External bodies are advisory, not authority

If you are an independent, the independency of the local church is something you kind of camp out on. It’s not some side issue. It is fundamental to what you believe about the church and, therefore, fundamental to who you are as a church. This is never more true than when it comes to matters of church discipline.

In connexional churches, should a local congregation address an issue by whatever means they prescribe, there is a higher source of authority. For Anglicans, that would be your bishop. For Presbyterians, your session. For certain denominational Baptists, your moderator. But you get the idea. There is a higher authority than the local church to whom you can appeal.

In Independency, by contrast, the highest authority to which you can appeal in the church is the church itself. So, the steps laid out in Matthew 18 is the order of progression in matters of church discipline. You can speak to the individual concerned and seek restitution, you can then do so again with two or three witnesses (often, but by no means biblically mandated to be, the elders – the priesthood of all believers means this could be any witnesses from the church membership), finally, the matter is brought before the entire church membership if there is no repentance. In a 1 Corinthians 5 scenario, again, it is for the membership as a whole to move against the miscreant, not for the elders to act alone nor for an outside body to overrule.

On such a view, the highest authority on earth in the church is the church itself. Of course, Jesus is the ultimate head of the church and the church is to govern itself according to the rule of scripture as a result. But Jesus gives the keys of the kingdom to the church, he vests authority in matters of church discipline to the church and the role of welcoming and removing its own members and appointing and removing its own leaders. The elders, in the view of congregational independency, are not ultimate. They are elected by the church to lead. The members as a whole have the authority to elect and deselect who will lead them.

Now, in matters of church discipline, there has become a tendency to rely on external bodies to provide reports and investigations. Now, if such things are used in parachurch settings – given we have no biblical mandate or instruction about how parachurch organisations ought to organise – they are, such as we think what they are doing is biblical altogether, free to farm out these things to external organisations. I can also see, if you belong to a connexional church of some sort, if your bishop, presbyter/y, moderator/council or what have you have an in-house safeguarding process or system, or they happen to want you to use an outside organisation for such things, from a local church perspective, you presumably must submit to that authority which you affirm.

But in independency, what role can such outside bodies have? Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 6 about being judged by outsiders – though evidently unbelievers are primarily in view – ask, ‘Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers?’ The implication being the church themselves must surely have people in it to be able to judge these matters themselves without recourse to secular courts. It is also notable that Paul does not suggest – though going before secular courts is highly inappropriate – to avoid doing so let’s get another church or some other godly believers to come in and rule on these matters for you. The local church in Corinth should be able to settle these matters by themselves. Paul insists there must be someone capable of judging such things in the godly way.

It would certainly seem that Paul does not reckon unbelievers have any business judging anything inside the church at all. But he also seems to imply that external believers are not the solution either, even in a church as messy as Corinth. One might argue that Paul himself is reaching into this local church and making a ruling. One response to that would be that he is functioning as an Apostle in these instructions, of which there are no more to make such rulings. But, even if we discount that, it is notable that both in 1 Corinthians 5 and 6, Paul throws the issue back to the church. In Chapter 5, he is clear what the church should do, but he is equally sure that it is the church themselves that ought to do it. In Chapter 6, he doesn’t even share his opinion on the matter. He just says they should sort it out themselves as a church then lays out a principle that it is better to suffer loss than to bring Christ into disrepute among unbelievers. But even as an Apostle, Paul sees the church as both able and responsible for resolving matters.

Does that mean it is wrong to ask for external help? No, I don’t think so. But it does mean that such outside help must be understood to be nothing more than advisory at best. Let’s imagine a scenario where an external group insist something to be appropriate, but the majority of church leaders disagree with the assessment. Do the professional standards of the external body win out because they are the experts? Who rules in that situation? As far as congregational independency is concerned, it is the church who rules. The elders ought to be consulted first as those who have been elected to lead because of their godly character and sound judgement. If a majority of elders are in agreement, unless a majority of the church themselves strongly disagree, the elders’ view should carry. If a majority of the church disagree with that view, then the church’s view themselves should carry. The outside body, if they have been consulted at all, should be advisory at best.

All too often, however, external views and opinions rule the day. That isn’t to say they are necessarily wrong. They may well be right. But we inevitably have to ask, who has God instituted and instructed to determine rightness in the church. We may feel we are doing right by farming such decisions out to experts apart from our congregation, or submitting to the greater wisdom of people outside the church. Such as the advice and opinions of those outsiders genuinely convinces a majority of the church, that is all well and good. But if we automatically align ourselves with the experts, no matters how expert they may seem, we are undermining God’s ordained means of resolving matters within the local church. If a majority of the elders, supported by a majority of church members, decides the outside advice or adjudication is in fact wrong, they are the ones ordained by God to take that decision.

If the church makes a ruling to which you cannot submit, your best course of action is to leave and find a church to whom you can submit. No church, with scores of its members doing that with regularity, will stand for very long. But if the church as a whole do not recognise what you do, and you prefer the advice of an external group, that isn’t to say you are wrong. Perhaps your church is in gross sin and it is unhealthy for you to remain there as a result. But maybe, just maybe, you are undercutting God’s appointed means of judging such matters and frustrated that, this time, it did not go your way. Certainly, landing hard on an external report, body or organisation to insist otherwise – whatever else may be right or wrong – is not anything we find in the Bible.