On the Interplay Between Congregational(ism) & Elder-Rule

The Issue:

The Bible teaches that elders are the governing office of the church. They are tasked with leading, managing, and overseeing. However, in the New Testament we find that the congregation is incredibly involved in the church’s affairs, and may, according to some, be seen as serving a governing role.

The question then is how these two things relate to each other. In many churches it is assumed that the elders lead, yet the congregation also exercises some expression of involvement or governance. So who leads (or governs), the elders or the congregation? And if both, how so? How do those two relate?

The below outline seeks to present various models of how this question is answered. It also seeks to present the various Biblical and theological content that potentially impinge upon this issue.


The Bible speaks to our ecclesiology. Polity is not a matter of Biblical indifference or a subject where the Bible leaves us open to organize ourselves as we like (contra. other traditions). We believe the sufficiency of scripture extends to the fact that the Bible guides us on how we as a church are to be governed.

This is why we look to scripture on these matters. We look to them for instruction here. Its voice is what determines our polity.

Different models of congregation-elder interplay:

  • Congregationalism
    • This model rests final decision-making authority in the congregation. The elder(s) lead and govern the church, but not as the final-authority in matters of polity.
    • A certain degree of decision-making power is delegated to the elders (in other words, this does not normally mean that the congregation votes on everything).
    • Certain things may be specified in the constitution (e.g., budget, appointment of officers, etc.) requiring a congregational vote. Beyond that, the specific domains of what the congregational votes on vs. what the elders can just decide are normally unspecified and left ambiguous (i.e., whatever the elders decide to bring before the congregation to vote on).
  • Congregationally-based elder rule
    • This model recognizes the elders as the ruling office of the church, yet still admits a role to the congregation in governance.
    • The congregation appoints elders, and thus serves as the ultimate basis of the authority. Yet, in appointing elders, it thereby delegates the governing to these elders.
    • The congregation may retain a degree of governance in certain specified domains (e.g., regulating membership, appointing offices, finances, etc.)
    • Note: Some variety may exist in terms of what this congregational involvement might look like.
      • For example, (1) the congregation may be given the sole vote on these particular matters. In other words, these matters would be decided purely congregationally, and not by way of an elder-decision.
      • On the other hand, (2) the congregation may be given a vote in addition to a vote from the elders. In other words, the elders would still govern and make decisions over these domains; but the congregation is also given a voice to check and confirm those elders decisions.
  • Strict elder-rule – This model does not necessarily exclude feedback or involvement from the congregation. But it sees the governing function as strictly (solely) belonging to the elders.

Biblical & Theological Considerations:

** Although the above recognizes a nuanced variation of expressions of congregational forms of government, for simplicity sake, the below material uses the term “congregationalism” to refer to any model of government that allots the congregation any sort of decision-making authority. **

General considerations:
  • The nature of the office of elder/overseer: “Overseeing” (ἐπίσκοπος) → this implies this is the governing office.
    • Cf. Elders as those tasked with shepherding the flock (1 Pet 5:2) → a parallel: those designated with a certain sort of leadership position over the flock, providing care for it (pastoring).
    •  Scripture:
      • 1 Tim 3:2, 4-5 – [A]n overseer … must manage (προΐστημι) his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage (προΐστημι) his own household, how will he care for (προΐστημι; NIV = “take care of”) God’s church?
      • 1 Tim 5:17 – Let the elders who rule (προΐστημι; NIV = “direct the affairs”) well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.
      • Cf. The recognized existence in the NT of those who “lead” and carry authority within the congregation (see 1 Thess 5:12; Heb 13:7, 17).
    • Conclusion = The assumed disposition on matters, unless otherwise stated in scripture, would therefore seem to be elder-rule.
General arguments for congregationalism:
  • God gifts the entire congregation with Spiritual gifts, that the entire church/congregation might be equipped for its care.
  • When errors inflict the church (whether doctrinal or practical — think: Galatians; Corinthians), the NT letters are written, not to the elders of those churches, but to the entire congregation — seeming to imply that the entire congregation has responsibility to direct its affairs, guarding itself, and correcting these matters.
  • We assume the congregation is composed of regenerate members. As such, many argue for congregationalism out of theological convictions that each member is indwelt by Spirit, and is therefore equipped and competent to participate in the governing of the church.
  • It can be argued that the congregation/church is seen to play a significant decision-making role throughout the NT, especially the narratives in the books of Acts (sending missionaries — see Acts 13:1-3; 15:40; sending delegates — Acts 11:22; 15:2-3; 1 Cor 16:3-4; 2 Cor 8:19, 23; council decisions — Acts 15:22; but cf. 16:4).
    • Counterpoint:
      • One could equally argue that these texts are vague with regards to what exactly any sort of congregational involvement looked like. For example, did the “church” decide by way of a congregational decision (congregationalism), or by a representative decision from the elders (elder-rule)?
      • Furthermore, one can question how much these texts delineate polity, or are just more general descriptions of congregational participation/involvement.
  • A case can be made that the congregation/church possesses the authority to regulate its membership (see Mt 18:17-18; 1 Cor 5:1-13; 2 Cor 2:5-11, esp. v.6 – “the punishment of the majority ”) and appoint officers (see Acts 6:3). One may infer from these two practices a broader underlying principle that the congregation possesses a certain level of governance over its affairs.
    • Counterpoint: See comments on these subjects and texts below.
  • The “keys of the kingdom” (Mt 16:19), it can be argued, are given to the church/congregation (Mt 18:17-18). This authority to “bind” (Mt 16:19), it is argued, is exercised by the church (Mt 18:17-18). This, it is said, implies that the congregation/church is the locus of governing authority.
    • Counterpoint: In Mt 18:17-18, the exercise of the keys, this binding, consists of regulating the boundaries (membership) of the church community. See comments on this subject and Mt 18:17-18 below.
  • Some argue that Christ’s headship and authority over the church precludes human intermediaries that exercise authority over the church.
  • Some argue that a congregational form of government best corresponds to the theological reality of the priesthood of all believers.
Specific subject matters & relevant texts:

As a way of examining possible areas of congregational involvement, we can consider the six domains in which the congregation is traditionally given some measure of decision-making authority in more congregationally involved churches.

1. Membership reception and dismissal.

  • Mt 18:17-18 —
    • Congregationalism:
      • In Mt 18:17, as a final stage in church discipline, the matter is brought before the church/congregation. Thus, it is argued that the congregation is seen to possess authority to regulate the boundaries of its membership.
      • As a corollary then, based on this principle, it is argued, the congregation possess authority to regulate its boundaries not only in dismissing members but also in receiving them.
    • Counterpoint: The text says that the matter is brought before the church/congregation. But it does not specifically say that the decision to expel the individual is made by the church/congregation, just that the congregation carries it out. The official decision, it may be assumed, is that of the elders.
  • 1 Cor 5:1-13 —
    • Congregationalism: Here, with regards to the matter of church discipline and removing a member from their midst, Paul addresses the entire church, not just its elders, as if the entire church were responsible.
      • The imperatives to remove the man is plural (v.13) and presumably addresses the congregation.
      • He even says that man is to be removed when they are all assembled (v.4). What is the need for them all being assembled, except that this is a congregational act?
    • Counterpoint: It could be argued that Paul addresses the entire congregation because the entire congregation is in some sense morally responsible for seeing the situation addressed. However, it may be assumed that the elders are nonetheless uniquely responsible for carrying out this decision out — Paul’s comments not dealing with the polity of the matter.
  • 2 Cor 2:5-11 —
    • Congregationalism:
      • Paul places responsibility on the entire congregation to forgive and receive this repentant individual back into their membership. As such, it is argued, the congregation is again seen to possess authority to regulate the boundaries of its membership.
      • Note specifically that Paul describes their original church discipline as a “punishment by the majority” (v.6), implying that this discipline was not merely from the elders but the entire congregation.
    • Counterpoint:
      • Again, it can be argued, that Paul is not delineating polity here. He is not addressing the polity-matters of how the repentant member is re-established into the membership of the church. Rather, he is merely exhorting the congregation to receive and forgive the repentant member.
      • “The punishment of the majority,” it can be said, is not necessarily a comment on the church’s polity, but simply how the discipline was implemented. In other words, the elders may have had the final say on the action of disciplining this member; but the entire congregation (“the majority”) followed suit by treating the disciplined individual accordingly.

2. Officer nomination, appointment, and removal.

  • Acts 6:3-6 —
    • Congregationalism: The congregation is involved in the appointment of these servants (some would see them as the first instance of deacons; διακονέω [verb] used in 6:2).
    • Counterpoint: The text undoubtedly indicates that the congregation was involved and consulted in the process; the congregation seems to serve a nominating function (they’re described as selecting [v.3] and choosing [v.5]). But the text does not specify that the congregation was the body that actually appointed these servants. In fact, the text states that “we” (likely, the apostles) would appoint them (v.3). See also v.6.
  • Acts 14:23 — Deals with the appointment of elders. Here Paul and Barnabas are the ones who seem to appoint the elders.
    • Elder-rule: It is probably in favor of the elder-rule position that the appointment seems to be performed by leaders, and not necessarily the congregation.
    • Counterpoint:
      • The text, however, simply says that Paul and Barnabas appointed them, not how they appointed them. Presumably they may have appointed them by congregational decision.
      • Some might argue that the model we find in Acts 6:1-6, one in which the congregation plays a significant role in the appointment of offices, should serve as the grid through which we read subsequent texts, like Acts 14:23, that are ambiguous and fail to provide specific details about how such appointments were made.
      • The word “appoint” (χειροτονέω) in Acts 14:23 is a word that can mean “to choose or elect by raising of hands” (see BDAG), which may raise the question of the congregation’s role.
    • Alternatively, some may argue that this is an exceptional circumstance given then exceptional function of the apostolic office.
  • 1 Tim 5:19-20 —
    • Addresses the matter of disciplining and removing an elder from office. The authority to remove an elder from office may imply a similar authority to appoint.
    • The text, however, does not specify who performs this.
      • Although it’s probably noteworthy that these instructions are being written to Timothy.
      • Alternatively, it is noteworthy that the text seems to involve the congregation (“the presence of all,” “on the evidence of two or three witnesses”).
  • 1 Tim 5:22 —
    • May address the appointment of elders (“laying on of hands”).
    • Does not specify who performs this. Although, again, the letter is written to Timothy.
  • Titus 1:5 — Titus is charged with appointing elders.
    • Elder-rule: Again, it is in the favor of the elder-rule position that this appointing seems to be performed by leaders (whether we think Titus is an elder himself, or some unique position such as an apostolic delegate).
    • Counterpoint:
      • Congregationalists frequently stress that this incident is an exception, since Titus is an apostolic delegate (an exceptional function).
      • Alternatively, it could be argued that the text does not specify how Titus was to see that these elders were appointed. Presumably he could have seen it carried out via congregational means.
  • Other texts dealing with the appointment of individuals, with less obvious contribution to this debate — Acts 13:1-3, 2 Cor 8:19; 2 Tim 1:14; and 2 Tim 1:6.

3. Finances (e.g., budget approval, approving staff/paid positions).

Not a directly Biblical position; judged as a matter of prudence.

4. Property and assets.

Not a Biblical position; judged as a matter of prudence.

5. Constitutional amendments.

  • Cf. changes to Statement of Faith —
    • Congregationalism: Here one could make a case for congregational involvement, particularly over matters of doctrine (e.g., the Statement of Faith), based on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, for example. When doctrinal error arose in the churches of Galatia, Paul did not write a letter to the elders of these churches, but to the churches/congregations. This seems to imply that the entire congregation has responsibilityto directing its affairs, guarding itself, and correcting these matters. If one was to infer principles of polity from this, one could argue that the congregation should have a role in changes to doctrinal statements.
    • Counterpoint: Alternatively, it could be argued that Paul addresses the entire congregation because the entire congregation is in some sense morally responsible for seeing the situation addressed. However, it may be assumed that the elders are nonetheless uniquely responsible for carrying out this decision out.
  • With regards to granting the congregation decision-making authority over amendments to other aspects of the constitution, this may be seen as a matter of prudence.

6. Dissolution and mergers.

Not a Biblical position; judged as a matter of prudence.


By nature of office of elder being one of oversight (see above), it would seem that, unless indicated otherwise in scripture, our default assumption would be elder-rule. The burden of proof would rest on congregationalists. The question then is, Does the NT teach congregationalism?

But when we look at the NT, we certainly see a congregation that is active, participating, and involved in the church’s affairs. The question is, What implication does this portrait have for our polity? Does this represent the polity of the early church (congregationalism)? Or is this portrayal merely a testimony to the congregation’s active involvement within a structure of elder-rule?

In other words, on the one hand, those convinced of congregationalism bear the burden of proof to prove that position. On the other hand, though, those more convinced of elder-rule must make sense of those passages that seem to indicate (even at times, quite strongly) a significant congregational role.