Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Q&A: Should the Church be led by Elders or by the Congregation?

Question: Should the church be led by Elders or by the Congregation?

Answer:  The short answer to that question is simply "yes".** Scripture clearly teaches that the congregation must (a) submit to its leaders on many matters while also (b) requiring the congregation to make decisions on certain key matters.

There are of course people who deny either part (a) or part (b) of the above sentence.  Those who deny part (a) hold to an absolute form of what is called Congregationalism.  These individuals believe that the Congregation is to be the final court of appeal on all matters of the church. However, this blatantly ignores many New Testament teachings, including the clear command in Hebrews 13:17 for the congregation to submit to its elders.  Furthermore, Scripture refers to elders as "overseers" and as those who "rule". 

Conversely, there are those who deny part (b).  This essentially is an absolute form of Elder-Rule which maintains that the congregation is not to vote on any issue, but rather the Elders alone are to make decisions (albeit with input from the congregation...maybe).  What I find troubling with this approach is a similar blind-eye (or even hermeneutical twisting) of Scriptures clearly supporting congregational decision-making. The Bible tells us that elders are not to lead with coercion, but by persuading the congregation to freely follow (1 Peter 5:3). Second, it tells us that elders may be censured and are not above criticism of the Body (1 Timothy 5:19). Thirdly, two passages in Scripture depict the gathered church assembly as the decisive court of appeal in matters of church discipline.  1 Corinthians 5:4 directs charges to be brought before a sinning brother in front of the "assembled church" and in Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus himself directs the assembled church to pronounce judgement upon an unrepentant brother ("if he refuses to listen even to the church...").  We might also look to Acts 6 where the assembled church chose its leadership.  While that may or may not be referring to the office of deacon, it clearly reveals that the NT church--at least on some occasions--had a decisional role on certain matters.  There are numerous other examples.  In Acts 1:15-26 Peter asks the assembled believers in Jerusalem (about 120 gathered brothers in the Lord) to pick a replacement for Judas.  Notice he did not just have the Apostles make this decision, but rather all the believers who were assembled together. In Acts 15:22 it says that "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." Also, in 1 Corinthians 14:29-30 Paul notes that the whole congregation is to weigh and discern the teachings of someone who purports to speak a prophetic revelation.

Absolute elder rule and absolute congregational government are not found in the New Testament. What we do find is the clear command to "submit to one another" (Eph 5:21).  I fear that those advocating an 'absolute' form of church government do so (at the expense of clear biblical teaching) out of a refusal to submit.  Sadly, we have congregations who refuse to submit to their biblical leaders and we have biblical leaders refusing to submit to their congregations.  All of it is sin. 

Scripture doesn't give us details.  It does not provide of list of things the elders can decide on and a list of things on which the congregation must decide.  It does give us (1) clear examples that the congregation made real decisions, (2) clear examples of the congregation being involved with the decisions of the elders/apostles, and (3) clear commands to submit to spiritual leaders.  Some have termed this Elder-led Congregationalism.

** I am assuming that we all believe that Christ--and Christ alone--is the head of the church.  I interpreted the question as asking about the human element and structure of church leadership.


  1. Elder-Led Congregationalism is a nice term for what I have understood to be biblical and experienced at Oakwood.

    One view of leadership that I would love to hear from you due to your roots and position is that of pastorate and eldership. This is one area I have just not been able to reconcile in my mind. Is a one man pastorate biblical? This is not an attack but a serious question. Is a leadership team of pastors but where the senior pastor is the 'top dog' biblical and elders are no more than a voting board biblical? Curious on your thoughts

  2. Tim, that deserves its own post. Considering that most churches are small (under 100) the "single elder" scenario shouldn't surprise us. There is nothing wrong with having only one elder. It certainly is better than having plural, unqualified elders.

    Still, the biblical pattern is clearly multiple elders in each congregation.

    As for the "Senior Pastor" role, I guess it depends on they view this. If they are simply taking a CEO "captain of the ship" approach then I would argue they are outside of scripture. If they simply mean by that title that they recognize this particular elder is gifted in leadership---then I think a case can be made for it (leadership doesn't mean others have to do what he says---he would lead the other elders, not have authority over them). The important thing is whether or not he is considered an equal to the other elders.

  3. Thanks Josh. I would be very interested in such a post.

    "There is nothing wrong with having only one elder. It certainly is better than having plural, unqualified elders."

    "The important thing is whether or not he is considered an equal to the other elders. "

    I agree with the 2 comments. However, I will admit that I struggle with the first one. I tend to believe or at least hold to slightly that if the assembling of believers is truly a work of God then He will provide the leader(s)

    My biggest problem is understanding the structure where the senior pastor is the be all and end all in the matters of the church. Maybe it is my limited experience with varying "church communities" but that seems to be a very common structure. I guess to better state my struggle is: why is so prevalent when it is so obviously not scriptural?

    Thanks again. I enjoyed catching up on your posts as I have been way from regular reading since I stop trying to keep a blog myself

  4. How about the multitude of churches in our nation without even one elder? That wouldn't make them un-scriptural it would make them immature or unhealthy. It is imperative to commit to faithful men who shall be able to teach others also and to pray the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers.

  5. Hi Josh, Thanks for this post, I found it very useful. Can you just explain how this position works out in practice at your church? What are the things that are left to the elders? Where is the congregation involved in making decisions?

    I'm involved in a church planting project here in the UK and so am working through various issues we want to get right as we look to start, such as church polity.