Church government can stir up feelings of anxiety in some as they remember contentious business meetings that frac-tured churches. For others, it is the singular issue that separates them from other like-minded believers. Some denominations follow the bishop, while others follow the elders. Others still adhere to the self-rule of the local congregation. But what does the Bible say?
Jonathan Leeman presents a persuasive case for what he calls "elder-led congregationa-lism" in his new book in the Church Basics series by 9Marks called Understanding the Congre-gation's Authority. While I do not completely agree with Leeman's conclusions and coverage of the issue of congregational authority, I still recommend the book for several reasons. Here are 4 reasons to read Understanding the Congregation's Authority.
1. To understand the congregational model in light of all of redemptive history. Leeman does a superb job of showing from redemptive history how authority rests in every member of the church to protect and promote the who and the what of the gospel. In other words, Leeman argues that the church congregation has the authority to decide who should be affirmed or disaffirmed with church membership based on what it has decided is a true confession of the gospel. While his final argument is drawn primarily from Matthew 16 and 18, he effectively tracks the course of that argument throughout the Old Testament as a precursor to church government, and the use of congregational rule in the New Testament.
2. To understand the gravity of church membership. You cannot read this book and look at church membership as just another organization you belong to. When every person in the congregation collectively utilizes the keys of the kingdom that Jesus taught in Matthew 16 and 18 - when the congregation looses and binds - clearly the decisions of the congregation have an eternal weight. If what we loose on earth is loosed in heaven and what is bound on earth is bound in heaven, we have some serious decisions to make. Considering the weight of the argument in favor of congregationalism, this makes church membership a very grave matter indeed.
3. To understand the important role every church member plays in protecting and promoting the gospel. If you are a member of a church, you have a job to do. Yes, that job does include considering every profession of faith - every confession of Jesus as the Christ. It does include those times when a member's actions fail to align with that profession and the church must step in to "discipline" the member. But it also includes those times of pleading with the lost to come to Christ. Leeman does a great job explaining how every member is important, and that a member's vote is not piecemeal or insignificant. It is part of using the keys of the kingdom.
4. To understand the balance between congregational rule and submission to spiritual leaders. Leeman's treatment of this issue is probably the best part of the book. While it seems like a paradox to say that the congregation is in charge but it must submit to the authority of its pastors, it only seems that way. In short, pastors show the congregation how to use the keys of the kingdom (to which the congregation submits) and the congregation does it (which is the exercise of its authority). This neither means that the congregation becomes a rubber stamp in approving the actions of the pastors, nor does it mean that the pastor can be overbearing to get things done in the church. When the balance is out of whack, biblical church government breaks down.
While Leeman made a persuasive case for elder-led congregationalism in established churches, there remain contexts in which I believe other models of church governance are appropriate, and I believe that there are other ways in which congregational rule can manifest itself than just in terms of who is and is not a member of the church. Paul told Titus to appoint elders in the churches in Crete (Titus 1:5). While Leeman may be correct that the term "appoint" implies congregational consent in Crete, the fact remains that those churches existed before Titus appointed elders. The implication from the passage is that Titus oversaw all of those church, as if he were a bishop of sorts. It not only seems to be the biblical case, but also a matter of pragmatics in church planting among people of limited Bible knowledge and access that in a church's infancy there may not be sufficient spiritual maturity to identify false teachers, properly navigate the minefield of church discipline when it is necessary, and so forth. While the elder or bishop in those contexts should show how its done rightly so that the church matures into one in which the congregation can take the keys of the kingdom, every congregation that is formed doesn't appear to be automatically able to make wise use of those keys. Congregational rule should be the goal in such cases, but it does not appear to be automatic.
Furthermore, Leeman's presentation focuses primarily on membership decisions - both in terms of those entering the church and those exiting the church. There are a multitude of other contexts in which the congregation should exercise authority. Leeman's presentation inadequately addresses things like church budgets, ministry priorities, and other administrative and operational aspects of the church.
In any case, this is a book I can recommend. It forces readers to deal with issues that are uncomfortable in terms of what church membership means. Nevertheless, those issues are biblical and should be utilized in churches to ensure the purity of the bride of Christ. The material is presented in such a fashion as it is easy to understand, regardless of whether it addresses every context in which congregations should exercise authority or every context in which strict congregationalism may not yet be appropriate.
Dr. Jonathan Leeman is an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. and is the editorial director at 9Marks. I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
I follow Christ. I have a beautiful wife Megan and three wonderful children, Harrisen, Rebekah, and Carter. I am a candidate for a Ph.D. in ethics from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, have an M.Div. from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and a JD from the University of Arkansas, am licensed to practice law in several state and federal courts, and live in Rogers, Arkansas. I write a blog and produce a podcast. And I do it all that others may know Christ.