Understanding the Congregation’s Authority

Does the congregation need authority in the church?

“These are fightin’ words.”

That was my first thought as I cracked open Jonathan Leeman’s Understanding the Congregation’s Authority (one of the first entries in B&H and 9Marks’ Church Basics series). The reason why is right there in the title—this is a book about church governance, and more specifically, one advocating elder-led congregationalism as the most biblically consistent form.

Rarely do discussions of church polity go well. Things tend to get heated pretty quickly. Hyperbole gets you into trouble. Personal experiences color your reaction… We’ve all seen it. Many of us have experienced it. So for goodness’ sake, why bring it up? Can’t we all just live and let live and not talk about it at all?

Nope. At least, not if we care about the command to make disciples.

“I am not going to offer you a discipleship-in-a-box program. Instead, I want to point you to a discipleship-in-a-book program, the program that Jesus left in his book for both you and your pastor,” Leeman writes (2). “This program is called—are you ready?—elder-led congregationalism.”

That’s an unbelievably bold claim, isn’t it? To say that elder-led congregationalism is the way that Jesus wants us to structure our churches… Wow. But before you stop reading, it’s worth considering: is there a single form of church government that is most biblically consistent? Does one option give you the greatest opportunity to flourish as a follower of Jesus, and encourage others as they grow as his disciples? And if there is, shouldn’t we give it a fair hearing?

What you’re not going to find in this book

Understanding the Congregation's Authority

Before I dig into the meat of this book, there’s something that needs to be made clear: Because of its size, you are not going to find any thorough analysis of opposing viewpoints on church polity. You’re going to get loose sketches as Leeman outlines his thesis that elder-led congregationalism is Jesus’ discipleship program, and as he answers a few common questions in the appendix. For an extended treatment, it would be wise to consider his larger work, Don’t Fire Your Church Members: The Case for Congregationalism.

Understanding the Congregation’s Authority, then, is meant to serve as an introduction to the subject. It is to serve both churches that adhere to a congregational form of government, as well as Christians who want to better understand this particular perspective. So with that in mind, I want to answer three questions that came up as I read it:

  1. Is the case compelling?
  2. Are the arguments sound?
  3. Does it matter?

Is the case compelling?

I’m a member of a church that does not hold to a congregational form of government, not even of the elder-led variety. Instead, we are elder-ruled. The elders carefully and prayerfully make the decisions that seem wisest for the church. And for our church, it seems to work.[1. So don’t read anything I say as complaining about my church, please.]

But I’ve got to say, Leeman does make a compelling case in this book, particularly as he sketches out the idea that being a church member isn’t a status, but an office. Congregationalism “requires you, the average church member, to take responsibility for other church members. It gives you this job,” he writes (5). And with this responsibility comes the authority necessary to carry it out.

This is where some get twitchy. They’ve read the horror stories of congregational meetings on the internet. They’ve sat through some of those same meetings. They’ve been the pastors who’ve had to try to hold the church together while one half threatens to split over the color of the carpet.

But Leeman is quick to defuse: “Don’t blame the congregations for bad driving. Blame their teachers.”

People worry that congregationalism involves putting the church’s decisions into the hands of  its least mature members… It is true that if pastors do not train the saints, yes, the people will be immature and make bad decisions… Jesus’ program requires the leaders to teach, explain, equip, shepherd, and woo their members toward maturity and the ability to make good decisions. (6)

In other words, healthy congregationalism comes from elders shepherding church members to think and make decisions biblically and wisely in their “office.” (Which would be the goal in a healthy elder-ruled setting as well.)

This concept of office is critical to Leeman’s case, which he describes as one of “priest-king.” Though I’ve grown a bit leery of triperspectival language in recent years, having read and heard many abysmal, forced and foolish applications of the “prophet-priest-king” model, the way he approaches it is helpful. He reminds us that beginning with Adam and continuing through Jesus, God’s people have had specific responsibilities to cultivate and consecrate that which is within their sphere of influence, individually and collectively. But in Leeman’s view, this responsibility necessarily includes the context of the local church—that ordinary believers are to be intimately involved in the decision making on important matters, including church discipline and affirming sound doctrine. Their responsibility is both a call to grow in holiness, and protect the holiness of the church.

Are the arguments sound?

The next question: are the arguments sound? I believe so, yes. The “priest-king” descriptor makes sense within the overall context of Scripture, and more specifically God’s redemptive acts throughout history, right into the New Testament era. Leeman continually points to the fact that when addressing matters of discipline and protecting sound doctrine, Paul and Peter don’t merely address the elders, but the entire congregation. And the call is to engage in affirming a decision—to give final validation—not simply to be informed of what’s been decided.

Paul intends every single Christian, as part of his or her priestly duties, to keep watch over who belongs to the church and who doesn’t [2 Cor. 6:14-17] … Peter wants to “develop a genuine understanding” among his readers (ordinary Christians) so that they can keep “guard” between false teaching and true (2 Pet. 3:1-2, 17-18). And Paul admonishes his readers (ordinary Christians) for listening to a wrong gospel in their churches (Gal. 1:6-9). (26-27)

Though the NT does not present the church as a democracy (something Leeman heartily agrees with), we should be aware that it does present ordinary believers as being instrumental in the mission of the church. Their role is to be agents of mission in the world, but defenders of truth and holiness as well. (Again, something I think leaders in an elder-ruled polity would affirm.)

Does it matter?

The arguments themselves are sound, but the challenges of their implications are enormous. And this leads to the final question: does it matter? After all, if this is indeed the responsibility of ordinary Christians like you and me, then holding such a position requires elders (or if your church doesn’t have elders, the staff and/or ruling board) to release authority to them. And the prospect of giving decision-making responsibilities to others is intimidating from a certain point of view.

But there’s a part of me that wonders whether or not the implications of this form of polity address the oft-lamented concern of church consumerism. When you have a job to do, and you have the authority necessary, does that not spur you on to actually do it? If “working as a priest-king requires members to take responsibility for any decision in which the integrity of the church as a gospel ministry is at stake” (39), then congregationalism moves away entirely from the stereotypes of fighting over the color of the carpet to actually being concerned about the mission of the church. Does that matter? Yeah, quite a bit.

Does that mean readers who are part of elder-ruled churches should head into the church office, slam the book on their pastor’s desk and say, “we’re doing it wrong”? Not even a little. Instead, there are a couple of things I’d suggest: first, because Understanding the Congregation’s Authority is a starting point of an exploration of this form of church government, I’d suggest reading some longer works (including Leeman’s mentioned above). Second, talk with your pastor about points of interest from the book, and seek to understand why they’ve chosen the form of government they have. Finally, don’t neglect the responsibilities you know you do have. Whether your polity gives you formal authority or not, you are still responsible for helping others grow in the faith. You are still responsible for making disciples. So make the most of every opportunity that presents itself.

Title: Understanding the Congregation’s Authority
Author: Jonathan Leeman
Publisher: B&H Publishing Group

Buy it at: Amazon

Posted by Aaron Armstrong

Aaron is the author of several books for adults and children, as well as multiple documentaries and Bible studies. His latest book, I'm a Christian—Now What?: A Guide to Your New Life with Christ is available now.