What is the relationship between congregational authority and the elders’ authority?
When it comes to authority in the church, we must remember that the ultimate goal is to provide discipleship that leads people to greater maturity in Christ. Ephesians 4:11–13 describe the roles and gifts of leadership in the church as being for the sake of “equip[ing] the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (emphasis mine). The roles of the church are not just for those employed vocationally by the church; rather, we are all a part of the priesthood of believers and are to use our gifts in order to accomplish Christ’s purposes.
Every member in a church is responsible for stewarding and protecting the Gospel message and ministry of the church. While there may be a group of exemplary leaders called “Elders,” the Bible teaches that the role of eldership is given to the church to assist the congregation in meeting the greater goal of discipleship. The elders, as appointed by God, serve the body of Christ as overseers of the church. They do not usurp the authority of the congregation, but carry out the goals of the congregation with love, gentleness, conviction, and by example.
The Elders’ Authority
It should be noted that the elders’ responsibility and authority comes from God—“God has appointed you as overseers” (1 Peter 2:9; Ephesians 5:23). Because elders serve at the pleasure of the Eternal King, the congregation is exhorted to obey their leaders in order to please God (1 Thessalonians 5; Hebrews 13:7). Eldering is a ministry of gathering and protecting the flock of God in their local church that is entrusted to them by the Father. Eldership reflects God’s character of guarding the flock at all costs, caring for them and feeding them. The sole motive for elders should be to care for the sheep as God does (Jeremiah 50:6) and keep watch over them, ensuring they are nurtured and safe from harm (Jeremiah 23:1–4). Elders are given this divine authority and will be held responsible for how they care for the sheep in their congregation.
The Congregation’s Authority
The church has been tasked the responsibility of watching over the other members of the church. This means that the congregation is looking out for one another, ensuring that other believers in the church do not stray from the truth of the Gospel. By assuming responsibility over these things and exercising proper authority, the church will be using the “keys” mentioned in Matthew 16, 18 and John 20:23. As the congregation exercises the use of the keys, they must make decisions related to (1) receiving, dismissing, or disciplining members, (2) selecting elders and deacons, (3) and anything else that relates to the integrity or viability of that local church to do effective Gospel ministry.
The Relationship Between the Authorities
While the elders are a part of the church, they do not have sole charge over the keys. The church has the ability to “bind and loose” through their authority of command. Church discipline, church membership, and church eldership all must be done with the whole-body exercising authority to make decisions in unity. The elders are not to take this authority away from the congregation, rather they are to lead them by providing formative and corrective discipline for all members of the body. Elders invest in the flock by teaching, leading, and caring for the flock proactively and humbly reacting in a disciplinary way when a member is living sinfully and defaming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Elders and church members work together to exercise the congregation’s direct responsibility in encouraging believers’ growth and correcting members of the church when necessary (Matthew 18:15–20; Galatians 6:1).