Who Runs the Church? Part 3

who runs the churchOver the last few weeks I’ve addressed been trying to help address a biblical model of church government. I hope it isn’t a passé issue to you. Having a right church polity is extremely important to the health of the church, which is why I’ve taken up three whole posts to cover the subject. The Reformer John Knox, after who’s grave this blog is named, argued rightly that a church without proper order can accomplish nothing:

As the Word of God is the life and soul of this Church, so this godly order and discipline is as it were sinews in the body, which knit and join the members together with decent order and comeliness… it is an order left by God unto His Church.1

So, to say the least, this is an issue that should be worthy of weighty consideration! A  dis-attached sinew (ligament) doesn’t do the body a whole lot of good. Actually… a stretched one doesn’t do much good either!

Make no mistake. church steepleGod is a God of order rather than disorder (cf. 1 Cor. 14:33), and if that’s true, than He would also have designed an order for His bride, the church. The model in the NT is clear, and while Christianity in general has gotten pretty far away from it since the early church, we live in some exciting times as we are experiencing a massive shift in evangelicalism to re-address the issue. Many churches are taking another look at their By-Laws, Constitutions, and Philosophies of Ministry to test them according to God’s Word.

That’s a really good thing! Don’t let traditionalism dictate your study of Scripture! Just as we should also conform our minds to what the Word of God says, we should also conform our church to what the Word of God says. This was the famous battle cry of the Reformation:

Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, secundum verbum Dei! – The church reformed, always being reformed according to the Word of God!

The questions is, are we willing to do that?

Maybe the question would better be, why wouldn’t we do that?

Just a proposal… could it be pride? We’d have to admit that what we’ve done before was wrong, or at least admit that there’s a better way. Or could it be fear? We’d probably be stepping on some toes along the way, no matter how graciously we try to implement the new system. But alas… the seven last words of the church:

We’ve never done it that way before.

So, as I mentioned before, many churches have been re-thinking their church government, and in our circles, it comes down to two forms of congregationalism: Elder Led – Congregationally Ruled (ELCR), and Elder Rule (ER). In my last post, I emphasized that there’s a lot we agree on, such as a plurality of elders, church autonomy, involvement of all members of the church, equality of all members of the church – though there are different functions and gifts.

leaky bucketNow, I also pointed out last time the key passages ELCR goes to to support their view and why none of those passages hold any water contributing to the church polity debate. There’s a lot of wiggle-room how this is actually fleshed out though. In some churches, the elders inform the church of an upcoming decision that they will vote on, but if anyone thinks they’re going to vote no, they must talk to the elders before the vote. On the day of the vote, there are no further discussions – just the vote. Other churches have a business meeting before the vote with Q&A’s, often with a full-on debate. Now, if you are adamant that you want to impose a democratic form of church government, let me at least encourage you to adopt the former method and not the latter… unless you enjoy breeding discord in the assembly. But maybe you’re just a member of the church and aren’t privy to what kind of church polity you have. In this case, just make sure YOU aren’t the one sowing discord, and if you know someone particularly being factious, confront them lovingly.

That being said, what of Elder Rule church polity? Does Scripture really support THAT!? Be forewarned though, Americans in particular have been so indoctrinated with democracy that we gasp at even the proposal to implement any other form of government. We don’t like the concepts of rule, or submission. But when we evaluate why, it’s often generated more out of fear for a heavy-handed, corrupt aristocratic government. In fact, this is probably why virtually EVERY argument made against ER is pragmatic, rather than exegetical. bad leadershipWe hear things like, “ER promotes individualism,” or “ER limits accountability,” or “ER puffs up leadership.” Well… positions of power normally do, unless protective measures are put in place. But do we impose our own protective measures (i.e. power to the people), or God’s protective measures (i.e. ensuring elders meet the biblical qualifications for the office)? Can we do both?

Eh… no. You want to know what happens when you do both?

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires (2 Tim. 4:3).

Who’d a thunk it? God’s system happens to protect both the congregation from corrupt rule, AND protects the pastor who’s faithful to the Word and sound doctrine.

But when we look at the words used for the office of pastor in the NT, we clearly see the nature of his role. There are three of them. First you have poimen, meaning “shepherd.” It’s a word that involved the responsibility to guard, feed, protect, and lead. It’s often the word translated as “pastor,” or “minister,” and is a word applied to Christ Himself (Mk. 26:31; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 2:25). Then there’s episkopos. This word is translated “overseer,” and it’s this word that contradicts the argument that pastors only lead the church in “spiritual matters.” This word also means “guardian,” or “supervisor,” and was a word used to used to describe military officers, government officials, or even businessmen. Finally, you have the word presbuteros. This last word is usually translated “elder,” describing not an age, but a level of maturity, wisdom, and discernment.elderIt’s interesting though, that when you combine the meaning of these words, even those who support ELCR will state that they refer to someone who “rules, leads, represents, judges, governs, oversees, guards, provides, feeds, and shepherds.”2. So really, when we look at the lexical meanings for the word “pastor/elder,” and consider that democracy appears NOWHERE in Scripture, an elder rule church polity is the only one you’re left with!

So, it’s as simple as this. Is the distinction between ELCR and ER so severe that I would break fellowship over it? No way. Would I beat my elders their heads with the issue? Nope. Let the Word of God speak plainly for itself. I am confident that when you do that, and you are willing to submit yourself to what Scripture teaches, you will come to the right position. If I am in the wrong, then I believe I will be the one who will come to the right position as I submit myself to what Scripture teaches. Yet, when we consider that the government for His people in the past, and His government for His people the future are not democracies, but theocracies, governed by His appointed under-shepherds, we have to ask, why would this age be any different for the church? If democracy is the “Christian” way, then why didn’t God impose this form of government for His people in the past generations, or for future generations? I would venture to say, it’s because democracy isn’t the Christian way for the church. Christ is the head of the church, and He has delegated His authority and entrusted the keys to qualified men to lead the church as shepherds.

  1. John Knox, The Works of John Knox, David Laing, ed. (New York: AMS Press, 1966), 4:203.
  2. Howard L. Bixby, “Elder Rule,” The Journal of Ministry and Theology 10, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 5-6
  • Chris Bruynzeel

    Thank you for the post…good stuff! Church polity in the USA…all over the place, for sure!
    So…some questions
    What about a church where there are lay elders + one paid-elder (sr pastor)…but…other qualified pastors aren’t allowed to be a voting elders?
    Add to this: over the years, several of the lay elders came on staff as paid pastors–but–had to step off the elder board.
    At a larger church (500+), can there be only 1 paid/fulltime elder or is there room on an elder team/board to have 2 paid-elders/pastors?
    I bring this up & get accused of wanting power. or…we see you as an elder but you can’t vote.
    My response: I went to seminary at the encouragement of past elders & pastors to get more training because I aspired to the office of elder–a noble ambition (1Tim3). It’s not about power, it’s about having the authority to lead together.
    Obviously, there’s more to this…but…I thought I’d throw that out there & get some feedback.
    again, good post & God bless you all there at GCC!
    in Christ, your brother
    Chris