Authority in the Local Church—A Comparative Study | Part 3

This is the third of four posts on the subject of church polity, probably better known to you as ‘church governance’. In the first post I set out the parameters and agenda for this comparative study. Behind my arguments are four foundational assumptions.

First, polity/church authority is inevitable: decisions have to made, the church is called to render judgments on behalf of heaven. But who does and says what is what is contested.

Secondly, polity/church authority is therefore important; it matters. These decisions and judgments are no small matter but reflect the authority of Christ on earth; polity is something we should carefully consider if we have never considered it before.

Third, the New Testament doesn’t offer a diverse polity that can be applied here but not there; the structures we see in Scripture are to be the structures for the church today; they are binding and prescriptive.

Fourth, all of this is to be understood in light of Jesus Christ as the head of the church; he is her ultimate authority and ruler and all earthly church authority (what we’re looking at in these posts) is to fall under and in submission to Jesus.

In in the second post we began the comparative study by surveying the Episcopal and Presbyterian models of church authority. Both seem to locate earthly church authority to a structure or person outside of the local assembly. Let’s now move to consider two more models of church authority, the elder-rule and the elder-led, congregational-rule models.

The Elder-Rule Model

In stark contrast to the Episcopal and Presbyterian polity models, the elder-rule model primarily emphasises the autonomy of local churches. What does this mean? Basically there is no authority that acts directly on a single gathered assembly of believers.

What does this actually look like? Elder-rule advocates contend that the final authority belongs to the elders of an independent church.[1] Unlike bishops over a diocese, or a General Assembly over entire nations, “elders represent the highest level of spiritual authority within the local church.”[2] It is believed that the elders of a given church are called to take primary responsibility for serving and leading God’s people. In matters of faith and practice, it is the elders, commonly existing as a plurality, but not always, who admit and exclude members, exercise church discipline, and establish sound doctrine, free from any external forces or binding commitments like a bishop or presbytery.

Where is this in the Bible? The Scriptural support for this model is found in passages such as Acts 20:28, where Paul states that the Holy Spirit made the Ephesian elders overseers. Additionally, Hebrews 13:17 admonishes the church to “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” From these verses, and others like them (see Heb 13:7, 24; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:2; Tit 1:7; Acts 20:17) it appears that elders are given the primary authority and responsibility for those within their local assemblies.

But what about Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council? Acts 15 and the co-operation seen between the churches are understood to be ad hoc and not normative, meaning it was a once off event and not something that churches today are forced to continue. Churches are instead encouraged to enjoy voluntary association with one another—but no formal authority exists between churches.


In the elder-rule model, churches are encouraged to enjoy voluntary association with one another—but no formal authority exists between churches.


The Elder-Led Congregational Model

Finally, the elder-led congregational model works on a similar foundation as the elder-rule model except that it presents a more nuanced position. It essentially distinguishes between two types of authority given to the local church: the elders and the congregation.

What does this actually look like? Advocates of this position say that the Bible gives final authority to both the gathered congregation (normal church members) as led by the pastors or elders.[3] These authorities are asymmetrical in their capacity: the types of authority or roles given to these two parties are not identical, but rather serve specific functions.

Jonathan Leeman defines this asymmetry in terms (1) having authority of command, and (2) having an authority of counsel.[4] The gathered congregation’s authority is the first type: the authority of command. They are called and equipped to render judgments on behalf of heaven, by virtue that the gathered assembly possesses the keys of the kingdom (see Matt 16:15–20 and 18:15–20). On the other hand, the elders/pastors have the authority of counsel. Their authority exists in their capacity to woo, teach, train, admonish and instruct the congregation. It is not necessarily an authority that renders a judgment from heaven on earth since elders do not possess the keys of the kingdom.



The elders’ authority exists in their capacity to woo, teach, train, admonish and instruct the congregation.


What does history have to say? Those in favour of this position typically maintain that it was the initial polity of the early church during the apostolic era, and that as early as the second century, authority structures started shifting from the congregations to a form of episcopalianism.[5]

Pivotal to grasping this model is that the congregation and the elders work together within their respective authorities: every believer is responsible for proclaiming and protecting both the gospel message and the gospel people (see Matt 16:15–20; 18:15–20; 1 Cor 5; 2 Cor 5:19; 6:16) and elders are given to the church to equip every believer for this very task (see Eph 4:11–16; 1 Thess 5:12).

Inherently, the assumption undergirding this position is that church government is more about discipleship then mere decision making: members of each gathered church are responsible for maintaining each others’ purity and consecration to the Lord. Such a task is not merely the work of Sunday, but from Monday to Sunday. In other words, polity should flow from the gospel itself and the nature of the New Covenant. On this basis, then, polity is not contingent on culture or time, but is inextricably tied to the gospel itself, since the gospel makes certain demands on the saints and their life together.[6]


Church polity should flow from the gospel itself and the nature of the New Covenant.


WATCH THIS SPACE…

Keep an eye out for the fourth and final post in this series where I’ll be evaluating the four models of church polity.


[1] Leeman, Understanding the Congregation’s Authority, 3.

[2] John F. MacArthur and Richard Mayhue, Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 768.

[3] Leeman, Understanding the Congregation’s Authority, 3.

[4] Ibid., 45.

[5] Dever, By Whose Authority?, 13–14.

[6] Leeman, Understanding the Congregation’s Authority, 7.

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