the men.’ While this scenario may not set the exact pattern for choosing church leadership today, the very least that this passage offers is a clear example that the whole congregation (including the apostles) bore its own responsibility in the selection of its leaders.

Example 3. The third example is found in Acts 15:1-35. In this example we see the two churches making two different decisions of consent as a body. In this chapter, Paul and Barnabas have experienced “no small dissension” (v. 2) with the some who were arguing for the necessity of circumcision. This was confusing the church body at Antioch where Paul and Barnabas were ministering. To deal with this problem, the whole church at Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem for help. The involvement of the entire congregation in this decision is plainly stated in verse 3 which states, “So, being sent on their way by the church. . .” The church participated together in the call for help.  That the delegation was sent to the elders and apostles in Jerusalem (v. 2) does not establish a lack of congregational involvement; rather, this is a clear case of one church applying to its sister church for clarification on an important doctrinal issue.  As the elders are the spiritual guardians and shepherds of the souls of the flock, they are obvious targets for wisdom regarding a spiritual issue.  The important thing to notice here is that the congregation was an active part of the request.  In response to the Antioch church’s call for aid, the Jerusalem church responded with two solutions.  (1) They responded with James’s apostolic “judgment” (v. 19). This is an action that was reached through the deliberation of apostles and elders together. It is difficult, then, to use this scenario as an example of elders making an important decision without the consent of the whole church, since the elders in this group also benefited from apostolic authority. (2) Moreover, the second response from Jerusalem was explicitly reached along with the willful consent of the whole church, as stated in verse 22 which reads, “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.” Again, we have another clear example of the whole church participating and deciding together in an important act of church life. Even though the Jerusalem church was blessed with the leadership of divinely-led apostles, the whole church still actively participated in the response to select delegates for the church at Antioch. The fact that apostles decided together with the whole church seems to significantly strengthen the importance of the whole body making important choices together. If any body of men in church history was qualified to make decisions apart from the will of the entire congregation, surely the Spirit-filled apostles would have fit the bill!  Yet, despite their divinely-led office, they brought the matter before the congregation, and they did what seemed good not only to themselves, but also to the whole church. J. L. Reynolds agrees:

The position which I have taken is confirmed by the fact that even in the appointment of individuals to less important duties than those which appertain to official station in the Church, the apostles invited the counsel and cooperation of the brethren, and submitted to their choice. Acts 15: 22–29, (comp. II. Cor. 8: 19,) records an instance of the election of delegates . . .  The letter which they bore was addressed in the name of “the apostles and elders and brethren,” evincing the participation of the Church in the Mission to Antioch.35 (emphasis added)

 Royal Priesthood. To further extend the discussion of Acts 15:1-35 above, it is important to ask the following question: Why would the apostles invite “the counsel and cooperation of the brethren” in the selection of persons with no “official station in the Church” when they had apostolic authority? If anyone had the authority to choose non-officer church representatives, the apostles did! Why, then, did they work alongside the brethren to select the delegates? Perhaps they did so because of the understanding the apostles had of the “temple” or “priesthood” of the church. For instance, the apostle Peter wrote in 1 Peter 2:

And coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected by men, but choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

Apostle Paul uses remarkably similar language in Ephesians 2:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Thus, it is important to have the mindset that a single local body is not merely different compartments of ministers and laypersons. Biblical language describes the church as “a spiritual house for a holy priesthood” and a body that “grows into a holy temple.” The whole body serves as a spiritual organism that grows together–or backslides together. Paul even writes in 1 Corinthians 12:26, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” When one part of the body suffers, the whole body is held accountable. When Paul scolded the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 5:4-5, he held responsible not merely the church leadership, but the entire church for not having exercised church discipline. If the elders were responsible for “determining” if church discipline was necessary, then Paul should have rebuked only the elders, since the church would have never been granted the opportunity to exercise necessary discipline. Yet Paul rebukes the entire body! We see another example of this in Revelation 3:14-22 in the letter to the church at Laodicea where God rebukes the entire body for their “lukewarm” nature. God holds the entire church responsible for their state of health, because together they are a holy priesthood, a temple of the Lord and a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. If the church, the holy priesthood, then, is accountable to itself before God, then to place the elders in a position where they make decisions pertaining to the growth of the body without the rest of the church is to cut off part of the church from its own accountability before God. It’s like removing a vital organ from the human body. John Piper explains,

Under Christ the local congregation is the final authority in the church. . . What I mean is that under Christ–his word and his Spirit–the congregation, and not pastors or elders or deacons or bishops or popes, is the body that settles matters of faith and life. This is not only implied in the priesthood of all believers, but illustrated in Matthew 18:15-17 where the church is the last court of appeal in church discipline . . . So far then, Christ is the head of the church. All members of his body are priests and ministers. And therefore these members, as a congregation, are the final authority in the church under Christ, that is under his word and Spirit.36 (bold added)

As the royal priesthood, the whole church body together is accountable for its actions directly under the authority of Christ. If the elders decide while the congregation merely affirms, the unity of the priesthood directly under Christ’s authority is broken, since only part of the body is taking the role of a priesthood under God’s authority. To place the church’s accountability before God in only part of the priesthood is to prevent the other part of the body from their role in the church!  Elder rule proposes: “The congregation places themselves under the authority of the elders; the elders place themselves under the authority of God; the elders make a decision; the congregation affirms.” The biblical model proposes: “The whole church, with the leadership of the elders, places themselves under the authority of God; the whole church makes a decision (of course with the guidance and wisdom of the elders).” The elders do not represent the church before God. The church represents the church as a priesthood before God!  Distorting the immediacy of access and responsibility that New Testament believers have before God is a deeply disturbing concept.  The lack of hierarchy separating God and man is one of the most strikingly beautiful distinctions between Christianity and many false religions.

Four More Examples of Congregationalism, Regarding Discipline.

Example 4. The fourth example comes from Galatians 1. In this famous text, Paul is scolding the Galatian church for “deserting him who called [them] in the grace of Christ and…turning to a different gospel” (v. 6). Paul is so emphatic about the purity and truth of the gospel already preached to them by Paul that he uses a highly dramatic statement to bring across his point. He states, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (v. 8-9). Who is Paul rebuking? Who is Paul telling to exercise cursing against heresy? His charge–his entire epistle–is not merely to the church leadership, but rather to the entirety of the church. Paul is rebuking the whole church because as a body they are falling prey to false doctrine. What is his solution? Does he ask for the elders to reject the heretic so that the church can affirm the decision? No, Paul says that if anyone is preaching to you (the church at Galatia!) a different gospel, you let him be accursed! Whether the heresy comes from a lay person, an elder, an apostle, or even an angel, the solution is for the church as a collective whole, as Paul is addressing here, to reject the false teacher and have nothing to do with him. Especially worthy of note is that Paul explicitly includes sources from which heresy could never come–Spirit-filled apostles and even angels from heaven itself.  Paul vividly demonstrates that rank or office confer no special protection against the discipline process of the congregation, placing even himself under its authority.  Mark Dever agrees,

Paul implicitly taught the Galatians in Galatians 1 that the final court to settle disagreements in matters of doctrine is the congregation. Paul exhorted these young Christians in Galatia, that even if he—an apostle!—should come and preach a different gospel than the one they had already accepted, then they should reject him, or whoever the errant missionary is. It is interesting that Paul said this to young Christians—he wasn’t writing to the elders. And he was writing about the matters of the most theological importance—the gospel itself! And yet, he resided his trust in them. They knew the gospel that had saved them! The cognitive content of the gospel is more significant than even claims to apostolic call, let alone succession! And Paul assumes that that message is perspicuous, even to young believers.37 (bold added)

Example 5. The fifth example can be found in 1 Corinthians 5:4-5. In this well-known passage, Paul is dealing with an incestuous relationship within the Corinthian church. He is disturbed that the church has not already taken the appropriate action. In verse 1 he writes, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans . . .” Paul was astonished that the church continued to “tolerate” this sinful behavior. Paul then tells them that they are to do what they should have done already. He says in verses 4 and 5, “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”  Paul says that the discipline must be carried out “when you are assembled.”  Not that the discipline would be predetermined by the elders and then announced or affirmed by the congregation, but that the actual delivery of the man to Satan would happen when the congregation is assembled.  The “you” Paul is commanding refers to the entire church–Paul didn’t just write his epistle to the elders at Corinth; he addressed himself to the congregation, “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together” (1 Corinthians 1:2).  His command here is not a special aside to the elders, and the discipline was not to be examined by the church leadership first in any regard. The instructions for discipline were laid upon the responsibility of the whole church. Mark Dever follows,

Paul taught the Corinthians in I Corinthians 5 that the final court to settle matters of discipline is the congregation. Paul writes about the scandalous situation in the Corinthian church, and he writes not just to the pastor or leadership, but to the whole congregation! He tells the whole congregation that they are to act, and to continue to act in not associating with this man.38

Example 6. In his second letter addressed to the church at Corinth (“with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia”, 2 Corinthians 1:1, again explicitly not just the leadership), Paul writes about the aftermath of church discipline that had been exercised by the church. After a period of rejection toward the offender, Paul encourages the church to “reaffirm your love for him.” In verses 6-7 he explains why, “For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” The church as a whole had punished the offender, and now, as a body, the church is being encouraged by Paul to reinstate its love for the offender. Again, we see yet another example of church discipline where the elders do not first determine if discipline is necessary. In fact, church leadership has not even been mentioned in these three very serious cases of church discipline. This is certainly important. Of course the elders, as those who keep “watch over . . . souls” (Hebrews 13:17), are to be a crucial part in exercising wisdom in church discipline, but it is apparent from this example and the others that the elders are included with the whole church body to exercise church discipline together. John Gill expounds the Greek text as follows:

[The punishment was inflicted] not by the pastor only, or by the elders or more eminent persons in the church, but by the multitude, by the whole congregation, at least υπο των πλειονων, “by the more”; the greater, or major part; and not by one, or a few only: in inflicting this punishment, or laying on this censure in the public manner they did, they were certainly right, and to be commended; but inasmuch as there appeared signs of true repentance, it was sufficient, it had answered the purpose for which it was inflicted, and therefore it was high time to remove it: from whence we learn, that in case of gross enormities, there ought to be a public excommunication; and that this is to be done by the vote, and with the consent of the whole church, or the major part of it; and that in process of time, when the person thus dealt with has given the church satisfaction as to the truth and genuineness of his repentance, the censure ought to be taken off and he be cordially received into the communion of the church again. This “punishment”, or “rebuke”, επιτιμια, “by many”, is the same which the Jews call  התוכחה ברבים, “a reproof by many”; which is given by many, or in the presence of many.39 (bold added)

Example 7. If there is any question remaining regarding the process of church discipline, Matthew 18:15-17 divides the process of church discipline into three very clear, separate steps. Step 1: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” Step 2: “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” Step 3: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” It is clear that the first step is a more private confrontation, the second step is confrontation along with the presence of one or two others, and the final step is confrontation along with the whole church. There is no room, then, for the insertion of a step in church discipline that requires the matter to be brought to the elders before being brought to the church. After the matter is confronted with witnesses, to whom does the passage say that the matter is to be brought? Is it the elders? Clearly not. The matter is to be brought before ekklesia, the assembly, the church. There is no other possible meaning for this Greek word. Again, the church leadership would be intimately involved in these three steps of discipline, but for the elders to act as an in-between step before bringing the matter to the church is not warranted in any of the previous three passages we have looked at, and it is explicitly unwarranted in Matthew 18:15-17. Mark Dever again agrees,

Jesus taught His followers in Matthew 18 that the final court for matters of disputes between brothers was the congregation. So we read in Matt. 18:15-17 that the final step is to “tell it” he said, not to the elders…but to the ekklesia, that’s the church, or the congregation, as Tyndale translated it – the assembly.40

Scholar D. A. Carson also agrees,

. . . in Matthew 18, the Lord Jesus insists that when things come down to the crunch, you tell the conflict to the church. You tell it to the church – for not only is there wisdom in the whole church, but there is a final sanction in the whole church.41

So we have seven total examples where Christian church bodies made important decisions of consent. The first three examples dealt with church suffrage of officers. In the first example, we see that the body put forth two candidates to replace Judas as an apostle, then cast lots together. In the second example, the body was pleased to choose seven men of service according to the wise guidance of the apostles. In the third example, we see one church deciding together to request help from one church which, in turn, chooses together to provide delegates for aid.      With regard to the church and discipline, we have seen four examples where the body was not only allowed but commanded to exercise church discipline. The first three examples stated involve the instruction of apostle Paul. In Galatians 1, he puts his teaching under the authority, accountability, and discipline of the whole church. The second example displays Paul’s passionate plea for the entire church at Corinth to exercise discipline against a sexual offender. The third example is the instruction of Paul to the entire Corinthian church to reaffirm their love for an offender that “the majority” had exercised punishment against. The fourth example presents instructions by Christ for church discipline in a three-step division. None of the examples and certainly none of the steps found in Matthew 18 involve bringing the matter solely to the elders.

Responses to Scriptural Arguments for Elder Rule

John 21:16. The relevant text in this verse used to support elder rule is “Tend [or feed] my sheep.” The proposed idea is that it is most sensible in the shepherd/sheep analogy for shepherds to make the decisions for the sheep. While a purely congregational government is clearly contrary to Scripture, and indeed it doesn’t make sense for the sheep to lead the shepherds, as shown above through Scripture, however, the elders shepherd the church through their leadership, guidance, and example, yet ultimately the responsibility for the church’s vitality or waywardness lies with the church as a whole.  It’s important not to read too much into the analogy of sheep and shepherd by using human logic, especially when Scripture elucidates the matter more fully.  Jesus’ command to Peter speaks of nothing concerning congregational involvement, and to attempt reading such into this text is eisegesis, particularly in consideration of other biblical examples.

Acts 14:23. The relevant text here is “[Paul and Barnabas] appointed elders for them in every church.” The argument for elder rule with this verse is that it supports the idea of elders appointing themselves. There are two problems with this proposition: (1) We cannot use examples of apostolic appointment, since they were under direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit. God has not seen fit to grant us this option of leadership during the post-apostolic period. (2) Even if the apostles did not always make appointments under direct influence of the Holy Spirit, we have no clear biblical examples where any type of church leadership appoint church leadership without church consent unless guided by direct revelation! In fact, we have already seen in Acts 1 and 15 where the apostles even worked together with the church body to choose an apostle and delegates of aid. These arguments apply respectively to Acts 13, Acts 15 (directly addressed above also),  Titus 1:5, 1 Timothy 4:14, 1 Timothy 5:17, 2 Timothy 2:2, and 1 Peter 5 which have also been used to support elder rule.  Throughout all of these texts, it is vital not to confuse the offices of elder with apostle (or even direct apostolic guidance, as with Timothy).  When Scripture gives clear instruction, as in the case of church government, then grasping at examples that don’t clearly parallel to the post-Pentecostal church age and elevating them above Scripture’s more directly relevant examples and clear instructive commands is a grave error.

3 Mark Dever, Baptists and Elders, accessed online April 5, 2007, http://www.9marks.org/CC/article/0,,PTID314526%7CCHID598016%7CCIID1744980,00.html

4 John Piper, Biblical Eldership, accessed online April 1, 2007, http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/TopicIndex/40/1586_Biblical_Eldership/

5 D.A. Carson, Defining Elders, accessed online April 5, 2007, http://www.9marks.org/CC/article/0,,PTID314526%7CCHID598016%7CCIID2157886,00.html

6 Phil Newton, Elders in Congregregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership. (Kregel Publications: Grand Rapids, 2005). p. 57.

7 C. H. Spurgeon, The Church Conservative and Aggressive, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, volume 7, pp. 658-659.

8 J.L. Reynolds, Church Polity or The Kingdom of Christ, in its Internal and External Development. (Harrold & Murray: Boston, 1849).

9 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, accessed online April 1, 2007, http://www.vor.org/truth/1689/1689bc00.html.

10 1742 Philadelphia Confession of Faith, accessed online April 1, 2007, http://www.reformedreader.org/ccc/pctoc.htm.

11 Jonathan Edwards, accessed online April 2, 2007, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Edwards

12 John Gill, Exposition of the New Testament (Streamwood, IL: Primitive Baptist Library, [1809] 1979)

13 Ibid.

14 Matthew Henry, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments. (Philadelphia: Towar & Hogan, 1828).

15 Eusebius, Hist. eccl. IV. 23:11

16 Cyril C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers. (Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1953). accessed online April 1, 2007, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/richardson/fathers.vi.i.i.html. pp. 34-39.

17 The First Epistle of Clement 5:1

18 Clement 44

19 Ibid.

20 Clement 44:2

21 Clement 44:3

22 Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, pp.162-166.

23 Phillip Schaff, Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, (Christian Literature Publishing Co.: New York, 1892), p. 552.

24 Ibid.

25 Didache 14:1-15:2

26 Pontus the Deacon, Vita Caecilii Cypriani, accessed online April 3, 2007, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0505.htm.

27 Philip Schaff, Eusebius Pamphilius: Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine, (Christian Literature Publishing Co.: 1890), p. 275.

28 John Gill, A Body of Practical Divinity, (Baptist Standard Bearer: Paris, Arkansas, [1770] 2000), accessed online April 1, 2007, http://www.pbministries.org/books/gill/Practical_Divinity/Book_2/book2_03.htm.

29 W.H.W. Fanning, W. H. W. “Papal Elections.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XI. (Robert Appleton Company: New York, 1911)

30 Ibid.

31 Joseph Henry Thayer, Thayer’s Lexicon, (Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, MA, [1887]1996).

32 Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament, (Kregel Publications: Grand Rapids, 1962).

33 Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call To Restore Biblical Church Leadership, (Lewis & Roth Publishers: Grand Rapids, 1991),p. 278.

34 Reynolds, Church Polity

35 Reynolds, Church Polity

36 John Piper, “Who Are the Elders?”, (1991) accessed online April 2, 2007, http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/TopicIndex/40/761_Who_Are_the_Elders/.

37 Dever, “Baptists and Elders.”

38 Ibid.

39 John Gill, An Exposition of the New Testament, (Mathews & Leigh: London, 1809).

40 Mark Dever, “Baptists and Elders”.

41 Ibid.






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