In spite of what so many think, the NT doesn’t draw up how a church should be run. And in spite of what many think, most especially the high church types, how a church was to be run or organized or structured was not clear for several centuries. This doesn’t throw things up for grabs so much as it leads us to be more cautious in our claims.
Where does the “authority” lie in your church? In the pastor, in the congregation, in the presbytery, in the bishop? What do you think the NT teaches?
For instance, “catholic” types often speak of how quickly the churches were run by bishops and how influential bishops were and how early the bishopric was established… and the next thing one wonders if they wore robs, had a ring to be kissed, tossed incense on high holidays, and had a secretary and a car budget. This is why we need studies like that of Everett Ferguson, The Early Church and Today (vol. 1). I just read his chapter on “congregationalism” in the earliest churches where his argument is not so much forceful or dogmatic as it is logical and based on evidence.
And the evidence, he contends after sorting through plenty of texts from the 1st to the 4th Century and beyond, leads him to four suggestions:
1. The local church was the basic organizational unit of the church (not the bishop).
2. The local church was the essential decision-making body (not bishops).
3. The local congregations related to one another as congregations and not through their bishops.
4. The local congregation wanted the right to choose its own bishop.
Now all of this would take plenty of evidence to prove, and it would increase the length (and readability) of this post, but let me just mention a few sources:
Even when Nicea was promulgated local churches didn’t always agree, reflecting some local church consciousness and a lack of authority been laid at the door of a council or the bishops. Nicea happened but it was rendered authoritative only in a local setting when the local church affirmed it.
Early correspondence, say 1 Clement, is a letter from one church to another (not, in the text, from Clement to another leader). The Martyrdom of Polycarp is a letter from the church at Smyrna to the church in Philomelium…
With Cyprian we begin to see bishops corresponding with bishops to communicate with churches.
Bishops were appointed by churches not by other bishops. 1 Clement 44.
In 343 Western bishops in Sardica wrote to Emperor Constantius II that each congregation should have the authority to choose its own bishop.
Church leaders — bishops, presbyters, deacons — were appointed to a church and not to the universal church (for the first few centuries) and they could not “translate” to another congregation (Chalcedon, canon 6; Nicea, canon 15; Antioch, canon 21). This is a kind of congregationalism.