Authority in the Local Church – A Comparative Study | Part 4

This is the fourth and final post on the subject of church polity, probably better known to you as ‘church governance’. In the first post I set out the parameters and agenda for this comparative study. Behind my arguments are four foundational assumptions.

First, polity/church authority is inevitable: decisions have to made, the church is called to render judgments on behalf of heaven. But who does and says what is what is contested.

Secondly, polity/church authority is therefore important; it matters. These decisions and judgments are no small matter but reflect the authority of Christ on earth; polity is something we should carefully consider if we have never considered it before.

Third, the New Testament doesn’t offer a diverse polity that can be applied here but not there; the structures we see in Scripture are to be the structures for the church today; they are binding and prescriptive.

Fourth, all of this is to be understood in light of Jesus Christ as the head of the church; he is her ultimate authority and ruler and all earthly church authority (what we’re looking at in these posts) is to fall under and in submission to Jesus.

In in the second post I surveyed two church polity models that locate earthly church authority to a structure or person outside of the local assembly: the Episcopal and Presbyterian models. In the third post we considered two more models of church authority, the elder-rule and the elder-led, congregational-rule models. Both locate local church authority to within a local congregation, though with differing emphases. Below I’ll now seek to evaluate the above four models and explain why I think that the elder-led-congregationally-ruled model is the most biblically faithful.


There are several problems with the episcopal, presbyterian and elder-rule models of polity. Firstly, there is a fundamental misappropriation of authority. Although all three locate final earthly authority in the local church to different bodies—a single bishop, presbytery, and local elders respectively—they all tend to flatten the NT’s description of authority in the local church. How so? Because they tend to speak solely of the authority invested in those who lead, instruct, teach, and govern the assemblies.

This seems correct, though? True. However I think that the NT presents several responsibilities that rest with the gathered assembly, excluding its “leaders”. Robert D. Culver outlines a few of these responsibilities: preserving unity (Rom 12:16; Eph 4:3); preserving pure doctrine and practice (Gal 1:8–9); choosing and installing officers (Acts 6:1–6); observing and guarding the ordinances (1 Cor 11:17–34); exercising discipline (1 Cor 5); settling quarrels among themselves (1 Cor 6); as well as voluntary consultation and co-operation with other local gatherings (Acts 15:1–35; 2 Cor 8:1–8).[1] As such, in restricting final, earthly authority to the bishop, presbytery, or elders, the authority and responsibilities outlined above are flattened and almost explained away.

With this flattening of authority in the local church- a kind of top-down only authority- there are certain entailments that follow:

A New Essence?

The esse (i.e. essence) of the church is necessarily redefined. What sets the local church apart from any other institution is its heavenly sanction: Christ has promised the gathered assembly both his unique presence and the keys of the Kingdom (Matt 18:18–20). Thus the esse of the visible (as opposed to invisible/universal church) local church- what sets her apart from other earthly bodies- is the formal testament or, “agreement” (see Matt. 18:19) of at least two or three believers who together testify to the name of Jesus and to their shared membership in him.[2] This esse is visibly expressed in the act that uniquely presides with Christ’s authority: receiving and excluding members into the new covenant community (and by implication, adjudicating matters of doctrine and electing leaders).

The esse of the visible church is the formal testament, or “agreement” (see Matt. 18:19), of at least two or three believers who together testify to the name of Jesus and to their shared membership in him.

To reserve these activities to a subset of the church—whether bishop, presbytery, or elders—is to reorient the custodians of the heavenly sanction, and principally redefine the local church’s esse. This much is clear from the pattern throughout Scripture. What we see is a pattern of the assembling of believers as necessary in exercising the keys (Matt 18:18–20; 1 Cor 5:4; 11:17–34). As a concession, the episcopalian model, which argues that the bishop defines the church, is correct: such an argument is logically consistent in that it keeps both authority and responsibility closely knit, ontology and functionality in tandem, at least in the way Jesus did.

Denial of New Covenant Realities

A second entailment that follows is the denial of new covenant realities. The new covenant ushers in radical changes to the people of God so that each and every member is now indwelt with the Holy Spirit, capable of knowing the gospel and guarding its people. Historically this has been known as the priesthood of all believers. The three polity models under scrutiny in their own way fundamentally distort or flatten the progression of God’s covenants with his people. Moses himself looked forward to and anticipated the day in which all the people of God would prophesy (Num 11:29). At Pentecost, Peter emphatically pronounced that that day is here (Acts 2:16—21, cf. Joel 2:28–29). By virtue of the new covenant there certainly ought to be a certain discontinuity with the people of God and the structures organizing their life together when compared to the Mosaic covenant. Flattening church authority to exclude the clear responsibilities of church members works to subtly deny new covenant realties, it is to put old wine into new wineskins.

A Renewal of the Imago Dei

Connected to the above point, a third and final entailment follows. The new covenant can be seen as the application of divine image being redeemed and renewed. Paul tells us in several places that both Adam and Christ are representatives (1 Cor 15:49; Eph 4:23; Col 3:10), that is, they both had a unique work to do, and both present a pattern of rule for humanity.[3] In the new covenant, all those united to Christ partake of his archetype image, which entails mediating God’s rule and working to protect that which is holy.[4] In affect, we come full circle: living out the divine image in the local church is synonymous with exercising the keys of the Kingdom. Through its union with the locus of the new creation—Jesus (Eph 1:10)—the church is the living expression of this new creation (2 Cor 5:17). Again, to flatten local church authority to exclude the responsibilities of church members subtly pushes back against this renewing work of restoring the divine image, since the divine image entails mediating God’s rule (i.e. gospel proclamation) and working to protect that which is holy (i.e. church discipline).

Through its union with the locus of the new creation—Jesus (Eph 1:10)—the church is the living expression of this new creation (2 Cor 5:17).

What about Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council?

Turning now to a more narrow textual argument, the role of Acts 15 is pivotal for both an episcopal and presbyterian polity. Two observations in response are necessary: first, we need to distinguish the proper intent and role of the events of Acts 15. The issue at hand was not principally a matter of polity, but of answering the question, “do I have to become a Jew to become a Christian?”[5] The letter in Acts 15, then, serves as authoritative apostolic instruction and not as binding ecclesiological authority. The presbyterian model simply insists on there being more in the text than there really is. This is not to mention Paul’s instructions to both the church at Corinth and the churches in Galatia to handle matters of discipline and doctrine free from any hierarchal structures (1 Cor 5; 2 Cor 2:6; Gal 1:6–9). 

The second observation negates any ideas of episcopalianism or presbyterianism since Acts 15:2 shows that there were in fact elders (plural) in the church at Jerusalem, and James—who is thought to fill the episcopal role—was probably numbered among the apostles (Gal 1:19) rather than the elders.[6] In fact, as Grudem notes, the council was held in Jerusalem because of the presence of the apostles, who together with the whole church (Acts 15:22) came to a decision. Thus, if Acts 15 were to give any support for ecclesiological authority it would be regional government by whole churches.[7]

Why I Hold to the Elder-led Congregational-Ruled Model

On the other hand, the strength of the elder-led congregational model of polity is that it fundamentally distinguishes between two types of authority that are presented in Scripture. As noted above, failing to maintain this distinction entails certain consequences that prove to be contrary to the biblical presentation. In stark contrast to the episcopalian, presbyterian, and the elder-rule model, the elder-led congregational model correctly situates the local assembly’s esse to gathered, covenanted believers. Thus, any leadership structures, or even a budget or common vision, cannot be that which forms the esse of the church and ties her members together; to do so is to abrogate the heavenly sanction that Christ gave to the gathered assembly (Matt 18:18–20).  

As such, when measured against other major doctrines such as anthropology, Christology, and promises of the new covenant, this polity model rightly adheres to and grows out of these doctrines (Jer 31:31–34; Ezek 36:26–27). When we become untied to Christ by faith, the same office that he holds falls to us– faithful sons imitating their King. Christ forms the locus of the new creation and recapitulates his image into those united to him (2 Cor 5:17; 1 Cor 15:49; Eph 4:23). This new humanity, this perfect image of God (John 1:18, Heb 1:3) is adequately encapsulated in Jonathan Leeman’s concept of a priest-king,[8] which incorporates biblical theological ideas related to the new Adam, the true Israel, and David’s greater son.

The Apostle Peter himself confirms this biblical theological trajectory, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession” (1 Pet 2:9). Thus, it is necessarily the task of all those untied to Christ, and not just elders, deacons, bishops, the presbytery or the pope, to ensure the consecration of God’s eschatological temple and the expansion of its walls– the church (2 Cor 5:18–20; 6:14–17). If the entire gathered assembly is furnished with responsibility, authority necessarily follows. In this model, it is the very task of those given as undershepherds to so lead and instruct and equip the entire gathered assembly to faithfully exercise this heavenly sanction (Heb 13:17; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5:2; Eph 4:11–12).

It is necessarily the task of all those untied to Christ, and not just elders, deacons, bishops, the presbytery or the pope, to ensure the consecration of God’s eschatological temple and the expansion of its walls– the church.


If ‘politics’ is the science of organizing our life together, then there can be no neutrality when it comes to church governing structures: the relationship between the gospel and our life together as Christians is not accidental. Because Christ is King and because he makes certain demands of his new covenant people there necessarily follows what some have called a “gospel order”;[9] that is, the responsibility of mediating God’s rule and working to protect what is holy is the task of every Christian. In order to faithfully exercise this responsibility, Christ has authorized his church with a heavenly sanction; he has made visible, local gathered assemblies the custodians and ambassadors of his glorious gospel.

Thus, when asked to answer the question, ‘where does authority in the local church lie?’ the elder-led congregational model most accurately adheres to biblical theological ideas of the divine image and the vocation that follows; best accords with new covenant realities; as well as makes the most sense of the NT’s presentation of the two types of authority in the church (belonging to elders and members respectively), over and above the episcopalian, presbyterian, and elder-rule polity models.

[1] Culver, Systematic Theology, 936–37.

[2] Leeman, Don’t Fire Your Church Members, 103.

[3] Leeman, Understanding the Congregation’s Authority, 66.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Ibid., 62.

[6] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 930.

[7] Ibid., 927.

[8] Leeman, Understanding the Congregation’s Authority, 24.

[9] Ibid., 9.

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