Class V: Church Government
Church government. I’ll bet at least half of you woke up last night thinking: “I’ve got to find out more about church government!”
Okay, maybe not.
Why Talk About Church Government?
Church government is not something most Christians think much about. It’s like a piston in a car engine. Maybe you know it’s important, but you don’t give it a second thought. Yet if it wasn’t there, or was broken, you’d notice pretty quickly.
There are several reasons we want to take an hour to think about church government.
- First and foremost, God wrote about it in his Word, and therefore he is glorified as we follow his instructions.
- Second, a sound biblical structure will make a church more likely to sustain its witness over many, many decades.
- Third, understanding how our church is governed will help us to be more faithful church members. The more we know about how our church works, the more deliberate we can be about promoting unity.
What exactly is church government? Put simply, it’s the system by which decisions are made in a church, a description of where authority resides. How, for example, should we decide what to put in our statement of faith? Who makes that decision? The answer to that question depends on our system of government.
Obviously, that’s pretty important. Church government can thus be a great tool for unity in the church—or a great detriment to it.
Over the next hour, we’ll think about how a biblically-based church government promotes unity, and how we can contribute to the unity of this church. My hope is that we will gain a better understanding of how God has called us to organize our lives in the church.
I. ELDERS—THE SHEPHERDS OF THE FLOCK
The Bible describes two offices in the church—elders and deacons. We won’t take the time to describe these offices fully, because most of you have been or will be introduced to them in your membership classes. If you want to know even more, Mark Dever’s little book, A Display of God’s Glory, describes these offices in depth. This morning, I want to focus particularly on how these offices foster unity in a church.
The term “elder” (or, in the Greek, presbuteros), is used interchangeably with “overseer” or “bishop” (episkopos), and “pastor” (poimenas).1 In Acts 20, Paul uses all three terms when he’s addressing the elders of the Ephesian church:
From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. 18 When they arrived, he said to them: . . . “28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds [or pastors] of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” (Acts: 20:17-28)
Peter does the same in his first letter:
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers . . . (1 Peter 5:1-2).
Elders are charged with the spiritual oversight of the church (Acts 6:1-6; 20:28). They are to devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word, and they are also charged with being the principal governing body of the church (1 Timothy 5:17—”The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor . . . .”).
How Elders Promote Unity in the Church
With that background in mind, let me suggest four ways that having a biblical eldership promotes and protects unity in a church:
1. First, an elder-led church puts authority in the hands of those most qualified to exercise it. It entrusts the primary preaching and teaching duties, along with significant decision-making authority, to men who meet the qualifications set forth in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1:6-9.2
2. Second, elder leadership places special responsibility for the spiritual health of the church in the hands of those who are especially accountable before God. In Hebrews 13:17, we read that elders “keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” Thus the members of the church can have confidence that their elders are not unaccountable and free to act out of their own self-interest. In caring for the flock, they are accountable to God himself.
3. Third, God requires members to “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority” (Heb. 13:17). Unity in the church is fostered through submission to authority, because submission to godly authority makes us more humble and less headstrong, more deferential and less defiant. As in a home, or in our own relationship with God, humble recognition of authority brings benefits. Thus Hebrews 13:17 goes on to say, “Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Presumably then, obeying your elders and making their work a joy will be an advantage to you!
Let’s pause here for a moment, because this is an enormously important point, and one that is not easily accepted. By telling a congregation to obey their elders, the Bible very intentionally introduces authority into the church. Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of authority anywhere, and perhaps especially in the church. Authority can be abused, they say. It can be misguided, misdirected, and used for evil. All true. Yet God instituted authority for our own good. Rightly used, authority helps the church to be unified. It helps us to learn how to trust other people, it keeps our pride in check, and it reminds us that we’re not sufficient on our own to serve God.
Of course it is also the elders’ responsibility to exercise authority properly—and as we have seen, they will be held to account for that by God himself. In 1 Peter 5:2-3, Peter tells the elders: “Be shepherds of God’s flock . . . not lording it over those entrusted to you but being examples to the flock.” The church does not belong to the elders. It belongs to Christ, and the elders must exercise their authority with that fact always at the front of their minds. They should be servant-hearted, marked by the same humility that marked Christ.
4. Fourth, elder leadership promotes unity because it places leadership in the hands of several men, instead of just one. In Acts 14:23, we read: “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church . . .” The word is plural, as it is in many other places in the New Testament (See, for example, Acts 14:23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; Philippians 1:1.) How does having multiple elders foster unity in the church? Let me suggest three ways:
First, decisions made by the elders collectively, rather than by a single elder, are more likely to have the support of the entire congregation. Think of Proverbs 15:22—“Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.”
Second, a plurality of elders requires each elder to be willing to submit to his fellow elders. In order for a group of elders to operate effectively, each elder must submit himself to the others, showing patience and mutual respect for one another. This picture of unity among the elders serves as a model for the congregation.
Third, a plurality of elders helps the leadership to know the congregation better. With a plurality of elders, it’s less likely that members of the congregation will feel neglected, or feel like they don’t have access to the leadership.
Church Members’ Responsibilities
With that understanding of how the office of elder promotes unity, how can we as church members further those ends?
First, obey your elders and submit to their leadership, just as Hebrews 13:7 commands. That doesn’t mean that an elder can tell you to purchase a blue car rather than a red one. Elders’ authority rests in explaining the word of God. They are to provide godly wisdom based on scriptural principals and truths, and, when they do, members should follow. In a few weeks, we’ll devote an entire session to the topic of what to do when we disagree with the elders. But normally, we should follow.
Second, strategize to make the elders’ work a joy and not a burden. Look for ways to encourage your elders and pray for them. Work to model the role of an intelligent church member: Concern yourself in the work and decisions of the church. Take your decision-making responsibility as a member seriously, provide relevant information that you think the elders may have missed, but at the same time gladly submit to their wisdom and decisions. In doing so you will help to create a culture of trust and unity within the church.
Third, carefully consider the qualifications of those put forward as potential elders. The elders’ recommendation for a new elder should always be given great weight by the congregation, but you also should make an effort to get to know prospective elders. Talk to the nominee. Ask him questions. Hear his testimony about how the Lord is working in his life, and if you have concerns about a nominee, talk to another elder about it. Part of your responsibility as a church member is to make sure that the men who are recognized as elders are truly qualified. And not only will talking to the nominees help you to fulfill that responsibility, but it will also help you to know and trust that person if he finally becomes one of your elders.
II. DEACONS—THE SERVANTS OF THE CHURCH
The second office clearly set out in Scripture is that of deacon. In the New Testament the word diakonos can be translated as “deacon” or “servant.” Thus deacons are the church’s servants (Acts 6:1-6). They attend to the practical details of church life—administration, maintenance, the care of church members with physical needs, and preparation for the services, among other things.
The qualifications for deacons are given in 1 Timothy 3:8-12, and are similar to those of elders. There are, however, two clear differences. Unlike elders, deacons can be women as well as men. And second, unlike elders, deacons are not required to be able to teach.
How Deacons Promote Unity In the Church
In Acts 6, there is a great picture of how the service performed by deacons contributes to the church’s unity. In the early days of the church, the Hellenistic (Greek) Christians began complaining against the Hebrew Christians because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So, upon the recommendation of the apostles, the church appointed seven deacons to make the food distribution more equitable (vv. 2-5). In this, we see three ways that deacons contribute to the unity of the church:
1. First, deacons care for all the members of the church. The neglect of the Greek widows was causing spiritual disunity within the church. One group of Christians was complaining against another group, and in a particularly dangerous way – along cultural lines. By carefully attending to all of the widows, the deacons defused the situation and preserved the church’s unity.
2. Second, the deacons allowed the apostles to devote their time to the ministry of the word and prayer (Acts 6:2-4). Today, deacons play the same role in support of the ministry of the elders. Thus they are a great blessing to the church not only in the particular work that they do, but for how they free up the elders to devote their time and energy to prayer and the Word.
3. Third,deacons foster unity by distributing work through the entire congregation. When deacons recruit volunteers for particular needed ministries in the church, all the members of the church are given opportunity to participate in the joy of serving others.
Church Members’ Responsibilities
What are some of the implications of this? What does this mean for us?
First, we should look for deacons who are peacemakers. If deacons are meant to foster unity, then those who serve should have a reputation for healing division within the church, not creating it. They should not be concerned about protecting their own turf, lobbying for greater visibility, or competing with the elders. Instead, deacons should be joyful servants who delight in contributing to the well-being of the whole body.
Second, we should support the deacons by volunteering to serve in their various ministries. When we do, we promote unity in the church by encouraging the deacons, serving the body, and helping to accomplish the work for the good of the church.
III. THE CONGREGATION—THE FINAL COURT OF APPEAL
Having considered the offices that Scripture describes for the church, there’s another question to be answered. Who has the final say on matters in the church? The elders? The pastor? An executive committee made up of delegates from each Sunday School class together with the leaders of each ministry team?
Well, no. Throughout the New Testament, it’s the congregation as a whole that seems to have final authority, particularly in three significant matters of church life—personal disputes, membership and discipline, and doctrine.
In What Matters Does the Church Have Authority?
1. Personal Disputes—In Matthew 18 (vv. 15-17), Jesus makes the congregation as a whole the final court of appeal on matters of dispute between Christians. If one member has sinned against another and refuses to listen to his fellow church members, the matter should finally be brought to the entire church for resolution.
2. Membership and Discipline—In 1 Corinthians 5, we see that it is only the congregation that has authority to discipline a member. Paul tells the Corinthians to expel a man from their fellowship; later he mentions that a majority of them had indeed inflicted that punishment (2 Corinthians 2). When the man repented, Paul urged the whole church to re-admit him. What we see in this example is that the congregation has the final say in who is a member of their fellowship and who is not. In matters of membership and discipline, the congregation is the final court of appeal.
3. Doctrine—Finally, the congregation is also responsible for its own doctrine. In Galatians 1:8-9, Paul calls on the churches of Galatia to sit in judgment over any preacher (even himself!) who preaches a gospel different from the one they had accepted. Many other times in the New Testament, it is the church as a whole that is blamed for bad teaching, not the leaders. Again, in doctrinal matters it is the whole church that is given authority and that is held accountable by God.
Implications for Unity
The fact that the congregation has final authority over these significant matters has huge implications for the church’s unity.
For one thing, congregational authority fosters unity by forcing the congregation to take responsibility for protecting the gospel—which is the very thing that unites us as Christians. It forces us to make sure that those we admit into our fellowship believe the same gospel we do. The result is a church that is unified at the core by a trust among those who are its members.
Also, congregational authority fosters unity by protecting the church from serious error. Again and again, history has shown that hierarchical church governments tend to spread error quickly. When the national or worldwide leadership of such a church falls into error, they can force that error on local churches, thus creating enormous disunity and strife. Of course no particular form of church polity prevents churches from error and division—congregational churches included!—but more centralized polities seem to have a (slightly) worse track record than congregational polities in maintaining a faithful, vital, evangelical witness. Moreover, consider what happens when a congregational church does fall into doctrinal error. At the very least, the error is likely to remain isolated, since that errant congregation has no authority to force their error on other churches.
Why is that important to you? Keep watch and make sure that this church is congregational in practice, not just in name only. When things are going well, it can be easy to acquiesce and cede your responsibility to other people. But the preservation of the gospel depends on the members of the church vigilantly safeguarding what has been entrusted to them. Take that responsibility seriously.
IV. HOLD AUTHORITY, BUT SUBMIT? WHAT GIVES?
There’s one final question we need to consider today. We’ve seen that Scripture gives the congregation final authority on certain matters of great significance. Yet it also tells church members to obey their leaders and submit to their authority.
So what gives? How can we obey and submit to our leaders, and at the same time exercise our congregational responsibility to guard the purity of the gospel?
Is It Serious? Is It Clear?
One helpful way to determine when it’s appropriate to challenge a decision of the elders is to consider (1) how serious a matter is (ii) and how clear it is.
Let’s say, for example, that the elders proposed an amendment to the statement of faith that would deny that Jesus Christ is divine. Now that is about as serious as it gets! Also, it’s clear from Scripture that Jesus Christ is indeed both man and God. This is the kind of issue on which the congregation should never defer to the elders. In fact, this is where, if the elders continued to insist, the congregation ought to pull out all the stops, remove the elders from leadership, and even discipline them from the church! The church must preserve the integrity of the gospel message.
In light of all this, how can we as members foster unity by participating in the decision-making processes of the church? Let me suggest two ways:
First, take seriously your responsibility to guard against false teaching and error in the church. You are a member of this church, and therefore you are responsible for guarding the church’s doctrine. If you think there is error being taught from the pulpit, you need to learn more about that, find out what the pastor or elders believe on that point, and if finally necessary bring that error before the church for resolution.
Second, take seriously your responsibility to be involved in decision-making. Attend the church’s members’ meetings, and vote on the various questions that come up. By voting along with the rest of the congregation on important matters, you are showing your agreement with the elders and the rest of the church. That, in itself, brings glory to God.
Godly and biblical leadership is crucial to the building of a church that glorifies God. When leaders exercise proper authority in the church—and when church members submit to that authority while still taking their own responsibility seriously—the whole church working in harmony displays God’s image and wisdom to the world. And that, after all, is why we are here!
1 Although some churches since the second century A.D. have used the word “bishop” to refer to a single individual with authority over several churches, this was a later development of the term and is not found in the New Testament.
2 The Bible is clear that only men are to serve as elders. In 1 Timothy 2:11-14, we read that a woman should not teach or have authority over a man. See also 1 Corinthians 14:34-36; 11:2-16. Whatever the exact authority Paul intended to speak of here as inappropriate, it clearly involves women teaching.