Who Governs the Local Church?
A Case for Elder-Led Congregational Rule
After rising from the dead, spending forty days with his men, giving them clear instructions, and telling them to wait for his Spirit, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). God took him. He was gone (for now) from earth, though by his Spirit he now rules from heaven’s throne.
For the apostles, there was no question who carried the weight of leadership once Jesus was gone. He had prepared them for this. They were his appointed spokespersons. Together they spoke, by the Spirit, on behalf of the risen Christ. And when they died, their writings remained. But then what? Who has rightfully led and governed the church since? And under Christ and his apostles, who is called to lead the local church today?
Who Should Govern the Church Today?
There is good reason that this continues to be an ongoing question, among even the most Scripture-faithful churches: the New Testament answer is not simple. Now, it is very clear on the question of the final authority in the church: Christ is our head, through the writings of his apostles. However, beneath the word of Christ, is it the gathered congregation of the church or the duly appointed leaders (pastor-elders) of the church who have the final say?
Many good, healthy churches are congregational (ruled, under Christ, by the gathered church), and many good, healthy churches are presbyterian (ruled, under Christ, by the elders). And we might say it’s not really hard to see why: there is a dynamic in the New Testament that runs in both directions. Hebrews 13:17 captures those two impulses, in one verse:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
First notice the appeal to the people, the congregation: “for that would be of no advantage to you.” At bottom here is the flourishing of the congregation. The people do not exist to serve the leaders. Rather, the leaders have been called to serve the church. “They are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account,” and they labor in such a way as to benefit or advantage or genuinely make happy the church.
And yet, who can miss “obey” and “submit”? So, it’s not a simple picture. Even when we observe that here “obey” (Greek peithesthe) is a word that connotes being convinced or persuaded, rather than raw obedience apart from persuasion, “submit,” as an inclination to yield to the leaders, stands as we see it elsewhere (more below).
So, Hebrews 13:17 cuts both ways (though, to be fair, slightly more in the direction of elder-rule). Both the shepherds and the flock receive charges, whether explicitly or implicitly (that the letter is addressed to the whole church, and not just to the leaders, is not insignificant). Both the leaders and the people are to lean into each other. Neither presuming. Neither imposing its will on the other. The people are inclined to be persuaded and to yield — while the leaders labor to initiate and persuade for the church’s joy and benefit.
This is what healthy dynamics look like between secure, able leaders and a mature, competent congregation. The people want to be led. They want leaders who are “not domineering over those in [their] charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). And the leaders are men willing to give more of themselves, willing to sacrifice their private comforts and preferences and time and energy and resources, to care for others.
In addition to Hebrews 13:17, first consider what we might called the more “presbyterian passages,” those that instruct the church to submit to its elders, to be inclined to follow its duly appointed pastors.
Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica, “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13). Their leaders are “over you in the Lord,” and Paul calls the church to “respect” those leaders and “to esteem them very highly in love.”
Yet also, in the same breath, these leaders are “those who labor among you.” They’re not sitting back with their feet up, giving directives for the church to serve their comforts and conveniences. Rather, they are laboring. They are working. They are giving of themselves, expending energy and focus and time for the church’s good. And so the church should “esteem them . . . because of their work.”
So, also, in 1 Timothy, it is the duly appointed elders of the church (not simply men in general) who “teach” and “exercise authority” (1 Timothy 2:12). Which is then echoed later in the letter, in 1 Timothy 5:17: “Let the elders who rule well (“exercise authority”) be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor (“teach”) in preaching and teaching.”
The “be subject” texts are instructive as well. A number of texts direct certain callings and stations in life to “be subject” to others: citizens to governing authorities (Romans 13:1, 5; 1 Peter 2:13), servants to masters (1 Peter 2:18), wives to (their own) husbands (1 Peter 3:1). So also, the saints are to be subject to leaders serving them (1 Corinthians 16:16), and to their elders (1 Peter 5:5). The language of “submission” works similarly: wives to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22; Colossians 3:18; 1 Peter 3:5), the church to Christ (Ephesians 5:24) and to God (James 4:7).
Yet consider what we might call the “congregationalist texts.”
To begin with, the simple fact that essentially the whole New Testament is addressed to congregations, not their officers, is instructive. Four would-be exceptions are Paul’s letters to Philemon, Timothy, and Titus and the third epistle of John; however the letters to Timothy and Titus are manifestly written with the church in view (for instance, all the second-person plurals), leaving Philemon and 3 John as the lone exceptions.
Again and again, the New Testament Epistles are explicitly addressed “to the church” or the corporate entity (whether “churches,” “saints,” or “elect exiles”; Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Galatians 1:2; Ephesians 1:1; Colossians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1; Hebrews; James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; Jude 1; Revelation 1:4). Philippians 1:1 calls out “the overseers and deacons” as the officers of the church, and yet still addresses “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi.” Also, in the book of Revelation, Jesus addresses his words, through John, not to ecclesial officials but to the seven churches in Revelation 2–3.
For congregationalists, Jesus’s straightforward directive in Matthew 18:17, in the context of church discipline, is significant: “Tell it to the church” (Greek ekklēsia, “assembly”). In other words, under Christ, the final authority on earth — before you “let [the unrepentant sinner] be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” — is the gathered assembly of the church, not the elders.
And Matthew 18:17 does not stand alone. Similarly, in the context of church discipline, Paul appeals to the church, that the decisive act of excommunication happen “when you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:4). The gathered church, not the elders alone, remove the unrepentant sinner from the household of faith.
In 2 Corinthians 2, Paul calls this “punishment by the majority” (verse 6) and encourages the whole congregation, not simply the leaders, to forgive the now repentant sinner and comfort him and “reaffirm your love for him” (verses 7–8). Congregationalists also point to Acts 15:22 where, even with the apostles themselves on the scene, a surprising role falls to “the whole church.”
Pick Out from Among You
One further passage that is noteworthy for our purposes (for showing, alongside Hebrews 13:17, the dynamic between leaders and people) is Acts 6:1–6. Here “the full number of the disciples” plays a surprising part in the choosing of the seven, and that with the apostles themselves on the scene (as in Acts 15).
When a complaint arises in the early, early church from the Greek-speaking minority against the Hebrew majority “because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution” (verse 1), the twelve, endowed as they are by the risen Christ, don’t simply take the bull by the horns and fix it themselves. Instead, they summon “the full number of the disciples” (verse 2). And instead of the apostles deciding for themselves who else should be official, they say to the congregation, “You choose” (verse 3).
Given the timing and conditions, the deference is startling. Track with the back and forth. First, the complaint arises from the people, to the leaders. Then, the twelve take the initiative to gather “the full number.” Next, the twelve charge the people to choose: “pick out from among you . . . .” Yet, even then, the apostles guide the process: “. . . seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty” (verse 3).
The twelve are careful not to overextend their reach beyond their calling: “we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (verse 4). And it mattered that the whole gathering rallied to the leaders’ initiative and guidance: “what they said pleased the whole gathering” (verse 5). And finally, once the people have chosen, they bring their seven back to the apostles for their blessing: “These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them” (verse 6).
It’s a glimpse of the healthiest dynamic in the local church, where the leaders don’t presume obedience, but seek to persuade the people from the heart, and the people aren’t just willing, but eager, to be persuaded by their pastors. At least at this point, it’s similar to a healthy marriage. The elders are leaning toward the people, wanting to win them from the heart, and the people give benefit of the doubt to the elders and are eager to be led. There is a dynamic between persuading and obeying.
As in marriage, the pastors gladly embrace “a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect” the congregation; and the people have “a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy” elders. The people want to be led by worthy leaders, and the leaders want to put in the extra energy and work to care for the people and serve them, not use them.
In the Church Today
We all would be wise not to press the historical descriptions in Acts or the glimpses we find in the Epistles into too precise of service. Which means we also will do well to expect other Christians to read these glimpses differently and not formulate church life, two millennia later, in precisely the same way we do.
However, the twofold pattern we’ve seen in the New Testament, and the dynamic that is especially evident in Hebrews 13:17 and Acts 6:1–6, gives us a picture of church life and leadership that resists two extremes. Neither congregations nor church officials rule by fiat in the New Testament. Whether one ends up on the congregational or presbyterian side of the watershed, local-church authority, under Christ, is not simple.
The very nature of the church is that Christ has given her teachers and appointed that ongoing teaching lead and feed, watch over and provide for the local church. Churches need leaders to thrive. And the leaders need to remember they are there for the people. As Mark Dever has observed, no matter the church polity, the people always end up with the final say — through their dollars and their feet.
For me, what we might call “elder-led congregational” church governance makes the best sense of the whole picture. This means the gathered church has the final say, under Christ. Yet the church does not stayed gathered, and God gives pastors to his saints to watch over them and teach them and persuade them and lead them. The church does not stay gathered, but leans on the God-given authority of duly appointed pastors to make thousands of daily and weekly decisions in the life of the church. This is what we call “elder-led congregational rule.” And yet, given the dynamic picture in the New Testament we’ve seen, I have a lot of room in my mind and heart for what you might call “congregational-sensitive presbyterian” churches.
Christ, Our Head
Local-church life and leadership is complex. It resists the simplicity of rule-by-decree oligarchy and rule-by-the-masses democracy. The church, under Christ, through his apostles, has its own Christ-honoring model.
Christ doesn’t intend for his church to borrow its structures from the business world, or from the world whatsoever. But otherworldly as the dynamic between the congregation and the leaders might seem, there is this simplicity: Christ is the one head of the church (Ephesians 1:19–23). He is the one with “all authority” (Matthew 28:18). He is the one who builds his church (Matthew 16:18). He is the church’s one foundation (1 Corinthians 3:11) and cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). He is the one chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4).
One way of acknowledging and preserving and honoring Jesus’s unique and exclusive place as “head of the church” is that both the pastors and the people sense and respect the limits of their authority — first under Christ, and second in relation to each other.
Elders who know they are not Christ are better shepherds. And a congregation that knows it is not the Head is the kind most thankful for and eager to be led by leaders who faithfully and eagerly teach them the word of God.