Philosophy of Church Government

 

 

Church government has been the source of much debate in recent years.  There are four (perhaps five) primary views on church government which revolve around two (or three) primary questions.  Of course, a substantial part of this discussion comes back to the principles of hermeneutics and whether relevant passages of Scripture are interpreted accurately and consistently.

 

The two primary questions are 1) "Should there be a plurality of church leaders?" and 2) "Should the congregation be involved in the decision-making process of the church?"  Depending on the answer to these questions, you will arrive at one of the following forms of government: the Episcopalian model, the Presbyterian model, the Single Elder-led Congregational model, or the Plural Elder-led Congregational model.  A possible third question to ask is "What is the relationship between the congregation (as a priesthood of believers) and the church officers (as the spiritual leaders of the church)?"  In other words, does God reveal His will through the church leaders or the congregation?  If the view is taken that God reveals His will through the congregation, then one might arrive at an entirely democratic form of Congregationalism (where the church leaders are no more than "facilitators").

 

Scripture does answer each of these three questions.  We need to examine all the passages carefully, because Scripture says more on this subject than many Christians realize.  First, Acts 15:4 and 20:17 clearly mention "church" (singular) and "elders" (plural).  Other passages (such as I Cor. 16:1 and I Thess. 2:14) refer to "churches" (plural), but these are references to churches in a region (Galatia and Judea). Scripture always refers to a single church in one city (Jerusalem in Acts 15:4 and Ephesus in Acts 20:17).  This means that the reference to "elders in every city" (Titus 1:5) is an implication of a plurality of leaders for every church.  The same implication would be true for Philippians 1:1.

 

Some Christians attempt to minimize the reference to a plurality of elders in Scripture by arguing that this should be viewed as a leader for every house church. It is worth noting that Paul makes much of the singular form of the word "seed" in Gal. 3:16. In fact, this is a significant part of his doctrinal argument in regard to the law in Galatians 3-4.  If we believe that every "jot and tittle" is inspired (and therefore important), then it would be wrong to minimize the plurality of elders.  It is also worth noting that some Baptists attempt to circumvent the argument for elders (believing this to be a Presbyterian office) by referring to "elders" as the "pastors" of the house churches.  But the Baptists actually back themselves into a corner through this argument.  If the mention of elders was really intended to be pastors of various house churches, then the Presbyterians (in light of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15) would have a substantial claim against the autonomy of the local church and for denominationalism.  It is better to accept the singular and plural forms of the various words exactly as they are found in Scripture.

 

Second, Scripture clearly indicates that the role of the pastor (or elders) is far greater than that of a "facilitator."  The use of the following verbs (under inspiration) explains God's intent for the role of church leadership.  The pastor/elder is to "oversee" (I Peter 5:2), to "rule" (I Timothy 5:17), to "shepherd" (Acts 20:28 and I Peter 5:2), and to "lead" (I Thess. 5:12 and Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24).

 

Third, the issue of congregational involvement in the decision-making process is perhaps the most difficult question to answer from Scripture.  The clearest reference concerns the topic of church discipline.  Both Matthew 18:17 and II Cor. 2:6 indicate congregational involvement in such a decision.  Some people argue that the congregation was involved in the settling of the doctrinal dispute in Acts 15.  But the mention of the church in verse 22 seems to be referring to the sending of Judas and Silas to Antioch rather than referring to settling the doctrinal issue.  Some people also argue that congregational authority is implied in Paul's reporting to the church in Acts 14:27.  But there was no mention of the congregation's involvement when Paul and Barnabas were commissioned and sent out.  Finally, some people argue that the congregation was involved in the selection of church officers (Acts 6:3, and perhaps even Acts 14:23).  But both Acts 6:3 and Titus 1:5 (and perhaps Acts 14:23 as well) indicate the action of church leaders "appointing" other church leaders.  In light of these points, it would probably be best to understand "congregational polity" as the congregation making the major decisions, and the elders administrating the every day decisions. Church leaders should heed the admonition of I Peter 5:3, and the congregation should heed the admonition of Hebrews 13:17.

 

It would seem then, that the Plural Elder-led Congregational model is the closest to what is practiced by the early church in the New Testament.