Church polity, or church government, is not the most glamorous of topics. It could be argued that this is due, at least in part, to a misunderstanding of the model that Jesus gave for the structure of His church.
Just to state the obvious, there are different views and interpretations as to how this structure ought to look, otherwise, all church governments would look the same. However, at Gospelway, we believe that the biblical case can be made for a model that has been termed “elder-led congregationalism”.
Understanding the Parts
- Who are the elders?
In short, Elders are pastors. Elders (πρεσβύτερος) is the word most often used in the New Testament to refer to those qualified men who lead/oversee a local assembly and this office is most often found in plurality. (Acts 11:30; 14:2; 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4; 20:17, 28; 21:18, Phil. 1:1, 1 Tim 5:17, Titus 1:5, Jas 5:14, 1 Pet 5:1-2)
This is not to say that a church will not have a specific pastor who is most visible and does a majority of the teaching. However, he is still simply chief among equals. He may have more responsibility, but he does not wield more authority than his fellow elders.
Further, the elders of an assembly are distinct from the deacons. The primary task of a deacon is to help meet the physical & material needs of the assembly, as the name deacon means servant. To put it simply, the elders are the overseers of the church, and the deacons are the servants of the church.
- Who is the congregation?
A congregation is the visible believers that have agreed to come together with one another, in unity around their shared faith in the good news of Jesus Christ. They have committed to love one another, build each other up, and bear the burdens of one another.
Understanding the Function
- What is elder-led congregationalism?
To understand this mode of church government, we must understand the biblical mandates of responsibility that are given to the church.
As explained by pastor Marc Minter, “In an elder-led congregational polity (actually in any church polity), the question is not which group is over the other, nor is it a matter of greater or lesser authority. In elder-led congregationalism, responsibility and authority are based on complementary biblical assignments summarized by distinct job descriptions.
The question is NOT: Who is responsible? Or Who is in charge?
The question IS: Who is responsible for what? Or Who is in charge of what?”
The Scriptures are clear as to the responsibility that is laid at the feet of the church as a whole. Church members are to affirm the gospel and to affirm those that claim to be believers of the gospel. As explained in his book, Understanding the Congregation’s Authority, editor Jonathan Leeman writes that members of a church are responsible for the what and the who of the gospel.
- The congregation affirms the what of the gospel
In the book of Galatians, we read where the apostle Paul tells the churches that are in Galatia to get rid of anyone who preaches a wrong gospel (Gal. 1:6-9). Paul says that the church, not the leaders, should have nothing to do with anyone, whether it is an apostle or an angel, who preaches a distorted gospel. Paul insinuates in this passage that the church outranks angels and even the apostles if the gospel is being compromised.
- The congregation affirms the who of the gospel
In Matthew 18, the task of the church entrance and exit is given to the congregation of the church (v. 15-18) If someone is living in, or committing a public, perpetual, and unrepentant sin, Jesus calls the church to remove them. It should be noted that the church cannot give a person citizenship in the kingdom of heaven, nor can they take it away, but they have been given the authority to declare/affirm, who is and who is not living in a way that accords with the gospel standards of the kingdom of heaven.
1 Corinthians 5 gives another example of the responsibility of the congregation to remove those that are living in contradiction to the gospel. Note that Paul tells the church, not the elders, to remove people from a gospel-affirming assembly.
When these biblically given responsibilities are taken from the ones to whom they were given and are handed solely to a group of elders, it not only contradicts scripture but weakens the church’s ability to discern the purity of the gospel.
- The congregation bears burdens and builds up
The corporate nature of the epistles cannot be ignored when looking at the responsibility of an assembly. To again quote Jonathan Leeman:
“The job here is bigger than showing up at members’ meetings and voting on new members. It involves working to know and be known by your fellow members seven days a week. You cannot affirm and give oversight to people you don’t know, not with integrity anyhow. That does not mean that you are responsible for personally knowing every member of your church. We do this work collectively. But look for ways to start including more of your fellow members into the regular rhythm of your life.”
The job of every church member is to know one another, bear one another’s burdens, and identify and stir up the gifts that God has given for the building up of the church. (Gal. 6:2, 1 Thess. 5:11, 2 Tim. 1:6
As is the case with all church members, elders may do all sorts of tasks. But elders also have clear responsibilities that are spelled out in Scripture.
If we survey the passages in the New Testament, we will find scripture that explicitly gives authority to the congregation, but we will also find texts that give authority to the elders or overseers of the church. Acts 20 says that overseers were appointed by the Spirit. Hebrews 13 calls believers to joyfully submit to those that watch over their souls, and in 1 Peter 5, the apostle calls the elders to oversee and lead the congregation.
- Elders have the authority to lead
The elders have been instructed to lead the flock of God, but Peter is clear in chapter 5 of his first epistle that they are not to lord over the flock. Peter is telling God’s shepherds that they have no power over the congregation. They have been given to authority to counsel, but not command; to instruct but not imposed; to exhort, but not enforce.
This is one of the main reasons that Paul tells Timothy that an elder must be “apt to teach”. Whether through his character or his words, leading only authority that the elder has been given.
- The elders have the responsibility to teach.
The elders of the church have the responsibility to teach (show) the congregation how to use the keys that Christ has given to them. (Matt 18)
A fitness instructor that merely told you what to do or how to do it, would be a poor excuse for an instructor and would likely never see any real results. However, elders have been given the expressed responsibility to train the congregation by showing, displaying, and guiding the congregation.
Just as Paul gives expressed reasons that an elder is apt to teach, he also tells Timothy that an elder is not to be a novice. If a man does not know the how and what of the gospel himself, the results of his teaching will end in damage and disaster.
Putting everything together
When the components of elder-led congregationalism are put together, the church has a congregation that has been given the job of guarding the purity of the gospel, discerning those who believe the gospel, and building up one another in the gospel.
The elders have a job of leading and teaching the congregation how this is done, and the deacons have the job of serving the needs of the church as they do it.
Much more could be said on this topic, but in short, because we strive to be biblical and because we are Baptist, Gospelway has chosen Elder-Led Congregationalism as the form of church government under which we reside.
*Although not explicitly cited, much of this articulation is due to the work of Jonathan Leeman and his book on Elder-Led Congregationalism. In addition, Marc Minter’s blog posts at MarcMinter.com were also used as a resource.