Polity and the Elder Issue -- By: Rodney J. Decker

Journal: Grace Theological Journal
Volume: GTJ 09:2 (Fall 1988)
Article: Polity and the Elder Issue
Author: Rodney J. Decker

Polity and the Elder Issue

Rodney J. Decker

Any conclusions regarding the function of elders in local churches must take into consideration church polity. Several lines of reasoning suggest that final ecclesiastical authority is vested in local congregations. First, apostolic authority in church matters did not extend beyond the original apostles. Second, several theological principles indicate the importance of every believer in the decision making process of a local congregation. Also, there are several NT examples of churches making decisions corporately. Finally, NT instruction regarding church polity does not contradict these lines of reasoning.

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Depending on one’s associations in evangelical Christianity, the subject of the elder’s role in church leadership is taken for granted, ignored, or hotly debated. Those who are interested in the role of elders in the church face several important questions. Who are the NT elders and what is their role in the church? What is elder rule? Is a NT church a democratic institution? Are there different kinds of elders? Is each assembly to have a single leader or is multiple leadership required? With whom is final authority vested in the church? This article will seek to address one aspect of these questions: the relationship of church polity to the elder issue. This issue has not received the necessary emphasis in other studies that have appeared.

Need to Consider Polity

Some of the questions concerning the elder’s role arise due to a failure to consider other more basic NT doctrines. At the heart of the elder issue is the entire concept of church government. On a practical level this means answering two questions. Where does the final authority lie in a local church? How is Christ’s authority functionally

applied and expressed in the local assembly?1 Although Fee2 questions whether the NT teaches a normative church order, it is here argued that congregational church polity does have biblical authority.

Apostolic Succession and the Polity Question

The twentieth century church cannot hope to duplicate the decision making process of the first century church. Since the NT makes no provision for apostolic succession,3 the contemporary church is unable to include an apostolic role in its polity considerations. The apostles often intervened and made unilateral decisions for the early churches.4 Not only was the church in its infancy at this stage, but the<...

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