How is the local church governed? Or who has final authority in the local church? Is it a Pope? Bishops? Do elders or pastors rule and make most, if not all, decisions? What about presbyteries, synods, and general assemblies? Is every decision, including the carpet and paint colors, voted on by congregations?
I would argue that the Bible grounds final authority for the local church, particularly issues of membership, church discipline, and maintaining a faithful gospel, in the congregation itself. This idea is called congregationalism. Jesus gives the keys to the kingdom of heaven first to Peter in Matthew 16, then to the local assembly, or local church, in Matthew 18. Paul’s letter to the Galatians and the first few chapters of Revelation demonstrate that the final authority in the local church for maintaining sound doctrine and rejecting false teaching is the congregation itself.
Throughout the New Testament, particularly in the book of Acts, we see that Christ is the Head of the church and Christ gave authority to his apostles, those men appointed by Jesus himself and individual witnesses to Christ’s bodily resurrection, to write Scripture and to start planting churches throughout the world. Now, all the apostles are dead, so no one today actively holds that office.
In Ephesians 4, 1 Timothy 3, and Titus 1, Paul gives qualifications for the office of pastor, bishop, overseer, elder—all these terms are interchangeable in the New Testament and refer to the same office. The office of pastor or elder has been given to the local church and only qualified men are able to serve in this role to teach and govern their own local church. Also, nowhere in the New Testament do you see a local church with only one pastor. In the New Testament, each church has multiple pastors who all have the same authority in their local body. In 1 Timothy 5:17, Paul teaches that elders or pastors are to teach and rule over or govern their local congregations. The author of Hebrews commands the local church to submit to their own leaders, or pastors, because pastors, as under-shepherds of Christ, will give an account to God for those Christians in their care. In 1 Timothy 3, deacons are given the authority to serve the congregation by meeting the mercy, material, and service needs of the saints. Deacons are not given shepherding or teaching authority to rule over congregations. They’re not pastors. Only pastors govern.
In the New Testament letters, you regularly read the apostles command Christians, particularly in the local congregation, to correct and rebuke one another with the Word. Local church members are to encourage and exhort one another in the gospel. That authority to correct, exhort, encourage, and rebuke one another means that a Christian in his local church exercises that kind of authority over other members in the body. That’s authoritative member on member care.
So how can the local congregation have final authority, but pastors also govern and rule at the same time? I would argue that elders or pastors lead congregations primarily through their faithful teaching and shepherding even though the congregation has final authority, particularly with new members, church discipline, and maintaining sound doctrine. This idea is called elder-led congregationalism.For example, I can’t, as a pastor at Holy City Church, just take people into membership. I can’t, on my own, excommunicate people through church discipline. The local church must not submit if I’m teaching a false gospel. The elders of Holy City Church do lead our congregation, however, in taking in new members and disciplining out unrepentant members. We do much of the background work and help lead the congregation through these decision-making processes. I’ll do the membership interviews and recommend prospective members in whom I’m confident that they love Christ. I’ll work with individual members in the church discipline process as we chase after wayward saints who are running after unrepentant sin. I govern and rule the congregation as a pastor, so carpet color or a sermon series isn’t voted on by a congregation. Elders are raised up by the local church to make leadership decisions on behalf of the church, but I don’t make final determinations regarding church membership or church discipline. God hasn’t given me that authority. He’s given it to the entire local church. I lead the congregation through my faithful teaching, calling the saints to obey the Scriptures, and persuading them through wise and prudent counsel.
Elder-led congregationalism certainly makes sense when you see the nature of the local church rightly. If the church is fully-regenerate—if everyone who belongs to Christ has the Spirit—the more Spirit-filled saints I have giving counsel and wisdom to membership and discipline issues, the better. If the church were made up of believers and unbelievers, then yeah, it makes sense why some denominations give most, if not all, authority to the pastors. Baptists don’t read the Scriptures that way. The church is Christ’s Spirit-indwelt people, which is why Christ gave final authority to the entire local congregation, not to pastors. Though each congregation is autonomous, the Bible clearly pictures local churches having strong networks with one another for gospel ministry, accountability, and mutual encouragement.
Christ is the Head of his church and in the local church, we submit ourselves to the teaching and leadership of our pastors, while also rightly recognizing that the buck stops with the local church, the congregation, as a whole, exercising the keys of the kingdom, defending a faithful gospel, and maintaining sound doctrine.