Who Runs the Church? Part 2


who runs the churchWith the help of modern media and technology, there have been some really good things happening in Evangelicalism. Yes, there’s a lot of bad things happening too. You don’t have to read very many of my posts on PS23 to realize I know that. But, on a positive note, the most positive things I’ve noticed, in my opinion, is a renewed desire to understand the biblical languages, a resurgence in Reformed soteriology, and a new pursuit to adopt a biblical form of church government in local churches.

I see all of those as a very good thing. Churches have particularly been re-evaluating their church structure and leadership. For the last hundred years or so, the dominant form of church polity in non-denominational and Baptist churches was a deacon led-congregationally ruled form of church government. This form of government functioned almost like a school board who made decisions with affirmation of the congregation. The pastor (or pastors) then acted like the principal, whose job was to implement those decisions made by the deacons. Deacons controlled, to varying degrees, the finances, leadership, and direction of the local church. Church on the FrontierThere was no biblical reason for this approach, it simply pragmatic during a time when small churches were springing up across the American frontier. In most cases, these churches were too small to have a plurality of elders, but rather than appointing men as elders who were not elder qualified (namely in their ability to teach), they appointed a plurality of deacons to lead the church with their pastor.

Only recently has there been a major shift in churches to restore a biblical form of church government and again have a plurality of elders, with deacons who function in their biblical roles as a support to those elders as faithful servants in the church. This is in large part due to the ministries of John MacArthur, Alexander Strauch, and Mark Dever, who have both written extensively on the subject. Key books on the issue, which I would recommend you read, are The Master’s Plan for the ChurchBiblical Eldershipand 9 Marks of a Healthy Church

Even so, as I mentioned in part one of this post, there is still disagreement on the finer points of Congregational Church Polity.1 The critical question to ask is, “Which form within congregationalism is biblical?” And, “Which form produces the healthiest church?”

First, Scripture clearly teaches a plurality of eldership. That’s a given – no debate there. Every time the NT refers to elders/pastors in the church, it always uses a plural noun. Secondly, Scripture clearly teaches that it is the elders who lead the church. On this we can also agree. However, there is disagreement between the words “lead,” and “rule.” This is where men like MacArthur and Dever divide. The distinction seems minor, but it is the difference between a democratic church polity, and a theocratic one.

congregational church governmentFirst, some definitions:

MacArthur, believes (as do I) that while Scripture teaches a plurality of elders in the local church, who are autonomously appointed and affirmed by the church. While this is definitely a minority view, MacArthur maintains that the Scripture does not teach that elders only lead in matters of spiritual life, but as undershepherds of the Chief Shepherd, they manage the whole household of God. This position is known as Elder Rule (which I’ll call ER for the sake of brevity). We’ll take a closer look at this position next time.

Dever, and many baptists, on the other hand, have adopted a form of church government known as “Elder-led, Congregational Rule” (I’m gonna refer to this as ELCR). In other words, they believe that Scripture teaches that elders lead the church, but ultimate authority rests with the congregation. You could say that the elders guide and make suggestions to the church (albeit those suggestions carry weight), and it is up to the church to vote on it.
There can be varying degrees to which the congregations vote, but that’s the thrust of it. Now, while I am thankful to Mark Dever for the work he has done on ecclesiology and church polity, and while I rejoice that churches are again moving toward a biblical form of church govt., I don’t believe that this approach is the answer. I’ve read their arguments extensively – both pragmatically and from Scripture, and I don’t think they have biblical warrant.

I’ll show you why.investigation hazard

Some of they key passages used to argue in favor of ELCR church polity are as follows:

Matthew 18:15-18
Acts 6:1-6
1 Corinthians 5:1-13
1 Peter 2:9-10

Now, go and read those passages carefully.

Matthew 18:15-18 is a passage about church discipline. That’s it, and it stresses the importance that this is a responsibility for all believers, right? Does it say anything with regards to church polity? Does it even model a particular church polity? I don’t think so. At the very best, it models congregational involvement in ministry. For this to model ELCR specifically, you would have to show me why this congregational involvement is inconsistent with ER church polity. The fact is, it isn’t.

Acts 6:1-6 is a passage about the service of the first deacons, chosen to meet a specific need in the church. ELCR argues that, especially because of vs. 5, “this statement found approval with the congregation,” that this indicates a democratic, congregational rule. Actually, I think this passage shows just the opposite. There was a problem. It was taken to the leaders (the apostles). The apostles delegated responsibility to deacons (you can’t delegate without authority to do so). Furthermore, the word “approval” in vs. 5 gives a nuance in English that’s really not quite right. The Greek word means “it pleased,” the congregation – stressing the wisdom in the apostles’ leadership.

1 Corinthians 5:1-13, again, is another passage about church discipline, not church polity, but Paul places responsibility for accountability on both the church leaders and the congregation. A man was living in gross sexual sin that the whole congregation knew about, but every member is responsible to hold others accountable to the Word of God in love. Again, this is not in opposition to ER.

1 Peter 2:9-10 is a passage about the priesthood of all believers. Need it be said that this has nothing to do with church polity? If it does, then you would need to show me how difference positions in the church, especially in ER church polity, is inconsistent with the priesthood of all believers. Wait… to be consistent, you’d also have to apply this to the family unit, since the husband is the head of the wife (i.e. complementarianism). I don’t know of any churches out there teaching that the family unit must be democratic because all believers are considered priests.

oopsFunny thing, The Center for Baptist Studies argues that those who believe in ER church polity have “fallen prey to a kind of exegetical confusion,” which “upon evaluation, what is passed as Bible teaching sometimes sounds strangely like church tradition.”2 Really?

I find that interesting coming from an article titled, “Doing Church Baptist Style” (emphasis mine). Seems to me that the article shows who is weighing more heavily on tradition than biblical teaching. But, I don’t want to let the part represent the whole, so I ask you, “Would you, in all exegetical honesty, be naturally led to conclude from any of the above passages used to support ELCR, are teaching anything with regard to church polity?” Or even, “Would you, in all exegetical honesty, be naturally led to conclude that any of the above passages are intended to model a particular form of church polity?”

I don’t think so. So let’s start there. I don’t care (well… I do, sort of) if you think ELCR will produce the most spiritual maturity in your church. American Influence on the BibleJust if you do, stick to the pragmatic arguments. Don’t tell me that Scripture teaches democracy. Anywhere. We have to be careful that we don’t let our American democratic/representative govt. kind of thinking influence they way we read and interpret Scripture. Once we get that out of the way, I think we can genuinely evaluate why Elder ruled churches are the expected NT model.

I hope to show you why next time.

But again, this doesn’t mean that if your church is ELCR that I’m going to call your church an unbiblical church and you should throw your current church polity out the window at all costs while splitting the church and igniting controversy. By no means! I want to re-emphasize that I think ELCR is pretty close to a biblical model of church polity. But it’s close, and I think we can be closer, and the closer we are, the stronger our churches will be.

  1. Note: all churches that appoint their own pastors or church leadership are “Congregational” churches, meaning that they are self-governed. But, within congregationalism there are many variants of church polity, spreading from purely democratic, to dictatorial singular elder rule, to no leadership whatsoever in the church body.
  2. Carol Crawford Holcomb, “Doing Church Baptist Style: Congregationalism, The Center for Baptist Studies, accessed on April 21, 2014, http://www.centerforbaptiststudies.org/pamphlets/style/congregationalism.