The following are objections I’ve heard, and the best response I can give:
In Matt. 18:17, final judgment by the “the church” should be carried out by the elders who represent the church.
Both the church and the office of elders were in place by the time Matthew wrote his gospel. So Matthew’s choice of the word “church” over “elders” is significant. Jesus’ choice of the word “church” is also significant, as we know he was speaking to a Jewish audience. They viewed the word church as an assembly of God’s people (Lev. 8:3-4, Num. 20:8). Besides this, having a council of elders make the final judgment takes away from the obvious progression in the passage, from one witness to the whole assembly. The point is not who is confronting the sinning brother, but how many. Simply put, elder-ruled churches are forced to go against the plain meaning of “church” in order to be obedient to Matt. 18:15-20.
Matt. 18:17-20 is a prescription for congregational involvement, not a teaching on congregational authority.
The inclusion of verse 18, where Jesus uses the same “binding and loosing” metaphor he used in Matt. 16:19, tells us Matt. 18:17-20 is more than just a matter of participation. The connection between the two uses of the “binding and loosing” metaphor is hard to deny. In both cases, God is giving an ability and authority to an entity to carry out a gospel-dependent responsibility. In Matt 16., Peter is given the authority to know Christ, and build the church with people who belong to Christ. In Matt 18., the church is given the authority to know who belongs to Christ—those who make up the church. In both cases, the same God given skill set is required: know Christ, and know who belongs to Christ. So unless you ignore this parallel, Matt: 18:17-20 is clearly about authority.
Paul and Barnabas were church leaders and they appointed elders in Acts 14:23, therefore congregations don’t appoint elders, church leaders do.
Paul qualifies as an apostle, appointed by Jesus himself. Apostles seemed to have the authority to wield the keys to the kingdom (from Matt. 16:19) as individuals, as Peter and Paul did throughout Acts. Today, Christians wield the keys to the kingdom as churches, not as individuals or through a council of elders. Churches continue the ministry of the apostles, not just elders. Therefore, it actually makes sense that Paul would initially appoint elders during the age of the apostles, and for churches to appoint elders today.
In 1 Tim. 4:14, Paul references a council of elders appointing Timothy as an elder.
Timothy wasn’t an elder, at least not when Paul wrote this. Timothy was Paul’s liaison. Timothy may have been qualified to be an elder, but he was acting as an extension of Paul, not an elder. The laying of hands by the elders was in relation to Timothy’s gifts of exhortation and teaching, not eldership.
Timothy was to appoint elders in 1 Tim. 5:22, and Titus was to appoint elders in Titus 1:5.
Again, Timothy was Paul’s liaison in Ephesus, while Titus has a very similar (if not the same) role in Crete. They are both an extension of Paul and directed by him. They are simply acting on Paul’s authority. Furthermore, Timothy laying hands on elders or Titus appointing elders does not necessarily exclude congregational approval. Today, congregationalist churches usually have elders lay hands on and ordain new elders that the congregation approved. Perhaps Timothy and Titus did the same.
I’ve heard other objections based on what people think would or wouldn’t work in church life. I prefer to focus on what the bible is actually saying, and go from there. I trust wisdom and God’s grace can take care of the details. There are faithful and fruitful ministries in both camps. There’s always a way to make it work. I just want to know what’s biblical.
Next, we will look again at why any of this matters.