Non-Congregationalists, Stop Firing Your Church Members!
Three cheers to The Gospel Coalition for posting two articles on church government last Friday. Congregationalist Hunter Powell and his Presbyterian friend Mark Jones put on their wrestling shoes and went after it.
Evangelicals have long been reluctant to tussle over the issues that divide us, like church government. And surely it’s right to prioritize the gospel that unites us. But if the Bible does actually address polity, we should learn how to wrestle over these kinds of issues, and then walk off the mat as friends.
9Marks does not take an official position on polity since we expect the nine marks will benefit Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Anglicans alike. Still, perhaps you will permit me a moment to join them on the mat as a congregationalist? I’ve been kicking these arguments around for a while and hope to publish on them soon.
HALF-BAKED NON-CONGREGATIONALIST CRITIQUES
What I appreciate about Mark Jones’ argument is that he doesn’t lob the typical, half-baked critiques of congregationalism one so often hears. For instance, a favorite critique is that “There is no accountability for autonomous congregational churches.” Right. And what accountability is there for an entire presbytery that goes awry? Or general assembly? Or bishopric? That one cuts both ways, friends.
In fact, didn’t both the OPC and PCA have to break from larger Presbyteries because there was no foolproof internal accountability structure? More significantly, can you name a connectional denomination that has remained orthodox for more than a few generations? I’m sure the church historians could dig out a few examples, but how many hands would you need to count them? I can think of a number of churches that have remained faithful this long, starting with my own. But the Church of England? The PCUSA? The Evangelical Lutherans? The United Methodists? What were you saying about accountability?
Then there is the whole school of worst-case-scenario critiques. A Presbyterian friend of mine recently offered a batch of these when he characterized the congregational ordination process as shallow, open to anyone who is hip and can turn a phrase in the pulpit. And then he argued that congregational churches are functionally episcopalian because of their celebrity pastors. All this, of course, is like using the example of an abusive marriage to condemn the institution of marriage. Hunter’s quip about fear being a bad motivator for polity is spot on here.
As for the critique of “voting,” don’t presbyteries vote? And the assembly of laity and bishops in the Church of England? And even Rome’s college of cardinals? Everyone holds a vote. It’s just a question of who votes.
A UNIVERSAL VISIBLE CHURCH?
But like I said, Mark Jones doesn’t go there. He instead offers a positive case for a Presbyterian form of government. The basic gist is that there is a universal visible church is the goal of ecclesiology. And to be clear, “universal visible” means an authority structure which exists between churches and which, were it not for sin and finitude, would be global.
The idea of a universal visible church “arises from the scriptural idea of church unity,” which the Nicene creed mentions and which the “Scriptures are clear about” in passages like Ephesians 4:4-5 and John 17:20-23. So says Jones.
EXCEPTIONAL ACTS 15
Of course, those two passages don’t really say anything about a unified authority structure. Take a look. No matter, there is still Acts 15 and the council of Jerusalem, where representatives of different churches make a decision about circumcision that is binding on all churches for all times.
Congregationalists like myself will typically quickly observe that the apostles were present in Acts 15, which makes it unique, not normative. Presbyterians like Jones just as quickly dismiss the point because, as Jones himself observes, the apostles had “to discuss” the matter. They didn’t simply receive supernatural apostolic guidance. Never mind for the moment that divine inspiration in Scripture typically came through ordinary means, such as Luke’s own work of research in authoring his two books.
Now, I confess I understand why people are shy about discussing polity. With a text like Acts 15, you have at least two groups of people looking at the same data, but coming to different conclusions. So the sheriff and the private detective look at the same crime scene and the same evidence, but one says the butler did it, and the other says the estranged wife did it. It’s tough.
But let me suggest this: if the Bible really did intend for there to be a universal, authority-wielding institutional body, wouldn’t we see more examples of it, and not just this one-off? Wouldn’t examples of presbyteries binding local churches be normal, not exceptional? Might not we even see occasions of it where no apostles were present? I’m arguing from silence here. Still, the absence of any other passage like Acts 15 just might make you wonder if there’s a different explanation, and whether we want to build an entire structure off one passage.
Both Jones and Powell are correct to refer to the keys of the kingdom mentioned in Matthew 16 and 18 as the decisive passages for the topic of church government. And both understand that the question of who holds the keys is what divides presbyterians and congregationalists. As a congregationalist, I believe that the apostles held the keys, that local churches hold the keys, and that the elders of a church ordinarily direct the church in its use of the keys. So what we see in Acts 15 is the apostles, together with the churches and elders, using the keys of the kingdom to establish doctrine once for all (Acts 15:4, 22).
In other words, elders as elders don’t hold the keys, per se, but they do lead churches in using the keys, and unless the congregation believes that the elders are departing from Scripture, they should generally follow elders’ leadership. Congregational authority, as I understand it, is an intermittent veto power. It’s an emergency break. How often do you use one of those to stop a car?
CASE STUDY: ISOLATED CHURCH IN THE MIDDLE EAST
But imagine for a moment a group of eight believers plus two elders meeting in an isolated house church in Saudi Arabia. So far as they know, they are the only believers within five hundred miles. Suppose then the two elders embrace heresy. What mechanism does Scripture give the eight believers?
Interestingly, Jones, like the PCA and OPC books of church order, concedes that the believers have the right to depose the leaders. And how can they do that? Two reasons: because the PCA and OPC are more congregational than they admit, and because (more to the point) you simply have to give final guardianship of the gospel to believers. Believers, when jointly gathered in congregations, inevitably hold the keys. (Yes, I’m speaking in terms of real politic here, not biblical legitimacy.) You have no split between the PCUS and the PCA or the OPC and the PCUSA unless this is true. If all the members of all the churches that became the PCA in 1973 didn’t want to leave the PCUS, they would not have left. Congregational authority, frankly, is a bit like gravity. It has an inevitability to it.
But there’s a biblical foundation for this, too: When a person is baptized into the name of Christ (Matt. 28), that person becomes responsible for the family name. And that responsibility is matched by an authority: wherever two or three are formally gathered in the name of Christ as a church to exercise the keys of the kingdom (say, through church discipline), there Christ is (Matt. 18:20). His reputation and authority stands behind it, like the authority of a king stands behind his ambassador’s declarations.
Don’t tell me that I formally wear Jesus’ name before the nations, but that I’m powerless to protect his name against false doctrine and false teachers. I’ll return to this idea below.
So again, what about those eight believers in Saudi Arabia, faced with the fact that their two elders are tearing down the family name? Are they stuck because it’s the elders who hold the keys? No, Jesus gave those eight the power to excommunicate the two.
THE INEVITABLE TENSION OF A “FINAL” AND “MEDIATING” AUTHORITY
But hold on, you say. What about all those passages that talk about submitting to your leaders, and elder oversight? Well, yes, ordinarily, the eight should submit to the two, assuming that the two are leading within the bounds of Scripture.
Which brings me to another point: We’re all anxious to establish where the “final” point of authority lies. But when we’re talking about different mediating authorities, the language of “final” or “ultimate” authority has its limitations. Jesus is the final or ultimate authority. We can all agree with that, right? But then Jesus authorizes different groups differently: parents one way, the state another way, the church another way, and so forth. The thing is, the authorizations and their jurisdictions overlap, and sometimes life in a fallen world brings them into conflict.
For instance, does God give the state “final” authority over a parent? Well, if the parent is beating the child, absolutely, because Jesus authorizes the state with the job of protecting its citizens, including that child. Suppose, however, that the state decides to protect the child by banning all proselytizing by evangelical parents. Does the state have final authority here? Well, again, yes, technically, but it’s using that authority wrongly, which means the parent should reject it, acting on their “final” authority over the child, or, more to the point, acting on their knowledge of the real final authority, Jesus, who will surely vindicate that act of rebellion against the state on the last day. In other words, both state and parent have been given a circle of jurisdiction and a set of authorizations, and both are called to do their best, knowing that Christ will either vindicate or condemn their decisions on the last day. All of which is to say, the word “final” is necessary but relative when we are dealing in the realm of mediated authorities.
Back to elders and congregations. Do congregations have the “final” authority? Well, yes, in a sense, because they have the final veto power. But on the last day they will have to give an account for every time they used that veto power over and against the elders. And if they got it wrong, Jesus will vindicate the elders.
So maybe the eight believers in Saudi Arabia are immature, ornery, and making false accusations against the two elders. If that’s the case, they retain the ability to remove the elders, but they will receive Jesus’ condemnation for that action on the last day.
STOP FIRING YOUR CHURCH MEMBERS!
Let me throw one more piece of loving polemic toward my gospel-embracing non-congregational friends: stop firing your church members. That’s what your polities are doing.
Jesus has given every member of the New Covenant the job—the office—of guarding the what and the who of the gospel. I don’t have time to make the case here, but this is how I understand the authority of the keys [see chapter 4 of The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love]. Whoever holds the keys has the authority to answer the questions, “Is that a true gospel profession?” and “Is that a true gospel professor?” just like Jesus did with Peter in Matthew 16. And what every non-congregational polity does is steal that job away from church members. They tempt Christians to complacency by saying, “It’s the elders’ job to guard the what and the who of the gospel, not yours. Sit down.” In the process, elders fail to do the very thing that Paul tells them to do: equip the saints for guarding the gospel.
So ordinary Christians pull back. The church weakens. And nominalism grows. Hello, fifteen hundred years of Christendom. (No, I’m not saying this is the only cause of nominalism.)
After all, you don’t strengthen soldiers by keeping them back in the supply tent. You push them out and tell them to guard the bridge.
To use the “m” word, which I don’t typically do, I’d even say that congregationalism, aside from being biblical, is most missional. Guarding the church and reaching the world are part of the same work. Equipping your members to do one equips them to do the other.
Yes, all this is at stake in matters of polity.
To conclude, here are nine reasons why I believe the keys belong jointly to the entire congregation based especially on Matthew 18:15-20.
- The final court of appeal is the church. The whole church must address the unrepentant sinner (“if he refuses to listen even to the church”), and then the whole church must assent to any act of excommunication in order for it to work. (Even if the pastor says, “He’s excommunicated,” the congregation simply has to agree and to participate in the decision to make it happen. Their assent simply must be involved.)
- There is no mention of bishops or elders in the text.
- Nowhere does the New Testament explicitly connect the keys of the kingdom to pastors/elders, and nowhere do we see pastors/elders unilaterally excommunicating someone. Since the apostles did hold the keys, we do see Peter, for instance, unilaterally excommunicating someone (Simon in Acts 8).
- Verse 19 offers an explanation for the activity of binding and loosing in verse 18 in which Jesus refers to “two of you” asking about anything (presumably in terms of binding and loosing). This activity can occur, it seems, wherever there is a church of two or more (less than two is not an “assembly”).
- Saying the church possess the keys makes sense of 1 Corinthians 5, where Paul does not call upon the leaders of the Corinthian congregation to “hand this man over to Satan” (5:5). Instead, Paul exhorts the church as a whole to do this when they are formally gathered together in the name of Jesus and under his authority: “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of the Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan… (1 Cor. 5:4-5). Like Matthew 18, he is arguing that the Corinthian congregation is responsible to declare that this individual is no longer a citizen of the kingdom of Christ, but belongs to the world, where Satan rules (John 12:31; 14:30; Matt. 4:8-9; cf. Matt. 16:23). The same is true in Galatians 1 where he tells the churches not to recognize teachers teaching a false gospel.
- It makes sense of 2 Corinthians 2:6-7 and the fact that Paul seems to say some kind of vote happened in an act of church discipline: “For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.”
- This explanation has the advantage of corresponding more closely with the Greek conception of an ekklesia, which involved an assembly of citizens who shared rule together. Every citizen had a vote.
- Moving authority of the keys away from the local church and to the presbytery divides authority from pastoral and relational care. Matthew 18’s example of discipline, for instance, could now be determined by a group of men with whom the offender shares no fellowship.
- Keeping the keys in the hands of the congregation authorizes and equips the baptized believer to fulfill the job responsibilities he or she has by virtue of being a baptized believer and new covenant member.
Well, that’s enough time on the polity wresting mats for now. It’s time for me to go read some good theology from my Reformed and Lutheran friends.