This article is a continutation of my study on Biblical church leadership, if you haven’t started from the beginning I suggest you start there: Biblical Church Leadership I
Interestingly enough, I see some responsibility and authority in the roll of the church as well. It seems that there just may be a dynamic tension between the role of the elders and the congregation. The church seems to have authority in several areas; dispute, doctrine, and discipline.
In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus instructs us on how to deal with a brother who has sinned against us personally. It is a great lesson for all believers in the biblical way to deal with one another.
“If your brother sins against you go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
Note the final authority in this situation is not the elders or a committee, it is the Church, and this makes sense if this brother is to be excommunicated. The entire church would need to be involved in that excommunication. Otherwise it could lead to a schism in the body. I suppose one could assume that this use of ‘church’ really means the elders, but that seems to be a bit of a stretch.
A return to Acts chapter 6 shows that the situation between the Hellenistic Jews and the Hebraic Jews was to be resolved by appointing deacons. Although the Elders gave input on how the situation could be resolved, they delegated this action to the assembled congregation. It seems that God believes it best to have the entire congregation involved in matters of dispute.
The letter to the Galatians was not written to the elders of the church, but was addressed “To the churches in Galatia” and yet the addressees of the letter are directed to determine what is and is not proper doctrine even to over rule angels or the apostle Paul himself, a role we would reserve to Elders in most cases.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel– 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! – Gal 1:6-9
It appears that on some level there is a system of checks and balances in place; the congregation has the responsibility to discern what is the gospel and what is not, even if it comes from the mouth of the apostle Paul himself.
In one of the only scriptural examples of church discipline found in I Cor. 5, we find Paul instructing the church (1 Cor. 1:2) as a whole that they should have removed the offending member from their midst.
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? 3 Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. 4 When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, 5 hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. 1 Cor. 5:1-5
Paul did not address the elders or leaders of the church, but the church as a whole and tells them that they should have already put this man out of their fellowship. He has already decided what should be done and they should have done it already. This would indicate that they had the right to do so before being instructed by Paul.
There is a second issue of discipline that is also addressed to the Corinthians and some believe it is in reference to the same individual. It appears that the Church pendulum swung from one extreme to another. In his first letter he chastises them for not disciplining, but in his second letter he had to tell the church when enough is enough.
The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. 7 Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him. 9 The reason I wrote you was to see if you would stand the test and be obedient in everything. 10 If you forgive anyone, I also forgive him. And what I have forgiven–if there was anything to forgive–I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, 11 in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes.
The church is now exercising discipline of its members by a majority, although it may have gone too, far at least they had moved in the correct direction. It is also interesting that Paul says he will follow the churches decision on forgiveness. He did not command them to forgive who he has forgiven but, instead he will forgive if the congregation forgives the individual.