Elder-Led Congregationalism

Most Christians could care less about how a church governs itself. In fact, if a church has members’ meetings, as ours does, only about 20% of the church attend. I propose the reason church government is unimportant to many members is because of a misunderstanding of how Jesus has structured his church. I’m confident that some members read the biblical passages about elders and assume they’re the ones who are supposed to do and decide everything (Hebrews 13:7, 17). Other members, though, emphasize passages like Matthew 18:15-20 and understand that the church also has responsibilities. How are these two ideas in tension supposed to be worked out?

Having been informed by the Scriptures and led by the Holy Spirit, the form of church government High Pointe has adopted is elder-led, congregationalism. In elder-led congregationalism, the church has the authority of the keys, while the elders have the authority to equip the church to use the keys properly. Let me answer some clarifying questions that I hope will help clarify matters.

What is the authority of the keys?
In Matthew16:15-19, Jesus gave Peter and the apostles the “keys of the kingdom of heaven.” To understand what that means, we have to consider the context. Jesus had previously asked his disciples who they thought he was. Peter, on behalf of the twelve, answered: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (v.16). Jesus acknowledged Peter’s right answer and reminded him that the Father in heaven revealed that truth to them. Jesus then told Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (v.18). Jesus’ point is that he promised to build his church on the foundation of the Father’s revelation that he is the promised Christ (Ephesians 2:19-22). So, then, the foundation of the church is the gospel, first revealed to the apostles. That is the “key” that opens the door to the kingdom of heaven to those who repent and believe. It’s also the key that shuts the door of heaven to those who reject Jesus as the Christ.

In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus gives this same authority of the keys to the church (v.18). There, in the context of church discipline, it becomes clear that part of the authority of the keys is to judge the credibility of an individual’s profession of faith. In the case of the sinner who refuses to repent, if he remains unrepentant after the whole church has been told, the congregation has the authority to remove him from membership and treat him as a “Gentile and a tax collector” (v.17). That means the congregation has the authority to treat him as an outsider, an unbeliever. Only God has the authority to judge whether or not someone is truly a Christian. But Jesus has given the church the authority to judge whether or not an individual’s profession of faith is credible. So, a professing Christian who continues in unrepentant sin is not acting like a Christian. Therefore, the church cannot confirm the credibility of his profession. Consequently, it must remove him from membership for the sake of his soul, the protection of the church, and the witness in the community. It is from this passage, and others like it, that we learn that every member has a responsibility to encourage and admonish one another to endure faithfully. That is what congregational government means – we care for one another and build one another up until we reach Christlike maturity (Ephesians 4:12-16).

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, it also becomes clear that the authority of the keys is an authority to judge the content of sound doctrine. In other words, Paul holds the church accountable, not merely the elders, for the church’s adoption of a different gospel (Galatians 1:6-9). This means that the entire church, not just the elders, has the authority to affirm its doctrine, it’s statement of faith. To fulfill this role, every member has a responsibility to know his or her Bible well enough to identify the content of the faith. That is what congregational government means – we care for the doctrine of the church, making sure that what is taught is from Scripture.

In summary, the authority of the keys is the authority to judge the CONTENT of the faith (the WHAT of the gospel) and the CREDIBILITY of a true confessor of that faith (the WHO of the gospel). Closely related to the authority of the keys is the proclamation of the gospel – the Great Commission. The church, not merely the elders, fulfill the Great Commission: Evangelism, Discipleship. By implication, then, the church has the responsibility to make sure this mission is fulfilled, including making sure it is financed to the best ability of its members.

What is the elders’ authority?
The elders have the authority to teach the church how to use and exercise the keys properly (Ephesians 4:11-12). The congregation affirms its leaders, then trusts them to teach them how to read their Bible and how to use the keys. We’ll say a lot more about elders in a future article, but for now, know that your elders love you, and it is our joy to shepherd you, High Pointe.

Conclusion
Elder-led congregationalism means that the church has the authority of the keys. While members’ meetings are essential for our public care of one another, the principal place we practice elder-led congregationalism is in our life together as a church. Elder-led congregationalism is working as we fulfill the one another passages of Scripture and encourage one another to grow in our faith so that we may look more like Jesus. If you’re a member of High Pointe, the elders encourage you to take up the keys and fulfill your ministry.

Love,

Pastor Juan

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