20 Quotes from Jonathan Leeman’s New Book on Elder-Led Congregationalism


The following quotes caught my attention as I read Jonathan Leeman’s excellent new book, Understanding the Congregation’s Authority (B&H, 2016).


1. “It is the very fact that elder-led congregationalism does not permit leaders simply to impose their will on the members, even the immature ones, that forces the leaders to do the work of training.” (6)

2. “Is biblical congregationalism a democracy? No, it is a mixed government—part monarchy (rule of the one), part oligarchy (rule of the few), part democracy (rule of the many). Jesus is King through his Word; the elders or pastors lead; and the congregation has final (human) say on certain crucial matters.” (7)

3. “Since the gospel’s work has already begun in us, we are congregationalists. Since the gospel’s work is not yet complete in us, we are elder-led congregationalists.” (9)

4. “You might compare a congregational and non-congregational model of church government to two different exercise classes, one in which the trainer does the workout while the whole class watches, and another in which the trainer demonstrates the exercises and then tells everyone to get to work. Which class will be healthier? Or consider two different construction crews, one where only the foreman works, and another where the whole crew works. Which crew will build more houses?” (18)

5. “If I had 40 seconds with you on an elevator, and you asked me where congregationalism is in the Bible, I would say something like this:

Well, in Matthew 18:15–20, Jesus gives the local church final authority in a case of church discipline. Paul does the same in 1 Corinthians 5. He does not tell the leaders to remove the unrepentant adulterer from the church. He tells the church to do it. Then in Galatians 1:6–9, Paul treats the Galatian churches as capable of removing even him—an apostle!—if he teaches a wrong gospel. And in 2 Corinthians 2:6, Paul refers to a case of church discipline having been decided by a “majority.” And all of this, I would say, argues that the gathered congregation possesses final authority over the who and the what of the gospel. (19)

6. “To make a person a church member is to reinstall that person in to the office of priest-king that began with Adam.” (20)

7. “The gathered church has authority because Jesus gave it the keys of the kingdom. Not the pope. Not the elders. Not a general assembly. None of these characters show up in Matthew 18, and nowhere else in the New Testament are such groups connected to the keys.” (32)

8. “[The whole church has the authority] to stand in front of a gospel confessor, to consider his or her gospel confession and life, and to announce an official judgment on heaven’s behalf: ‘That is/isn’t a right gospel confession’ and ‘That is/isn’t a true gospel confessor.’ Exercising the keys is rendering judgment on a gospel what and a gospel who, a confession and a confessor.” (32)

9. “What exactly is a church? Does Jesus define it anywhere? In fact he does—in Matthew 18:20: ‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.’ . . . This verse is not about praying with a small group in your church. This verse is all about authority.” (35)

10. “The basic unit of kingdom authority on earth . . . is not at denominational headquarters. It’s not your Thursday night elders’ meeting. And it’s not your small group. It’s your gathered church.” (36)

11. “We should read Matthew 28 not in isolation, as Christians often do, but with Matthew 16 and 18 in mind. The people who gather in Christ’s name with keys in hand presumably possess the authority to baptize in Christ’s name. And the people with whom he dwells now presumably are the people with whom he will dwell always. If Matthew 16 and 18 authorize churches to represent heaven, Matthew 28 shows how they get to work. This means, crucially, that the Great Commission is given to churches, not just to individual Christians.” (37)

12. “If baptism is our inaugurating ceremony into the church, the Lord’s Supper is the ongoing ceremony. One is a doorway, the other is the regular family meal. And both proclaim to the nations who the people of Christ are.” (38)

13. “Elders are more like husbands than parents. Theirs is an authority of counsel, not an authority of an command. And those who possess an authority of counsel . . . must continually work to teach and to woo. A godly wife and church member, of course, will require little wooing because each recognizes God’s call to submit to her husband or pastor. But when points of disagreement arise between wife and husband, or between elder and church member, the husband’s or elder’s only recourse is to woo and to persuade. He cannot pick up the sword like the state or the paddle like a parent. Rather, he must explain himself and seek to instruct. He should not ‘lord it over’ a wife or member (Col. 3:19; 1 Pet. 5:3). It may be that the husband or pastor is in error. If he is godly he will be able to hear contrary counsel from wife or member. Yet the fact that God has made the husband or the elder an authority means that he must take the initiative to win and to woo. He cannot force, but nor can he abdicate or give up. Passivity is not an option for him, lest he face Jesus’ displeasure on the last day. Rather, the husband and pastor must work hard at loving and persuading, equipping and empowering, so that the wife or member will choose to follow him in the way of godliness. The authority of counsel, for husband and pastor, must be persistent, patient, long-suffering, tender, affable, and consistent, not hypocritical. It plays for growth over the long run, not forced outcomes in the short run.” (46)

14. “An elder doesn’t force but teaches, because a forced act of godliness is no godliness. A godly act is willfully chosen from a regenerate, new covenant heart.” (48)

15. “An elder’s work is training work. It depends on modeling and repetition in both word and deed. Speaking figuratively, he demonstrates how to use the hammer and saw, and then he places the tools in the member’s hands. He plays the piano scale or swings the golf club and then asks the member to repeat what he has done.” (49)

16. “Assuming godly men lead the church, the vast majority of votes among members in a healthy church should be unanimous and uneventful.” (50)

17. “When the authority of the keys is removed from the church’s hands, the ministry of the Word might continue powerfully and fruitfully, but the ministry of application is hindered. No longer do the elders have the opportunity to walk the whole church through ‘real life’ questions of membership and discipline. . . . The elders lose a major tool in teaching the congregation how to apply the gospel to real life.” (51)

18. “You, as a baptized Christian and ordinary member of a church, are responsible for protecting the gospel and the gospel’s ministry in your church by affirming and disaffirming gospel citizens.” (54)

19. “Elder-led congregationalism gives final authority and therefore responsibility to the gathered congregation. With authority comes responsibility. By joining a church, therefore, you become responsible for what your church teaches and for every single member’s discipleship.

  • You are responsible to act if Pastor Ed begins to teach a false gospel.
  • You are responsible to help ensure Member Candidate Chris adequately understands the gospel.
  • You are responsible for Sister Sue’s discipleship to Christ.
  • You are responsible to ensure that Member Max is excluded from the fellowship of the church if his life and profession no longer agree.

20. “Who trains you for all this work? Your elders. Add your responsibilities together with theirs and you have Jesus’ discipleship program.” (57–58)


Editor’s note: You can purchase the book here.

Matt Smethurst

Matt Smethurst is managing editor of The Gospel Coalition and author of Deacons: How They Serve and Strengthen the Church (Crossway, 2021) and Before You Open Your Bible: Nine Heart Postures for Approaching God’s Word (10ofThose, 2019). He has served as an elder of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, and he is now in the process of planting River City Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. You can find him on Twitter at @MattSmethurst.

9Marks articles are made possible by readers like you. Donate Today.