Does the regulative principle demand exclusive psalmody?
I’d argue that the Psalms should be the backbone of the sung element of the church’s worship.
The Psalms are the word of God to man and the word of man in response. Fulfilled in Christ, Christ himself bases his message of grace upon them (Lk. 24:44-9). The Psalms are wide-ranging in content and immensely powerful. I almost always choose at least one Psalm for every service I plan.
But what about the argument that the sung element of church worship should consist exclusively of psalms?
This argument is based on a certain application of the regulative principle of Scripture, in which the principle is taken to mean that only what is explicitly commanded in Scripture is permitted. Since there is no explicit command to sing uninspired songs, the thinking goes, church worship must not include them. How does this position address the distinction between psalms and two other forms of music in Paul’s command to “address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:18)? These three words are understood either as a reference to three parts of the Psalter, or as a hendiadys, where two or more expressions are used to mean one thing.
However, where in Scripture do we find an explicit requirement that churches must only do what is explicitly commanded? If Scripture requires explicit support for worship practices, we must assume it propounds the principle explicitly. Where in Scripture is the church explicitly commanded to sing from the book of Psalms and only the Psalms? What about hymnic passages in both the Old Testament and the New? Why are doxologies and other expressions of praise to be found in Scripture apart from the book of Psalms?
I’d argue that this Psalms-only principle simply isn’t found in Scripture, and that the argument in its favour also rests on a misguided interpretation of the regulative principle. Let’s examine that second point first.
CLARIFYING THE REGULATIVE PRINCIPLE
In order to clarify what the regulative principle does and doesn’t mean, let’s consider the Westminster Assembly’s classical statement of it, as well as the historical context of that statement.
The Westminster Assembly’s View of the Regulative Principle.
The regulative principle of worship is found in WCF 21:1. The relevant portion reads:
But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.
This must be assessed in terms of the Assembly’s doctrine of Scripture. In 1:6, the Confession states that the whole counsel of God is either set down explicitly in Scripture or by good and necessary consequence can be deduced from Scripture. The regulative principle, as expressed by the Assembly, does not reduce the Bible to a command manual whereby worship is to be shaped exclusively by explicit commands.
Historical Context of the Regulative Principle
The historical background in England significantly impacted the Assembly and its grasp of the regulative principle. Draconian regulations governed worship in the Church of England. Parliamentary legislation specified that all ministers were bound to use the services as written in The Book of Common Prayer. If a minister was convicted of willful disobedience by a court of law, he would forfeit all spiritual benefices and be imprisoned for six months. On a second offence, one year’s imprisonment was the penalty. For a third offence, he would suffer life imprisonment. If any person wrote or spoke against the Book, on a third offence he was to forfeit all goods and suffer life imprisonment.
Viewed in this context, WCF 21:1 is more liberating than restricting. Bound in its worship to the direction of the Word of God alone, the church is freed from the dictates of man, whether these are contrary to the Word or simply additional to it. The yoke of imposition is lifted!
Practice of the Reformed Churches to 1643
While the Confession refers to the singing of Psalms in 21:5, is this prescriptive of what is required or descriptive of what was currently practised? If the former, how are we to understand what the Assembly meant by “Psalms”?
Nick Needham has shown that the Assembly’s understanding of “psalms” was wider than the Psalms of David. Other songs were commonly accepted in Reformed church worship, although the Psalms were the main diet. He finds support from Richard Baxter, Zwingli and Bullinger, Calvin, and the French, German, and Dutch Reformed churches. The English Protestants in Geneva were not opposed to singing other Scriptural passages in worship, while the standard English Psalter by Sternhold and Hopkins contained a considerably greater number of non-Davidic songs and was definitive until 1696. While in Scotland, exclusive psalm singing was the rule, before the Assembly the Scots used the Gloria patri.
The upshot of all this is that the classical statement of the regulative principle in the Westminster Confession does not restrict corporate singing to the Psalms. Nor was exclusive psalmody the practice of Reformed churches across Europe at that time.
BIBLICAL ARGUMENTS AGAINST EXCLUSIVE PSALMNODY
So that’s some historical perspective. Here now are two more direct biblical and theological arguments against exclusive psalmody.
The Scope of Revelation
First, the Psalms do not explicitly reflect the full range of trinitarian revelation: neither the incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection, ascension, and heavenly session of Christ, nor the gift of the Spirit to the church. It is strange that a principle requiring explicit biblical support for worship practices should require those practices to refer to the central truths of biblical revelation only implicitly. For this reason, if no other, the Psalms cannot be the sole diet of the church. If they were, that would truncate its worship and producing an imbalance in its theology.
What Exclusive Psalmody Forbids and Requires
Further, if you’ll allow me a reductio ad absurdum, consider what exclusive psalmody forbids and requires. Exclusive psalmody forbids the church to sing “Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts,” “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds,” and “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.” However, it is explicitly commanded to sing “O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” and Psalm 109:6-20 with its outpouring of curses and vituperation.
STILL, BETTER ALL PSALMS THAN ALL CHORUSES
So, in sum, I would argue that churches are not required to sing Psalms exclusively. However, if it’s a choice between exclusive psalmody and contemporary worship choruses, exclusive psalmody is a far better option.
Recent worship trends have given evangelical churches unbalanced content, appalling music, and often erroneous sentiments. The linear nature of Judaeo-Christian psalmody and hymnody has been replaced by cyclical repetition. In comparison, despite its untenable claims, I would far rather have exclusive psalmody.
Robert Letham (PhD University of Aberdeen), a Presbyterian minister of 25 years pastoral experience, is Director of Research and Senior Lecturer in Systematic and Historical Theology at Wales Evangelical School of Theology.
Rob Rienow addresses two serious, common problems in his helpfully brief book, Reclaiming the Sufficiency of Scripture. The first is that too few people and churches believe the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. The second is that too many people and churches say they believe it but fail to practice it.
Rienow’s survey of church history and contemporary practice adequately defines and illustrates both problems. His reminders of the deceptiveness of the human heart demonstrate the folly underlying our assumption that we can improve on biblical truth and methods. His reflections on relevant biblical passages construct a positive alternative that I would love to be able to recommend to pastors and lay leaders.
Unfortunately, I cannot. Though the foundation of Rienow’s work is commendable, its weaknesses are significant enough that the book will either be unpersuasive or create new problems. Rienow’s proposal will create those new problems because it simply doesn’t take into account enough of the biblical data.
Click here to continue reading.
You know how the apostle Paul sometimes boasted about his churches (see 2 Cor. 9:2; 2 Thes. 1:4; cf. Phil. 2:16). Will you let me boast for just a moment?
This morning I caught the bus and then the subway which take me to the office. Sarah, a member of the church, shared the same commute. Along the way, she told me about the work she and her husband did over the weekend caring for a homeless woman. They housed her for a night. They took her to collect her things from a troublesome man's house. They talked gospel throughout.
Stepping out of the subway, I stepped into a coffee shop for a scheduled meeting with Jason. Jason proceeded to tell me about he's been sharing the gospel with two co-workers. One of them has been coming to our church recently, and is grateful for how patient Jason is with him. The other co-worker hasn't taken that step yet, but he's interested, too. Jason and I then talked about how we could better love our wives.
Arriving at work, I found an email from Drew to me and several other brothers. In the email Drew shared about his quiet time this morning in Hebrews 11 and several George Herbert poems and how they had encouraged his "poor dejected soul" (a Herbert phrase).
Just another morning in the life of my church--and, I trust, in many other churches around the globe. This is the new normal for the saints. We pour out our lives for the downtrodden. We share the gospel. We make ourselves vulnerable in our relationships. What non-Christian, in the first two hours of his morning, gets to experience three life-giving conversations like these? Three testimonies of God's transforming grace?
Okay, it's really the Lord I'm boasting in (2 Cor. 10:7; Phil. 3:3). Can you not see how he is transforming our churches into the new humanity?! How he is turning our congregations into embassies of light?! Persevere, brother pastors. And give him praise for the supernatural work he has already begun to do in your congregation. We'll all get there together, and celebrate one day soon!
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One Sunday after our church service, the senior pastor extended his hand to greet my dad, one of his fellow elders. Yanking his hand away, my dad jetted past him. I sometimes question why God let that instance from six years ago sear my memory. Frankly, I don’t know.
But I do know that like this memory, God used my dad’s excommunication for good. I hope this testimony shows that. I hope it encourages churches to not shirk what God requires for their good and, most importantly, for his name’s sake (see Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5).
I suspect many pastors fear obeying Jesus’ command in this area because they dread the strife that could result. Judging by what happened with my dad and the reactions from my church, my family and myself, I understand that fear. But I hope this testimony will help you overturn that fear and embrace faithful obedience to Jesus’ commands.
I love my dad. Though I’ll reference hard memories, I won’t dwell on his sin here.
Given problems in my family at the time, some church members questioned if my dad should still serve as an elder (see 1 Tim. 3:4). He eventually left the church because he didn’t think these charges were properly handled. Refusing to reconcile with my church and my family, my dad, one of our church’s longest-serving and most-beloved elders, was eventually excommunicated.
The church was split over my dad's discipline. Some members argued that it was right, some argued it was wrong, and others ranged between these two ends. Disunity struck my family, too. Some of us were confused, others angry. As life went on, God brought my siblings to different schools and places. With some of them went resentment for the church and the situation.
I—the baby among five children—was confused. I had no idea what excommunication was. I blamed it for splitting my family and my church. To me, church discipline wasn’t just cold, harsh and unexpected: it was disastrous. It was an iceberg; my family and my church were the Titanic.
A DISASTER REDEEMED
Years have now passed, and today I can tell you that the church made the right decision. I can also tell you some ways God used the decision for good.
Through my dad’s discipline, my local church protected Christ’s name for its members and the watching world.
Through my dad’s discipline, God drew most of my family members closer to himself.
Through my dad’s discipline, my desire to pastor a local church continues to grow.
MY LOCAL CHURCH: ALL HANDS ON DECK
Church discipline is painful. Though I’m tempted to stew on the negatives, I’m humbled when I reflect on how the church came together to support my family during this time. Because we were church members, we were a part of the church’s family; we were one body. Though not always perfectly timed or expressed, church members did their best to love my family. They mourned with my mother and prayed for our family—including my dad. Though my family and my church were sinking, all hands were on deck.
This unity through suffering matched the picture Paul paints of the church in 1 Corinthians 12:26. Even though this painting looked messy when it began, it’s turning out masterfully. Indeed, church discipline drove this church to her master, Christ, for refuge. My dad’s sin spread division through the church like cancer. God’s corrective surgery—which in this case was formal church discipline—removed that spreading division. As with any surgery, wounds ran deep and scars remain. But ultimately that local body, now healed and strengthened, better displays God’s holiness, love, and name.
God didn’t only bless my church family through my dad’s discipline. An example from my biological family shows that.
MY FAMILY: REPENTANT & REJECTING
Through my dad’s discipline, God matured the godly women and men in my family. They now share a stronger love for God and his church. By bringing them through this trial, God allowed most of my family members’ faiths to be proved genuine. He let them experience the ministry of the churches they currently submit to. He taught them to trust his faithfulness.
One of my sisters told me how she felt about my dad’s discipline for a couple of years after the fact. With her eyes locked on mine, she said, “Isaac, I was mad at God, and I hated the church.”
Yet in his goodness, God led her to repentance by bringing her to another healthy local church. At first, she felt as though she could not trust any church, and though she joined, she kept a wrongful distance from the church. But for years that congregation rallied, spurring her on in the faith, just as Hebrews 10:24 calls us to.
Where she once saw judgment in the local church, my sister now sees redemption. She now serves that church as a deaconess. How good is the Father who took his church-hating daughter, used the church to restore her trust in the church, and now has her serving this church so that through it the gospel may more brightly shine.
I wish I could say my dad’s discipline led to all of my family members’ salvation, but that’s not the case. Some of them still feel wounded by the church because they do not see what it did as loving. Instead of praising God for what happened, they mistakenly blame and reject his church. They seem far from God.
But he remains faithful, and my own desire testifies to that truth.
MY DESIRE: A RIGHT REFLECTION
God used this discipline to show me that elders are precious gifts to local churches. In the few years after the discipline, God led me to godly men in other healthy local churches. These men taught me the value of the gospel and the dire importance of rightly representing it corporately and individually. Using my dad’s failures in church leadership, God showed me the immense potential an elder has to either reflect or deface Christ’s love for the church. Having seen it defaced, I hope that I—by God’s grace—will rightly reflect Christ’s love and humility. I hope I will always have elders surrounding me who do the same.
A BETTER SEARING
I opened with a memory that seared my brain. But it’s a different searing that my dad and I enjoy now. Every month, we grub at a seafood joint. We love seared shrimp.
This past month, we talked about reconciling with the church. Now we’re studying through Scripture together to see what this should look like. Though it’s just a step in the right direction, how can I doubt our God’s faithfulness at this point?
Isaac Adams, a member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, works as Administrative Assistant for Together for the Gospel and CROSS conference. You can follow him on twitter.
“What Would Jesus Do?” is a slogan young Reformed types love to hate. But what if it’s a question more of us should be asking?
Gospel-centered-everything is quickly becoming a dominant refrain among younger and not-so-younger evangelicals. In part this is a reaction to the perceived moralism of the previous generation, whether a hardline fundamentalist variety or its squishier evangelical cousin. Two prominent threads in this fabric are gospel-centered holiness and gospel-centered preaching, the latter fueling the former.
Of course, with any reaction comes the peril of overreaction. As C.S. Lewis quipped, “For my own part I hate and distrust reactions not only in religion but in everything. Luther surely spoke very good sense when he compared humanity to a drunkard who, after falling off his horse on the right, falls off it next time on the left” (Fern-seed and Elephants, 66).
In Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern, Jason Hood identifies the concept of imitation as a significant casualty in the gospel-centered counteroffensive against moralism. Should preachers exhort us to imitate biblical examples? Only if we want more “Dare to Be a Daniel” garbage. Should we talk about imitating Jesus? Only if we want to reduce the gospel to moralism or trendy activism. Should we play up the role of godly examples in the church? Only if we care more about copying behaviors than transforming hearts.
In this new book Hood, soon to be pastor of an international Anglican church in Tanzania, wisely pegs these stances as overreactions. And he seeks to rehabilitate the concept of imitation—imitating God in Christ, and imitating God’s people—in theology and church life.
It is easy for church leaders to look only to their left or only to their right in seeking to avoid the errors of others. Something I have learned from watching Tim Keller is the importance of looking in both directions. Hence, the man always seems to have a “third way” on offer.
When the topic turns to philosophy of ministry or church practice, it has been the tendency of 9Marks writers like myself to look leftward toward the squishy tendencies of mainstream evangelicalism. This is a response to the evangelicalism of my youth that was constantly anxious to avoid slipping too far rightward toward some type of authoritarian fundamentalism.
Many things in life are binary, and there is no third way. But I do believe there are errors both to the right and to the left of a biblical philosophy of ministry. On the left are the errors of pragmatism, and on the right are the errors of authoritarianism. What’s most striking to me is what they share in common.
At first glance, they look pretty different. Pragmatism is flexible. It says, “Let’s try this, or this, or this, or this, or this!” Authoritarianism is rigid. It says, “Do what I told you, now!” Pragmatism respects autonomy and the role of assent, even if things get a little messy. Authoritarianism respects order and efficiency and completion. Surely, pragmatism and authoritarianism are not identical twins.
But they are fraternal twins. Look beyond the surface and you will find a surprising number of commonalities:
Both pragmatism and authoritarianism are fixated on results.
Both define success by outward or visible change, and therefore they subject their methods to any number of metrics for measuring visible fruit.
Both depend upon human ingenuity to get the job done. They rely upon brains, brawn, or beauty to accomplish their ends. One strong-arms. The other strong-charms.
In the area of Christian ministry, unlike authoritarianism, pragmatism does not assume there is a “right way” to get things done but that God has left these things to us. So it sheepishly concludes, “My way is as good as any, I suppose.” But this, ironically, is not totally unrelated to the authoritarian’s “My way or the highway!” Both can overlook “God’s way.”
Listen to either the pragmatist’s sermon (“Seven Steps to a Healthy Marriage”) or the authoritarian’s sermon (“Repent or Else”). What might you hear?
- Both exploit the flesh (whether through fear or appealing to appetite) in order to motivate action instead of appealing to the spiritual new man in the gospel.
- Both start with the imperatives of Scripture, not the indicatives of what Christ has accomplished.
- Both loom heavily over the will, doing all they can to make the will choose rightly, apart from a consideration of where the will has its roots planted—in the heart's desires. Shame and moralism are the favorite tools of both methodologies.
- Both require outward conformity rather than repentance of heart. In so doing, they create only Pharisees.
- Both overstep the boundaries of where the Bible has given us permission to go, whether by expanding the scope of corporate worship and Christian mission or by laying down commands where none exist. Both routes bind the conscience where the gospel does not.
- Both are impatient, and want to see decisions made "today!" Since they do not recognize that decisions have their ultimate foundation in the heart's desires, they feel successful whenever they produce a right decision, whether or not that decision was forced or manipulated.
- Both rely on their own strength, rather than leaning on the Spirit by faith (see John 3:6; 6:63).
Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with relying upon human wisdom and strength for some ends, particularly when there is a lack of divine revelation. How do you promote your coffee shop? How do you win football games? How do you keep your teeth healthy?
But when it comes to Christian ministry, the chief error of both pragmatism and authoritarianism is their reliance upon natural methods to accomplish supernatural ends. To borrow from Paul David Tripp and Timothy Lane, they staple apples onto trees instead of watering and feeding the trees.
A THIRD WAY: GOD’S GOSPEL WORD AND SPIRIT
How do you feed and water the trees? That takes us to the third way. Christian ministry must rely fully on God’s gospel Word and God’s Spirit.
Gospel ministry has the following attributes:
- It is by faith. It believes that God’s Spirit always has the power to change, and that he will if he so determines.
- It relies on God’s gospel Word. True change happens when the eyes of a person’s heart open to the truth of God’s gospel Word, accepting and embracing it. They see its truth for themselves. It’s not beauty or brawn that entices them, it’s God and his Word.
- It recognizes the role of authority: Jesus has authority; Jesus’ gospel word has authority; Jesus’ church and its leaders have authority. But each of these authorities is different, possessing different mandates, prerogatives, jurisdictions, and sanctions. And gospel ministry is very sensitive to these differences, never confusing one authority for another.
- It helps people to consider what they truly desire before telling them what they must do.
- It appeals to Christians on the basis of their status in the gospel, not on the strength of their flesh. A Christian pastor or counselor should not say things like, "I expect more from you" or "You're better than that." Instead, he will say, "Don't you realize that you've died and been raised with Christ? You're a new creation. Now, what should that mean?" A Christian authority will give commands (e.g., 2 Thess. 3:6, 10, 12), but these commands will be issued by virtue of membership in the gospel. It appeals to the new realities of the Spirit. The imperatives should always follow the indicatives of what Christ has given.
- It is exceedingly patient and tender, knowing that only God can give growth (1 Cor. 3:5–9). An immature Christian may need to walk a hundred steps before he arrives at maturity, but a wise pastor seldom asks for more than one step or two. Our example in this is Jesus. "Take my yoke and learn from me," he says (Matt. 11:29). To take his yoke is to become a disciple. It's to learn. But he is gentle and lowly in heart, and his yoke is easy and light (11:29–30).
- It is always carefully measured or calibrated to where a person is spiritually. The godly elder and church seldom, if ever, make spiritual prescriptions without asking questions and doing the exploratory work of a good doctor.
- It is also willing to draw lines and make demands that it knows cannot be met. A good doctor not only asks careful questions, he identifies cancer when he sees it. Likewise, a church or an elder should not use its authority to obscure God's gospel realities but to illumine them. The power of the keys, for instance, is to be used exactly to this end.
In short, Christian ministry works by the power of the Spirit and the Word, not by the power of the flesh.
Like a pragmatic approach, it makes appeals to people. It asks for their consent. It recognizes that a true act of faith cannot be coerced.
But like an authoritarian approach, it recognizes that Jesus is king and possesses authority. True actions of faith do not proceed from autonomous but manipulated actors. Rather, people must lovingly submit to his royal word.
Christian ministry loves and confronts. It honors and challenges. More than anything, perhaps, it speaks…and waits…
Jonathan Leeman, an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church and the editorial director at 9Marks, is the author of Reverberation: How God’s Word Brings Light, Freedom, and Action to His People. Portions of this article have been taken from The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love. You can follow Jonathan on Twitter.
Instinctually, I have never been crazy about the regulative principle. Somehow it feels overly prescriptive.
The principle teaches that everything a church includes in Sunday’s order of service must have scriptural warrant. That warrant, says Ligon Duncan, “can come in the form of explicit directives, implicit requirements, the general principles of Scripture, positive commands, examples, and things derived from good and necessary consequence” (Give Praise to God, 23). But the point is, churches shouldn’t do it if the Bible doesn’t say to do it.
A looser approach, and one that appeals to many evangelicals, is found in the normative principle. The normative principle certainly affirms that churches must do what Scripture enjoins—like preaching, praying, and singing. But it also makes space in the order of service for practices not forbidden in Scripture—whether that’s illustrating the sermon with a skit, finger painting your response to a Bible reading, or swinging an incense censer.
Now, I’m not looking to swing a censer or paint a picture, but the non-conformist in me wants to lean normative. I admit. But the Bible-conformist in me believes we should keep to the regulative principle. In fact, the fact that it is more restrictive for the church means it offers more freedom to the Christian. May I try to persuade you, too?
THE KEY IS WARRANT
The key is the word warrant. The regulative principle does not only require churches to heed biblical commands in their gatherings, it requires them to only heed biblical commands. Which is to say, churches must only do what they have been authorized or licensed to do. Any and all corporate activity must have a warrant.
Perhaps an illustration will help. My wife and I recently enjoyed seeing Gregory Porter at Washington, DC’s historic Howard Theater. Maybe that inspires me to open a jazz club in my own Washington suburb. So I apply for the appropriate business license, which is then granted, and eventually we open for business.
Guests come. They love the music. But something’s missing. They keep asking for food menus. I think back to my experience at the Howard Theater, and, sure enough, they served us dinner. What a combo, it was: dinner and jazz! So I install a kitchen into my club, hire a chef and wait staff, and begin serving dinner. Perfect!
At this point, however, a man from the county licensing office shows up and asks if I have a food services establishment permit. Well, no, but, you understand, sir, night after night, people are asking for food. So it makes perfect sense to offer them a menu.
Well, whether or not it “makes sense,” says the county agent, serving food exposes the club to another circle of regulations and responsibilities that serve to protect the citizens of the county. And the business license in hand simply says nothing about serving food. An additional license is necessary, or fines will be levied.
WARRANT IN THE KEYS
What our generation of somewhat individualistic and anti-institutional Christians misses is that the assembled church operates with a different set of authorizations, warrants, or licenses than the individual Christian does. The gathered local church is authorized in Matthew 16, 18, and 28 by Christ’s keys of the kingdom to make an international declaration about a what and a who: what is the gospel, and who is a gospel citizen? Just because I am a U.S. citizen does not mean I have the authority to show up at the international airport terminal without a U. S. passport; and just because I am a Christian does not mean I have the authority to baptize my friend in a backyard pool or take the Lord’s Supper with wife and children at home. The assembled local church possesses this authority. (For a defense of this paragraph, see chapter 4 here, chapter 3 here, here, and here).
What that means is, the individual Christian needs the local church. He or she needs the church for the sake of growing in grace, yes, people know that. But also, critically, the individual believer needs the church to be initially recognized as a Christian in baptism and to continue in this recognition through the Lord’s Supper.
That is to say, we need churches because they provide the formal accountability structure that ensures that the people who profess the gospel also live by the gospel—that the what and the who of the gospel and a gospel life match!
A church provides recognition and accountability for the Christian life.
Now here’s where the regulative principle becomes a big deal: if the believer needs a church to be formally recognized as a Christian, then the church had better darn well make sure it does not force anything onto a Christian that the Bible and the gospel do not require.
Christians are surely free to worship God in any number of ways, including with incense and finger paint. But as soon as a church places something in its order of service, it is effectively requiring all of its members to worship God in that way. It’s like the difference between choosing to abstain from alcohol yourself and requiring every member of your church to abstain from alcohol.
Christians must bind themselves to a church. That is why churches must not bind the Christian or the Christian’s conscience where Scripture does not bind it. And everything we write into a church’s order of service effectively mandates how a Christian worships God in the assembly.
The normative principle sounds like it leaves churches freer, and the non-conformist in me likes that. But, ironically, the regulative principle leaves the Christian freer, which the Bible-conformist in me definitely likes.
Admittedly, it’s a bit harder to see the problem when we have so many churches to choose from. If I don’t like what one church does, I just go to another. But put yourself in the shoes of someone living in a town with only one church, as is the situation among our Christian brothers and sisters in various Muslim nations, or as it was among the many of the churches of the New Testament. You would be required to approach God in public worship through some method you find unbiblical and noxious.
Whether you live in a town with one church or hundreds, the regulative principle claims that churches do not have the warrant or authority to place unbiblical elements into the church’s order of service. It seeks to free Christians from such constraints.
WHAT DOES THE LICENSING DOCUMENT SAY?
What a church should do instead is pretty easy. It should look down at its license of establishment and ask, what exactly has King Jesus authorized us to do? We can wade into the waters of what “makes sense,” or we can carefully read the licensing document itself, a.k.a. the New Testament.
What does the document license them to do? Basically, it authorizes churches to do the things that they have been doing for two thousand years when assembled: binding and loosing through the Lord’s Supper and baptism; teaching and preaching; Bible reading and singing. While many activities characterize the church scattered, these things seem to characterize the church gathered (e.g. Acts 2:46; 1 Cor. 5:4; 11:18-22, 33-34; 14:1-39).
Now, maybe it “makes sense” to illustrate the sermon with a skit, to finger paint your response to a Bible reading, or to swing an incense censer. But does the licensing agreement say anything about these activities? Anywhere? Maybe they’re in the fine print. No?
Insofar as the Bible says nothing, the regulative principle would then forbid them based on these two assumptions.
Assumption one: the Holy Spirit had reasons to authorize in Scripture what he authorized, and to stay silent where he stayed silent. Presumably, he had reasons that he wanted the gospel spoken in words rather than painted in pictures in gatherings of the church. What are those reasons? I don’t know. Maybe it has something to do with the power of images, or the second commandment, or the nature of faith. I genuinely don’t know. What I do know is that the New Testament—our licensing agreement—clearly authorizes churches to preach, but says nothing about painting pictures.
Assumption two is that, in general, human beings are authorized to do only what God authorizes them to do. We don’t have the authority to pluck an apple off a tree and eat it until the Lord licenses us. Gratefully, apple eating is authorized in Genesis 1:29. So with anything a church does when it’s assembled—God must authorize its activities. When we go beyond Scripture, we risk wrongly binding the conscience of church members.
LITTLE STRUCTURE, LOT OF IMPROV
Adherents of both the regulative and normative principle can agree that human beings can worship God in all kinds of activities (see 1 Cor. 10:31). We can worship him through drama, finger painting, and maybe even incense, though I’m sure I’m not the man to defend this last one.
The difference between the two principles comes down to whether or not the local church possesses its own institutional charter, and whether or not the members are bound to act within the explicit constraints, commissions, and provisos of that charter when they are gathered together. The weakness of the normative principle, at base, is its lack of institutional specification. The strength of the regulative principle is its institutional specificity.
This specificity is not only biblical, it provides the little bit of structure that allows for a great deal improvisation, as in jazz. Even the most aleatoric moments of an improvised jazz riff have to move within a tightly scripted structure, at least if an ensemble wants to stay together.
So we’re commissioned to preach, pray, and sing the gospel, eh? Ah, what diverse things we can preach, pray, and sing about this gospel of harmonious glory! How many variations can you spin out on that melody?
 I believe John Frame is correct, in one sense, to argue that the regulative principle is the same for the Christian life and for corporate worship (e. g. The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 464-81). It’s the same in that God must authorize our activities in both domains. But then I would want to challenge what I believe is Frame’s lack of institutional specification about the existence, nature, and authority of the local church by virtue of the keys of the kingdom.
Jonathan Leeman, an elder at the Capitol Hill Baptist Church and the editorial director of 9Marks, is the author of several books on the local church. You can follow him on Twitter.
After a short drive through the African countryside, our truck pulled up to a chapel for a church service in Choma, Zambia. I was excited to worship with brothers and sisters from across the world, and I was anxious to see what it would be like. How different would the service be from what I’m used to? Would I be able to worship along with them?
As the service began, men on stage started to play bongos and the whole room danced where they stood. Joyful shouts of praise broke out around me as the rhythm progressed. Then I heard the most beautiful congregational singing I’ve ever experienced to this day. The voices rang out in near perfect unison, and the sweet words directed my eyes to the cross. After singing, someone led us in prayer, and we heard the Word of God preached. It was a worshipful experience.
In many ways, it was different than what I was used to, but it was also strikingly similar. And I suspect it’s similar to your own church services as well. The fact that churches on different sides of the globe are so similar yet so different is what we should expect when the gospel is proclaimed in diverse places. There is a glorious, diverse sameness. And we should be satisfied with nothing less.
OUR GATHERINGS SHOULD BE VERY SIMILAR
The regulative principle is the conviction that everything we do in corporate worship must have warrant in Scripture, either by direct command or implication. As the examples above show us, when we anchor ourselves in God’s revealed truth, there will be a certain sameness to our church gatherings—even when the church is on the other side of the world.
Every Christian church, regardless of location or affiliation, has been given the same New Testament. There are some areas of corporate worship for which Scripture hasn’t given us any instruction, but there are many other important areas where Scripture has spoken clearly, and we should take note.
First, the substance or content of our church gatherings should be the same. The good news that Christ died, was buried, and was raised is the message we must proclaim. It should be our confidence when we pray, it should be celebrated when we sing, and it should be clear when we preach and administer sacraments. While there should be great diversity in our worship styles, there should not be diversity in our message.
Second, the elements, or the different components of our church gatherings, should be the same. Those elements are preaching, singing, praying, Scripture reading, tithes and offerings, and the sacraments. Our God is not just concerned that we worship him; he’s also concerned with how we worship him.
Of course we should offer our entire lives as worship unto the Lord. But when we gather together as we’ve been commanded to, we should anchor ourselves in the elements God has given us in his Word. This isn’t a burden that restricts us, but a relief that frees us. We are freed to worship according to God’s means instead of human whim. This sameness unites us with churches all across the globe. But how similar should we all be?
OUR GATHERINGS SHOULD BE VERY DIFFERENT
One criticism of the regulative principle is that it doesn’t allow for much diversity among our churches. Some argue that the regulative principle only produces one kind of church, and if we all subscribe to it our churches will look exactly the same. I strongly disagree.
When I worshiped with that church in Zambia, I was struck by the all the similarities and differences I observed. But I could also talk about the time I was in Grand Cayman, where I sang along with a diverse congregation as they belted out familiar songs with a Carribean swagger. Then their pastor delivered a heart penetrating exposition that exalted Christ as Lord of all.
Or how about my former church in North Philadelphia, where every aspect of the service was gospel-saturated, and the atmosphere was celebratory and expressive. Hands waved, a six-piece band of talented musicians played, and the members verbally responded to the Word as it was preached.
Both of those atmospheres are very different from my current church, where the music is much simpler and quieter, the prayers are longer, and there’s limited verbal interaction during service. Instead, the congregation sits in a hushed silence as the Word of almighty God is read aloud and proclaimed.
The worship gatherings of the churches I’ve mentioned are very similar, yet very different. They faithfully obey God’s clear commands in Scripture to sing the word, pray the word, and preach the word. But as you can tell from my descriptions, they are far from identical—and I don’t think they should be. This diverse sameness is glorious! We should be praising God for it and praying for more of it.
While our churches should not be innovative in the content or the components of our services, the way we carry those things out is, to some degree, up to us. Scripture gives us the “substance” and the “elements,” but within broad biblical guidelines, the forms are flexible.
So we can sing old, wordy hymns or repetitive contemporary songs. You can pray for an hour or for five minutes. You can preach calmly and lecture-like, or you can preach loudly, with a melodic climax at the end. We can take communion every week, or every other month. Church members can shout “Hallelujah!” during the sermon or just give a quiet “mmm.” And of course, there are inconsequential circumstances like seating and bulletins. You can sit in chairs or pews, and you can read song lyrics from a brochure or on a big screen.
You get the point. We shouldn’t think the regulative principle calls our churches to be uniform in every way. We can all be faithful to God’s Word without looking exactly the same.
My heart would be broken if I visited a church in China and the worship gathering looked exactly like my church’s in Washington, D.C. One of the glories of the gospel is that it penetrates all nations, tribes, tongues, and cultures.
Sometimes we can be tempted to force our chosen forms on others. No church exists outside of a context, so we shouldn’t assume our way is the way. This cultural snobbery assumes that our cultural norms please God more than others. We should do what works for our people in our context. Yes, idolizing contextualization leads to compromise, but being oblivious to people’s needs is a compromise of its own. Our God has created diverse peoples, and any attempt to erase that diversity opposes his wise design.
This diverse sameness that we get to experience now is more precious than we sometimes acknowledge. It reminds us that God’s saving grace is indiscriminate. It’s a shadow of that eternal worship gathering that we long for. And it’s proof that God is making good on his promise to gather a people to himself from every tribe, nation, and tongue. Amen.
Trip Lee, in addition to his work as a hip hop artist, serves as a pastoral assistant at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC and is the author of The Good Life (Moody, 2012).
Today many evangelicals assume that the Bible does not prescribe a normative pattern of church polity. This is a natural—and convenient—assumption for a generation of church leaders who have been trained to value innovation, creativity, efficiency, and productivity on the model of a successful corporation. On the other hand, there are also a variety of common exegetical and theological views which support this position.
One of the goals of this essay is to assess a handful of these views. But my primary goal is to offer an inductive case for why New Testament patterns of church polity should be considered prescriptive—that is, binding on churches across time and space.
First, I will briefly lay out the most common argument against the existence of a normative New Testament church polity. Second, I will inductively examine the main contours of the New Testament evidence regarding church polity. Third, I will interact with alternate interpretations of this evidence. These two sections will constitute the bulk of the essay. Fourth, I will offer several reasons why the patterns of polity we see in the New Testament are not merely descriptive, but prescriptive.
One caveat up front: my argument for a normative New Testament polity is explicitly congregational. That’s because I understand the New Testament to prescriptively model a congregational polity. However, the argument as a whole still applies—some details excepted, of course—whether you see local elders, or a Presbyterian structure, as holding final authority in matters of discipline and doctrine.
I. THE ARGUMENT AGAINST A PRESCRIPTIVE NEW TESTAMENT POLITY
The most common against a normative New Testament polity is twofold: First, there is no consistent pattern of church polity in the New Testament. This means that it is impossible to argue that a single structure is “the” “biblical” pattern. Second, even if there were a consistent pattern of polity in the New Testament, that pattern might simply be descriptive, not prescriptive.
To take just one example, evangelical theologian Millard Erickson first points out the lack of explicit “didactic material” regarding church polity, then asserts, “When we turn to examine the descriptive passages, we find a second problem: there is no unitary pattern.” Further, Erickson writes, “Even if it were clear that there is one exclusive pattern of organization in the New Testament, that pattern would not necessarily be normative for us today. It might be merely the pattern which was, not the pattern which must be.”
In response to this common claim I’ll first survey the New Testament evidence on church polity then engage some alternate interpretations of this evidence, before concluding with reasons why we should view this material as prescriptive.
II. MAPPING THE EVIDENCE REGARDING NEW TESTAMENT POLITY
I’ll examine the main contours of the New Testament’s evidence regarding church polity under four main headings:
1. The role of the apostles
2. Local church leaders
3. Deacons and their predecessors, and
4. Congregational authority over who is included and excluded from the church.
1. The Apostles
First, the role of the apostles. Andrew F. Walls rightly notes that, because of Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit would come and guide them into all truth, the apostles “are the norm of doctrine and fellowship in the NT church (Acts 2:42, cf. 1 Jn 2:19).” In other words, because of their unique role as authorized, Spirit-endowed witnesses to Christ, the apostles’ teaching was to be accepted and obeyed by all Christians. So, for example, Paul could say to the Thessalonians, “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed” (2 Thess 3:14). Yet given this universal normative authority,
…the NT has less to say than might be expected of the apostles as ruling the church. They are the touchstones of doctrine, the purveyors of the authentic tradition about Christ: apostolic delegates visit congregations which reflect new departures for the church (Acts 8:14ff.; 11:22ff.). But the Twelve did not appoint the Seven; the crucial Jerusalem Council consisted of a large number of elders as well as the apostles (Acts 15:6; cf. 12, 22): and two apostles served among the ‘prophets and teachers’ of the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1). Government was a distinct gift (1 Cor 12:28), normally exercised by local elders: apostles were, by virtue of their commission, mobile. Nor are they even prominent in the administration of the sacraments (cf. 1 Cor 1:14).
Thus, despite their role as the norm of doctrine and fellowship for the whole New Testament church, the apostles clearly made room for the exercise of other kinds of authority by other individuals—or whole congregations (as in Acts 6:1-6, 1 Cor. 5:1-13, and 2 Cor. 2:6).
A final aspect of the apostles’ role that is relevant to our discussion is the unrepeatable, non-transferable nature of the apostolic office. Again Walls is helpful:
In the nature of things, the office could not be repeated or transmitted: any more than the underlying historic experiences could be transmitted to those who had never known the incarnate Lord, or received a resurrection appearance…while the NT shows the apostles taking care that a local ministry is provided, there is no hint of the transmission of the peculiar apostolic functions to any part of that ministry.
To summarize: The apostles’ teaching on all matters of faith and practice was the norm for the New Testament church. It remains so today through the inspired Scripture which they and their associates wrote. As Walls writes, “The apostolic witness was maintained in the abiding work of the apostles and in what became normative for later ages, its written form in the NT.” Second, the apostles did not tend to rule the churches directly, but made room for other exercises and structures of authority—on which more below. Third, the New Testament does not present the apostolate as an ongoing office, but as limited to those who were authoritative eye-witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection.
2. Local Church Leaders
The second main category to consider is local church leadership. Leaders in local churches in the New Testament are called by a variety of names: leader, elder, overseer, and pastor. In addition, while the following designations may fall short of titles, we also read of “those who are over you” (Gk. hoi proistamenoi; Rom. 12:8; 1 Thess. 5:12) and of those who have the gift of “administration” (Gk. kuberneseis; 1 Cor. 12:28), which both seem to indicate a leadership role. Contra those who see “irreconcilable diversity” in the New Testament evidence, I would argue that the following points demonstrate consistency and clarity in the leadership of New Testament churches.
First, it is commonly recognized that the terms elder, overseer, and pastor are all used interchangeably in the New Testament. Thus it would be a distortion of the textual evidence to read any distinctions in office or function into these different terms.
Second, Paul consistently appointed a number of elders in each local church he planted and he instructed his apostolic delegate Titus to do the same. In Acts 14:23 we read, “And when they [that is, Paul and Barnabas] had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” At least on his so-called first missionary journey, it was Paul’s consistent practice to appoint a number of leaders who were called elders in each local church.
And, in Titus 1:5 we read, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.” Paul’s practice of appointing elders in every church was not merely a personal preference, but something he commanded his assistants to do as well.
Third, notice that in Titus 1:5 Paul speaks about elders as part of the “order” into which local churches needed to be put. Paul seems to have in mind here a set pattern or form to which each local church should conform.
Fourth, throughout the New Testament we find a consistent pattern of plural elders in a single local church. For example, Paul called the elders of the Ephesian church to come to him (Acts 20:17), and James instructs a sick believer to call the elders of the church to come pray over him and anoint him with oil (Jas. 5:14).
Fifth, Paul’s references to the qualifications for elders with no further explanation in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 seem to presuppose that the office of elder was already known both to Timothy and Titus and to the churches they were ministering in. This points away from an understanding of elders as an ad hoc leadership position, and toward an understanding of elders as an established and widely recognized office among New Testament churches.
Sixth, the descriptions of leaders which fall outside the elder/overseer/pastor matrix need not imply the existence of other offices or of different church structures. The terms hegoumenos and proistamai are functional descriptions that could easily apply to both informal leaders in the church and to elders. In fact, Paul uses proistamai to describe the work of elders in 1 Timothy 5:17.
Seventh, silence about elders does not prove their absence. Some scholars make much of the fact that Paul doesn’t mention elders in Romans or 1 and 2 Corinthians, claiming this is evidence that elders were not uniformly present in even the “Pauline churches.” But Paul doesn’t mention elders in his letter to the Ephesians either, yet we know from Acts 20:17-38 that the congregation in Ephesus did indeed have a plurality of leaders who were called “elders.”
Eighth, consider the role of elders. By piecing together the work implied by the qualifications for elders (such as being apt to teach; 1 Tim 3:2; cf. Tit 1:9), other Pauline teaching such as 1 Tim 5:17-25, Paul’s charge to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:18-35, and Peter’s charge to his fellow elders in 1 Peter 5:1-4, we can see that the primary duties of elders are to teach sound doctrine, direct the affairs of the church, and exercise spiritual oversight over those entrusted to their care.
This brief survey suggests that New Testament churches were consistently led by a number of men who were recognized as elders and who were to teach sound doctrine, direct the affairs of the church, and exercise spiritual oversight. What diversity there appears to be in the New Testament’s descriptions of local church leaders seems rather to interlock with than to contradict this consistent pattern.
3. Deacons and Their Predecessors
Third, more briefly, we turn to deacons and their predecessors. Our English word “deacon” is simply a transliteration of the Greek word diakonos. The term and its cognates occur frequently throughout the New Testament, but in only two contexts does diakonos unambiguously refer to a local church office: Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8-13. In 1 Timothy 3:8, after listing the qualifications for elders, Paul says, “Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double tongued, not addicted to much wine,” and then enumerates the rest of the qualifications for deacons. And in Philippians 1:1 Paul greets “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.”
Although the New Testament’s witness to deacons is slim, some conclusions about their role may be tentatively drawn.
First, that “deacon” is a recognized office in the church alongside elders/overseers seems to be a legitimate inference of both of these passages. For Paul to specially mention deacons along with overseers in Philippians 1:1 would make little sense unless the deacons, along with the overseers, held a publicly recognized office.
Further, Paul’s listing of qualifications for deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 with no further explanation seems to indicate that deacons were an established office in the church.
Second, while the New Testament provides little explicit instruction about the role of deacons, one may infer from their title that their primary role is to serve the church in physical matters. Further, unlike elders (see 1 Tim. 3:2), deacons are not required to teach. While certainly not prohibiting deacons from teaching, this indicates that it is not one of the responsibilities of the office. And, while elders are repeatedly described as ruling the church (1 Tim. 5:17) and shepherding the church (Acts 20:28, 1 Pet. 5:2), deacons apparently do not have this responsibility of spiritual oversight. This is indicated by the lack of any mention of this role for deacons and by other, more subtle differences between their qualifications and elders’.
Finally, what does acts Acts 6 teach about the origin of the office of deacon? While some see the events of Acts 6 as founding the office of deacon, it seems better to view the Seven appointed in Acts 6 as predecessors to deacons, “proto-deacons.” On this reading, at least part of what Luke is doing in his account in Acts is explaining the origins of what came to be the office of deacon in the apostolic churches.
4. Congregational Authority Over Inclusion and Exclusion
A final aspect of New Testament polity which will prove critical to our discussion is the issue of authority over who is included in and excluded from the church.
Since polity deals with structures which govern and legitimate the exercise of authority, there is no more basic question of church polity than who ultimately decides who does and does not belong to the church. And, however much certain evangelicals want to point toward a “centered set” model for conceiving of the local church, the New Testament indicates that there is to be a clear, definite border between the church and the world (see, e.g., 1 Cor. 5:9-13). Thus in a number of places local assemblies of Christians are instructed to exclude from their fellowship anyone whose life decisively contradicts their claim to have faith in Christ.
The question naturally arises, then: who decides who is in and who is out? In keeping with the desire to be as inductive and descriptive as possible at this stage, I will briefly canvass relevant New Testament passages before considering whether these passages, along with the rest of what we’ve seen of New Testament patterns of polity, should function normatively for the church today.
In what follows I’ll argue that the New Testament normatively models what we tend to call “congregationalism.” But even if you disagree with this reading, you still need to demonstrate who in the church is authorized to do what. More specifically, who has the authority to include and exclude from the church?
In Matthew 16, when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus responds in part:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matt. 16:18-19).
Jonathan Leeman has recently argued that these endlessly disputed words of Jesus are an institutional charter for the church, which “formalizes the church’s existence on earth, establishes its authority, outlines its basic rights and privileges, and describes the essentials of belonging.” Leeman then examines the dense set of mixed metaphors in the present passage, the “application” of the authority of the keys in Matthew 18:15-20, and the relationship of these two passages to Matthew 28:18-20. In light of all this, Leeman proposes that this “charter” from Jesus says,
I hereby grant my apostolic church, the one eschatological and heavenly gathering, the authority to act as the custodians and witnesses of my kingdom on earth. I authorize this royal and priestly body, wherever it’s manifest among two or three witnesses formally gathered in my name, to publicly affirm and identify themselves with me and with all individuals who credibly profess my name and follow me as Lord; to oversee the discipleship of these by teaching them everything that I have commanded; to exclude all fall and disobedient professors; and to make more disciples, identifying these new believers with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit through baptism.
In sum, Leeman argues that in Matthew 16:18-19 Jesus grants to each local church the ambassadorial authority to representatively declare who does and does not belong to the kingdom of heaven. The church wields this authority by uniting professing believers to itself, overseeing their discipleship, and excluding false professors.
But who wields this authority in the churches of the New Testament? It seems that in the New Testament, it is consistently the local congregation as a whole which wields this authority. For instance, in Matthew 18:17 Jesus tells those who are confronting an erring brother to “tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Jesus’ teaching here seems to indicate that the local assembly as a whole has final judicatory authority over its members. It is the church which is to plead with the sinning professor to repent, and it is the church which is to enact the exclusion which Jesus requires if the person does not repent.
Or again, in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul instructs the church at Corinth about how to handle the man who is sleeping with his father’s wife, saying, “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:4-5). Here it seems that, even with an apostle providing instruction, it was the local assembly as a whole which was to exclude a scandalously sinning member. Paul’s letter addresses the entire “church of God that is in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2), and in this context he is clearly envisioning the church in Corinth acting as an entire gathered assembly.
This interpretation is corroborated by Paul’s comment in 2 Corinthians 2:6 that “the punishment inflicted by the majority is enough,” so that the church should welcome back the now-repentant individual. That the punishment is inflicted by the majority indicates that the congregation as a whole acted deliberatively to exclude this individual from their fellowship. Moreover, Paul’s command that the church restore the man confirms that the whole congregation has the authority not only to exclude unrepentant members but to include those who repent and maintain credible professions.
Certainly these accounts do not provide exhaustive procedural detail or answer every question we may have about the discipline of the early church. But they do seem to indicate a consistent pattern in which the local congregation as a whole exercised authority over who is included or excluded from the church.
III. ANSWERING ALTERNATE INTERPRETATIONS
With this all-too-cursory survey of New Testament patterns of polity in place, I turn now to evaluate three alternate interpretations of the evidence which militate against a normative reading of New Testament patterns of polity.
1. “Irreconcilable Diversity”
First, I will briefly assess the argument that the New Testament displays “irreconcilable diversity” in its patterns of church polity. This is simply a more technical way of stating Erickson’s point that there is no “unitary pattern” of polity in the New Testament.
Ernst Käsemann’s views may be taken as representative of many New Testament scholars when he says,
No romantic postulate, however enveloped it may be in the cloak of salvation history, can be permitted to weaken the sober observation that the historian is unable to speak of an unbroken unity of New Testament ecclesiology. In that field he becomes aware of our own situation in microcosm—differences, difficulties, contradictions, at best an ancient ecumenical confederation without an Ecumenical Council.
Millard Erickson’s view mentioned above is somewhat similar, though more tentative. Erickson identifies the seemingly “monarchical” exercise of apostolic authority, the “strong role” of the elders, and the elements of congregational authority seen in the New Testament as all standing somewhat in tension with each other.
A number of things can be said in response to such claims. Often, especially among those influenced by F.C. Baur’s reconstruction of the early church, interpreters will find difficulties and contradictions where a more patient reading of the text would find none. For example, some scholars will make much of the fact that Paul gives detailed instructions regarding the exercise of charismatic gifts in 1 Corinthians, which contains no mention of official church officers. On the other hand, the Pastoral Epistles and Acts contain no mention of regularly occurring charismatic gifts in the ongoing life of local congregations, and prominently feature official, so-called “hierarchical” structures of ministry, namely, the offices of elder and deacon. But silence about local church officers is not conclusive evidence of their absence, as we’ve discussed above. Nor is the “charismatic” nature of the Corinthian church’s worship necessarily opposed to a recognized, official structure of church leadership.
It seems that some interpreters have constructed complete portraits of the churches depicted in Corinth, the Pastorals, and Acts which go beyond the evidence, and then have found that these portraits contradict one another. In such cases we need to consider again what the texts do and do not tell us.
To turn to Erickson’s arguments: even though he sticks somewhat closer to the text, Erickson’s assertions about the lack of a unitary pattern indicate that he considers the discrete elements of polity in the New Testament to be mutually exclusive. Erickson offers no detailed discussion of why these elements cannot coexist in a unified polity in one local church; he merely asserts that they are incompatible.
Erickson is right to recognize that the apostles, for example, exercise an authority that extends beyond the local church and thus appears “monarchical.” But this only contradicts congregational authority if one believes that the office of apostle is to continue in the church in perpetuity. If, on the other hand, we recognize that the office of apostle is limited to those who were authoritative eye witnesses of the resurrection (as Walls argues above), then we are left with the elders and the congregation as the two main sources of authority. And there are many senses in which the elders and the congregation can exercise interdependent and interlocking kinds of authority. In other words, we do not have to choose between elder leadership and the kind of congregational authority we’ve sketched above.
If this is the case, the New Testament presents loci of authority in the local church which complement rather than contradict each other.
2. The Question of Development
Another alternate reading worth engaging is the claim that development in church structure within the New Testament renders all patterns of polity relative. Since a full chronological analysis of the New Testament’s evidence of polity patterns would take us too far afield, I will simply offer a few tentative comments on the question of development.
First, it seems clear from the New Testament that “apostle” is not a perpetually continuing office throughout the life of the church, but is rather tied to the first generation after Christ. Certainly the apostles continue to function as the norm for teaching and fellowship in all churches at all times through the inspired New Testament writings. But this is an authority exercised in absentia, not through living men who possess the office and gifts of an apostle.
Therefore, the authority which the apostles exercised over multiple churches is tied to their office and is not a pattern for the exercise of similar authority in the church today. This would rule out any appeal to a specifically apostolic activity as justification for, say, a “bishop” who possesses authority over multiple congregations. Yet this is precisely the appeal Peter Toon makes when he writes,
When these words [Titus 1:5-7] were written in the first century, all the churches acknowledged that the visiting apostle or evangelist or representative of the apostle had an authority in certain matters ‘above’ that of the local presbyters/bishops and the local congregation of Christ’s flock.
Yet unless Toon is prepared to equate apostles with bishops, there is no basis for using the former as a justification for the latter.
Once appeal to uniquely apostolic authority as a basis for polity is taken away, the New Testament demonstrates a consistent pattern of leadership by a plurality of elders in the context of congregational authority over inclusion and exclusion from the assembly. In other words, once we understand the unique and unrepeatable aspects of the apostles’ ministry, the diversity of the New Testament’s patterns of polity begins to look somewhat less “irreconcilable.”
Second, if we take the New Testament’s historical claims at face value, which we have every reason to do, then no legitimate case can be made that official “offices” within the church were a late development. Paul’s first missionary journey can be dated to around 49 AD, at which time Luke says that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church. Paul’s mention of “overseers and deacons” in Philippians 1:1 seems to indicate the existence of the two offices in a way that neatly harmonizes with the discussion of their qualifications in 1 Timothy 3. And this occurs in a letter that should be dated around 60 AD, which is well within the lifetime of at least some of the other apostles. And again, a conservative dating of the Pastoral Epistles places them just a few years after Philippians.
What this means is that the large amount of time asserted to have elapsed between the church’s earlier, “charismatic” phase and the later crystallization of a more ordered church structure is greatly exaggerated. Certainly there appears to be some development, for example, from the Seven appointed in Acts 6 to the office of deacon. But, what little development there is leads to a stable polity which includes elders leading, deacons serving, and the congregation having final responsibility for the credibility of its members’ professions.
Granted, to arrive at this picture requires some careful synthesis because these elements are rarely all mentioned in the course of one book in the New Testament, and they are never delineated in a comprehensive and systematic manner. Yet, given our survey of the evidence above, in the absence of compelling evidence there is no reason to assume that as the apostolic age wore on the churches developed in any different trajectories.
In sum, while there is clearly some ecclesiological development within the New Testament, it seems reasonable to discern something of a “final form” New Testament ecclesiology, particularly as seen in the Pastoral Epistles, which are explicitly concerned with the safe preservation of the gospel and the church into the post-apostolic era.
3. One ekklesia, multiple congregations?
Another argument advanced against the reading we sketched above is based on the claim that the New Testament sometimes uses the word ekklesia to refer to a “church” comprised of a number of discrete congregations. For instance, D.A. Carson has written,
One of the most striking things about its use in the New Testament is that it occurs in the plural when referring to the various assemblies (“churches”) of a region or province (e.g. “the churches of Judea,” Gal. 1:22), but it is restricted to the singular when referring to assemblies of Christians in any one city. In cities like Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus and Rome the Christians multiplied so rapidly that they could not possibly meet in one assembly; and even if they could have found a large enough venue, it was impolitic to meet that way and draw attention to their numbers. But although there were thus many “assemblies” or “congregations” in, say, Colossae or Jerusalem, Paul writes to the church at Colossae and goes up to consult with the church in Jerusalem, not the “churches” at Colossae and Jerusalem.
Based on this line of interpretation, Carson has elsewhere offered the following warning for those who would see the consistent pattern of plural elders in local churches as normative:
A plurality of elders, if not mandated, appears to have been common, and perhaps the norm. On the other hand, only “church” (ekklesia in the singular) is used for the congregation of all believers in one city, never “churches”; one reads of churches in Galatia, but the church in Antioch or Jerusalem. Thus it is possible, though not certain, that a single elder may have exercised authority in relation to one house group—a house group that in some cases constituted part of the citywide church—so that the individual elder would nevertheless be one of many in that citywide “church” taken as a whole.
In brief, Carson is suggesting that if multiple congregations constituted one city-wide church, and if we further speculate that each elder oversaw one house church, then we may not be justified in claiming that plural eldership is a binding norm for churches to follow. Historically, others have used this same textual argument to justify Presbyterian or Episcopalian forms of polity or, more recently, multi-site churches.
Yet the New Testament does not appear to substantiate Carson’s assertion that in certain cities “the Christians multiplied so rapidly that they could not possibly meet in one assembly; and even if they could have found a large enough venue, it was impolitic to meet that way and draw attention to their numbers.” Specifically, three lines of textual evidence argue against this.
First, Acts repeatedly states that the entire number of the Jerusalem church met together. Immediately after three thousand souls were added to the church (Acts 2:41), we read, “And all who believed were together and had all things in common...And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:44, 46). This plainly indicates that the same “all” who were together and had everything in common also met in the temple.
Or again, Acts 4:4 says that “the number of the men came to about five thousand.” However large we estimate the whole church to be based on the number of men, Acts 5:12 (NIV) clearly indicates that they all assembled in one place: “And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade.”
Again, in Acts 6:2, the apostles “summoned the full number of the disciples” in order to take care of the food distribution problem. Clearly, Solomon’s Colonnade was large enough to accommodate a meeting of several thousand disciples, which is easy enough to imagine given its generous dimensions. And the text says the disciples did in fact all meet together.
Second, although the church in Antioch consisted of “a great number…a great many people,” (Acts 11:21, 26), Paul and Barnabas were able on two separate occasions to gather the entire church together (Acts 14:27, 15:30).
Third, although Carson doesn’t mention Corinth, it is often asserted that the church in Corinth consisted of a number of smaller house churches. Yet Paul, addressing the entire “church of God that is in Corinth,” refers to their assembling as a whole at least seven times. For instance, Paul tells them to pursue a matter of church discipline “when you are assembled” (1 Cor. 5:4). In the first five of these instances Paul refers to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and in the latter two he refers to coming together for mutual edification through singing and instruction.
In 1 Corinthians 11:18 Paul explicitly says, “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you.” Here Paul seems to regard their assembling together as constitutive of their being a church. In view of the meaning of ekklesia (“assembly”), this would hardly seem opaque to Greek-speaking Christians. For Paul, it is from this regular, collective assembly that their identity as the church of God in Corinth derives.
Further, Paul instructs the Corinthians to put something aside “on the first day of the week” (1 Cor. 16:2). This seems more likely to be a reference to their corporate meeting on the first day than to an individual, private activity of setting money aside. This would also seem to weigh in favor of understanding Paul’s other references to their “coming together” as regular, weekly assemblies rather than extraordinary events. And it would constitute yet one more reference to the church assembling together as a whole, albeit an implicit one. On balance it seems best to understand that all of Paul’s references to the Corinthian church coming together as a whole indicate not only that the entire number of believers in Corinth could assemble in one place, but that they in fact did so, weekly.
This interpretation is corroborated by the fact that, in his epistle to the Romans which he very likely wrote from Corinth, Paul refers to “Gaius, who is the host to me and to the whole church” (Rom. 16:23). Thus, whether it was impolitic to meet in this way or not, it appears that the Christians in Jerusalem, Antioch, and Corinth did in fact assemble as one congregation in each city, despite their large numbers.
If in the New Testament multiple congregations sometimes constituted one church, then this would call into question my earlier argument that the local congregation held final authority over matters of membership and discipline. If one church consists of multiple congregations, then who has authority over whom? Yet I’ve argued that the New Testament doesn’t support this assertion, and in fact the evidence from Jerusalem, Antioch, and Corinth indicates that groups called “churches” regularly assembled as unified wholes.
Instead of speculating about what surely was the case, we do better to stick with what the New Testament plainly states was the case.
To recap: In section one I highlighted the primary argument against a normative reading of New Testament church polity. In section two I attempted to sketch the main lines of local church structure(s) seen in the New Testament and concluded that a consistent pattern is discernible. Third, in this section I offered an answer to three main arguments against a consistent pattern of polity in the New Testament: (i) the assertion that the texts display an irreconcilable diversity of patterns of polity, (ii) the argument that development in church structure within the New Testament renders all patterns of polity relative, and (iii) the claim that one church in a city consisted of multiple congregations. This third argument, of course, would relativize two of the main polity patterns I’ve argued are consistent across the New Testament: plural elder leadership and congregational authority over membership and discipline.
IV. THE PATTERN WHICH MUST BE, NOT MERELY THE PATTERN WHICH WAS
Yet even if there was in fact a consistent pattern of polity in the New Testament, what about Erickson’s claim that such a pattern may simply have been “the pattern which was, not the pattern which must be”? How are we to decide whether all of these various passages are descriptive or prescriptive? How we answer this question will determine whether we understand following Scriptural patterns of polity to be a matter of obedience or indifference. Thus, we turn to the question of whether these patterns and instructions are normative for the church today.
The first thing to point out is that we should be very slow to dismiss what is in fact a consistent pattern of polity—or more precisely, a number of discrete elements that fit into a coherent if skeletal structure. Most authors who argue that the New Testament’s patterns of polity are not binding also argue that they are not consistent with each other. Far fewer—if any—see a consistent, unified pattern and yet argue that it is not binding today.
If we are confronted with a consistent pattern, we should think twice about jettisoning it because of the “lack of prescriptive material.” It is clear from the New Testament that, in general, apostolic practices functioned as a binding precedent for all churches (cf. 1 Cor. 11:16). In principle, there is no reason why this wouldn’t extend to matters of church leadership and structure.
That apostolic example was to function normatively is something that historic Baptists have been readier to embrace than contemporary ones. William Williams, a founding professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is worth quoting at length:
Should the disciples of our Lord regard this organization as a model obligatory upon them to adopt, or has he left the form of church polity discretionary with his people?...If any and all forms are not equally adapted to subserve the high ends for which churches are divinely instituted, then there is a form better adapted than others; and if there be one better adapted than another, the Saviour would surely not leave it to fallible human wisdom to find it out…We must believe, in view of the important bearing of the form of their organization upon the successful or unsuccessful accomplishment of the high ends of their institution, that they were under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in this matter, as well as in the enunciation of the doctrinal principles of Christianity: so that the polity instituted by them must be regarded as the expression of divine wisdom on this subject.
Williams continues, putting a point on it:
The real question, then, seems to be this—Are we under obligation to adopt that polity which divine wisdom has pointed out to be the best adapted to promote the ends of church organization, or may we feel at liberty to change it or to substitute some other, according to our views of fitness and expediency? Such a question does not admit of debate. It is not contended that there is a system, logically propounded, and laid down in systematic form. But neither are the doctrines of the gospel so laid down; and for a wise purpose. We are thereby left to a diligent search of the Scriptures, and by comparing Scripture with Scripture, and collecting instruction from the scattered and incidental references to doctrines in the Scriptures, to arrange them into a systematic, harmonious body of doctrine. Similarly, with the great leading principles of church government.
Further, I would argue that the passages which establish the main lines of New Testament church polity carry normative force in themselves. Take plural elder leadership. This appears to be a consistent pattern seen throughout the New Testament. It derives from habitual practice of the apostle Paul (Acts 14:23). It is a practice Paul commanded his apostolic delegate to follow (Tit. 1:5). It is part of the “order” into which, according to Paul, each church was to be set (Tit. 1:5). Finally, the form in which the qualifications for elders come to us (1 Tim. 3:1-7), with no further explanation or indication that their role is limited to a specific situation in the church. All this taken together seems to indicate that our churches are to do what Timothy’s church in Ephesus was to do: to look out for men who meet the qualifications, and, as the Lord provides them, appoint them to the office of elder.
Regarding congregational authority over inclusion in and exclusion from the church, I’d argue similarly: the passages which establish this authority rule out the exercise of that same authority by any other group or individual. Therefore, they establish a normative, binding standard for churches to follow.
Countless Baptists and Congregationalists have observed—perhaps anachronistically but, I would argue, insightfully—that when Jesus said “tell it to the church” in Matthew 18:17, he didn’t say, “Tell it to the presbytery” or “bishop” or “pope.” That is, Jesus established the local congregation as a whole as the final deliberative and judicatory authority over who is to be included in or excluded from the congregation.
This teaching, moreover, was given to Jesus’ disciples before the church as such yet existed. I would argue that this actually confirms its universal relevance and application to all local churches. Thus when Paul tells the Corinthian assembly as a whole to act to exclude the immoral man (1 Cor. 5:4-5), he apparently was both following and confirming the abiding authority of Jesus’ teaching on this subject.
This pattern of congregational authority is shown to be a binding norm most clearly in light of Jesus’ grant of authority to the local congregation in the famous “keys of the kingdom” passage (Matt 16:18-19). If Jonathan Leeman is correct to argue that this passage amounts to an institutional charter for the local church, then the question of authority is thrown into sharp relief. According to Leeman’s reading, Jesus is granting the local church on earth the authority to representatively declare who does and does not belong to the kingdom of heaven by means of “binding and loosing” professing believers to and from its fellowship.
If the local church is endowed with this representative, ambassadorial authority, the question naturally arises as to who is authorized to exercise this authority. When authority is involved, the question of authorization is inescapable. And in this case, because the authority is over who is included and excluded from the church, we are immediately involved in questions of polity.
This doesn’t bear directly on the leadership structure of the church per se, in terms of what the leaders are called or how many there are to be. But it does bear very much on polity, in the sense that if Jesus authorized this exercise of authority, it may be exercised only by those whom he authorized to do it. Thus, if the local congregation as a whole is authorized to exercise this authority of the keys of the kingdom, then no an extra-congregational authority such as a bishop or presbytery is warranted to exercise it. Nor is any subgroup within the congregation, such as the elders, licensed to seize the final say such matters. Authority that represents the kingdom of heaven requires a heavenly authorization. And the authorization Jesus has given warrants this authority to be exercised only by the local congregation as a whole. If someone wants to argue that the elders or presbytery or a bishop have been so authorized to exercise the keys, then the onus is upon him to demonstrate from the text where this authorization occurs, or even where it is exemplified in the life of the early church. Where, for instance, do we see in the New Testament an elder board or a bishop unilaterally excommunicating an individual from membership in the church in the manner that Paul commands the Corinthian church to do (1 Cor. 5:4)?
Whether you agree or disagree about the congregation having final authority, you can’t escape the question of who is authorized to do what in the church. Where and how is the church authorized to act in order to hold its members and elders accountable?
When it comes to the authority of the elders, the question to ask is, how does the New Testament authorize them? They do bear a distinct authority inasmuch as church members are commanded to obey them (Heb 13:17), which entails an authority that is not possessed jointly by all church members. Clearly, they are authorized with “oversight” (e.g. Acts 20; 1 Peter 5) and “teaching” (e.g. Acts 20; 1 Tim. 3).
In sum, there are several reasons why we should regard the skeletal church structure we’ve gleaned from the New Testament as normative. First, even though finding a “pattern” of church polity necessarily involves careful synthesis of various textual data, it does seem that there is a discernibly consistent pattern of polity that can be gleaned from the New Testament. Therefore, we should think twice before simply setting it aside.
Second, we have good textual and theological reasons for seeing apostolic practice in this area as establishing a binding precedent.
Third, in various ways, specific texts which bear upon polity seem to indicate that these patterns and prescriptions carry a lasting normative force.
Fourth, an exercise of authority on behalf of heaven requires a heavenly authorization. Thus, perhaps most explicitly in matters of membership and discipline, it would appear that insofar as church polity touches these matters, which it inescapably does, it is to be regulated by divine warrant given in Scripture.
Fifth, since church leaders have a specific authority not granted to every member of the congregation, this exercise of authoritative spiritual oversight in the local church likewise requires a divine authorization.
For all of these reasons, we should regard the New Testament’s pattern of polity not merely as the pattern which was, but as the pattern which must be. And we should lead our churches—slowly and incrementally, if necessary—to conform to Scripture’s teaching in this area.
1 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (2nd ed., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 1094-5.
2 Andrew F. Walls, “Apostle,” in New Bible Dictionary, ed. I. Howard Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer and D.J. Wiseman (3rd ed.; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1996), 58.
3 Ibid., 59.
4 Ibid., 59-60.
5 Ibid., 60.
6 Gk. hegoumenos; Heb 13:7, 17, 24.
7 Gk. presbuteros; Acts 11:30, 14:12, 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23, 16:4, 20:17, 21:18; 1 Tim 5:17, 19; Tit 1:5; Jas 5:14; 1 Pet 5:1, 5.
8 Gk. episkopos; Acts 20:28; Phil 1:1, 1 Tim 3:1-2; Tit 1:7; cf. 1 Pet 5:2.
9 Gk. poimen; Eph 4:11; cf. Acts 20:28, 1 Pet 5:2.
10 “Irreconcilable diversity is Markus Bockmuehl’s phrase. See Markus Bockmuehl, “Is There a New Testament Doctrine of the Church?” in Scripture’s Doctrine and Theology’s Bible: How the New Testament Shapes Christian Dogmatics, ed. Markus Bockmuehl and Alan J. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 35, and my response to Bockmuehl’s view in section III below.
11 Most of the following discussion finds agreement with (though is not directly dependent on) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 912-920, along with Wayne Grudem, “Why Don’t We Follow the Uniform New Testament Pattern of Plural Elders to Govern Our Churches?” Evangelical Theological Society Papers. Portland: Theological Research Exchange Network, 1993.
12 See, for example, D.A. Carson, “Church, Authority in the,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter Elwell (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 249. See further Mark Dever’s discussion in “The Doctrine of the Church,” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 801-802.
13 Some, such as R. Alastair Campbell in his work Elders: Seniority within Earliest Christianity (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), dispute this point and offer an alternative reading. However, given that Paul can use versions of all three terms interchangeably, in the same context, any reading which drives a wedge between the terms would seem to contradict the plain sense of the text.
14 For more examples of plural elders in one local congregation see Dever, “The Doctrine of the Church,” 803-804.
15 For a justification for viewing eldership as an office, not merely a function, see Benjamin L. Merkle, The Elder and Overseer: One Office in the Early Church (New York: Peter Lang, 2003).
16 Whether Romans 16:1 indicates that Phoebe held the office of deacon isn’t crucial for our present discussion, though it does bear on the issue of whether or not the New Testament allows for women deacons. For arguments in favor of the view that Romans 16:1 refers to the office of deacon, see Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 787-788. For arguments in favor of understanding 1 Timothy 3:11 as a reference to deaconesses, and therefore of the legitimacy of having female deacons today, see Andreas J Köstenberger, “Hermeneutical and Exegetical Challenges in Interpreting the Pastoral Epistles,” in Entrusted With the Gospel: Paul’s Theology in the Pastoral Epistles, ed. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Terry L. Wilder (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 24-26.
17 See Benjamin L. Merkle, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008), 238-243.
18 See further Benjamin L. Merkle, “The Biblical Qualifications and Responsibilities of Deacons.” 9Marks Journal, 7.2 (2010): 8-11 [online]. Available from: http://www.9marks.org/journal/biblical-qualifications-and-responsibilities-deacons.
19 For a brief defense of the traditional understanding of Acts 6 as the founding of the office of deacon, a position from which I gently demur, see John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 192. Mark Dever in “The Doctrine of the Church” also effectively treats the Seven as deacons, although he acknowledges that the deacon only “explicitly” attained the status of an office later (799-800). Finally, while Anthony Thiselton does not discuss the relationship of the Seven appointed in Acts 6 to the office of deacon, he does present an interesting proposal for understanding the term diakonein to refer broadly to administrative responsibility exercised on behalf of another, based on the arguments of John N. Collins. This proposal seems to be complementary in some respects to the traditional emphasis on deacons as servants of the physical needs of the church. See Anthony Thiselton, The Hermeneutics of Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 493-494.
20 See, for example, Matt. 18:15-20, 1 Cor. 5:1-13, 2 Thess. 3:14-15, and Titus 3:10-11.
21 Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 173. Chapter 4 of Leeman’s work contains an extended exegesis of Matthew 16:18-19 and other relevant texts in Matthew which buttresses this central claim. For Leeman’s most succinct, up-to-date discussion of these passages, see “Political Church: How Christ’s Keys of the Kingdom Constitute the Local Church as a Political Assembly,” (PhD Diss., the University of Wales, 2013), ch. 6.
22 Ibid., 194-195.
23 While Leeman’s language of an institutional charter perhaps goes a step further than previous Congregationalist authors, many historic Congregationalist authors have understood the “keys of the kingdom” in Matthew 16:18-19 in broadly the same way Leeman does. For a representative example, see John Cotton, The Keyes of the Kingdom of Heaven, and The Power Thereof, According to the Word of God (London: Thomas Goodwin and Philip Nye, 1644; repr. Boston: S.K. Whipple and Co., 1852).
24 Many commentators from a variety of ecclesiological traditions have recognized this basic point. See, for example, Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 468-9; and D.A. Carson, “Matthew,” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 403.
25 “Irreconcilable diversity” is Bockmuehl’s phrase. See Bockmuehl, “Is There a New Testament Doctrine of the Church?” 35.
26 Ernst Käsemann, “Unity and Multiplicity in the New Testament Doctrine of the Church,” in New Testament Questions of Today, trans. W.J. Montague. (New Testament Library; London, SCM: 1969), 256-257, cited in Bockmuehl, 32.
27 Erickson, Christian Theology, 1094.
28 Ibid. For Erickson’s entire discussion of church government, see 1080-1097.
29 Peter Toon, “Episcopalianism,” in Who Runs the Church? ed. Steven B. Cowan (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 27-28.
30 On which see Craig L. Blomberg, From Pentecost to Patmos: An Introduction to Acts through Revelation (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2006), 21.
31 For a recent and ingenious argument in favor of the Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles, see Terry L. Wilder, “Pseudonymity, the New Testament, and the Pastoral Epistles,” in Entrusted With the Gospel: Paul’s Theology in the Pastoral Epistles, ed. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Terry L. Wilder (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 28-51.
32 Nor, for that matter, is the doctrine of the Trinity. One wonders why evangelicals who uphold the doctrine of the Trinity would decry similar systematic synthesis in another area of Christian doctrine.
33 Much more would need to be said in order to adequately safeguard against an application of some type of “trajectory hermeneutics” to the area of church polity. For now I’ll simply argue that development (diversity) within the apostolic era seems to lead to consistent polity (unity), rather than vice versa.
34 D.A. Carson, “Evangelicals, Ecumenism and the Church” in Evangelical Affirmations, ed. Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990) 364-365.
35 D.A. Carson, “Church, Authority in the,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter Elwell (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 250.
36 I am indebted to Greg Gilbert for drawing my attention to the following references. See his blog post, “Looking to the Bible on the Multi-Site Issue,” at http://www.9marks.org/blog/looking-bible-multi-site-issue.
37 See, for example, Jerome Murphy O’Connor, “House Churches and the Eucharist,” in Christianity at Corinth: The Quest for the Pauline Church, ed. Edward Adams and David G. Horrell (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 133-134.
38 1 Cor 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34; 1 Cor 14:23, 26.
39 Contra Murphy O’Connor, who asserts, “It would appear, therefore, that a meeting of ‘the whole church’ (Rom 16:23; 1 Cor 14:23) was the exception rather than the rule; it would simply have been too awkward.” See Murphy O’Connor, “House Churches and the Eucharist,” 133.
40 Against the argument I have sketched here, it is commonly asserted that there was no place large enough to accommodate the entire number of believers in Corinth meeting together in one place. The first problem with this argument is that it is based on pure conjecture, since we have no hard data about the size of the Corinthian church. Second, this argument refuses to address fairly plain archaeological evidence which has established that homes in Corinth which would have likely been within the means of the “not many” who were of high status (1 Cor 1:26) could easily have accommodated upwards of several hundred people. See, for example, Carolyn Osiek and David L. Balch, Families in the New Testament World: Households and House Churches, ed. Don S. Browning and Ian S. Evison, The Family, Religion, and Culture (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997). For an application of this research to the question of whether or not the New Testament provides precedent for multi-site churches, see Grant Gaines, “Were New Testament House Churches Multi-Site?” (Unpublished paper, accessed online at http://grantgaines.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/were-new-testament-house-churches-multi-site.pdf).
41 I am indebted Bruce Winter for pointing out the significance of this text for the present debate in personal correspondence. For arguments in favor of the Corinthian provenance of Romans see Schreiner, Romans, 4. Schreiner also sees Paul’s reference to Gaius as indicating that Gaius hosted the entire assembly. See ibid., 808.
42 Erickson, Christian Theology, 1095.
43 In fact, as I mentioned near the beginning of this essay, I’m not aware of a single author who sees a consistent pattern of polity within the New Testament yet argues that it is not prescriptive.
44 Erickson, Christian Theology, 1094.
45 William Williams, Apostolical Church Polity (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1874), repr. in Mark Dever, ed., Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life (Washingdon, DC: Nine Marks Ministries, 2001), 543-546.
46 See Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love, chapter 4.
47 This is one reason why, it seems to me, historic Congregationalists such as the men who wrote the Apologeticall Narration were right to demand some kind of explicit warrant, whether “directions, patterns, [or] examples” for any exercise of church authority. See Alan P.F. Sell, Saints: Visible, Orderly & Catholic: The Congregational Idea of the Church (Allison Park, PA: Pickwick Publishers, 1986), 31.
48 For a discussion of authority and authorization, see Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love, ch. 3; “Political Church,” ch. 2.
Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter.
Before our church got off the ground a couple years ago, the missional vision of a church that transforms its city intrigued me. But a few months into our church plant, I would have settled for a transformed marriage or two.
When you’re the only staff pastor of a small church, pulling off a weekly service is hard enough. Beyond that, how can you lead your church into meaningful, sustainable engagement with local unbelievers?
The answer depends on each church’s context. Our church decided to work and pray for a church culture where it’s normal to be in relationship with immigrants and refugees.
WHY MINISTER TO REFUGEES?
There are important theological reasons for investing in the foreign-born. God commanded Israel to love the sojourner, as a reflection of his care for the vulnerable and a reminder of their sojourn in Egypt (Deut. 10:18-19). Surely we too, as “sojourners and exiles” in this world (1 Pet. 2:11), should be drawn to those who are cut off from everything familiar and are, in so many ways, helpless.
Yet here I want to focus less on the theological rationale, and more on the strategic value of refugee outreach for mobilizing your church in evangelism.
Taking into account the demographics of our city, the extent of our resources, and our overall ministry philosophy, our leaders settled on a couple criteria that we want our evangelistic steps to reflect. First, we need an approach that will not require a ton of work to keep things rolling and to keep people interested. It needs to be somewhat self-sustaining.
Our second criterion dovetails with the first: we are aiming and praying toward a culture of evangelism. We want to see our members embrace an evangelistic way of life that trickles into our conversations with each other, how we spend our time, how we pray.
On the one hand, working toward a new set of lifestyle norms in your congregation is more intensive than an event or program-driven approach. You never cross culture-building off your to-do list. It requires singular focus, intentionality, modeling. But it’s also true that culture-building doesn’t require the same staff-dependent plate-spinning that’s necessary to pull off large events or refuel beleaguered programs. In a church plant, what you lack in staff and financial resources you more than make up for in what you might call motivated malleability. What I mean is that your church culture is largely there for the shaping, and your people are more likely to be eager self-starters.
Guided by these criteria, we are calling our people to engage their lives with immigrants and refugees. More and more people from countries hostile to the gospel are settling in American cities every year. And opportunities for relationship-building and gospel-motivated service among them are low-hanging fruit. We haven’t seen revival yet, but we’re inching closer to the place where it is normal in our church to be in relationship with foreign-born unbelievers.
FOUR TIPS FOR REACHING OUT TO REFUGEES
If you believe this strategy may work in your context, here are a few steps we’ve taken that could help you get started.
1. Identify faithful ministries already doing good work among the foreign-born in your city.
First, identify faithful ministries already doing good work among the foreign-born in your city. Especially if your church is small, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel if there are already ministries that can facilitate the kind of relational engagement you’re aiming for. Chances are these ministries exist in your city and they’re in need of volunteers. What you’re looking for is an individual or team already embedded in an immigrant community and wanting to hand off some of their relationships. You might start by checking out organizations like World Relief, InterFACE Ministries, and the North American Mission Board.
2. Find a person or a team to coordinate volunteers from your church.
Second, find a person or a team to coordinate volunteers from your church. If you’re a pastor, given the diversity of your responsibilities, this outreach culture isn’t likely to get very far if it’s solely on you to recruit volunteers and connect them to ministry opportunities. What you need is a quarterback. You want someone who understands and embraces the vision to own responsibility for recruiting, training, and connecting those who step up.
3. Find a useful pathway for relationships.
Third, find a useful pathway for relationships. The needs that come with resettling in a drastically new place can be debilitating, so it isn’t difficult to identify service opportunities that can lead naturally into relationships. Medicine can be a good option. We have a number of folks with medical training in our church, and we try to funnel them as volunteers to a medical clinic in our community that targets newly-arrived refugees.
Other opportunities promise even more sustainable relationships. Our first avenue was forming playgroups between some moms in our church and moms in an immigrant community. It’s amazing what kids can do to diffuse cross-cultural awkwardness. And who doesn’t love a good play-date?
English-language learning is another huge opportunity. Helping someone with conversational English is a perfect pathway into relationship, and it only requires setting aside regular time to meet and talk.
These service opportunities are not pretexts; they’re legitimate ways to meet needs and show love. But what you’re aiming for is meaningful, life-integrated friendships.
4. Celebrate and champion this culture using your ordinary pastoral tools—preaching and prayer.
Fourth, celebrate and champion this culture of outreach to refugees using all your pastoral tools, like preaching, prayer, and membership interviews. If you, the pastor, are responsible for keeping your outreach efforts afloat through other kinds of administrative work, things probably won’t end well. Instead, cast vision and celebrate what God is doing in order to stir up others’ desire for the work.
So I look for opportunities in sermon application to encourage people to these relationships. I often focus on our outreach work in my pastoral prayers, sometimes praying for individual volunteers by name. And the new member interview—a frontline culture-shaping moment—is a perfect chance to ask someone to consider taking on a relationship with a foreign-born individual or family.
Matt McCullough is the pastor of Trinity Church in Nashville, Tennessee and the author of My Brother's Keeper: Christian Nationalism, Messianic Interventionism, and the Spanish-American War of 1898 (University of Wisconsin Press, forthcoming).