what makes a congregation? part 2

I know of an NI congregation that is on the verge of dissolving its eldership — one of the men has recently moved, leaving just one elder in place.  The saddest part of all of this is that this congregation went without elders for around 3o years (due to the influence of one family that has since left) and spent the better part of the last few years first instructing on and then appointing qualified presbyters (and deacons).  Now, all of that hard work is on the verge of going down the drain in an anticlimatic dissolution of the eldership.

So, here’s my question: can the congregation keep its deacons?  Does/should the dissolution of the eldership trigger an automatic dissolution of the diaconate?

My first thought was: “Well, what do you have when you have a preacher and a group of deacons?  You have a Baptist church, of course.”

What do you think?  Alan and Jeff, I’m especially interested in your take on this.

6 responses to “what makes a congregation? part 2

  1. My thoughts, for what they are worth.

    I don’t see anywhere in the NT where deacons are mentioned w/out some sort of spiritual leadership listed as well. (I’m including the seven mentioned in Acts 6 as deacons w/ the apostles providing the spiritual leadership). I do see where elders are mentioned w/out deacons. ISTM that this would preclude having deacons w/out elders.


  2. I tend to think you’re right, Owen. But, of course, the matter is not specifically addressed anywhere.

    To go a step further — and to tie in to the first part of this discussion — can a congregation properly exist without elders? Does it even “count” as a congregation if it is leaderless and disorganized (and, no, I don’t think that the men’s business meeting provides anything like adequate or appropriate “leadership”)?


  3. Chris,

    I read through Acts 14 several times and verse 23 in particular and if I read it correctly the elders were appointed for already existing churches. I notice that Paul’s epistles are addressed to churches even when no elders are mentioned. For the Corinthians he does mention some sort of leadership, I Cor. 16:15-16, which does not look like the men’s business meetings so typical of modern day elderless congregations. This is all pretty much inferences though since, as you correctly point out, the issue never seems to be directly addressed.


  4. Chris (and all),

    Do you think a group was considered a “church” in the apostolic era if it had not been founded by an apostle? In what sense do you think Apostolic “approval” or affirmation was necessary in order for a group to be a “church” in the sense quite common by the time of Ignatius of Antioch?

    I’m probably less perceptive on NT subtleties than you are, but I wonder — as I sit here thinking about it — if there were any NT groups mentioned as “churches~” which were no founded by an Apostle, usually St Paul.

    St Ignatius could say, quite early on, that “without the Bishop there is no altar” (We in EO see his writings as the basis for our “Eucharistic Ecclesiology”). His writings certainly seem to imply that the “church” exists, officially and visibly, only where it is in communion with the bishop. Seeing that the bishops and presbyters are generally held to have carried on some sort of apostolic ministry (cf. Clement of Rome), would it be a “given” in some sense to say that the episcopate was necessary? And in what way? Obviously, as Owen pointed out, it does seem that some churches existed without any presbyters *present* in their community….. do you think that the Apostle who founded the church was still serving in a role that would sufficiently “link” the group to Apostolic authority and authenticity?

    Chris, it’s a given that my adherence to Eastern Orthodoxy obviously colors my lens a bit, and I recognize that the fully Ignatian monarchical episcopate was not such a given in the NT era…. but I do wonder what was required for a group of people to be officially seen as a “church”. Does the NT corpus even approach such a question?


  5. Looking at Acts chapter 9 we see that there were believers in Damascus at a time when the apostles remained in Jerusalem. Later in the chapter we see Peter traveling to the towns of Lydda and Joppa and there were already saints there. The word “church” is not used but I don’t see how that necessarily means they were not considered a church. In Acts 11 we see that a congregation is established in Antioch and in verse 26 is referred to as a church. It was not established by apostles but by those who fled the persecution in Jerusalem. Again, not an overwhelming amount of evidence but it is something.


  6. Sorry, Chris. Haven’t been here in a while.

    I don’t know of anything in the NT that would expressly forbid it. However, it would seem an immensely bad idea to me. Much like we make the preacher the pastor, there would almost certainly be pressure for the deacons to become de facto elders. If I were a deacon in that situation, I would certainly step down. (This is, incidentally, one reason why the church here does not have deacons.)

    We know that churches existed before elders were appointed, so the concept is scriptural. We are told precious little about how the ones without apostles present handled day-to-day and week-to-week issues, though. I sometimes use the term “scripturally unorganized” to describe the idea here – a church without people in the God-given leadership position.

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