Part Two: Church Authority and Conclusion
Last time… In the last post, we began to consider whether or not the Bible provides a clear structure for the church. Specifically we examined what the Bible says about the leadership offices: Elders (or overseers or pastors), and Deacons. This time, we’ll look at the issue of church authority.
From the last post, I already posited one thing about authority: the deacons are not an authoritative office, except so far as they’re given specific and limited oversight of certain tasks as delegated by the elders. This leaves us with the question: does church authority rest with the elders or the congregation? As we will see, the answer is “with both.”
From my last post, we saw that the elders provide oversight and shepherd. Both these terms imply leadership authority. One who gives oversight is one who provides supervision. An elder in a church provides an oversight akin to the care a father exercises managing his home (1 Timothy 3). But there is a balance here: a father who does not have authority over his family is weak, but a father who acts as a dictator is harsh and unloving. So it is with elders in a church.
Likewise a shepherd in biblical times stood out in front of the flock and led them. But again this leadership is one of love: he led them, calling out to them, to come to green pastures to eat and to still waters to drink. If a sheep wandered, he went after it and brought it back. If a wolf or another enemy of the sheep attacked, he fought to protect the sheep. If the sheep was hurting, he cared for it and tended its wounds. An elder then leads by words (teaching—which is food and drink from Jesus) and example (1 Peter 5), an elder chases after the wandering in hopes to bring them back, he tends to the wounds of the hurting through prayer and counsel (James 5), and he fights off the rabid and often deceptive enemies of the church (Acts 20).
And in all of this, an elder has authority. A father overseeing his family might listen to their say but he sets the direction. And a shepherd certainly doesn’t follow the sheep to green pastures.
In this sense the Bible reminds the congregation to respect, esteem, and love its leaders (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13), and to submit to their leadership (Hebrews 13:17). The church entrusts authority to their leaders to lead and make decisions.
Yet this does not equate to a blind following on the part of the church or a dictatorial rule on the part of the leaders. As we saw in the previous post, the church is the one who tests, appoints, and even dismisses elders. But this isn’t the only thing the congregation does. For while leadership authority is given to the elders, authority over all things are not given to the elders.
In Matthew 18 we find one of two mentions in the gospels of the church. Jesus places it in the context of what to do when a brother sins against you. First you try to deal with it on your own, and if that doesn’t work you take two or three others with you. But if that still doesn’t bring about repentance, “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.” Jesus follows this by declaring the authority two or three have when they are gathered in his name. Simply put: the congregation alone has the authority to determine its own membership. The process Jesus describes ultimately determines whether or not a person belongs to the church body. No single person has the authority to remove another from the church. The converse of that would be to say that no single person has the authority to approve a person into membership. Whatever the church binds and looses on earth shall be bound and loosed in heaven. Elders then may make suggestions about membership but they cannot determine membership, only the congregation has such authority.
In Acts 6 the Apostles functioning as elders determined the solution of the problem presented, and determined the number of men needed to serve as these proto-deacons, but the congregation was ultimately responsible to choose which men would serve. Again, another aspect of their authority. (We’ve already explored this in the previous post so I won’t dwell more here).
The congregation is also ultimately responsible for maintaining sound doctrine. While the elders teach and declare things of sound doctrine and help protect against error, the church ultimately bears its own responsibility for distinguishing between true and false teaching. In Acts 15 a theological question arose concerning the Gentiles. The Apostles and elders of Jerusalem met together and presented a set of doctrines in response. And it was with the approval of the church they gave their reply (15:22). When Paul chastises the churches of Galatia for turning to a different gospel, he does not single out the leadership but speaks to the whole church. When Jesus instructs John to write to the seven churches, he speaks to a messenger (an angel) of the church, but all chastisements for false doctrine or a lack of good works are made to the congregations as wholes. Indeed, most of the New Testament letters, while at times speaking to or about church leaders, were primarily written to the whole church.
So what is the general pattern we see?
- Congregations have the authority to determine its membership and remove unrepentant members.
- Congregations have the authority to select and appoint their own leaders.
- Congregations have the authority to interpret what they believe to be good doctrine and are ultimately responsible for maintaining such doctrine.
- Elders have the authority to oversee and shepherd, and congregations are called to submit.
Thus, elders are authorities in the church that lead through word, example, and vision and the congregation is expected to follow; but the elders are also kept in check in that they are appointed by the church and can be disciplined and removed by the church. A group of elders can also keep each other accountable, but if a church feels an elder (or group of elders) are leading in a way contrary to love, the will of Jesus, and sound doctrine then the church removes them. Likewise, congregations have authority over their own body to determine membership, appoint and remove leaders, and interpret doctrine.
This Biblical pattern is that churches are both congregational and elder-led, and both of these authorities have their boundaries, duties, and limitations. These authorities must work together in proper balance. Elders should not over step their bounds, but churches should not rely heavily upon business meetings and committees to help provide leadership, make daily decisions (not involving things of congregational authority), and set vision in lieu of the leadership of elders.
Yet even with this pattern there are issues today the Bible does not address, such as buildings, budgets, use of different programs, particular associations with other churches, etc. In these cases, the congregation working with the leadership of their elders must determine the best course of action. For example: a church may choose to vote on a yearly budget or it might leave budgeting in the hands of the elders, etc. We might debate the wisdom of one over the other, but both are biblically valid.
While some gray areas exist here, the biblical pattern is clear: the elders have their particular authority, the congregation also has theirs and they work together as a family/household to do the work of God in the world.
Some questions for thought with this:
1. Churches are to trust and follow the leadership they have appointed. Some churches do this, but many also seemingly neuter pastoral leadership by requiring most if not all of their decisions to be approved via committees, councils, and/or business meetings. While the Bible presents a balance of authority between congregations and elders, why do certain congregations emphasize their own authority over that of the elders? Is this truly any more biblical than non-congregational churches where the elders rule and the congregation has little to no authority?
2. This seems more true in smaller Southern Baptist churches, but many view business meetings as a part of congregationalism and to lose such meetings is to lose congregationalism. While there are some examples of congregational meetings to determine a certain item (Acts 6, selecting deacons; Acts 15, giving approval to doctrine), there is no evidence this is a normal function of the New Testament church. Why then do we make it such an important part of modern day congregationalism? Is there not a better way to practice biblical congregationalism and trust in godly leadership?
Two blog posts will not give an exhaustive treatment of ecclesiology and church polity, but I do strongly believe the Bible provides certain particulars in the realm of church structure and governance.
Elders have particular tasks and authority, deacons are given delegated roles, and the congregation has an authority of its own.
Save for the Apostles, we don’t see a greater authority over groups of churches, so each church should be autonomous under God’s Word in its governance. But there are guidelines concerning this governance. While we do have some gray areas and areas of freedom, I think the Bible is clear enough in its descriptions with no clear alternative descriptions to give a mandated pattern (or: prescription) even without a “Book of By-Laws.”
The question we should ask when a church begins to operate outside the biblical pattern is: What biblical reason do we have to deviate? Even if we say, “It’s a description not a prescription,” we must ask: does the Bible give us freedom through other descriptions? And if we have none, then is it right in an issue as important as church leadership and governance to create our own models? I have a difficult time saying “yes” to that.