And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. (Acts 15:6)
Many people today believe the Church is a place where Christians gather together to worship God. That being the case, one may move from church to church depending on preferences, programming, styles of worship, etc.
What if the church is more than that? What if the church is a visible institution that was ordained by Christ? And that has been given authority in matters of discipleship, discipline, preaching the word, and administering the sacraments?
When some hear of church “authority”, they immediately think of Roman Catholicism. Speaking about the church having authority must mean we are making it have the same power as Scripture right?
The Westminster Confession of Faith (25.3) says:
Unto this catholic visible Church Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and does, by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto.
The Church has been given the ministry (the offices of the church such as elder, deacon, doctor, and widow), the oracles (the inscripturated and preached word), and the ordinances (the sacraments) for the gathering (corporate worship) and perfecting (discipleship and discipline) of the saints. That authority means that the church has been given the power – by Christ – to interpret Scripture in matters of faith and life and to establish doctrine, right worship, pious practice, and guard the ministry.
Here in Acts 15, we see the church gathered to address the problem of the Judaizers who were requiring Gentiles to practice the ceremonial laws of Moses. The was the first council of the Church. Here, the apostles and elders gathered in Jerusalem. A few observations regarding this passage. First, while Peter speaks to all those gathered he is not the last to speak nor does he make a final determination; in fact, James appears to speak on behalf of the elders of Jerusalem (v.13). This is a strong argument against the primacy of Peter as the first pope; if he was the pontiff of the early church he would have made the final decision. Notice also, that James’s decision is not made on behalf of the local church only; rather, those gathered at Jerusalem send letters to Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia to let them know of the decision that was made. It was a decision on behalf of the whole church. In Acts 16:4, Paul and his disciples delivered “the decrees” of the council to all of the cities they visited.
All of this suggests a model of church government wherein neither an archbishop or primate rule over the church (since it was the decision of the apostles and elders and not ratified by one man) nor the decisions made effect only the local congregation (since the decision was for the sake of the whole church). We see here a model of Presbyterian church government.
The government of the church is not left to our own devices. We are given clear evidence in Scripture of the way we should go. It is for the sake of the purity of the church and the care of souls that we follow the model given to us. It is by divine right (jure divino) that we shepherd the church in this way to the glory of Christ and His Kingdom.
For those interested in learning more, I recommend the following.
Why You Should Be a Presbyterian by Mark Jones
The Form of Presbyterial Church Government by the Kirk of Scotland