And as they went through the cities, they delivered to them the decrees to keep, which were determined by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem. (Acts 16:4, NKJV)

Is each local church, every congregation, an independent body? In other words, are churches responsible only for the discipline and purity of their individual congregations, or has God given them to be under the authority of each other? Do the elders of a number of churches in a region provide guidance, discipline, and correction to one congregation if it is teaching incorrect doctrine or practices?

This verse in Acts 16:4 provides us with a clue to answer this question. Earlier, in Acts 15, the Jerusalem council met with the apostles, the elders of Jerusalem, and Paul and his company (v.4) to discuss the Judaizer controversy. The question had become: Should Gentile believers circumcise themselves as the Israelites did under the Old Covenant? After much deliberation, the council determined that it was not necessary for Gentiles to do this.

We come back to Acts 16 and we see that Paul and Timothy went through the cities abroad, they shared the decrees of the council of Jerusalem. Notice, that they were not told simply the results of the council of which they, as independent congregations, could then decide to observe or not observe. Rather, they were given decrees “to keep”. The word in Greek, and its related forms, that is used here is used elsewhere in Scripture for the idea of “guarding” something (Acts 12:4), observing a rule or set of practices (Luke 18:21), or protecting (John 17:12). These words don’t suggest that Paul was giving the churches abroad an “opt in” or “opt out” scenario. He was telling them that these decrees are authoritative for all the churches, even if they did not directly participate in the council, and that they would not be true churches of Christ if they chose to abandon these decrees of the council.

We find here, that elders and apostles from various areas of the church decided doctrine and practice on behalf of the whole church, not simply an individual church in Jerusalem. What do we gather from this? That Scripture directs us how to govern our churches and that the faithful model of church government is rule of elders on behalf of all the churches, meeting synodically to determine controversies of the faith and to establish practices for the good of the church. Westminster 31.3 tells us:

It belongs to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his Church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same; which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in His Word.

If you would like to better understand Presbyterian church government, there’s no better place to start than here:

The Form of Presbyterial Church Government

I am a Reformed Presbyterian. I offer all content as my own personal reflections. I am not a licensed minister.