This topic came up on another thread. As an Evangelical, the blatant central authority of the New Testament Church became a big issue for me and part of my eventual conversion process to Catholicism. For those churches, such as Baptists, who are congregationalists, but also adhere who Sola Scriptura, what is their basis for this model of church governance?

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Some of the arguments center on who has the power of the keys. Congregationalists would say all Christians have the power of the keys, and they exercise this power as part of a congregation. This is the argument given in this article from 9Marks, which is led by a lot of Reformed Baptists. There are also arguments included in the Luther treatise a link to below which could give an idea of how congregationalism is defended.

You asked earlier where the idea came from. It becomes popular in the 1500s during the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther flirted with the idea in a 1523 treatise calledThat a Christian Assembly or Congregation Has the Right and Power to Judge All Teaching and to Call, Appoint, and Dismiss Teachers, Established and Proven by Scripture. It was adopted most fervently during this time period by those movements in the Radical Reformation, which are commonly called Anabaptists (because they believed in believer’s baptism and a regenerate church membership).

However, congregationalism as practiced in the English-speaking world has roots in the rise of a Puritan party in the Church of England. Puritans were all strongly Calvinistic, but they disagreed on church polity. Some wanted a reformed episcopacy, others presbyterianism, and others congregational polity. Those Puritans in England and its New England colonies that adopted congregationalism and retained infant baptism became known as Congregationalists (in the US now known as the United Church of Christ). The American Congregationalists outlined their polity or “church discipline” in the Cambridge Platform of Church Discipline (for those who want to read it, if you’re too lazy, read the Wikipedia aritcle).

The most radical Puritans, however, rejected infant baptism while embracing congregationalism. These became the first Baptists.

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I suppose the argument would be that local congregations gained autonomy of governance after the death of the apostles? I think it would be impossible to deny that during the apostolic age, at any rate, the apostles not only established local churches, but appointed their elders and continued to supervise their activities via letters and visits. We have the example of the council in Acts 15 which sent out letters that were binding on all the local churches, but we also have St. Paul issuing commands and exhortations to churches he established. I would have to assume that the entire congregational mindset is based on the premise that there was a fundamental shift in Church governance after the death of the apostles…an event not recorded in Scripture.
I would also have to conclude that this mode of governance is primarily based on a sacred tradition that has been passed down, rather than a clear, explicit Biblical mandate (despite protests of “Sola” Scriptura). Even if we accept that all Christians exercise the power of the keys (and even Catholics would accept this to a certain extent - the baptismal priesthood of all the faithful), there certainly isn’t a verse where St. Paul writes “Right now I and the other apostles appoint elders and issue edicts, but when we’re gone you will all be on your own.”


There were several things that contributed to the rise of congregationalism. One of those things was the reemergence of Greek and Hebrew copies of the Scriptures and the rise in the number of scholars would could read Greek and Hebrew.

Congregationalist simply went back to the original meaning of the Greek word for Church (Ekklisía). Which is “those called out, assembly, congregation, gathering”.

So when they read “The church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth”. They read it as the “congregation/assembly/gathering of the living God”. When Jesus says in Matthew 18:17 to “tell it the church” he is telling them to tell it to the congregation.

Other reasons for the rise in congregationalism are much more pragmatic. One is that they observed that the top>down model of the Catholic church had failed in that it propagated political infighting as Bishops fought over power and that there was massive corruption in the Catholic church (Simony and so forth). It was believed that having no central power would reduce the amount of political infighting, abuse and corruption.

One other reason for the prorogation of congregationalism was the influence of “The Enlightenment” and the rise of individualism and the rise of democracy. The thinking was that if democracy is a better system for government for nations (as opposed to monarchical rule) then democracy must also be best for the church as opposed to an Episcopal hierarchy (which is very similar to a monarchy). If you were a Baptist then you know that Baptist vote on almost everything.

Finally, due to the fact that no form of church government is specifically spelled out in the New Testament they believe each church is free to form the church government that best fits its congregation/culture.

I’m not saying that all of the reasons are legit and solved the issues they wanted to address. But you asked for the basis and model. I tried to give both the scriptural reasoning and practical reasoning.


No doubt the apostles exercised a real authority over the churches, but I don’t think it was an unchallenged authority. You are correct that the apostles established churches, and they of course would continue to exercise a natural authority over the churches they helped to found. Yet, if we take Paul as an example, the reason he had to write many of his letters was because his authority was NOT unchallenged. The Epistle to the Galatians begins with Paul having to defend his own authority.

My point is not that the apostles did not have authority, but an argument could be made that it was a much looser authority over far flung and persecuted assemblies of believers. Even when we know they appointed elders and deacons, it would be hard to believe that they did so without any input from the congregations involved. How would they know who was fit and worthy? They would have had to have at least gotten a sense of who the congregation thought suitable.

Luther, in the treatise linked to above, makes this point:

But where no such necessity exists, and where there are those who have the right, the power, and the gift to teach, no bishop ought to appoint anyone without the consent, choice and call of the congregation; it is his duty rather to confirm the man whom the congregation has elected and called. If the bishop does not confirm him, he is none the less confirmed by virtue of the call of the congregation. For neither Titus nor Timothy nor Paul appointed any priest unless he was chosen and called by the congregation. This is clearly proved from Paul’s words in Titus 1:7 and 1 Timothy 3:2, “A bishop, or priest, must be blameless”; and, “The deacons must first be proved.” Titus certainly did not know who was blameless: this information must needs come from the congregation, who must bring such a one to his attention. We read also in Acts 6:2, with respect to a very minor office, that the apostles themselves did not venture to appoint men to be deacons without the knowledge and consent of the congregation. The congregation, on the contrary, chose and called the seven deacons, and the apostles confirmed them. But if the apostles did not venture, upon their own authority, to appoint men to an office that had to do merely with the distribution of bodily food, how should they have been so bold as to commit to anyone the highest office of all, that of preaching, by their own power and without the knowledge, consent and call of the congregation?

Neither do we find anything in Scripture approaching apostolic succession or a monarchical episcopate. We can look at Paul’s directions to the Corinthians of what their church services should be like in 1 Corinthians 14:26-33. We see a lot less hierarchy, and even the command that if one person is speaking but another person feels led to prophesy then the first person should stop and yield to the other.

Luther, in the treatise linked to above, uses this passage as part of his argument:

Notice what St. Paul does here. He commands the man who is teaching to hold his peace and to retire (among Christians!), and commands the hearer to arise, even without a call, because necessity knows no law.

If then St. Paul here bids anyone, in case of necessity, among Christians, to arise even without a call, and calls him by virtue of this word of God; and if he bids the other to retire, and deposes him by virtue of these words: how much more does an entire Christian congregation have the right to call a man to this office whenever it becomes necessary! And it is always necessary, and never more than now. For in the same passage St. Paul gives to every Christian the power to teach among Christians whenever it becomes necessary, “Ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be admonished”; and, “Desire earnestly to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues; but let all things be done decently and in order.” Take this passage as a most sure basis, which gives more than sufficient authority to the Christian congregation to preach, to permit men to preach, and to call preachers. Especially in case of necessity, this passage itself calls everyone in particular, without any call of men; so that we might have no doubt that the congregation which has the Gospel may and should choose and call, out of its number, one who is to teach the Word in its stead.

Some, not all, would say that church polity is not something that is explicitly spelled out in Scripture and therefore specific forms are less important than that those chosen to lead continue to propagate the gospel.

Apostolic succession continuing down through the centuries isn’t explicit, no, but the foundation is there in the succession of the apostleship to Matthias, and later the appointment of bishops such as Timothy or Titus whom, according to Paul, had the same authority as apostles to appoint elders “in every town” and the instruction to ensure a succession of teachers is in place for subsequent generations. The witness of the early apostolic fathers definitely leans towards episcopal polity rather than congregationalism.
If we accept that congregationalism is a valid model of church governance, it remains a historical fact that it didn’t exist for most of Church history. That may or may not be an issue for those who hold to it.


Yes, I have met people online whose argument is precisely that. They say there was a single generation of apostles. When an apostle died, or was imprisoned, or moved away, he was not replaced.

They claim to be restoring the form of church governance that is described in the Epistles and that for that reason, in their view, is the only legitimate form. Whenever I have asked about Titus 1:5, the usual answer is that Titus was an apostle and had no successor.

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