Why New Testament Polity Is Prescriptive
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 argument 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 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 false 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 were 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, elder qualifications 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 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 in 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.