His Majesty’s government: Biblical principles for local churches
Once, while engaged in a pastoral visit with my wife, the subject of Christian books came up. The lady we had come to see asked me what I was reading. ‘It’s called 40 Questions on Elders and Deacons,’ I replied, enthusiastically. A grin broke out on her face and she exchanged a knowing glance with my wife. I’m no mind reader but obviously the amusing thought was, ‘Only a pastor (possibly only this pastor?) would be interested in that!’
When the subject of church government comes up, do you also smile – before switching off? Or do you rather sigh, saying, ‘Surely in these desperately dark days there are more important issues than church government?’ Well, that is a fair point. Paul does not include it in his summary of the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1ff). Church government is not among the things ‘of first importance’. But that does not mean it is of no importance; far from it! Can we imagine that God is not really concerned about how His blood-bought church is organised? Is it true, as is often suggested, that the Scriptures are silent or indistinct on the subject? This article will argue that there is in fact a clear blueprint in the Bible for the government of the church; and that while this is not essential to the very being of the church, it certainly is to its well-being. God’s chosen people can only be the poorer if they ignore God’s chosen polity, that is, His will concerning how they should order themselves.
I believe we can clearly identify three norms from Scripture:
- Jesus Christ is the sole Head of the church
- He rules His churches through elders
- The elders rule with the consent of the church
Let us take a closer look at each to see how they find expression in the church.
Jesus is the sole Head of the church (Eph. 1:22), the realm in which His reign is exercised by Him and experienced by us. His will is expressed in His word, the Bible, to and from which nothing is to be added or subtracted. No-one else – inside or out, individually or collectively – has the right to legislate for her. We acknowledge Christ’s kingship when we regulate all that we do as a church by the Book; the conduct of our business meetings no less than our church services must be rooted in Scripture and saturated with prayer. My aim should never be to ‘have my say and get my way’! Our concern is one and the same: to know the King’s will and to do it.
King Jesus is not content to be a ceremonial ruler whose subjects pay Him lip service even as they pursue their own agendas. He is an absolute monarch; we must obey Him. Thankfully He is also absolutely good (John 10:11); as we obey, we will be blessed!
The Lord has entrusted the care of His church to ‘elders’ (Acts 20:17), also termed ‘overseers’ (20:28), ‘pastors’ and ‘teachers’ (Eph. 4:11). The bar for this office is set extremely high (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). For sure a man must have ability (‘able to teach’, 1 Tim. 3:2), but Paul emphasises spirituality: ‘hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled’ (Titus 1:8). In this sense, the church’s leaders should be ‘the best there is’. This is necessary because once ordained an elder is entrusted with a significant degree of responsibility and authority (Heb. 13:17). That he should share the burden of the former and the temptation of the latter with his fellow elders displays God’s wisdom in giving the clear pattern of ‘elders in every church’ (Acts 14:23; cf. 1 Tim. 5:17; James 5:14). Thus he may avoid both getting burnt out and puffed up!
Elders who rule well should be rewarded (1 Tim. 5:17-18); those who sin badly should be rebuked (1 Tim. 5:19-21). A good elder is one who loves and serves the people (1 Pet. 5:1-3), but this means giving them what they need, not necessarily what they want. It is a surprisingly overlooked fact that whereas church members are repeatedly told to submit to their leaders (1 Cor. 16:15-16; 1 Thess. 5:12-13; Heb. 13:7,17; 1 Pet. 5:5), they are never instructed to obey the congregation! Daniel Akin explains: ‘If a spiritual leader is not guilty of that which is illegal, immoral, unethical, or clearly unbiblical, it is the responsibility of the church to follow his leadership, as this is the will of God.’
The elders rule with the consent of the church. The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet. 2:5,9; Rev. 1:5-6) would lead us to expect that the whole church has an important role to play in its government, and indeed this is what we find. Two particular areas stand out:
- The election of officers
In Acts 1:15-26 we have the minutes of the first church members’ meeting! The word of Christ mandated the replacement of Judas (vv.16-20); the apostles as officers outlined how this was to be observed (vv.21-22); then the congregation proposed candidates, sought God and cast lots (vv.23-26). Similarly in Acts 6, the Twelve come up with a sensible solution to the neglect of the widows, one that involves the congregation (vv.1-4); the multitude gladly do their part in choosing suitable men (vv.3,5) but leave the final decision with their leaders (v.6). What mutual respect and submission! If only all business meetings were this God-honouring, would we not, like them, know more of His blessing (v.7)?
- The discipline of members
When Jesus outlines the threefold procedure for correcting a sinning brother, the final step is ‘to tell it to the church’ (Matt. 18:17). Undoubtedly the overseers should lead the way in such an instance, but the exercise of discipline cannot be restricted to them; Paul refers to a ‘punishment which was inflicted by the majority’ (2 Cor. 2:6). Believers collectively are held responsible for tolerating immoral lifestyles and false doctrines (1 Cor. 5; Galatians; Rev. 2-3). If the elders can’t or won’t deal with it, the members have not only the right but the responsibility to do so.
It is wise for the church to be consulted over other major matters, e.g. a constitution, the use of funds. Samuel Waldron writes: ‘Pastors must resist the tendency to distrust the membership … [and] to vest inordinate authority in themselves … They must give credit for wisdom to a well-instructed and spiritual church.’
The Apostle Paul reminded Timothy: ‘I write so that you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God’ (1 Tim. 3:15). There are wrong ways to behave in church. There is also a right way! To find out what this is and to fulfil it is something that concerns all the church’s members, not just its ministers. We each have a duty and an interest in seeing that our local church is governed according to God’s word. When it is, we will be smiling – because He will be smiling on us!
Oliver Gross is the pastor of New Street Evangelical Church, Welshpool.