Christian Life 

The Primacy of the Local Church: an oft- subverted truth

The Primacy of the Local Church, as a biblical doctrine, is often rolled out and re-stated when hierarchies stray, but conveniently ignored when peace prevails.

 by Watchman    


Church meetingThe emergence of the Fellowship of Confessing Churches has displayed a common characteristic of ecclesiastical behaviour while also bringing into focus a facet of church life which has been conveniently ignored down through the centuries.

Whenever a denomination as a whole displeases a group within it there is often, by those who are offended, a renewed and robust appeal to the 'primacy of the local church'. However for most of the rest of the time the de facto primacy of denominational hierarchies (because even in Presbyterian denominations that's what they are) is happily accepted.

Inconsistency is a polite word for hypocrisy

This inconsistency is exposed at times of contention, but it is one which fades into the background whenever problems are resolved and life returns to normal. After all hierarchies and institutional structures serve, for some, as a very significant convenience - providing a platform for ministry, income, security, backup and support.
So these constructs are useful and accepted – indeed defended and protected – for most of the time by most of those who are employed within them. However the problem is that these hierarchies, and the influence and control which they exercise, are unbiblical. Yet these prevailing and overarching structures are allowed to continue unchallenged, whilst expedient appeals to Scripture are made relating to contentious issues whenever the latter emerge.
This is inconsistent and displays double standards. It is something that critics of the church(es) call hypocrisy. So those who claim to be 'Bible-believing' cannot, if we are to be worthy of any respect, appeal to Scripture on one occasion and yet conveniently ignore its teaching on other matters.

Emphasising the primacy of the local church is indeed quite correct. But that primacy needs to be recognised, implemented and protected all of the time and not just when it is convenient to do so.
In his book The Spreading Flame which chronicles the history of the Christian church, Professor F F Bruce has written of the first three centuries (see Footnote also):

"There was no idea that the church of one city was subordinate to the church of any other city. Further, there was in those earlier centuries no suggestion that any one church was subordinate to the aggregate of all the churches."

The 16th Century Reformation left some unfinished business


Emphasising the primacy of the local church is indeed quite correct. But that primacy needs to be recognised, implemented and protected all of the time and not just when it is convenient to do so.
It remains to be seen what will be the outcome and lasting impact, if any, from the present on-line coalition of signatories to the FOCC list. But it will be interesting to see when the dust has settled whether the current staunch appeals to Scripture will provoke a follow-through in the scrapping of denominational hierarchies.

If this were to happen, it would take the churches (as local assemblies of God's people) back to a time prior to the institutionalism that crept in during the 3rd millennium and has been maintained since.

Even through the turbulence of the 16th century Reformation those who fought against some unbiblical features of church life and doctrine seem to have been happy with, or unwilling to change the hierarchical system. Perhaps this time it will be different. We pray.

Perhaps from the current turmoil over the staunch efforts to preserve marriage as God ordained it to be, we will also see a return to those biblical forms of church government which restores the primacy of the local church; a company of God's believing people overseen by elders.

It's not just about marriage; it's supremely about the Bride

Indeed if churches functioned according to the true New Testament patterns for oversight, discipline and direction, then the Church of Scotland – but not just the Church of Scotland – would not be in the disarray that we, and a watching world, currently countenance. So there is a both an opportunity and an imperative under God to sort out more than just His view on marriage. We need to attend also to His view on the Bride.

Sting in the Tail/Tale

The Disruption which split the Church of Scotland in 1843 was substantially (though not exclusively) about fighting for the freedom of local congregations to choose their own minister. If the primacy of the local church is indeed restored, then the members of Queen's Cross Church (and all others beside) will be able to call exactly whomsoever they want.

Ed footnotes:

The term 'presbyterian' stems from the Greek word presbuteros and relates to (local) churches being overseen by (local) elders. Yet as things currently stand, individual congregations are represented on local presbyteries which are city or regional groupings. In turn presbyteries are subject to the decisions made by a denomination's general assembly. (In some denominations a group of presbyteries constitute a synod as a futher link in the chain.)
There are checks and balances to allow input from local churches on matters of great importance in order to prevent a general assembly taking a critical decision without first consulting the general membership. One of these is the (so-called) Barrier Act.
However, General Assemblies effectively set the tenor, policies and broad attitudes held and promulgated by their respective denominations, and exercise ultimate authority and discipline. A General Assembly constitutes the final court of appeal in matters of contention.

In his excellent book 'The Kirk in Scotland' John Buchan wrote:
"Andrew Melville [one of the notable Reformers] based his objection to bishops on the ground that in the New Testament there was no mention of bishops ruling over presbyteries, ignoring the fact that his own system had just as little warrant, since there was no proof of a presbytery governing more than a single church."

Those who defend the present structures make appeal to the 'Council of Jerusalem' (Acts 15:5-33) but FF Bruce has written: 'The church of Antioch, for example, did not lie within the jurisdiction of the church of Jerusalem, although the mother church naturally enjoyed a special measure of prestige and respect. (The Spreading Flame p.210)
The distinguished scholar who was born in Elgin continued: 'There is no thought here of a central or metropolitan authority to which the various churches must bow.' (ibid p.110) And for denominations to base a whole doctrine of supra-church structure and multi-tiered hierarchy on a single incident is exegetical folly. We need more integrity before God than that.


Professor FF Bruce was born in Elgin, Moray, in Scotland, and was educated at the University of Aberdeen, Cambridge University and the University of Vienna.
After teaching Greek for several years first at the University of Edinburgh and then at the University of Leeds he became head of the Department of Biblical History and Literature at the University of Sheffield in 1947.
In 1959 he moved to the University of Manchester where he became Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis. In his career he wrote some thirty-three books and served as editor of The Evangelical Quarterly and the Palestine Exploration Quarterly. He retired from teaching in 1978.


Watchman, 04/05/2009

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