Congregationalism and the Biblical Theology


Over the years I’ve happily defended the congregational view of church government. The New Testament evidence for this position is, in my mind, clear enough. In my reading of the Bible, congregationalism is the New Testament model when it comes to local church polity.

Now, the arguments for congregational government are pretty standard. It seems when it comes to issues of doctrine (what we believe as a church), discipline (church membership), and direction (who are our leaders and where are we going) the congregation is the final court of human authority. For example, the churches of Galatia were the ones held accountable for abandoning the gospel (Gal 1:6) and the whole church agreed on the Jerusalem council’s decisions (Acts 15:22). It is the church who disciplines a member (1 Cor 5:2; 2 Cor 2:6). Furthermore, it was the collective body that seems to have been involved in choosing their leaders (Acts 6:2). These are a few standard passages used to support congregationalism (and rightly so).

Recently, however, I’ve been introduced to a biblical-theological argument for congregationalism. Tying congregationalism to the unfolding idea of priesthood and kingship throughout the storyline of Scripture, Jonathan Leeman argues that congregationalism makes the best sense of the biblical data when one considers shifts from the old covenant era to the new covenant era. Leeman writes,

The argument of the chapter, in summary, is this: The office of priest-king given to the federal head or Everyman Adam, which involved working and watching over the place where God dwelled, was further specified in the life of Israel, fulfilled in Christ, and has now been re-conferred on every member of the church. In the new covenant era that means that every member of the church possesses this same office as mediated through Christ. Specifically, church members are charged with working on behalf of Christ’s kingdom and with watching over the membership and the teaching of God’s new covenant temple garden, the church. A pastor, presbytery, or bishop that prevents church members from doing this work, therefore, usurps granted authority and prevents them from doing the very work that God has commissioned them to do. (Jonathan Leeman, Don’t Fire Your Church Members (B&H Publishing Group), 36–37 Kindle Edition

Though perhaps not new to some, in my reading and to my mind this is a fresh way of arguing for congregationalism. Though I have yet to sort through everything Leeman writes, I am happy to see a more robust approach to this discussion of governance. Though the passages I’ve used in the past are still valid supports for the congregational position (e.g. Galatians 1; 1 Cor 5; Acts 6), the biblical-theological approach adds more weight.

In short, Adam was a priest in the Garden of Eden, responsible to tend, watch over, and protect the temple-garden. Then, with the emergence of national Israel, God’s chosen people, the Israelite priests guarded the physical temple, where God dwelt among his people. Now, in the New Covenant age, every local church member is a priest and thus responsible to tend, watch over,  and guard the temple (i.e. church). Congregationalism seeks to leave that work in the hands of the priesthood of believers. This, in my mind, is gripping.

Whether or not someone agrees with Leeman, in the end, his work has significantly added to the discussion of church polity. As we continue to wrestle with how we order the blood-bought bride of Christ, Leeman’s work is worth a look.

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