The Jerusalem Council
In Acts 15, the one and only council ever to be recorded in the Scriptures, and the only infallible one at that, being presided over by the Apostles and recorded in Scripture, convened in Jerusalem. The issue being decided then was whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised after they became Christians (v. 1). This was due to the Jewish roots of Christianity, and because of the continuity between OT Judaism ad Christianity. As God seemed to be doing a new thing in broadening the church to be global in scope, many Jewish believers, especially those who came from more religious and Pharasiatical backgrounds, were concerned as to how Gentile believers should be incoporated into the Church. Were they supposed to observe the Mosaic Law, just as believers during the OT times did? If the Law was still valid, shouldn't the new Gentile converts be circumcised as well, as a mark of entry into the Covenant?
It is in such a transition period that the Jerusalem Council took place. In this Council, the Apostles and elders present covened, heard the case (v. 5-7a) and then declared the position that Gentiles believers should not be tied down with obeying the Mosaic Law but to obey the Lord according to their conscience being led by the Holy Spirit, with some general observances for them to keep in order not to stumble their Jewish brethren (v. 19-21). Such a ruling was sent out to the churches involved in the controversy (v. 22-29) and became binding on them (although in this case it was gladly received by the churches, since it ruled in their favor).
Now, it has been said, often by Baptists, that the Jerusalem Council is not a Council in the sense of it deciding doctrine, but of Paul deciding whether the Church in Jerusalem was still following the faith. This of course is contradicted by the text of Scripture. Furthermore, if such was indeed the case, then why was it said that the church in Syrian Antioch send and appoint men to 'the apostles and elders about this question' (v. 2), instead of Paul personally going there himself to see whether the circumcision party were 'official representatives of the Jerusalem Church'? Why was Paul sent with regards to the question posed by the circumcision party instead of being sent with regards to whether the party had official sanction from Jerusalem? After those of the circumcision made their point to the Council (v. 5), why was there much discussion and debate over the points they have raised (v. 6-7a) instead of the Apostles and Elders of the Jerusalem Church just immediately mentioning to Paul that such is not their position and these people were not official representatives of the Jerusalem Church?
The fact of the matter is that the Jerusalem Council was indeed a Council which met for the purposes of deciding on doctrines. The position that this was not a council which met for the purposes of determining doctrine is clearly a reading into Scripture of a certain church polity rather than of letting the text speak for itself.
Now, it may be granted that Paul was indeed worried whether the Jerusalem Church was still orthodox. Certainly, Paul, being himself an Apostle called personally by our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:5), preached with the authority that comes with his status and office, and he certainly have no qualms rebuking a fellow Apostle who compromise the faith (Gal. 2:11-14). However, that does not have any bearing about why the council convened in the first place.
Councils where doctrines are decided therefore has a biblical precedent. However, are they still valid for us today?
To answer this question, we must first note that the Jerusalem Council is the only council ever presided over by the Apostles, who were given the gift of apostleship to pronounce the very Word of God. Thus, the Apostles could pronounce doctrines 'ex cathedra', in that sense. Therefore, whereby the Council of Jerusalem decide on doctrines, no other Councils since then could do so, since there are no more Apostles then and now. In other words, the Jerusalem Council is unique in Church history, and will never be repeated again.
Nevertheless, since the elders are the successors to the Apostles, and they were present at the Jerusalem Council too, could Councils still be convened and their rulings made binding on believers? To a limited extent, they can. However, since elders are not infallible, nor could they pronounce on issues infallibly, their rulings are only binding on believers inasmuch as they are biblical. We shall hereby note that even the Apostles pronounced truth in accordance with Scripture, as they quote from the texts of the Old Testament (v. 16-18), and therefore for us who do not have the gift of apostleship among us today, all pronouncements of Councils must be made from the Scriptures; that they conform to the truths of Scripture and not just proof-text from it.
We can look though Church history to see both the use and abuse of Councils. Councils have been good and well used in the church as they have helped to keep out heresy (e.g Council of Nicea, Council of Chalcedon) and preserve the purity of the Church. However, Councils, being guided by fallible Man, can and do err, as groups of clergy have pronounced error which may be in direct opposition to the truths of Scripture. An example of such an errant Council would be the Council of Trent, which formalized the seperation of Roman Catholicism from biblical Christianity.
With that said, what can that be said of operational councils in the form of classis, synods etc.? Are such higher level institutions scriptural? Certainly, there seems to be a biblical precedent in the Jerusalem Council. However, does the Scriptures support such an application of Acts 15?
It is my opinion that such is not the case. Councils, whether biblically or historically, were convened only when necessary, never to be an permanent organization which serves only to glue congregations together. They were only convened when doctrinal controversies erupted in the churches, and such churches then met together in order to discuss the doctrines involved in the controversy. Certainly, synods which convene together for the planning of 'Presbyterian Sports Day' or 'Combined Easter celebration' or 'Synod Sunday' (just to make them feel relevant, I guess) are not scriptural (and these concrete examples did in fact happen, because I was in a Presbyterian church before). Presbyerianism in this particular area has been found to be lacking in Scriptural support., and in fact these higher-level organizations most of the time end up as just 'so much red-tape' (Bureaucracy)
Analysis of the remaining church polities
We have already disqualified Episcopalian and Single elder/pastor-led church polities as being contrary to Scripture. Presbyterianism has been found to be lacking in its emphasis on Councils and Synods and other higher-leve assemblies. Let us now look at the remaining church polities.
Congregationalism places a huge emphasis on the priesthood of believers, by giving each member of the church a 'voting right'. However, is that what the Bible teaches? In certain congregationalist churches, like Brethren churches, the offices of elders and deacons do exist. Of course, it may be granted that some of these office bearers do not function biblically, but that is a seperate issue, as plural elder-led congregationalism does exist. The main issue in contention with congregationalism is whether every member should have a 'voting right'. Is that how the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers should be applied?
Certainly, there is much merit to the idea, as elitism tends to be minimilized in such a situation. However, the problem lies in the fact that leaders in both the Old and New Testament do not seem to be picked by democratic voting. In fact, sometimes they are not someone who would naturally be chosen by the majority. Joshua was personally handpicked by Moses, and only later accepted by the people. David was not even one of the choices given to the prophet Samuel initially to choose from. And who chose the Apostles? Certainly not the church! Paul and Barnabas appoint elders in every church they planted, which certainly does not mention anything about the voice of the congregation.
It can be said that in the case of the seven deacons (Acts 6:1-6), the deacons were chosen by the people and then the apostles accepted them. However, the most we can legitimately infer from this passage is that the deacons are to be selected by the people of God. No mention of elders are made in Scripture with regards to the same procedure, however.
Within congregationalism itself, the democratic congregationalist system works in such a way that even doctrinal issues are decided by the congregation itself. This, however, contradicts the Scriptures, as elders are commanded to teach and to rebuke those who err (Titus 1:10-15), without being told anywhere in Scripture to leave it to the congregation to decide on doctrinal issues or on the implementation of church discipline.
In concluson, various church polities have been looked at and examined according to Scripture. The number of offices, their functions, roles and responsibilites have also been discussed and looked at. With this, it is hoped that all of us would meditate on the Word of God regarding this issue so as to work towards the purity of the churches.