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Last week I was at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. for some meetings. I always love visiting CHBC, not only because I have many friends there, but because it’s one of the best models of faithful church ministry I’ve seen anywhere.

Soon after I arrived last week—and before my meetings began—I was led up to Mark Dever’s study where he was meeting with several interns and staff members. Mark asked the interns if they had any questions for me before I had to leave. One thoughtful, and somewhat incredulous, student asked if I really thought the keys of the kingdom were given to the officers of the church and not to the church as a whole. I admit I was caught off guard to be suddenly thrown into a deep discussion of polity (though being with Mark I shouldn’t have been surprised). I had just gotten off a plane; I wasn’t feeling well; and I’ve not often been pressed to defend my views on the keys of the kingdom. So I didn’t do much to help the student, except probably to confirm in his mind that Presbyterians don’t know what they’re talking about.

But here’s what I wish I would have said, not as a full blown defense of Presbyterian polity but as a few talking points among brothers and friends.

1. Congregationalists and Presbyterians can both agree that the authority inherent in the keys of the kingdom is the authority over the doctrine and discipline of the church (Matt. 16:19; 18:18-19). It is the power to affirm or deny that someone is a true Christian. It is the power to affirm or deny that a given statement is consistent with the Christian faith. Congregationalists believe this authority resides with the members of the church. Presbyterians believe this authority belongs to the officers of the church.

2. I hold to the Presbyterian position because of the overall New Testament teaching about eldership. The office of eldership is one of teaching and authority (1 Tim. 5:17), which is why the position is reserved for qualified men (1 Tim. 2:11-12; 3:1-7). Elder-pastors are given by Christ to be overseers and shepherds of the flock of God (Acts 20:28, Eph. 4:11). The leaders in Hebrews 13:17 who must watch over the souls of God’s people are almost certainly elders. We know from 1 Peter 5:2-3 that elders must exercise gracious oversight in the church. They are the under-shepherds serving and representing Christ, our Chief Shepherd and Overseer (1 Peter 1:25; 5:4). It is, therefore, everywhere in keeping with a biblical theology of eldership to have the elders of the church exercising the authority of the keys through preaching and discipline. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how the elders are to shepherd, govern, and protect as the New Testament commands if the final authority rests with the congregation and not with the officers who represent Christ in their midst.

3. While it’s true that the final step in the discipline process in Matthew 18 is “tell it to the church,” there’s no reason to think that “church” cannot refer to the church as she is represented by her officers. This has been the understanding of Calvin, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Standards and virtually every Presbyterian-Reformed theologian since the Reformation. Granted, the word ekklesia means gathering or assembly and most often refers in the New Testament to worldwide universal church or a local congregation. But the term is also used for more than one congregation, as in the church of Jerusalem, the church of Antioch, or the church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. No doubt, there were many churches in these cities or regions (witness, for example, the thousands of converts being added in Jerusalem), and yet they can be described as ekklesia. This doesn’t prove Presbyterianism, but it does mean we should not equate ekklesia with nothing other than a local congregation. Indeed, the reference in Acts 15:22 to “the apostles and the elders, with the whole church” suggests that leaders from various congregations came together in the Jerusalem Council to make decisions for the wider body. This is the heartbeat of Presbyterian polity and reason to think “church” can mean in effect, “a subset of leaders who represent the whole.”

4. It’s also worth remembering that when Jesus spoke of discipline in Matthew 18 the reference point for the disciples would have been the Jewish synagogue. There were no churches as such. The only instances they understood of “telling it to the ekklesia” were the disciplinary procedures in Judaism which were carried out by the Sanhedrin and not by a vote of the worshipers gathered at the synagogue. It’s more plausible to think the apostles inherited the system of discipline-through-office-bearers they were familiar with than that they heard Jesus telling them to practice a form of Congregationalism that hadn’t existed, in congregations that didn’t exist yet.

5. I wonder if a latent Presbyterianism is already present, in practice, in many Congregational churches. Is there not an assumed intermediary step whereby the disciplinary matter is brought to the elders before it is told to the whole church? Few churches, I imagine, ask for conflicts and sins to be aired ex nihilo before the whole congregation without first having been handled by the elders. And yet that’s what Matthew sounds like if ekklesia means the whole gathered assembly. Even in Congregational churches the “tell it to the church” step usually means “tell it to the elders, who deal with the case for several months or years and then at a later juncture will bring their recommendation to the congregation to ratify their decision.” The Congregational process is similar to the Presbyterian process except the former ends with a congregational vote and includes an extra step in the discipline that, on their understanding, Jesus makes no mention of in the text.

6. One final word of clarification: the elders in a Presbyterianism system serve as Christ’s representatives and with Christ’s authority, but they are not mini-Christs. The presbyters do not have a blank check to decide whatever they want. The keys of the kingdom must always be tied to the King’s words. We should not make pronouncements or bind men’s consciences or exercise authority except in the matters clearly delineated in Scripture. And even where this authority ought to be exercised, the wise elder board will always try to inform the congregation and respond to their concerns.

This may not convince any of my wonderful congregational friends (and certainly won’t convince my non-wonderful ones!), but I sure do appreciate them asking the question. No one does better at taking ecclesiology seriously than 9Marks, Mark Dever, Jonathan Leeman, and all my good friends at CHBC.

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56 thoughts on “Putting In a Good Word for Presbyterianism”

  1. D. says:

    Even though I’m a Baptist, I wholeheartedly agree with you Kevin. Presbyterian polity makes way more sense Biblically and yes, it’s also true that some baptistic churches (especially Reformed-minded ones) tend to be covertly Presbyterian in practice, although I don’t think many would openly admit that :)
    One question that I’ve sometimes wondered is, How can we be both complimentarian and congregational at the same time? The second seems to undermine the first, unless of course we’re going to operate like the Plymouth Brethren and only allow men to vote. This problem doesn’t seem to exist in the Presbyterian model. Maybe someone out there has a good response to this question.

  2. A Naive Elder says:

    Hi D,

    Maybe the right question isn’t how do we square complimentarianism and congregationalism, or even complimentarianism and Presbyterianism.

    I offer that the right approach is to embrace the foundation of the church – the directives and examples of the apostles and prophets in the writings of the NT.

    When we do we can pretty quickly see that neither they nor the Head of the church ever taught voting as to the proper mechanism on how churches should make decisions or appoint leaders, nor did they themselves ever vote on anything connected to the life of the church themselves.

    Inasmuch as the Bible teaches a consistent view of church governance, it only teaches one type – a plurality of qualified elders in full governance authority over the local church. It appears to me that we don’t need to vote when we have the word of God and the Spirit of God connected in the Holy Scriptures ruling the church through scripturally qualified men only.

  3. D. says:

    Hi A Naive Elder,
    Thanks for your comment. Your perspective is ultimately where I’m coming from – Sola Scriptura. So, in one hand, we simply seek to understand and obey what’s plainly revealed to us in Holy Scripture.
    However, in the other, we still have to face the music, as they say :) We have churches that are both complimentarian and presbyterian, egalitarian and presbyterian, complimentarian and congregational, egalitarian and congregational, among others. So, how do we delineate what Scripture teaches and be able to graciously, thoughtfully, and Biblically answer our brothers who aren’t coming from that view? Unless we just decide to ignore our brothers we disagree with (not recommended), we have to take both the theological and practical veins together. As William Ames once said, “Theology is the doctrine of living to God.”
    Grace and peace brother!

  4. A Naive Elder says:

    Hi D,

    Well that’s the point, isn’t it? Since sola Scripture teaches one and only perspective the idea is not to conform the Scripture to our present experience but to conform our experience to the Scripture. That includes our church experience.

    You see, the sola-scripture viewpoint carries it’s own authority. When it is replaced or obscured or denuded with traditions those traditions trigger disobedience – not only among individuals but entire churches. Pointing out disobedience and calling for repentance is being faithful not just to the Word of God but to the souls of people too.

    So here’s what to look for. What are those things that the church does that are not the result of both direct command and example in the NT? If a church, or we as individuals fail to at least rise to that standard in our practice then we are almost certainly being disobedient.

    2 examples:

    1) Women elders – is there biblical command and biblical example encouraging or discouraging the practice? Pretty simple, right?

    And the point here is that to appoint such is disobedience.

    2) Having several leaders of regional churches form a presbytery – is there both biblical command and biblical example encouraging or discouraging the practice?

    Pretty simple to figure out, right?

    To do so is which then: obedience, or disobedience? And for the moment, no matter which side you come down on (and there can only be one side that is sola scriptura) you have to go back to Scripture and not opinion.

    Using the “both biblical command and biblical example” cuts down on a lot of subjectivity because now we are no longer using isolated Scriptures taken out of context or used a hobby horses.

    Making sense?

  5. D. says:

    Hi Naive Elder,
    brother, I think we’re essentially coming from the same perspective, including the part of interpreting experiences in light of Scripture and not the other way around. You’re a good thinker.
    Let’s continue to walk in grace and humility and truth as we seek to follow hard after Jesus!
    Blessings brother!

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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