Wednesday, August 09, 2006

What Form of Church Governance is Biblical?

All of the above?

Well, I didn't think I could get out of the question that easily, and since people keep either asking about the biblical basis for elder rule or basing their arguments on a default premise of affirming or denying the validity of elder rule, I guess I should go ahead and say some things about it.

For instance, a commenter says, "If you can find me a biblical authority for elders overseeing a pastor . . ."

All due respect, it would actually be more difficult to find the reverse. Seeing as how New Testament references to "a pastor" are practically zero.
See, y'all made me go and get my Strong's out. (Actually, I just used Bible Gateway.)

Sorting this stuff out is actually fairly complex, and I think the existence of a variety of church governance styles today bears that out. Everybody claims their form is what the Bible really teaches.

Sorting the stuff out gets difficult, because of the variety of biblical terms and the apparent fluidity of duties between specific offices. For instance, the NT talks about overseers, bishops, elders, teachers, apostles, and, yes, sometimes pastors. Just doing a term search gives an idea of the priority of terms, but it may not really tell us which authoritative function is really authoritative. Searching the NIV, the word "elder(s)" appears 65 times. The word "pastor" once. That should tell you that the office of elder is preeminent, at least terminologically speaking. But mucking up the works is the fact that "elder" and "pastor" and "overseer" are all three fairly synonymous. Ditto "apostle" and "bishop." This gets into some real exegetical, historical, and literary work, because the author-recipient dynamic matters and always always always context matters.

In Ephesians 4, Paul seems to differentiate between the offices of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. This does not rule out overlap in these offices (for example, a teacher may also be an evangelist or prophet), but it at least seems to distinguish between them as functions within a local body. Notice that "pastor" and "teacher" are distinguished, although they do occupy the same clause, which again speaks to the close connection of the offices and possible overlap of the functions in one office holder.

Here's a verse which may or may not be illuminating to you, and I'll use it as a case study of sorts. It is from 1 Corinthians 12, which is within the context of a discussion of spiritual gifts.
And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. (v.28)

This is the only place I know of which appears to imply an order of authority. Paul enumerates the offices -- first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then . . . But the enumeration may not be an order of authority, but just a style of speech. When I write a post I may outline my points like "First, let me say..." But saying that first does not mean that that bit of information is the most important. There's also the context of the passage, which includes a deemphasis on measuring specific gifts as more important than others (see the verses immediately preceding the one quoted).

Do you see how complicated this stuff can get? Whole books are written on church governance, and there are still as many forms of church polity as there are churches. Or so it seems.

Let me explore some terms as I see them. This is my personal understanding of what the terms mean, how they overlap, and who's in charge of who. You are welcome to disagree, and I'm sure some of you will. The important thing is that we all try to derive our opinions on these matters not from our own logic or sensibilities, but from seriously trying to understand, using Scripture, how these roles functioned in the early church.

Apostles -- I'm of the opinion that the office of apostleship is over. I am not a cessationist in the matters of gifts (in other words, while I'm nowhere close to being a charismatic, I do believe charismatic gifts like tongues, etc. are still in existence). But I affirm an historical understanding of apostleship as going to the first church starters who knew Jesus personally. (This includes Paul.) Some church traditions today continue the office of apostleship with the use of bishops. But for members of independent, non-denominational, or autonomous congregations, apostles and bishops don't enter the picture.

Elders -- This a group of men charged as "pastors" of a congregation. "Pastor," by the way, means shepherd, and the NT epistles tend to conflate eldership and pastoral office. From my perspective, I see no biblical text that places one pastor over the group of pastors (elder).

Overseer -- Now it gets tricky, eh? In my opinion, an overseer is an elder, but in general it is one charged with leadership in the church.

Deacon -- Nobody's talking about deacons, and in our church I don't think we even have the office, but biblically speaking, deacons are men and women charged with serving the church. Today, deacons may take offerings, visit the hospitalized or mourning, assist widows and orphans, and generally oversee the service work of a congregation. In many of today's Baptist churches, where elders are nonexistent, deacon boards tend to wield power traditionally belonging to elders.

Pastor -- A shepherd. The "CEO"-type pastor model is a relatively modern invention. I don't really see any reference to anything like this in the New Testament. (If you do, please mention it.) That does not mean I consider a lead pastor or senior pastor or executive pastor position unbiblical. In fact, I don't. It does mean, however, that if we're going to split biblical hairs, we ought to be forthright about the practical nonexistence of the modern "senior pastor" role in the Bible.

So how did it work back then? Good question. To the best of my understanding, local congregations were led by groups called elders. Congregations also had designated teachers, and most times the designated teacher was also an elder. The only individualized authorities over local congregations appear to be apostles or bishops, and since we either do not believe in the continuation of that office or do not worship in a church that includes those offices, the one-man buck-stopper doesn't really enter the picture.
Neither, apparently, is the congregation's rule very clear. In terms of functional leadership, congregational vote is never mentioned. How elders are appointed is unclear to me, as well. They may have arisen out of the local bodies by congregational consensus, or they may have been appointed by apostles/bishops. We ought to remember that some things we read about the early church are descriptive, but not necessarily prescriptive.

When it comes to matters of congregational rule and leadership, it appears to me that the authority is held by elders. Where one authority becomes the upfront leader or "vision caster" or lead teacher, it is not to a point of superior ruling authority over the elder board. A teaching pastor or a lead pastor may be the singular face of church leadership, he may be a chairman or president even of an elder board, but he is, politically speaking, an equal of the elders. In modern use, I suppose the Church of Christ congregations probably appear the most biblical.

I'm not absolutist about this. As I said earlier, I don't see the NT making church polity a huge priority. Certainly if it was of abundant importance, one would think we'd get detailed instructions. I for one grant liberty in this area, and I've both worked in and worshipped in churches governed by elders, churches governed by deacons, and churches governed by a single pastor with a board of "advisors." In fact, the pastor I consider my mentor is of the "first among equals" view, seeing churches as necessarily being led by a pastor, with elders supporting but subservient. I disagree with him, but I would absolutely in a heartbeat stuff what I consider a non-essential matter to serve under him in that church. The sort of leader a lead pastor is makes a world of difference in my mind.

I think the most important things to keep in mind in BCC's case are these:
1) Dr. Foster moved the church to elder rule because he himself considered it more biblical. I agree with him, and I think it was a wise decision.
2) The wisdom of elder rule is that it prevents the church becoming centered around one man. This would be true even if the one man was perfect. Elder rule preserves the Body of Christ as numerous but unified in Christ, not a church leader.
3) Elder rule provides a check against the potential abuse of power by a singular authority.
4) Whatever form of government a given church has established and employs, congregants joining the church ought to submit to it. In other words, if elder rule bugs you to pieces, you probably oughtn't join an elder-governed church. If the CEO pastor model bugs you to bits, you probably shouldn't join a church like that. If the congregation voting on everything from prospective pastors to the color of wallpaper in the women's lavatory bugs you to pieces, you probably shouldn't join a congregationally-governed church.

In my personal opinion, BCC has a good thing going in that we maintain general governance biblically with eldership but also maintain a relevant balance with a lead pastor and/or teaching pastor(s). I guess my personal ideal would be for BCC to maintain its elder rule, perhaps with a lead pastor as "chairman of the board" (not with absolute power), and with at least two pastoral voices serving as teaching pastors (one of which may also be the lead pastor). This would ensure elder rule without having one person monopolize the public teaching or the discipleship culture of our church.

Finally, if you're going to have a strong opinion on this matter -- and it's okey dokey by me if you do -- at least put some Bible in it.



At 2:33 PM, Blogger judas icarus said...


I "fear" that there are many that do not want to "hear" this eloquent explanation of church governance from a biblical perspective.

But, you give everyone a clear "out" if they find any particular form of contemporary church governance to their dislike.

Very well expressed and delivered.

I know several people that would grow a biblical inch or two if they could wrap their minds around the issue(s) at BCC being so profoundly about what is and isn't biblical... but what has been accepted because of charisma.

I, for one, need to let the seams of my pant legs out. Thank you for helping me grow by sharing these truths and perspectives in such a way. You are speaking volumes with a few, deliberate word from the Word.

Kind regards,

C. Evan Leonard

At 5:13 PM, Anonymous Jonathan said...

Thanks Jared for the exposition on this subject. Looking in the bible, it seems as if the apostles went from town to town and appointed elders to rule over the congregation. The question is, in this case, who plays what role. I respect that you think the apostolic gift is dead. I disagree with you there. If you look at what the apostles did in bible terms, they went from region to region planting churches and oversaw them as well. Therefore you could say that apostles, bishops, and overseers have essentially the same function. In the dictionary definition of apostle it statesas one of the definitions a "person who initiates a great moral reform or who first advocates an important belief or system." Add that to the mix. So the question really this case where does/did Dave Foster, and the elders fit. In my view he is more of an apostle than an elder, but that is debatable. I believe that because, while he did not move on to another area, he had the vision and appointed elders to help oversee the church. The reason I am opposed to elder governed churches is that, at least in this case and some others, The elders in this church,from what I have seen, have never been in a five fold ministry position. I could be wrong on that, but if you are going to have an elder system, the elders need to be people with five fold ministry gifts with strong spiritual discernment, i.e. other pastors or former pastors. The bible passages that I read suggested that the elders were teachers or preachers, or had some kind of five fold ministry gifts. You cannot have it like a corporation where the most influential people in the company get the seats on the board of directors due to their influence or support or work for the church.

At 8:22 PM, Blogger Trevor said...

Jared, have you considered Acts 14:14?

In that verse, Barnabas is described as an apostle along with Paul.

This signifies two ideas:

1. There were some men who were true apostles, but not part of the 12.

2. It was not necessary to have seen or known the Lord Jesus personally to be one of these types of apostles (we have no textual evidence of Barnabas having such a personal encounter with Christ).

Just couldn't resist...

Trevor Davis

At 9:10 PM, Anonymous Chris said...

Hey Jared,
Be expecting your name to show up on the next nominations of elders.

At 5:32 AM, Blogger Jared said...

Trevor, you're right. The apostles did choose some apostles. In fact, the office had some continuity in the office of "bishop" in the historical Church for hundreds of years. Even today the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches believe they have maintained this continuity with their bishops.

Whatever your stance on what an apostle or bishop was (or is), it's clear non-denom, independent, autonomous congregations don't have them, though.

Biblically speaking, I think Dr. Foster was, best I can tell, a teaching elder who also served as chairman of the church leadership team.

I may do another post soon giving a picture of the primitive church and how this stuff worked in it.

At 10:23 AM, Blogger Phil said...

I'll just give an example of how my church, Otter Creek, does it.

Every two years, the members of the congregation nominates members to be elders. The important thing to note here is that this is generally a recognition of men who are already acting as shepherds. The sitting elders then ask the nominated men if they're willing to serve. If they are, their names are put in front of the entire congregation. If a member has an issue with one, they are encouraged to go to that man and resolve it.

The members then vote to affirm or deny the man as shepherd. The shepherd then sits for a six year cycle. At the same time, a certain number of shepherds at the end of that cycle either step down or put themselves up to be reaffirmed. If they are reaffirmed, they serve another six year cycle. Currently, OC has 16 shepherds for a congregation of 1000 attendees.

Just offering another perspective on it.


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