Authority: Church Government

This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Authority. Click here to see the entire series.


The doctrine of authority has a far-reaching impact upon the form of church government also.  In the exact same was that biblical authority is in direct contradiction to democracy, it is likewise in direct contradiction to congregational government.  Democracy and congregationalism are two sides of the same coin.  In congregationalism it is presupposed that original authority in the church is vested in the individual members.  The individual members also utilize the process of the vote in order to transfer that authority upward in the election of officers in the church.  The officers can be removed when the individual members decide to take their authority back.  In all cases, the majority of the congregation reigns supreme.

Likewise, it is not a coincidence that congregationalism has flourished in states that adopted the democratic form of government.  Throughout most of church history congregationalism was nonexistent.  Although Baptists like to argue that the apostolic church was congregational and that that form of government was lost during the period of the dominance of the Church of Rome, there is no biblical basis for their claim.

There are not a lot of texts in the Bible that address the question of the form of church government.  In those that do, there is no question but that the form of government was Presbyterianism.  Presbyterianism is simply understood as the rule of a group of elders, the church equivalent of oligarchy in the State.  When issues needed to be considered by the early church, the elders from a particular region would gather together to discuss them.  There are no examples of gatherings of members to determine anything. The word that was used for a group of elders was ‘presbytery’.  When Paul would plant a new church one of the first things that he would do was appoint elders for the church who were automatically deemed members of the presbytery.    There are no examples of the congregation electing their elders.  Theological decisions, like the example of the Jerusalem Council, were made by the elders and imposed upon the members.  The members were expected to submit or be subject to discipline.  There are no examples of theological decisions being made by the members and then imposed upon the leaders.  There are certainly no examples of discipline being exercised upon the leaders by the individual members.

A Baptist will search the Bible in vain for examples where the members of the congregation imposed their will upon the leaders of the church by means of a vote.  Voting does not exist.  It is not found anywhere in the Bible because the Bible never recognizes the idea of original authority being vested in the individual.   There is simply no need for a vote.   In congregationalism however, the vote truly is a form of power.  Many a good pastor has been run from office by the personal vendetta of some disgruntled member.  Conversely, many a bad pastor has been allowed to stay in office because of the power of a bloc of voters to retain him.  Grassroots political action is seen at its worst in congregational churches.

Just as the State rarely remains in the functional form of democracy, congregational churches rarely remain in the functional form of congregationalism.  It is inevitable that a strong personality, or a dominant small group of like-minded people,  will come to dominate in a congregational church.  Sometimes this is the Pastor, who will rule the church with an iron hand.  Sometimes it is an influential Deacon and his followers who will also rule the church with an iron hand.  Baptists are notorious for church splits between warring parties within the church who are fighting for control.

Elders are to be appointed by other elders.  Elders are to be ordained by other elders.  Elders are to supervise one another.  Elders are the ones who are best qualified to determine who is an elder.  Elders are the recipients of original authority from Jesus.  A group of elders allows for the strong possibility that one person will not rise to power and become a tyrant.  All systems of government are prone to abuse, given the nature of sinful man.  But the Presbyterian system is least likely to fall into the pitfalls of politics and most likely to allow a church to properly preach the Gospel.  The biblical doctrine of authority makes it impossible for congregationalism to be correct.

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