A Reply to Lee Lisman on Church Government
By Eric V. Snow
Recently, Lee Lisman (6/24/96) in In Transition made the standard congregationalist claim that the first century church had no central control, and thus its congregations were locally governed. What is remarkable is how little evidence really exists for this view in the New Testament through any specific texts saying each congregation was on its own.
Some, such as Dr. Meredith, the GCG's presiding evangelist, have used Acts 15 to refute the notion of one-man rule. What isn't so commonly realized is how it refutes congregationalism as well. When the controversy over circumcision arose, the apostles did not say, "Each congregation can decide this themselves." Instead, it was decided to have a conference bringing all the apostles together, as well as various elders, in Jerusalem (Acts 15:2). It would not have been good if, say, local congregations dominated by the Pharisaical element would have required gentiles to be circumcised, while others didn't. The decisive text in favor of such central determination of doctrine, however, comes in the next chapter (Acts 16:4): "Now while they [Paul and Timothy] were passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees, which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe." This sure doesn't sound like congregationalism to me! Doctrine in the first century church was determined centrally, by a consensus of the elders and apostles, in particular, as directed by God.
Furthermore, I seriously doubt that Paul's order to the Corinthian church in I Cor. 5 to disfellowship someone could have been questioned by saying, "He doesn't regularly fellowship here" or "He's not our regular minister." Nor could it have been nullified by a vote of the congregation!
We have to avoid going to extremes in reacting against the problems our parent organization had in church government. The real problem was not hierarchy as such, but hierarchy without limits and without checks and balances since all authority on earth was vested in the hands of one man. This problem is mainly resolved by introducing group rule by a council of elders. In a multitude of counselors there is safety (Prov. 24:6). Since both the GCG and we in the UCG have such a system, the main problem has been solved, and no further drastic changes are necessary.