I find that this will most often, to varying degrees, be true: elders want to do great things and the members want to do great things. I also see that elders are exhausted and frustrated, and members are exhausted and frustrated. Everyone hopes to find a way to make it work. Many are ready to give up.
How can we all properly work together for God’s glory? What is the key to unlocking the kingdom? One of the keys to working together is being together. There will always be a certain amount of “space” between leaders and followers. This “space” is an essential characteristic that separates leaders and followers. This space can be physical, this space can be emotional, this space can be a gap in communication. The size of this separation gap is one of the greatest determining factors for the amount of tension in the congregation and between leaders and followers. There will always be some degree of tension between leaders and followers. The amount of tension can be decreased as the space between leaders and followers is decreased. As the space between leaders and followers is increased, the amount of tension is also increased.
What are the “keys of the Kingdom?”
The Keys of the Kingdom Were Given to Peter—Matthew 16:19, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” We can look at this text and say wow! Peter, or whoever these keys are given to, was given authority in the church! That person has the authority to keep allow people in the church and to keep people out! There isn’t anything more important! That is what “keys” represent. They represent the authority to open and shut to go in and to go out.
We have spent a lot of time studying to whom the keys were given, but we haven’t spent as much time studying what the phrase “the keys” means because we understand that represents church authority. The Roman Catholic church maintains that the keys were given only to Peter and therefore the authority of the church rests on Peter and those who follow after him. Peter is in charge! Protestant groups teach that the keys were given to all the apostles, and so the apostolic message is the authority which the church should follow rather than just Peter himself. Unfortunately, most everyone has often overlooked the fact that the keys of the kingdom were given to everyone two chapters later!
The Keys of the Kingdom Were Given to Y’all
Those Matthew 16:19 keys show up again in Matthew 18:18 where Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This authority is the same authority that come from holding the keys in Matthew 16:19. The words “keys of the kingdom” may not be present, but they have to be present in order for every Christian, every royal priest, to be able to exercise that authority in Matthew 18:18. It is important to note this authority has been given to “y’all.” The “you” in Matthew 18:18 is a second person plural. Every Christian has the responsibility to carry out the commands of Matthew 18:15-20. No one exempt. No one is deprived of that authority. But this authority is the same as presented in Matthew 16:19. Every royal priest, therefore, must exercise the authority which has been given to glorify God and to function as a royal priest.
How Does This Pertain to Church Polity?
Y’all are given the authority in the church (Matthew 16:19; 18:18). We know that God has commanded that there should be leaders in the church. The leaders are listed in Ephesians 4:11, “he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and the teachers.” These leaders are given “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12).
How are there supposed to be leaders when we all have the authority? We authoritatively select men to lead us and voluntarily submit to them.
Has This Been Done Before? Do we see an example of the entire church working together to make important decisions? Acts 13:1–4 records this very thing happening:
Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus.
Notice what happened there. The church worked: “They laid their hands on them and sent them off.” And at the same time, the Bible says these men were “sent out by the Holy Spirit.” As the church worked and made these decisions, God gave it the stamp of approval.
The same principle is seen in Acts 20:28, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” When did the Holy Spirit select elders at Ephesus? Was it not as the elders were selected by the Christians there? So, the entire congregation acted authoritatively to select men who would be the elders. These men who were selected by the congregation in the exercise of the keys of the kingdom were “made elders” by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28).
What Does This Elder Led Congregationalism Look Like?
First, elders are chosen by the church. Then elders lead the church which voluntarily submits to them. We need to notice that the Elders are accountable to the church who has appointed them and that the church is accountable to the eldership which they have appointed.
We see the congregation’s elders can function well. They are able to feed the sheep as they are supposed to do. They can care for the sheep as they are supposed to do. They are also able to nurture the church members to grow in their service because the members are recognized as valuable royal priests.
We also see the congregation’s members can function well. They are holding the keys too. They are able to function as royal priests. They are able to support the eldership as the eldership supports the members. There is also mutual responsibility. The congregation is responsible to and for the elders, and the elders are responsible to and for the congregation.
But notice that everything is laid on the congregation. Everything isn’t placed on the shoulders of the members. Everything isn’t placed on the shoulders of the elders. The congregation bears the responsibility of the church as they are held by Christ.
What does Elder Led Congregationalism Offer?
What does this vision of church polity offer for the congregation? It bridges the gap between the leaders and the followers. This relieves tension between the two groups. This relieves tension in the entire group. This elder led congregationalism also helps the church to depend on the eldership which they have selected. Perhaps most importantly, elder led congregationalism helps the eldership to depend on the church. Since the church is composed of royal priests who selected the elders, they are not be fired from their position. Instead, the church members are expected to continue working and functioning as royal priests.
Neither the elders, the members, or the congregation should become exhausted with the work because they can lean on one another. Neither should become exhausted with the other because they are in a symbiotic relationship.
In this way, we can best reflect the glory of God because this is a greater reflection of the interaction in the Triune community. Remember how God does everything together. The Father, Son, and Spirit are inseparable in their work. Matthew 28:19–20 records Jesus words, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” 1 Peter 1:1–2 also shows how the Trinity works inseparably, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.”
Are you ready to work together with God? If the church is to reflect the glory and character of God to the world, then it too should work together inseparably for God’s glory. But now you are probably wondering who is really in charge? Because that’s what we look for as sinful people isn’t it? Who is the boss? Who is the greatest? What did Jesus say? “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:25-28).
Does that mean no one makes decisions? No. The elders have been chosen by the congregation of royal priests to make decisions when they must be made. Does that mean the elders make decisions in isolation? No. The elders are royal priests among other royal priests. They would do well to seek the guidance of these other priests as they make decisions. Does this take authority away from the elders? No, it empowers them to work with the congregation. Does this limit their power? No, it allows them to do what they are supposed to focus on—caring for the sheep.