We believe that unity on fundamental doctrines and practices between associating congregations is essential to fully implement the scriptural model for the church. The Jerusalem Council (as recorded in Acts 15) was convened to establish doctrinal unity on a divisive subject and to formulate a common doctrinal understanding and order among the churches (Acts 15:6, 20, 29). God’s design for the church is that we would be joined together with other believers outside our local congregation in a common confession of faith (1 Cor.1:10; Rom.15:5, 6; Phil.1:27). Therefore, our inter-congregational association and our individual congregational decisions should both operate within the same guidelines of a common confession of faith and practice (Acts 15:19, 20, 28, 29; 1 Cor.12:5, 6).
Our common confession begins with our common understanding of the nature of the Scriptures. To achieve doctrinal unity, we must first affirm the inspiration, inerrancy, sufficiency, authority, and providential preservation of the Scriptures. We cannot confess any doctrine with certainty unless we first believe that the biblical record which conveys that doctrine is trustworthy. Therefore we, like our early Brethren, are committed to the ultimate authority of the Scriptures in defining our faith, practices, and polity. We subscribe to the Brethren Confession because it identifies the historic Brethren understanding of the Scriptures and continues to serve as a concise summary of our common confession of faith and practice.
We believe the Scriptures teach that Christ, as the Head of the church, commissioned His apostles to institute a church polity structure that utilizes a balance of elders’ councils and local congregational councils to unify, govern, and organize His body. This polity structure is designed to implement our common confession of doctrines and practices. We will look to the Scriptures to further define the roles and operation of these councils in the church.
1. The Elders Office
The term “elder” comes from the Jewish heritage and is used in both the Hebrew of the Old Testament and in the Greek of the New Testament when describing the Jewish structure of ecclesiastical leadership (Ex. 24:1; Num. 11:16,17; Joshua 20:4; Psalm 107:32; Matt. 15:2). Depending on the Bible translation, the word “elder” is sometimes transliterated from the Greek as “presbyter” - “presbytery” (1 Tim. 4:14 KJV).
From the Greek culture comes the word “bishop” that was used to describe the office of an overseer of a society, municipality, or club. Since the Gentile churches were less familiar with the Jewish terminology of “elder” and did not have a history of its usage, the term “bishop” was sometimes used in its place. Because the early church was comprised of Jewish and Gentile believers, both terms were employed interchangeably in describing the same office within the church.
We prefer to employ the primary usage of the term elder to describe this office since it has the longest history of usage among God’s people and does not carry with it some of the understandings that relate to the office of a bishop. We also believe that the terminology of elder gives us the broadest understanding of the definition of this office in Scripture. By primarily using the term elder we also believe it may be easier for the reader to follow our train of thought in this document.
A study of the following Scriptures (in the original language) will reveal that these offices were intended to be identical.
- Both offices rule (1 Tim. 3:1-5; 5:17).
- Both terms (“elder” and “bishop”) are used in the same list of qualifications for the office (Titus 1:5-9).
- Elders are to take the “oversight,” which is literally the same as “bishopric” as used in Acts 1:20 (1 Pet. 5:1-2).
- Elders are to be “overseers/bishops” (Acts 20:17, 28).
Also, we notice from the following Scriptures that the office of elders is to be exercised in every congregation as a plural body of leadership. This congregational body of elders is the presbytery (Acts 14:23; 20:17; 1 Pet. 5:1; Acts 15:2; Phil. 1:1).
The office of elder is distinct from that of an apostle: They are spoken of separately (Acts 15:22, 23) and they have different qualifications (compare Acts 1:21-22 and 1 Tim. 3:1-7). An apostle had to be a personal eyewitness of the Lord (1 Cor. 9:1; Acts 22:14, 15), while an elder must simply have meet the spiritual qualifications for that office. The apostles were sometimes called elders, but not all elders could qualify as apostles (1 Pet. 5:1; Acts 15:4, 22).
The presbytery (body of elders) is also to have a “president” or “presiding elder.” This is not a separate office, but rather a degree within the same office that carries with it the ultimate responsibility for the welfare of the local congregation. James is distinguished from the rest of the body of elders at Jerusalem (Acts 21:18) and presided over the first church council (Acts 15:13, 19). Further, each of the letters to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation is not addressed to the congregation, or the elder body, but specifically to the “angel” of the church. This was not an angelic being who would communicate the message to the church, but rather the elder who had the responsibility for the oversight of the flock. The fact that the seven letters are all addressed to one individual in each church is strong evidence that one individual was chosen from the elders to preside over the elder body and the congregation.
Peter addresses the elders in 1 Peter 5:5 and identifies their duties. In the context of an address to the elders, he states, “Ye younger (elders—see 1 Peter 5:1) submit yourselves unto the elder (or elder ones)"—those with senior responsibility and authority. The term younger is not necessarily speaking with regard to age, but rather to the level of responsibility and position. Jesus uses the terminology of “younger” in the same context in Luke 22:26 to express position or authority and not age. Peter, in a general admonition to elders, is telling the elders of lower degree to submit to the elders who are in a more senior position of leadership. Based upon these Scriptures, we see one office of ordained eldership, with two degrees or roles that are to be established in each local congregation.
We also believe that the congregation should carefully consider the spiritual qualifications of the men among them, and select them by a process that takes the voice of the church to call out ministers. The best indication of the process used to call elders comes from Acts 14:23. The term “ordained” in this verse literally means, “to select/confirm by a voting process,” as translated by the early Tyndale version of the Bible. The Young’s Literal Greek translation of this verse reads, “and having appointed to them ‘by vote’ elders in every assembly…” The Weymouth Translation in Modern Speech says, “they selected elders by show of hands.” Respected commentators acknowledge that the word “ordain” in this passage actually means to select by a voting process. The evaluation and voting by the congregation is the process whereby the spiritual qualifications are given consideration when calling a man to the ministry. This process is similar to how the first deacons were chosen in Acts 6:3. The brethren were to look for those among the congregation who were qualified to be deacons, and then the apostles acting in the role of congregational elders appointed them to their office (see 1 Pet. 5:1). The Acts 14:23 passage shows that elders from outside the local congregation should be considered when taking the voice of the local church (see also Titus 1:5).
The term “elder” by its usage and meaning implies a degree of age and experience in this office. The church calls ministers to the office of elder based upon the spiritual qualifications. We know from Scripture that a minister can be young without being a novice in experience (1 Tim. 4:12). However, the elders, like the deacons, must also first be proven before they use this office in an ordained capacity (1 Tim. 3:10). The word “also” in this passage indicates that those who are called to both the office of elder and the office of deacon must go through a time of proving or testing. During the time of proving or testing, the minister who is called can gain the training, experience, and evaluation that is necessary for ordination to the office of an elder (1 Tim. 5:22; 2 Tim. 2:2; Titus 1:9).
When looking at all the Scriptures being referenced, we see an overall process laid out. In review, the New Testament shows the congregational voice being taken by vote to initially call men to the ministry. The eldership is an office to which the ministers are called and ordained. Ministers are called by the congregation and then commissioned to that office for a time of proving. After going through their time of proving, the elders and the congregation approve the ministers for ordination into the full office of eldership. The ordination process into eldership involves two scriptural steps—a calling and commissioning to the ministry, and then an ordination (with laying on of hands) into the full office of an elder (1 Tim.4:14).
There are only two ordained offices in the church according to Scripture—that of deacon and that of minister/elder/bishop (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3), even though there are many other gifts that are to be exercised (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4:11). The participation of elders from outside the congregation in this process follows the New Testament model and shows that ordination is recognized by the local congregation, the associating congregations, and the church of Christ at large. The two primary agencies that God intended to carry out the work of calling, mentoring, training, and ordaining a minister, are the local congregation and the elders.
In order for this pattern to be utilized there must be an inter-congregational body of elders which work together in the calling out ministers and in taking the general oversight of the associating congregations.
Let us look now at the role of elders in the oversight of congregations. The Acts 15 council shows that elders cooperated together between the Jerusalem and Antioch churches in making doctrinal decisions and carrying them out in the newly planted Gentile churches (Acts 15:2). The doctrinal decisions that were recommended by the elders and apostles in the Jerusalem council were confirmed by the brethren that were present in the local council and then were recognized abroad in the newly planted churches (Acts 15:6, 23, 16:4; 21:18, 25). The pattern here is that the elders met in council as part of a cooperative oversight to evaluate concerns and make recommendations, and then the brethren who were part of the local established church at Jerusalem confirmed that decision. The final decision was then carried forth to the associating churches which were newly formed. The letter that was sent to the newly planted congregations begins with a greeting from the apostles, elders, and brethren who are standing behind the Jerusalem council decision. To model this pattern, we must call elders to their office and then utilize them in cooperative oversight through inter-congregational elders’ councils.
It is our desire to follow this scriptural pattern when calling men to the ministry, when proving them, and when ordaining them into the full office of elder. The recognition and implementation of the elder’s office is essential to having elder councils. The Elders’ Council is essential to carrying out the work that God has prescribed for the office of eldership in the New Testament Church model.
2. The Congregational Council
The offices of the church derive their authority from Christ and from the congregation through which they are called. The officials must not only give an account to God for the exercise of their office but also to their own flock. The Scripture says, “All of you be subject one to another.” If elders practice sin or abuse their office, they are to be rebuked before all that others also may fear (1 Tim. 5:19-21). In this manner every member of the congregation is accountable to one another. The elders take the oversight but yet are accountable to those whom they serve. They are responsible to take the initiative in addressing issues through official councils in preparation for the congregational councils. The biblical pattern is for an official council to take place before a congregational or inter-congregational council so the congregational council can benefit from forethought and guidance of the official council (Acts 15:6, 22; 21:18, 22).
The pattern of congregational government in Scripture employs general council meetings with the whole church to decide the course of action to be taken on items of business. Whenever there were church issues to be decided, there were church councils. Jesus told Peter that he would have the power to “bind” and “loose” in the church. This authority was also extended to the church at large in Matt. 18:18 through corporate council meetings. The authority to bind and loose is represented in local church councils when dealing with internal offenses. The congregational council is to be involved in all “binding” church decisions (Acts 15:12, 22, 23, 25; 21:21, 22; Matt. 18:17, 18; 1 Cor. 5:4).
The fact that all binding decisions are made by church councils would indicate that the Elders’ Council recommendations need processed and ratified by the congregation before they should be considered binding. In this way the Elders’ Council and the congregational Church Council are designed to work together in the overall government of the Church.
3. The Elders Council
The Elders Council is a term that can be used to describe a council that is convened to address items of business for multiple congregations that are represented by elders from those congregations. In Acts 15:2, 4, 6 we notice that appointed delegates from the Gentile churches brought their query to Jerusalem for consideration by the apostles and elders. The local Jerusalem church/brethren also ratified that decision (vs. 22, 23, 25). We don’t know all the details of how this item of business was processed. From what we don’t know we can learn that God leaves some procedures up to the church to decide, and from what we do know we can learn that God intended to give us some principles to implement for a model in the church. This extended conference could be considered a combination of an Elders’ Council (with the +representatives from the Gentile churches) and a local congregational council (with the Jerusalem Church). The extended conference illustrates the cooperation between the delegate elders and the local congregation in decision-making. The decision made as an Elders’ Council in conjunction with the local congregational council was accepted by all the represented congregations (Acts 15:30, 31; 16:4, 5). The decisions/decrees were designed to preserve congregational unity on important doctrinal matters, but were also very careful not to usurp the authority of the local congregation in matters of polity (Acts 15:19, 28; 21:25). Therefore, the Elders’ Council and the local congregational councils should understand and recognize each other’s roles.
The Scriptures demonstrate that the use of an Elders’ Council was intended for the unification and accountability of associating congregations. There is further evidence throughout the New Testament in numerous places that the congregations cooperated in fellowship, evangelism, church planting, and humanitarian aid (Acts 11:28-30; Acts 15:3; Rom. 1:7-12; 16:1-23; 3 John 7,8). The Elders’ Councils promoted a common understanding and application of the fundamental and distinctive Bible doctrines and as a result they stimulated closer fellowship and greater cooperation between congregations.
It is our desire in this document to faithfully interpret the Scriptures regarding the New Testament model of the church. We are committed to carrying out that model. In our study of the Scriptures and Brethren history we see that the early Brethren patterned their church structure after the New Testament model. We would hope that the reader also would note and appreciate the biblical basis of our Brethren heritage. We desire to carry it on, not for the sake of preserving a Brethren heritage, but to follow the same Lord and Book that they followed. It is not enough for us to say, “We will follow the Scripture as best we can in our individual congregation.” We desire to follow the complete model for the church as illustrated in the New Testament by joining together as likeminded congregations and living out once again what our early Brethren experienced. In those early days they were blessed and the Word of the Lord grew and multiplied, and we believe this can happen again when we honor God’s Word and His plan for the church.
The Brethren Confession
1. This body of Christians originated early in the eighteenth century, the church being a natural outgrowth of the Anabaptist and Pietistic movements following the Reformation.
2. Firmly accepts and teaches the fundamental evangelical doctrines of the inspiration of the Bible (2 Tim. 3:16); the personality of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-13); the virgin birth of Christ (Matt. 1:18); the deity of Christ (Col. 2:8-9); the sin-pardoning value of His atonement (Eph. 1:7); His resurrection, ascension, and personal and visible return (I Cor. 15:1-25; Acts 1:9-11); and the resurrection both of the just and the unjust (John 5:28-29).
3. Observes the following New Testament rites: baptism of penitent believers by trine immersion for the remission of sins (Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:38); feet washing (John 13:1-20; 1 Tim. 5:10); love feast (Luke 22:20; John 13:4; 1 Cor. 11:17-34; Jude 12); communion (Matt. 26:26-30); the Christian salutation (Rom. 16:16; Acts 20:37); the Scriptural head veiling (I Cor. 11:2-16); the anointing for healing in the name of the Lord (James 5:14-19; Mark 6:13); laying on of hands (Acts 8:17; 19:6; 1 Tim. 4:14). These rites are representative of spiritual facts which obtain in the lives of true believers, and as such are essential factors in the development of the Christian life.
4. Emphasizes daily devotion for the individual, and family worship for the home (Eph. 6:18-20; Phil 4:8-9); stewardship of time, talents, and money (Matt. 25:14-30); taking care of the fatherless, widows, poor, sick, and aged (Acts 6:1-7).
5. Opposes on Scriptural grounds: war and the taking of human life (Matt. 5:21-26; 43-44; Rom. 12:19-21); violence in personal and industrial controversy (Matt. 7:12; Rom. 13:8-10); intemperance in all things (Titus 2:2; Gal. 5:19-26; Eph. 5:18); going to law, especially against our Christian brethren (I Cor. 6:1-9); divorce and remarriage (Matt. 5:32; Mark 10:11-12; 1 Cor. 7:10-15); every form of oath (Matt. 5:33-37; James 5:12); membership in secret oath-bound societies (2 Cor. 6:14-18); games of chance and sinful amusements (I Thess. 5:22; 1 Peter 2:11; Rom. 12:17); extravagant and immodest dress (1 Tim 2:8-10; 1 Pet. 3:1-6).
6. Labors earnestly, in harmony with the Great Commission, for the evangelization of the world, for the conversion of men to Jesus Christ, and for the realization of the life of Jesus Christ in every believer (Matt. 28:18- 20; Mark 16:15-16; 2 Cor. 3:18).
7. Maintains the New Testament as its only creed, in harmony with which the above brief statement is made.