Church Government

Church Government

Guest Editorial – Ron Harding

“When they finished, James spoke up: ‘Brothers, listen to me…. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this…, as it is written: ‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’ that have been known for ages.’ It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.’”  – Acts 15:13-22

James historic address to the council in Jerusalem changed the face of the 1st century church forever. After hearing everyone out, he called for their attention, summed up everything that had been said, helped them to understand what God’s Word said on the matter, then gave his judgment [sentence] that God in fact did not make any distinction between Jews and Gentiles, allowing all the justified through their faith in Jesus, without having the yoke of obeying the laws of Moses. He then commanded them to write a letter, instructing the Gentiles to hold to some of the laws of Moses which would certainly undermine the church’s credibility by offending unbelieving Jews. This judgment and framework brought all of God’s people back into unity and allowed them to operate as one man for the faith (Philippians 1:27), a unified movement.

Church government is a vital part of Christianity. It’s role is paramount in the Church’s ability to reach the goals Christ set – advancing the Gospel to the ends of the earth, in becoming mature, and in remaining unified in all endeavors. Yet this controversial topic has been one of the most debated areas since long before our Lord walked this earth. There is probably no other area of the scripture that brings out the worst in man’s sinful nature, arousing jealously, competition, and contempt in those who don’t have their foundation in God’s Word. Some mistakenly think that church leadership is a means to power instead of serving and God-given authority to keep the body unified. Some allow being an American to influence their thinking and mistakenly desire that church leadership should be a democracy. Still others have been so hurt and disappointed that they don’t want anyone to have any type of authority, thinking that being given any level of authority corrupts men.

God’s plan for His church requires a degree of unity which transcends natural cooperation among ordinary people. It is God’s intent for His family to “agree with one another so that there may be no divisions … and you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” (1 Corinthians 1:10) To thwart God’s plan, Satan does not need to destroy us. Dividing us is enough – then we will destroy ourselves. This is why God established church government – to protect the church from Satan’s attacks by preparing God’s people for works of service – through his ordained offices (Ephesians 4:11-13) – and to make judgments which will lead God’s people back to unity when they are divided (Acts 15). Many great churches and movements have been built on the methodology of having “autonomous” congregations, where the elders “direct the affairs of the churches” and have “final say” in that congregation – with no overseeing authority. While this methodology is widely accepted and has been the catalyst for so many to come to Christ. This methodology has never produced a family of churches that has evangelized the world. We’re so used to seeing the “church on the corner” who identifies with a denomination, yet has no real ties to any other congregation that we’ve become programmed to accept this as the way things are supposed be.

Traditional ideas that each group of disciples in a city is entirely autonomous from other disciples is not found in the Bible and has severely damaged efforts to win the world for Christ. Those with a heritage in the restoration movement have wrongly used the false teaching of “congregational autonomy” to justify disunity and non-cooperation with other brothers. As a result, they have often grown indifferent about the needs of Christians in other places and apathetic about Jesus’ commission that together they preach to an entire world! They have forgotten Paul’s word in Ephesians 4:3-6, 16 which call us to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all…From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

This methodology comes primarily from the interpretation of scripture with regards to the council in Jerusalem in Acts 15, from Paul’s instructions to Titus in Titus 1:5 to straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, and Paul’s instructions to Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:17 about the elder who direct the affairs of the church. I want to address these three views.

Many have seen James statements to Jerusalem’s council in 49 A.D. to be suggestions and have taken the view that he made a proposal and that the elders decided the matter. The problem with this interpretation is that when James said “My judgment is” the Greek words don’t line up with their interpretation. The Greek word krinō means: to preside over with the power of giving judicial decisions. It is the same word in the Greek language that would be used when a judge in a court would say, “Therefore my sentence is death.” This same word is also used in Matthew 19:28“Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’” This is clearly only a word that is used by someone who has final say and is clearly a command to everyone and not a suggestion. This also makes clear that “James the Just” was the central leader in Jerusalem, who presided over the council and that his decisions would be carried out throughout the entire movement. Without this authority to have “final say,” the elders and other leaders would have been in endless debate and the work of God would have come to a halt. But instead this event served to propel God’s people because obedience to their leader’s command caused them to be perfectly united in mind and thought (1 Corinthians 1:10) on how to treat the Gentiles who were coming to faith. As for Paul’s instructions to Titus, it is clear that elders are suppose to be appointed in every town. But, that doesn’t convey they are to be the leaders. It simply means that the work isn’t complete until a church has elders. This misunderstanding may have come from Paul’s words to Timothy about the elders, who direct the affairs of the church and the fact that the Greek word for direct the affairs – proïstēmi – means to preside over. Those wishing power want to read into the scripture that the elders preside over the churches. Yet this passage is only giving the principle that there are some men who are both evangelists and elders. It’s making a distinction, stating that these particular men are worthy of double honor. It’s clearly saying that there are some men who are elders who are also leaders of a congregation. But this does not mean that all men who are elders are the leaders of the congregation. In fact, the only reason to make this kind of statement would have been because this was an exception which was being overlooked, meaning most likely very few of the elders were also the leaders of their congregations.

Beyond all of three points I have noticed another phenomena, while the qualifications to be an elder are sent to two evangelists – Titus and Timothy – both of whom were not Apostles. There are no instructions anywhere in scripture where God gives the elders instructions on how to lead the church – only instructions to evangelists on how to run the church and interestingly some instructions to Timothy on how to “deal with” and discipline elders. If the elders had final say, there should be letters written to them on how to deal with the evangelists.

Churches in the first century were intensely loyal to each other. Leaders remained close and as a result, disciples were close because they had the right church government. I’m so proud to be a part of a church and a movement that has embraced the centralized leadership methodology of church government, where our central leadership guides us using the scriptures and make judgments to keep us unified, where the evangelists lead the church, discharging the duties of their ministries, including the vital office of elder which completes the work, and where the church stays connected with all the other churches – where the church government propels the advancement of the Gospel, helps the church to mature, and keeps the church unified!!!