Elder-led congregationalism is an increasingly popular polity (governing structure) among many Evangelical churches. Historically, this form of church polity was far more common, especially among Baptist churches, but various factors contributed to its waning during the early and mid twentieth-century.
Pragmatism (the unpropositional adoption of methods that “work”) and industry (an emphatic stress on efficiency and measurable success) became the tools of church growth, but many churches are discovering the inevitable down side of embracing such a short-sighted ministry philosophy. Many are also realizing that not all numerical growth is good or healthy.
What follows is a summary of what I believe is the biblical structure for leadership and membership among a local church. I believe the Bible speaks to the matter ever-so-much-more than many church leaders and members might think. I also believe that applying biblical principles will always result in the greatest blessing from God – namely, healthier Christians and growing churches – though God’s blessing may not always appear immediately or obviously in our dark and fallen world.
Defining our terms
Elders are pastors. Elders (πρεσβύτερος) is the word most often used in the New Testament to refer to those qualified men who lead among a local church.
Congregationalism is the idea that the local church is not subject to outside governance; it is autonomous (or self-governed). In a congregational polity or structure, the congregation bears at least some decision-making responsibility (though various churches may allocate responsibility differently).
A congregation is the visible sum of those Christians who have agreed to unite on the basis of (1) a shared faith in and love for Jesus Christ, (2) a shared commitment to live as disciples or followers of Christ, and (3) a shared love and responsibility for one another.
Responsibility and Authority
As with any organization, the local church must operate on the basis of some understanding of responsibility. Furthermore, responsibility necessarily comes with a correlating authority – one can only be responsible for that which he or she has the authority or authorization to do.
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?
There are many tasks a church member might undertake, but these are the responsibilities Scripture lays squarely on the shoulders of every church member.
- Attend the weekly Lord’s Day gathering (Heb. 10:24-25). Regular attendance is fundamental to church membership; it provides the context and foundation for fulfilling all other obligations.
- Preserve the gospel (Matt. 16:13-19, cf. 18:15-20). Every church member is responsible to know the gospel and to know what the gospel requires in the life of the individual Christian and in the life of the local church.
- Participate in affirming gospel-believing disciples (Matt. 28:18-20, cf. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 11:17-34). Church members affirm new Christians by giving witness to their public profession of faith through baptism. Church members ongoingly affirm one another by regularly observing the Lord’s Supper together.
- Participate in Members’ Meetings (1 Cor. 1:5:4-5, cf. 2 Cor. 2:5-8). Church members decide who is in and who is out of the church by voting during members’ meetings. These decisions cannot be made by proxy, nor can they be made in isolation. Any particular church may structure and schedule these meetings according to local needs and context, but there is no substitute for members gathering together with the express purpose of making decisions.
- Disciple other church members (Matt. 28:18-20; Eph. 4:15-16; Col. 3:12-17). Basic Christianity involves building up other believers. Consumer Christianity is a contradiction in terms, and every church member is not only able but also responsible to help at least one other person follow Jesus.
- Share the gospel with non-members (2 Cor. 5:17-21). Because Christians have received and believe the gospel, they are ambassadors for Christ in the world.
- Follow the recognized leaders of the church (2 Tim. 1:13; Heb. 13:7, 17). Church members benefit from godly leadership and example, but they benefit most when they follow godly leaders and imitate godly examples.
As is the case with all church members, elders may do all sorts of tasks. But elders also have clear responsibilities spelled out in Scripture.
- Elders bear all the same responsibilities as other church members (Acts 20:28-29). While elders do have additional responsibilities, elders are church members too.
- Shepherd church members (Heb. 13:7, 17; 1 Pet. 1:1-4). Good elders guide church members toward developing trust in Christ, toward spiritual health and growth, and toward faithfulness to the end.
- Model godly character and teach sound doctrine publicly. Elders (usually, though not always) preach sermons and (always) raise up other men to faithfully handle God’s word (1 Tim. 3:2, 4:6-11; 2 Tim. 2:2), they model Bible study and teaching through public forums and raise up other godly men to do the same (1 Tim. 3:2, 4:6-11; 2 Tim. 2:2), and they oversee every teaching outlet of the church (Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Tim. 4:16; 1 Pet. 5:1-4; Acts 20:28).
- Model godly character and teach sound doctrine privately. As noted above, elders are responsible to personally disciple and evangelize, just like other church members (Phil. 4:8-9; Col. 3:12-17). Additionally, elders are responsible to raise up godly men who will also be able to teach, shepherd, and lead among the church (2 Tim. 2:2).
- Lead the church with care and wisdom. Elders lead with authority in an effort to keep watch over the souls under their shepherding care (Titus 2:15; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:1-4), and they oversee or direct the affairs of the church (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 5:17).
Elder-led Congregationalism: A Description
Elder-led congregationalism best harmonizes the various and distinct responsibilities given to church members and to elders in the New Testament. Church members believe and study the gospel, take responsibility for one another, and share the gospel far and wide. Elders lead, both by instruction and by example, and elders equip church members.
With Elder-led congregationalism, the whole church is the disciple-making organism Christ commissioned it to be. Moreover, because God has designed it so, we know that ordering ourselves and functioning in this way will lead to spiritual growth and health.
In an elder-led congregational polity, everyone has a job description, and there is no such thing as an “inactive” church member. Everyone bears responsibility for the health and unity of the church, and everyone enjoys the blessings of such things.
Simultaneously, members’ meetings don’t get bogged down in the minutia of day-to-day administration, nor do church members become enticed toward distraction from their fundamental responsibilities. Rather church members become aware of and focused on their weightier responsibilities, and elders lead and equip the members to bear their biblical responsibilities well.
A Personal Disclosure
The reader may be interested to know that these ideas have not been formed in isolation or in a sterile classroom. I have been the senior pastor of a small and rural Southern Baptist church since August of 2014. I became pastor with most of my ecclesiological convictions already in place, but I have also benefitted greatly from the experiences of applying these doctrinal convictions to everyday circumstances.
Additionally, I am thankful for those theologians and pastors who continue to write about ecclesiological issues, providing pastors like me with much food for thought. Jonathan Leeman has been an especially prolific writer on this subject, and my own article reflects the time I’ve spent chewing on his content elsewhere (such as this article on the office of church membership or this article on the benefits of biblical congregationalism).
I highly recommend the books, articles, conferences, and podcasts of 9Marks ministry. I don’t know of any other group that thinks, talks, and writes about ecclesiology with such interest, joy, and biblically-grounded arguments like the folks at 9Marks.org.