Church governance

by John Holbrook Jr.
A Biblical View, posted May 29, 2017

The Bible has a great deal to say about Church Governance.

Image of Messiah’s Church

Because so many Christians have grown up within denominational churches which have institutional structures, I must start with the Bible’s image of the Lord’s church.

The first chapter of the Book of Revelation gives us a clear picture of the church. Messiah or God-the-Son is standing in the middle of seven candlesticks or lamps, each of which is attached directly to Him. Here is the source of and reason for the seven-branched, gold candlestick that stood in the Holy of Holies in the original tabernacle and then in the Temple (see Exodus 25:31-37). The seven branched candlestick represents the Body of Messiah. Its stem is Messiah Himself. The seven lamps on its branches are seven individual congregations. The seven stars or messengers in Messiah’s right hand are the pastors of the congregations. Several things about this picture are worth noting.

Congregations are the only source of light in this fallen world. At the center of the image stands Messiah. His eyes are like “flames of fire,” his feet are like molten “brass… burn[ing] in a furnace,” and his countenance shines like “the sun.” Clearly He is a tremendous source of light to believers, of whom John is one. But He is not a source of light to unbelievers. After His resurrection, Messiah appeared only to believers, never to unbelievers. Not one unbeliever saw the risen Lord then, and not one unbeliever sees the risen Lord now. The light that the candlestick sheds in the darkness of the world radiates from its lamps, not from its stem, which is invisible to unbelievers. There is a principle here: A congregation is the physical presence of Messiah in its community and needs to shine His light into that community.

Congregations are independently connected to Messiah. In the image, each lamp or congregation is upheld and given life and energy by Messiah directly. The congregations are not connected to one another, and none is higher than the other. Thus each congregation is responsible only to Messiah – not to an association of other congregations or to a hierarchy of bishops, archbishops, cardinals, or pope in a denomination. Yet the congregations are mystically united in Christ and, as such, they together are the complete manifestation of the Body of Messiah in any given region. There is another principle here: A congregation should be independent.[1]

Pastors are teachers, not rulers. In the image, the stars or messengers are in Messiah’s right hand, not in or adjacent to the lamps. Messiah dispatches a pastor to a congregation with His Word (the Bible), bearing the responsibility to proclaim and explain the Word to its members so that they will be equipped to minister in Messiah’s name.[2] There is a third principle here: Every pastor must resist the temptation to see himself instead of Messiah as the head of his congregation. He must continually remind himself and his congregants that he is responsible for ministering to them – i.e. explaining the Holy Scriptures to them – but they are responsible for ministering to one another and to the world in Messiah’s name.

Roles in the Congregation

The Scriptures add to what the above image shows us.

First, Messiah is the head of both the church universal and every individual church.

…Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body (Ephesians 5:23)

Second, the Holy Spirit, who is also called the Comforter, is the guide of both the church universal and every individual church. Messiah said,

…it is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you. And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment….Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you (John 16:7-14).

Third, the elders are the leaders of each individual church. After prayer and fasting, the members of the congregation elect them and ordain them.

And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed. (Acts 14:23)

In submission to Messiah and to one another and under the anointing and guidance of the Holy Spirit, the elders, of whom the pastor is usually senior, govern the church.[3] A critical aspect of elder leadership in the church is that the elders govern as a board,  not as individuals. No elder must “throw his weight around” in the church. This mode of governance is commonly called “rule by a plurality of elders.”

The elders are charged primarily with praying, preaching, and teaching. They feed the members of the congregation by proclaiming and explaining the Gospel of Messiah to them and opening up the Word of God for them.

Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. (Acts 20:28)

As overseers, the elders are also responsible for everything that transpires in the church, whether it be the church’s core activities (worship, education, fellowship, pastoral care, evangelism, service, and mission support) or the church’s support activities (administration, finance, property management, and communications).

Not surprisingly, the elders of the Church in Jerusalem found themselves overwhelmed by the amount of work involved in attending to both the core functions and the support functions of the church. To solve this problem, the Lord led them to create the position of deacon. The elders would focus on worship, praying, preaching, teaching, and pastoral care and the deacons would focus on ministries such as preparing and serving meals and caring for widows and orphans.

…there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch: Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them. (Acts 6:1-6)

Clearly the deacons were called to direct the church’s ministries to the needy inside the church and presumably outside the church as well.

Confusion over the Deaconate

Unfortunately the role of the deacons proved to be more complicated than it appeared to be at first. The existence of two types of leaders in the church led many people to draw a distinction between the responsibilities of the elders and the responsibility of the deacons: the elders should attend to “spiritual matters” and the deacons should attend to “practical matters.” This erroneous distinction caused some serious problems.

First, because the handling of money is usually regarded as a “practical matter,” the deacons were given control of the money, which quickly translated into control of the church. The deacons decided how the congregation’s money should and would be spent.

Second, it prevented people from seeing that every matter in a church is a “spiritual matter” – including the manner in which money is raised and the manner in which money is allocated and spent. Money must be raised by teaching members of the congregation the importance of tithing. Tithing is a primary means by which Messiah teaches individuals to trust in and depend on Him. Moreover it is fully capable of providing all the funds which a congregation needs to sustain its activities.

Third, it led the deacons to focus on the support functions of the church (administration, finance, property management, and communications), not on ministry to the needy both inside and outside the congregation, which was and still is their primary calling. In how many meeting of diaconates over the years has discussion concentrated entirely on support functions and neglected ministry to the needy. One antidote to this mistake would be for the congregation to establish a third position of leadership: that of steward. The stewards would focus on the support functions, discharging their respective duties under the direction and supervision of the elders.

Fourth, it prevented people from seeing the proper relationship between the elders and the deacons. The elders are responsible for seeking Messiah’s will, establishing the congregation’s policies, supervising the execution of those policies by the deacons and other members of the congregation, and finally correcting the wayward when such correction is needed. The deacons are responsible for following the lead of the elders and executing the church’s policies that apply to them. They must not determine policy and they should not undertake actions without ensuring that their actions conform to what the elders have asked them to do. A simple way to obtain that assurance is to talk to the elders.

 Biblical Polity

The Kingdom of God is hierarchical, which people in this age of democratic civil government have a hard time understanding, let alone accepting.[4] Authority flows downward, first from Messiah to the elders, who must devote considerable time and effort trying to discern what the Lord and the Holy Spirit want, second, from the elders to the deacons, who must devote some effort to seeking guidance from the elders, and finally from the elders and deacons jointly to the members of the congregation, who must devote some effort to discerning what the leadership of the church is calling them to do.

The church is not a democracy! The full onus of leading the church falls on the elders, which is why the members of every congregation should assemble regularly to bathe the church in prayer, asking the Lord to give the elders clear direction and the pastor clarity of understanding and expression concerning what the Bible actually says.

Because the elders bear such momentous responsibility, the Scriptures admonish the members of a congregation to accord their elders the honor, submission, and obedience which is due to them.[5]

One last thought. While the elders are primarily accountable to the Lord, they will profit by an association with other elders who share their beliefs and commitments. They may find themselves confronting a significant problem which is new to them, but perhaps not new to older and wiser elders elsewhere, who are usually willing to provide advice and counsel and might even be willing to help out directly. The working out of this principle can be seen in the Presbytery with which the Presbyterian churches in a particular region are associated and in the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA) with which many independent Anglican Churches in North America are associated.

© 2017 John Holbrook Jr.

[1] Hierarchical denominations are probably abominations in God’s sight. There may be an association of pastors and elders who come together to wrestle with doctrinal issues (e.g. the Jerusalem Council), to evaluate a candidate for ministry (most lay people are not competent to do this), to install a minister in a congregation that has called him to pastor it, to mediate between a pastor and his congregation in the event of a dispute, or to pass judgment on a pastor or congregation that is behaving in an ungodly manner. Such an association might even be institutionalized (e.g. the presbytery in Presbyterian churches), but it must not be regarded as a superior body which rules a subordinate body (a congregation).

[2] Ephesians 4:11-12 indicates that the role of the pastor is to equip the saints for ministry.

[3] Acts 20:28.  Interestingly, John Carver proposes this model for the board of any organization which adopts his “policy governance.”  Individual board members do not possess any authority in the organization. Only the board as a whole exercises authority over the organization by establishing its ends and policies and by hiring, supervising, and firing its CEO..

[4] Despite the fact (a) that they are educated in hierarchical schools whose teachers specify what they must learn and then determine how well they are learning it and (b) that they work in hierarchical businesses whose executives specify what they will do and then determine how well they are doing it.

[5] 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13.

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