On Congregationalism: Biblical Foundation.Posted: January 19, 2012
We have seen that in congregationalism, Jesus Christ governs his church through the members of a local congregation. Congregational churches are locally governed through leaders selected by the congregation. What’s the Biblical basis for this?
The Biblical basis for congregationalism is seen best in the Book of Acts. The whole church in Jerusalem decided how to replace Judas (Acts 1). The whole church in Jerusalem selected deacons to serve (Acts 6). The whole church in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem (Acts 15) to represent them in settling the question of Jewish and Gentile Christians in the church. Again and again, we see local churches selecting their own leaders to lead and represent them.
This is important. Proponents of non-governance argue against any leadership structure in the church. That sounds good until you read the New Testament. Whatever leadership structure the early church had–it’s abundantly clear there was a leadership structure. This is why the non-governance model has so few adherents today. It is the least biblical.
The Biblical basis for congregationalism is also seen in a careful reading of the New Testament. The titles of bishop/overseer, elder/presbyter and pastor/shepherd all appear in the New Testament. That’s obvious. But what often goes unnoticed is that these terms are used interchangeably.
The best example comes from Acts 20:28. Paul, speaking to the elders of the church at Ephesus, says: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you bishops. Pastor the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”
Most translations substitute overseer for bishop and shepherd for pastor. Why? To avoid confusion. If you believe that elders are different than bishops or pastors, then what Paul says is confusing. But we simply let Paul speak, and then we see that for Paul, elders and bishops and pastors are in fact the same group. They are the leaders of the local church.
In Paul’s mind, elders are bishops are pastors. They lead local congregations and the different terms refer not to different offices, but different functions of the same office.
This is important. Proponents of episcopal or presbyterian governance argue for a hierarchical understanding of authority. They argue for an external authority over the local church. Episcopalians argue that the bishop has authority over local churches. Presbyterians argue that the presbytery has authority over local churches. These arguments are based on perceived distinctions in the NT between bishop, elder and pastor. But if these distinctions are doubtful, then so is the argument for having external authority over local churches.
The Biblical basis for congregationalism is strong. Congregationalism follows NT church practice—local churches select their leaders. Congregationalism follows NT church terminology—bishops, elders, pastors are used interchangeably and are therefore three functions of one role: a leader in the church selected by the congregation.