Who’s In Charge at This Church?

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The leader, or “the person in charge,” in any situation is not the strongest, loudest, smartest, holiest, wiliest, most experienced, or any other personal characteristic that person may have. The leader is always recognized by only one thing—the person in charge is the one who makes the final decision.

In the three institutions of the kingdom of God—family, church and civil government—my contention is that, biblically, the governmental leadership in each institution, or, how final decisions are made in that institution, is unique. We are currently discussing the church on this blog, so we will look at leadership in church government in this posting.

To briefly summarize, historically, there have been three types of church government: 1.) Episcopal—one man, the pastor or priest, makes all final decisions locally, but ultimately answers to an extra-local organization or association; 2.) Baptist—the congregation makes the ultimate, final decision by a vote of the members of the church and does not answer to any extra-local organization (each church is completely independent); 3.) Presbyterian—a group of elders, chosen by the congregation of the church, makes all final decisions corporately, and they may or may not be associated with an extra-local organization. Locally, the episcopal model resembles a political monarchy, the baptist, a democracy, and the presbyterian, a republic.

Some time ago, the pastor of a large, metropolitan church called and invited me to breakfast. As we talked, I learned that there was a substantial group of members in his church who were experiencing some difficulties with his leadership as the pastor. He was a strong, charismatic leader, and his church followed the episcopal model described above. We had been friends for a number of years and had discussed the question of church government regularly, always amicably agreeing to disagree. I was surprised when he said, “Tell me again how the leadership of your church functions.” The problems in his church had prompted him to take a fresh look at leadership alternatives.

I explained to him again our church’s view of biblical church government, and he brought up again the same problems he had with the way our church was governed that he had expressed in previous meetings: “There always must be one man who is the final authority, the pastor, who ultimately must be responsible for all final decisions. James in the church in Jerusalem and the angels, or messengers, of the churches in Revelation 2 and 3 were these pastors. Besides, corporate leadership has been tried over and over again and it just doesn’t work.”

These are representative of the objections I have heard over the years concerning the idea of corporate, elder rule in the church—my view of biblical church leadership. Jesus is the Head of His church, and that is biblically expressed through a corporate body of elders. 

In my book on the church, A Glorious Church (available in eBook form, free, on my web page by clicking the “Request a copy” button), I examine these and other objections to corporate leadership in detail. If, indeed, this is the biblical model, it must work; at least it must work to accomplish what God has in mind for His church, although that may not necessarily be what we think a church that “works” should accomplish. It may be that we will need to change our definition of a church that is “working” to bring it in line with God’s. God’s way always “works.”

Keep in mind, we are not discussing here how ministry occurs (how the new wine is consumed), but what the church will look like as it grows (how the wineskin will ultimately be organized). The church may begin “…where two or three are gathered together in My name,” Jesus says, for “I am there in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). 

That may happen in someone’s living room, and it probably will. Eventually they will realize that what they have is a venue to “walk in the light” together, confess their sins, and share what God is showing them. They have, unknowingly, planted a church, and it will help them to hold and preserve the new wine they are drinking together! 

As this church grows, this posting describes what the Bible says this wineskin will look like as it develops to meet the church’s growing needs. That growth may never occur, and it doesn’t matter. Numerical growth is not an issue with which we are concerned. Our concerns are: 1.) Can we walk in the light together, confessing our sins to one another, and 2.) Can we share freely and openly with others what God is doing in our hearts? Our Heavenly Father takes care of everything else.

My contention, then, is that when the church is large enough to need to be concerned about structure, its eventual, biblical wineskin is presbyterian in nature, and it has no extra-local association to which it answers. Each congregation is completely autonomous. 

There is no “first among equals” among the elders, nor is there a distinction between what some churches call a “teaching elder” (the “seminary-trained professional” who does the “ministry”) and the non-professional “ruling elders” (the “board” of prominent business men who only care for the organizational or financial needs of the church). These “ruling elders” do not “shepherd the flock of God that is among (them)“ (1 Peter 5:2), i.e., care for the spiritual needs of the flock at all, as all elders are biblically called to do. So, in essence, one man, the “teaching elder,” makes all ministry decisions, no different than any other one-man, pastor-led church.

All the elders in an elder-led church are chosen by the church members, based on the elder qualifications as specified in the Bible (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). After discussing church issues with all the men in the church at men’s meetings, these elders corporately make the final decision on these matters. 

Contrary to everything the culture screams and demands in all of life, these elders are all men and not women. We must refuse to be swayed from our authority standard which is the Bible. So, the church leadership is only composed of men who are married and have demonstrated the ability to rule well (not perfectly but with compassion and firmness) in their homes as a qualification for ruling in the church (1 Timothy 3:4, 5; Titus 1:6). In the Garden of Eden, the woman herself was not created to rule, but to assist man as he rules: “And the LORD God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him” (Genesis 2:18).

This issue demands a full book on the topic. It will be written by a man (or woman), younger than I, with thorough knowledge of the biblical position on only corporate, male leadership in the church.

It is important to note that the ministry of the church is an entirely different matter than the organizational structure of the church. That structure is church-appointed elders and deacons, the only offices in the church. The elder deals with leading the church to new spiritual life; the deacon deals with meeting its physical needs. 

On the other hand, the elders can’t make spiritual life occur. They can lead the sheep to water, but can’t make them drink! Genuine spiritual ministry is never pre-determined. It may indeed happen, but it also may not. What happens when the congregation gets drunk on the new wine of the gospel will be (wait for it—my three favorite words!) natural, spontaneous, and unconscious! Next week we will deal with how the Bible teaches that will occur.

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