Leaders Lead, and Congregations Decide: Congregationalism in Acts 15:1–35

I realize that a number of hierarchical models of church structure find their alleged home in Acts 15, but I personally believe that congregationalism comes to the fore when the text is carefully examined. In short, Acts 15 gives an example of two truths for congregationalism: leaders lead, and congregations decide. What follows below is more about the latter than the former.1

Both churches involved—Antioch and Jerusalem—example congregationalism in how they relate to a conflict at hand, namely, whether or not Gentile Christians were supposed to obey the Law of Moses.

Antioch

  • Paul, Barnabas, and others “were appointed” by their church in Antioch “to go up to Jerusalem” to settle the matter (Acts 15:2). If the identity of the party doing the appointing is not clear in Acts 15:2, it is made clear in Acts 15:3—these men were “sent on their way by the church,” that is, the church in Antioch.
  • Upon resolving the matter in Jerusalem, being something for the church as a whole (since, after all, it sent representatives to inquire on the matter), Paul, Barnabas, and the representatives from Jerusalem “gathered the congregation together” clarify for them the doctrine of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:30; cf. 15:32).

Jerusalem

  • Upon the arrival of the representatives from Antioch, Jerusalem considered the matter as a church. Paul, Barnabas, and the others “were welcomed by the church,” along with its leaders, “the apostles and the elders” (Acts 15:4). After hearing a report of God’s work among the Gentiles (Acts 15:4), the church likewise was present to help resolve the conflict at hand—“all the assembly” was present (Acts 15:12).
  • The leaders led, and James was at the front in giving his judgment on the matter (Acts 15:13–21). At the same time, what “seemed good” to him in resolving the matter was also good to “the apostles and the elders” and “the whole church” (Acts 15:22). They had altogether “come to one accord” as to a resolution (Acts 15:25).
  • Demonstrated negatively, “some persons” teaching false doctrine and creating the conflict at hand went “out from us” (i.e., the Jerusalem church) and did so with “no instructions” from the leadership or the church (Acts 15:24; cf. 15:1). “Instructions” were apparently necessary for representing the church. The false teachers were consequently rebuked by the Jerusalem church in that its official letter was contrary to their teaching.
  • Positively put, Judas and Silas were sent by the church with instructions and an official letter. The church and its leaders were “the brothers… who had sent them,” that is, Judas and Silas (Acts 15:34). Having completed their mission in Antioch, they returned to report on the matter to their sending church in Jerusalem.

In all the above, the Jerusalem Council was mostly a matter between two churches—Antioch and Jerusalem. At the same time, it involved Christians Jews and Gentiles in general, so other churches received the letter as well (cf. Acts 15:23, “Syria and Cilicia”).  Representatives were sent by one church to inquire of another, and that church in turn sent its representatives back to the first church to give a clarification. After the hard work of carefully navigating the thorny issues involved, it all ended with “encouragement” and parting “in peace” (Acts 15:31, 33).  May God grant to us the same as churches navigate through conflicts today.

  1. All quotations below are from the ESV.  []

Congregational Authority (part 2)

2014.06.30 raised handsLast time I wrote on this topic, I gave the first of three points that demonstrate the authority of the congregation. Here is a second way that the Bible describes the congregation exercising authority.

(2) The congregation is involved in the selection and election of deacons and elders.

That deacons are selected by a congregation finds clear precedent in Scripture. When the first deacons were chosen,1 the apostles told the church in Jerusalem to “pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty” (Acts 6:3). The congregation’s involvement was to select men that the apostles would approve for the needed ministry at hand.

The details of congregational involvement in the selection of elders is not as clear as the involvement in selecting deacons, but I believe there is enough evidence to present a plausible case that elders assumed their office by a means similar to deacons. For me, I come to this conclusion with two arguments.

First, the action of appointing in Acts 6:3 stems from kathistēmi (καθίστημι), the same word used by Paul when commanded Titus what to do with elders in the cities of Crete (Titus 1:5). Admittedly, Paul does not detail how to carry out the command, but if this terminological link could assume some details of process from Acts 6:3, there is evidence, albeit meager, to suggest that Titus led the churches in Crete to appoint elders in a manner similar to the deacons of Jerusalem in Acts 6:3.2

Second, along with Titus 1:5, I would add that Acts 14:23 could suggest congregational involvement in appointing elders as well. The word denoting the action of appointing is cheirotoneō (χειροτονέω), a word that can literally mean “to raise the hand.” This verb became synonymous with an appointment to office, such as the church appointment of an individual to the office of elder. It is not out of bounds to assume that some form of congregational vote could have taken place for the appointment of these elders.3

To summarize, albeit the details are scant and scattered, I believe the process of appointing deacons is clear in Acts 6. Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5 give some clues that I judge to evidence a similar process of appointment for elders.

I should add a postscript that, in every one of these situations, apostolic authority is involved. The Twelve led the appointment of deacons (Acts 6), Paul commanded Titus to oversee the appointment of elders on Crete (Titus 1), and Paul and Barnabas led the appointment of the elders in their respective churches (Acts 14). I would suggest that, given the absence of apostles today, some type of leadership is helpful when a church goes through the appointment of elders or deacons, a leadership granted by the congregation. This leadership can manifest itself differently from one setting to the next, but it should at the least be guided by the Spirit and Word of God.

  1. This is a debated point. See Merkle, 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 227. Merkle points out that some object to this conclusion because apostles were leading the church and not elders and because the seven are not explicitly identified as “deacons.” “Still,” he says, “Acts 6 does provide a pattern or paradigm that seems to have been continued in the early church.” []
  2. Cf. Kevin Bauder, Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order (Schaumburg, IL: Regular Baptist Press, 2012), pp. 95–96. []
  3. Ibid. []

Congregational Authority (part 1)

2014.06.30 raised handsThere are several examples from Scripture that demonstrate the fact that congregations exercise authority over certain matters. For my own sake, I have divided a number of these examples into three categories. Here is the first of those categories with the passages that give it support.1

(1) The congregation chooses individuals for specific tasks, sends them on their way, and holds them accountable for their ministries.

Examples:

  • Peter was held accountable to the church in Jerusalem for his ministry of evangelism: “When Peter went up to Jerusalem. . . . Peter began and explained it to them in order . . .” (Acts 11:2, 18).
  • Barnabas was sent by Jerusalem to investigate the Gentile conversions in Antioch: “the church in Jerusalem . . . they sent Barnabas to Antioch” (Acts 11:22).
  • Barnabas and Saul were sent by the church in Antioch on a missionary journey: “they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:3). Admittedly, it is unclear to whom “they” is referring in Acts 13:3. However, the next point seems to indicate the church’s involvement.
  • When Barnabas and Paul returned to Antioch, they reported of their missionary endeavors to the church: “And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them” (Acts 14:27).
  • Paul and Barnabas were sent by the church in Antioch to clear up a doctrinal matter with the church in Jerusalem: “So, being sent on their way by the church” (Acts 15:3; cf. 15:1–2).
  • As led by the apostles and elders, the church in Jerusalem sent a letter to Antioch clarifying their position on a doctrinal matter in question: “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas” (Acts 15:22).
  • This final example is helpful as well, though a difference from the previous examples would be that this one involves multiple churches agreeing over sending one person for a given task. The “famous brother” was sent with Paul to hold him and others accountable for transporting funds to Jerusalem to help during the time of famine: “he has been appointed by the churches to travel with us as we carry out this act of grace that is being ministered by us. . . . We take this course so that no one should blame us about this generous gift that is being administered by us” (2 Cor 8:19–20; cf. 8:18–21).

 

  1. For a longer discussion of the examples below, see Kevin Bauder, Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order (Schaumburg, IL: Regular Baptist Press, 2012), 92–99. []