Puritans and Elders

Part 6 - Ecclesiology (Study of the Church)
Chapter 39 - On the Government of the Church

The Puritans were divided between Presbyterian and Congregationalists.
The main question is: who holds the keys of the kingdom?  Is this restricted to leaders of a local congregation, or do presbyteries/synods have such authority?


  • This group, the majority of Puritans, asserted that church officers hold the keys, not the members of a local congregation.
  • While the people do elect officers, the authority the officers have is from Christ, not from the people.
  • A group of churches can biblically be called a church, singular.  Just as a brother needs the church to arbitrate a dispute with a brother (Matthew 18:15-18), so a congregation needs an authoritative church beyond it to arbitrate a dispute with a brother or another congregation.
  • From Acts 15 we can infer that congregations are subordinate to synods.  Even apostles submitted themselves to this presbyterian form of process!
  • Without this, there is no authoritative way to deal with a congregation that goes off the rails in doctrine or practice.


  • This group asserted that the keys of the kingdom were given to Peter as a believer, not as an apostle or proto-elder.  Every professing member (Matt. 16:16-19) has the keys.  Still, elders have power to assemble the body, and excommunication cannot happen without them.
  • Synods can be convened by local churches, but their authority is only derived from those churches.  There is no real church authority beyond the local church.
  • Some congregationalists denied the visible catholic (beyond local) church as a category at all.  Most of the rest accepted it but rejected it had any governmental form.  No church officer is meant to relate officially to more than one congregation.

John Owen's view was not simple or clear.  Elders have authority to receive and discipline members.  But he wanted to ensure members had a voice electing officers and giving consent (or withholding it) in major decisions.  Officers must not lead apart from the members' voice.

We learn most from the Puritans' disagreements in this area!

Personal evaluation
As a convinced Presbyterian in this debate, I was a bit saddened to recognize the congregationalist polity strongly present in my current denomination!  Striking the balance rightly is hard. An example:
If you have a strong presbytery, then local elders are less likely to fulfill their ministry vigorously.
If you have a weak presbytery, then too much hinges on the politics in the local session of elders.

What is most needed is a spirit of humility and mutual submission among leaders and members of churches.  Where this is active, the precise form of government is less important.

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