Sunday (9/6/2020) I touched on our doctrinal statement, which led someone to do a little research that resulted in an email question that happens to be recurrent about our form of church government: here’s a copy of my “Pastor’s Pen” from February 2010 in answer to his question; also for the reader’s edification and or information! 🙂
Why are we a congregational church rather than an elder-led church? My sister says there’s no scriptural support for that model. What gives???
Too Nit-Picky?Letter to the Pastor c. January 2010
That’s sort of like asking, “Pastor Scott, how can you say you’re Swedish when we can all see you are a Caucasian?” 🙂 We are legally or technically a congregational church and we are actually an Elder-led church. Let me see if I can explain.
There are three generally (legally?) recognized forms of church polity. They are (according to Theopikea):
Episcopal – Churches having Episcopal polity are governed by bishops. The title bishop comes from the Greek word episkopos, which literally translates into overseer. In regard to Catholicism, bishops have authority over the diocese, which is both sacramental and political; as well as performing ordinations, confirmations, and consecrations, the bishop supervises the clergy of the diocese and represents the diocese both secularly and in the hierarchy of church governance. Bishops in this system may be subject to higher ranking bishops (variously called archbishops, metropolitans, and/or patriarchs, depending upon the tradition; They also meet in councils or synods. These synods, subject to presidency by higher ranking bishops, may govern the dioceses which are represented in the council, though the synod may also be purely advisory.
Presbyterian – meaning “Elder-led.” Many Reformed churches, notably those in the Presbyterian and Continental Reformed traditions, are governed by a hierarchy of councils. The lowest level council governs a single local church and is called the session or consistory; its members are called elders. The minister of the church (sometimes referred to as a teaching elder) is a member of and presides over the session; lay representatives (ruling elders or, informally, just elders) are elected by the congregation. The session sends representatives to the next level higher council, called the presbytery or classis. In some Presbyterian churches there are higher level councils (synods and/or general assemblies). Each council has authority over its constituents, and the representatives at each level are expected to use their own judgment. Hence higher level councils act as courts of appeal for church trials and disputes, and it is not uncommon to see rulings and decisions overturned.
Congregational –Congregationalist polity dispenses with titled positions such as bishop as a requirement of church structure. The local congregation rules itself, though local leaders and councils may be appointed. Members may be sent from the congregation to associations that are sometimes identified with the church bodies formed by Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans, and other non-congregational Protestants. The similarity is deceptive, however, because the Congregationalist associations do not exercise control over their members (other than ending their membership in the association). Many Congregationalist churches are completely independent in principle. One major exception is Ordination, where even congregationalist churches often invite members of the vicinage or association to ordain their called pastor. It is a principle of congregationalism that ministers do not govern congregations by themselves. They may preside over the congregation, but it is the congregation which exerts its authority in the end. Congregational polity is sometimes called “Baptist polity”, as it is the characteristic polity of Baptist churches.
I wasn’t even born when Blue Ridge incorporated, but as I understand it we (they) had three choices. We (they) strongly believed that our church should be self-governed and therefore we are, by definition, a congregational church. And I would bet my left lung, if I were a betting man, that your sister’s church is “congregational” too, at least according to the definitions above.
By now I trust the reader is wondering how it is that I can say we are a Congregational/Elder-led church. Let’s start by looking at some definitions in scripture:
In Acts 6 we have the story of the Apostles (who were serving as the Elders/Overseers of the one and only church at that time) being bombarded by service requests. Their response was to tell the congregation to go choose seven men, filled with the Holy Spirit, to serve the Apostles as deacons (ministers, servants). In one passage you have the establishment of congregational polity and the office of deacon.
Later, as the church grew Elders were established. We first see it in Acts 14:23 – “When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” The word isn’t really explained since there we always Elders in Israel. But it’s interesting to note that the word “Elder” is plural and the word “Church” is singular. Notice James 5:14 – “Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord;” or 1 Peter 5:1 “Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed,” It seems pretty clear to me that every church has a plurality of Elders, but what about the Bishops? Are they in Scripture as well?
As mentioned in the article above, the Greek word is Episkopos and it is translated “Overseer” and transliterated as “Bishop.” It is only used in the Pastoral Epistles. We see it in 1 Timothy 3:1-2 – “It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach,….” The office of overseer seems to come from out of the blue here, except that in chapter five he starts talking about “Elders who rule well” which gives us a hint that he might be using the word Elder and Bishop interchangeably. This hint is confirmed in Titus when he gives Titus the same instruction: “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you, namely, if any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion. For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain,” Elders are Overseers (Bishops) and Overseers are Elders. At least in the Bible, but not in “the church.”
The Church that became the RC saw Paul referring to the office, singular, of Overseer – Bishop they also saw (or some would argue, inherited) a system whereby individual men already had a lot of power. For all that they claim Peter was the first pope, it was James (Acts 15) that headed the council at Jerusalem, to whom Paul, the overseer of all gentile churches, reported. In the same way Paul then seems to oversee Timothy and Titus, heads of the churches in Ephesus and in Crete. I truly see a plurality of Elders, but it’s not hard to see how the Bishoprics got started.
That brings us to the reformation. Calvin and Knox agree with me about the plurality of Elders but they still thought in terms of church hierarchy. So you have councils Elders reporting to Councils of Elders (Presbyterianism). Still others in the reform movement determined to place the authority in the local church movement and thus Congregationalism was formed.
We are a Bible Church. Our movement was born just 100 years ago when many of the mainline denominations started to slip away from Fundamental Doctrines of the Faith. Many of our parent denominations were Hierarchical in nature and we wanted nothing to do with that so we (along with most evangelical/fundamental churches) chose to keep our churches autonomous and therefore congregational. We believe in a plurality of Elders and our bylaws do affirm that the Elders oversee EVERYTHING. However, in keeping with the fact that the church (the body) is autonomous the congregation still votes on (ratifies) things like the hiring of a new senior pastor, the annual budget and our deacons and our elders. It’s really a model of the republic and some have called our model the federated model.
And that’s probably waaay more than you wanted to know.