Authority in the Church


One of the reasons why people don’t join a church is because they are nervous about all the talk about authority and submission. Our age makes us allergic to institutions; we are trained by the media to distrust our leaders. On top of this there have been many instances of spiritual abuse where a church leader has damaged his church by being oppressive and self-willed. I know there are many here today who have seen this type of spiritual abuse where elders have assumed powers to themselves that have dictated who one should marry, what job they should do, how they should dress, wear their hair, and even think. This type of spiritual abuse has not only gone on in places like Gloriavale it is also prevalent in the Charismatic Church or wherever people claim that God has given them a revelation about what I ought to do with my life. It can go on wherever you have big ministries and personality cults, where a church develops around a single man and his ideas. I have also seen examples of it when a man has been a pastor in a single place for over 40 years and his opinions become law. For all of these reasons and more people are nervous to commit to becoming a member of a local church, in submitting themselves to a church, submitting to the members and the elders.

Today I would like to clarify what the Bible says about authority in the local church. There is no one verse we will be looking at but will be jumping around. I have chosen to structure this message around a sentiment expressed in a 1648 document called the Cambridge Platform. This was a document written by the American Congregationalists in response to the Westminster Confession of Faith. The WCF was a Presbyterian document, and the Congregationalist agreed with all of it except those parts which spoke about church government. In response they gave an excellent summary of biblical teaching. The church is first and foremost a monarchy, secondly a democracy, and thirdly an aristocracy. Jesus is the King of His church and He rules it first and foremost. Secondly, the church as a local congregation has authority to appoint its officers and exercise church discipline. Thirdly, the church has elders who have a real authority, but it is to lead and not to rule over the congregation. The order is important. Christ’s will comes first to regulate and guide ours. The congregation comes next because a church can exist without elders, you will see in Acts 14:21-23 that Paul and Barnabas planted churches that only received elders later on upon their return visit. And it is able to appoint its own officers and is called on as a whole to engage in actions like discipline. The congregation also has the authority to defrock its officers. Thirdly, the congregation is not without guides, these are the elders who lead the congregation into their responsibilities according to the will and word of its King—Christ.

Here at CGBC we subscribe to this form of Congregational government. We understand this to be the biblical view of government as opposed to Episcopalian, Presbyterian, single elder Baptist church government, and spiritual government. Let me give a quick description of these before we dive into our three points, Monarchy, democracy and aristocracy.

Episcopalianism comes from the Greek word ‘episkopos’ which ordinarily translate as bishop/elder. This is any form of church government that has bishops as the authority. The Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox church, the Anglican and Methodist church are all Episcopalian. The bishop is the authority over a number of churches and ordains and disciplines. The Anglicans who defend this view admit that it is not taught in scripture but that it was a very early form of government adopted by the early church.

Presbyterianism comes from the Greek word ‘presbuteros’ which we translate as elder. This form of church government sees authority abiding in the eldership. It is their job to administer discipline and although the agreement of the church is desirable it is not necessary. Presbyterian churches vote for their own ministers but this is subject to the approval of the presbytery.

Single elder Baptist churches are a model of Baptist church where the pastor is the only elder who is aided by a diaconate. They are usually congregational in government. We disagree with this model understanding the Bible to be teaching a plurality of eldership.

Spiritual government views believe that officers at all are unnecessary and that the Holy Spirit leads the congregation without elders. The Quakers, early Plymouth Brethren and some Emergent Church types would adopt this view.