Clarifying “Congregationalism”


Like his first post on congregationalism, James MacDonald’s second post serves us who are congregationalists.

  • First, it’s always a blessing to have friendly critics seriously engage with your ideas.
  • Second, polity is important. A church’s polity helps to protect the gospel from one generation to the next.

Many church leaders today don’t understand the importance of polity, and choose instead to treat it as a matter of indifference. But the rising generation of church leaders would benefit from observing how urgently MacDonald has treated these topics.

Here’s why congregationalists might especially benefit from MacDonald’s latest post: it challenges us with the question of whether we can really point to a place in Scripture where the entire congregation has been authorized by Jesus with final rule.

The foundational claim of a congregationalist is that

the entire church body has the final authority under God’s Word in matters of doctrine (and by implication, choosing leaders) and discipline (and by implication, choosing members).

But to claim that someone has authority, you have demonstrate that they have been authorized. No authority on earth is intrinsic—unless you are the Creator. Authority must be authorized. A person or a group must be given license to lead.

Now, that’s pretty easy to demonstrate with elders. Just think of Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders: “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). The verse is crystal clear. The Holy Spirit has given them oversight. It’s almost tempting to say “case closed” to this whole conversation. The elders have oversight—period.

So, my fellow congregationalists, are we up to this challenge? I think we’re correct to point to the theological principle of a priesthood of all believers, but we should be more than a little nervous if we cannot point to a place where God has explicitly authorized the congregation as a whole with final authority in matters of doctrine (adjudicating faithful proclamation of the apostolic gospel) and discipline (adjudicating faithful living in light of the apostolic gospel). And if we cannot, we need to find some other polity.

To do this, we have to talk about the keys of the kingdom for binding and loosing from Matthew 16 and 18. In Matthew 16:19 Jesus tells Peter, “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.” And then in Matthew 18, after telling his disciples to exclude from their assembly an individual who proves unrepentant, Jesus reiterates: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Matt. 18:18-19).

I would propose to you that whoever possesses the keys of the kingdom has the ultimate authority (under God’s Word) in Christ’s kingdom on earth. Think for a moment of the state’s “power of the sword.” Narrowly, the power of the sword points to the state’s authority to end a life. By implication, this means the state has the enforcement mechanism necessary for establishing the basic structures of society, such as deciding who is publicly recognized as a citizen. Likewise, the power of the keys narrowly points to the ability to remove a person from church membership (Matt. 18:17-18). By implication, this means that the holder of the keys has the enforcement mechanism necessary for establishing the basic structures of the kingdom life, such as deciding who is publicly recognized as a citizen.

Whoever has the keys can do what Jesus did with Peter in Matthew 16: listen to a gospel profession and publicly affirm or deny that an individual’s profession is from the “Father who is in heaven” (16:17). Matthew 18 expands this slightly by helping us to see that the holder of the keys should do this in part by considering whether or not a person is repentant. The authority of the keys, in other words, is about affirming right gospel words (doctrine) and a right gospel life (discipline).  It’s about asking the questions, “Is that the right profession? And is that a true professor?” I argue that this is the heart of biblical church membership in The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love.

I’m sure this discussion of the keys will not satisfy a lot of readers, but I’m trying to be brief. I treat the keys at length in chapter 4 of this bookas well as in Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus (Crossway, 2012).

So the 50 million dollar question is, who has the power of the keys? Most of us would agree from Matthew 16 that Peter and the apostles had them. The apostles had the power to unilaterally remove or bar someone from membership (e.g. Acts 8:17-24) or declare something a false gospel (e.g. Gal. 2:11). But who does Matthew 18 hand the keys to: the elders or the whole congregation? That’s where MacDonald and 9Marks (or at least I) go separate ways.

Here’s MacDonald’s argument: Matthew 18:17 does not tell the church to remove the individual. It says (i) to tell the church that the individual has unrepentantly sinned and (ii) it says to remove him: “Let him be to you as a Gentile or tax collector.” It does NOT say that the church must do the removing. It’s as if Jesus were saying, “Elders, tell the church, and then if the sinner ignores even the church’s plea, you guys go ahead and remove him.”

And, frankly, I think MacDonald’s reading is possible. Verse 17 is NOT super explicit about who Jesus wants to do the removing. And suppose we then follow this stream of thought into the rest of the New Testament: we can read passages like Acts 20:28 and Hebrews 13:17, where elders are given oversight, and then we can look back at Matthew 18:17 and reasonably conclude, “Yes, Jesus must mean for the elders to do this work. He doesn’t say ‘elders’ of course, because that would have confused his hearers at the time. But that’s who the apostles then entrusted with this job in the life of the church.” This is a reasonable argument.

Having said that, I personally don’t find it compelling for three reasonsFirst, who is the “you” in verse 17 that should treat individuals as outsiders to the covenant community—the elders or the whole church? It would seem strange if only the elders were to treat them as outsiders and not members, too. It seems more reasonable to say the whole congregation should treat the individual that way.

Second, verses 18, 19, and 20 make it really hard to maintain that it’s the elders who should possess the keys which are being exercised in verse 17. Verse 18 affirms that it’s the keys being used. Verses 19 and 20 then begin with several words which tell us they’re going to re-interpret everything we just read: “Again [palin], I say to you…” He already said it once; now he’s going to say it again: “…if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” So the authority to do what was done in verse 17 belongs to the two or three gathered together in his name in verses 19 and 20. And as I read verses 19 and 20, I would say that Jesus is talking about Christians, not about elders—two or three believers gathered together in the name of Jesus (yes, you can have a “church” without having elders; not a healthy church, but a church nonetheless).

Third, there’s another stream of New Testament activity flowing out of Matthew 18 besides elder oversight, and that’s the stream we see emerge in passages like 1 Corinthians 5 (where the congregation is made responsible for the individual’s discipline) and Galatians 1 (where the congregations are made responsible for the false teachers), where the congregation appears to have final authority.

Bottom line: I believe Matthew 18 teaches that the whole congregation has the keys, not just the elders. Incidentally, this fits in perfectly with the priesthood of all believers.

Finally, one more word about the nature of congregational authority: it’s a passive and narrow authority. It’s not the authority to lead, per se, it’s the authority to VETO bad leadership. If the elders comprise the gospel, the congregation should VETO the compromise. If a member’s life becomes compromised, the congregation should VETO (metaphorically speaking) that person’s profession of faith through excommunication. By implication, yes, I think that means the congregation also has authority to choose leaders and affirm members. But still, the mantel of day-to-day leadership and oversight falls to the elders (e.g., the congregation should seek out the elders’ leadership when it comes to new members and new leaders). The abuse of congregationalism to which MacDonald objects occurs whenever congregations try to lead: “Pastor, you need to listen to us, and do what we say!”

Take a moment to thank God for James MacDonald, and the care he’s taking with matters of polity, and how he’s pushing us all to be more biblically careful with our polity. Pray that you and I would be careful, too.

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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