First, we must start by recognizing that both elder authority and congregational authority are clearly taught in Scripture. The congregation is given the final authority for exercising the keys in Matthew 16 and 18, are held responsible for their leaders in 2 John and for protecting the gospel in Galatians. Then on the other hand Hebrews 13 and 1 Peter 5 make it just as clear that the elders have authority which is exercised centrally in their teaching and preaching, that is to be submitted to by the congregation. So the elders have an unique authority and the congregation has an unique authority. The elder-led congregational model of church government does justice to both of these truths found in Scripture.
It’s important to keep in mind that the elders do not receive their authority from the body. The church is not a representative democracy. The congregation does elect its own leaders but it does so by identifying those that have been gifted by the Holy Spirit to be elders. The elders lead in the selection of elders by suggesting men from the congregation that they feel meet the qualifications spelled out in Scripture. All authority given in the church is given by God and is therefore a derivative authority.
Both the congregation and the elders have authority but they are different kinds of authorities and function in different ways. One way to distinguish these two kinds of authority is by breaking them up into two types of authority.
Elders have the authority of counsel. This kind of authority is akin to the authority that a husband has over his wife. He counsels and shepherds her to maturity even though he does not forcefully act. The leadership of the husband binds his wife’s conscious as he has been given the authority and the ability to lead her deeper into Christ. His authority is expressed mainly in the teaching and application of that teaching. The godly husband uses his authority to “woo” his wife as it were. He shows her the gospel and the gospel way of living so that she may do the same. Husbands “lead out” in the pursuit of Christ by teaching and example.
The congregation has the authority of command. This means that the congregation has final authority. It is the decision of the majority (2 Corinthians 2:6) that binds and looses. This type of authority is more like a parents authority over a child. Like the authority of counsel, this type of authority binds the conscience in the same way. And again, ordinarily, this type of authority is exercised by submission to the elders. Mature authority wielding is shown by trust in those God has placed as our authorities and so our default posture towards those God has placed over us in authority should be one of trust. The congregation acts as the emergency break were the ones at the wheel ever to go off of the rails. Only when the elders depart from the gospel should the congregation overrule them. Penultimately, moreover, the it is the congregation along with her elders that hold the highest authority on earth as she represents her dear King on earth.