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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John Miller 05/12/2011 16:36
I have come on this discussion by following the link given by the Editor, in the Tain matter. I find it very interesting. I would like a fuller explanation from Martin regarding his thoughts in the statement, "Jesus instituted one new thing, as far as I know, the Last Supper". I absolutely agree with his thoughts about Paul's teaching setting out the pattern for church order.

Regarding the Lord's Supper, I believe that it is important to see that we get our authority and instructions for this holy sacrament, primarily from Paul also. Had we only the accounts given in the gospels, it might have been thought that it was for the Lord's disciples alone. It might therefore have been discontinued after their ministry had come to an end. On the other hand, Paul in his letter to Corinth emphasises that he received instructions personally from the Lord Jesus and delivered these instructions to the church. Therefore our authority for celebrating the Lord's Supper comes from a risen, ascended Christ. We remember Christ in His death, but that same glorious Person makes His presence known wherever His own are gathered, by the Holy Spirit. The truth of the priesthood of every believer is essential in the understanding of this, I believe.

My observation is that many do not understand these truths and have the notion that those who officiate in the communion service have some sort of superiority, whether personally or positionally. This is clearly wrong. I trust that I do not appear dogmatic.
John Miller 05/12/2011 16:47
If I may, I will add to my last comments. The church universal and also the church local draws its authority and its very life from Christ alone by the power of the Spirit of God. A local church may therefore avail itself of help from the gifts that God has placed in the universal church if that is felt appropriate, but there would normally be the power and competence in itself by the Holy Spirit of God to determine what is in accordance with the will of God. For that the sole authority must be His word. It is inconceivable that anyone could act outside the teaching of scripture while claiming to have the knowledge of God's will in any matter.
Editor 05/12/2011 18:30
Concerning (unbibical?) restrictions placed on 'remembering the Lord's death until He comes' see -

PS: Hope to have an article on the Westminster Confession of Faith very soon.
Peter Carr 05/12/2011 20:43
John said, "The church universal and also the church local draws its authority and its very life from Christ alone by the power of the Spirit of God. A local church may therefore avail itself of help from the gifts that God has placed in the universal church if that is felt appropriate,"

You seemed to have left human agency out of God's mix;

Eph 4: 11 - 13 "It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ."

The 5 fold ministry still stands, and there is nothing in Scripture to suggest otherwise, so all local churches need to avail themselves of God appointed apostolic oversight in some shape or form. Leaders of leaders if you prefer, but definately not a top down approach. It works well in my union of churches, where we do not have a 121 George St situation but rather facilitators available to each church which is autonomous in its own right.
Editor 05/12/2011 21:12
I should have mentioned in the previous post that while the Presbyterian set up has become hierarchical, the episcopalian model always was. Meanwhile the congregational model (e.g. Baptist, Methodist) of 'one member one vote' may sound fair and democratic, but it very often results in split voting; and there have been cases where major decisions have been made on that flawed basis. And (as someone pointed out) the casting vote might be made by the Devil - or one of this minions.

The biblical model is "it seemed good the Holy Spirit and to us" (e.g. Acts 15:28). That divine God-given Spirit-led consensus is the only safe approach for giving direction to a church (congregation).

And regarding the five-fold ministries there is no biblical mandate for -
(a) having only one pastor (and certainly not with a capitalised 'P') (indeed many women also have fine pastoral giftings which should be employed)
(b) the hard linkage of 'pastor/teacher' (how many fine Christians have pastoral gifts but not one of teaching; and vice versa?)

Where (in most situations) is the apostle (church planter) or the evangelist (soul winner)?
Meanwhile the prophet has disappeared all together (almost)

And if that (prophetic) ministry is expected of the pastor/teacher then there can be huge stress within that one person when these roles come into conflict.

In conversation recently a retired minister mentioned three things (and there are no doubt many more) that preachers are most reluctant to preach on because they cause so much trouble. (And these are not the 'old chestnuts' of baptism, the gifts of the Spirit or eschatology).
Peter Carr 06/12/2011 09:53
"And regarding the five-fold ministries there is no biblical mandate for -
(a) having only one pastor..."

Really? How do you read 1 and 2 Tim?

"(b) the hard linkage of 'pastor/teacher' (how many fine Christians have pastoral gifts but not one of teaching; and vice versa?)"

I am the only teaching Elder in my church with pastoral oversight, and I always encourage 'others' in the congregation to use pastoral gifting.

"Where (in most situations) is the apostle (church planter) or the evangelist (soul winner)?
Meanwhile the prophet has disappeared all together (almost)"

IMO and IME these exist for me in the facilitators that our union of churches have, who do not lord it over the churches under their care (which are autonomous in their own right).

I suggest that you look at bit more closely to how the Baptists operate in Scotland to see that the 5 fold ministries are alive and well :-)

Editor 06/12/2011 10:37
Hi Peter,

Thanks for your note. I will perhaps (one day d.v.) get around to doing a fuller article on the 'one-man-band' but meanwhile if you have a look at 'A Warning from Wick'

It contains a link to an article I wrote for the Christian magazine 'Sword' called the 'Critical Comma'. It seeks to show how a misplaced comma has completely altered the understanding of the verses relating to the five-fold ministry.

Regarding "I am the only teaching Elder in my church with pastoral oversight"
In which case you are vulnerable (without other mature elders around you) and any congregation in this situation is vulnerable because the 'teacher' can go off beam.

I know of a church which was wrecked because for a period of years the only pastor/teacher was going through personal difficulties which he hid from everyone. He preached as best he could but the power of God was not there.

Must go....
Peter Carr 06/12/2011 13:42
I am not a 'one man band', I have very gifted an mature Christians around me, and always seek to foster mutual accountability.

It is not a 'one size fits all' when it comes to bad experiences of a minister or a church. There are plenty of examples of church govt who do not have a minster getting things badly wrong also.

You did not answer my question with regards to a pastor in 1 and 2 Tim.

Again, I urge you to take a closer look at how Baptists operate before applying 'one size fits all' theology!

Editor 06/12/2011 14:19
Will continue this conversation once I have the article done. Thanks.
John Miller 25/03/2013 10:10
Having been kindly redirected to this discussion by the Editor's suggestion, I would like to continue with its thread if others are interested. I believe that Martin's point about the priesthood of every believer is of prime importance in the context of understanding what scripture teaches about the Christ's church in its worldly circumstances. The denial of this truth lies at the root of nearly every strand of error that has crept into the public face of the Christian church.

The error is reinforced by a lack of powerful biblical teaching and the unbalanced view that leadership in a local church should be represented by a group of men with one whose authority dominates. We do not have one example of this in the New Testament.

I do not believe that Apostolic authority is vested in either any individual or group of individuals today. The foundational Apostolic teaching is in God's word. Every believer can avail himself/herself of it by opening the pages of the. Bible. The authority of Apostolic teaching in the Holy Scriptures can be examined, taught, discussed and fed upon but never added to because it is complete.

We should never lie back, content to be spoon-fed by others when it comes to the teaching of God's word but diligently seek out its truth, instruction and revelation for ourselves. This is more than a privilege, it is a positive responsibility. As more in any local church are motivated by the Spirit of God to do this the fellowship will be enriched, the Holy Spirit will have liberty to take the things of Christ and reveal them and the local church fellowship will prosper.
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