This subject can be contentious but we cannot side-step this matter. We cannot avoid the subject just because feelings run high but all things must be tested at the bar of Scripture. An independent church constitution implies that no authority exists outside of the single local congregation. It teaches that the single congregation is in immediate submission to Christ and his teaching, however this matter is in need of fresh examination. For example when an independent church comes to appoint elders, a new minister or to make a major decision such as buying a new building, how is that decision made? Either an elder or minister will exert autocratic authority or the congregation will vote. Thus the authority of Christ can quickly slide into congregational authority with a democratic consensus that prevails, even when a decision may rage against biblical doctrine or sound wisdom.
Several questions need to be considered. Did the New Testament church display such independency? Can the reality of sin (in all of us) prefer an independent form of government because it most easily supports the purpose of certain individuals? Is it valid to appoint elders and ministers only on the grounds of the agreement of a local congregation? Is an anti-institutional or anti-denominational spirit the driving force towards independency?
These are searching questions but the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is the head of the church (Ephesians 1:22, 4:15, 5:23, Colossians 1:18), therefore we must have liberty to ask questions concerning the constitution of the church. Much of independency arose in the English church as a reaction against Anglican episcopacy. While we agree that episcopal hierarchy is unbiblical, does the Bible warrant wholesale independent church government? The answer is no!
There were formal relationships and lines of authority between the authorised ministers and elders in different congregations. Here are several New Testament passages that teach the biblical nature and advantages of such a connectional form of church government.
1. In Acts Chapter 15 a conference was held in Jerusalem to settle a challenging doctrinal matter. The action agreed upon settled the issue and it was carried out collegially by all. James spoke to summarise the matter: 'The 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' (15:22). An independent local church could never have settled this doctrinal dispute or taken the action that they did.
2. In Acts 15:22 the phrase 'the whole church' does not refer to a single local congregation but all the New Testament churches. The isolation of a single church would have been unthinkable to the apostles.
3. Elders were not appointed and examined in isolation from other churches. In Titus 1:5, we read that Titus was sent by Paul to Crete to 'put what remained into order, and appoint elders'. The problem often lies when the final course of appeal is the church members. What happens when there is an impasse? What court of appeal exists outside of a church when it is independent? What checks and balances exist?
4. There needs to be the relationship between the general and the particular. 1 Corinthians 10:17 'Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread'.
I always feel that these blog posts are all too short but my main aim is to get people thinking. Next post, Lord willing we will examine John Calvin's understanding of the work of reformation which included the reformation of church government. A church truly reformed regulates it's doctrine, worship and church government from scripture alone.