America was born out of the seed of representation and democracy. It has given us the greatest freedoms of any civilized nation. Of course, baggage and error always comes with liberty and freedom, but that is the price for genuine freedom. Along with the secular government given to us by the trials of the forefathers, there is another pattern given to us. Unfortunately, it was given to the Church. That pattern is that the American church, for the most part, adopted the same forms of secular society and imposed it upon the ecclesiology of the church. Many fellowships take a vote from the local members to decide just about everything, or at the very least, have a board of Deacons who run the church on all matters. (physical and spiritual)
Is this the New Testament pattern? Is this the way Paul and the early apostles established leadership in the expansion of the church? Is this the polity we should use in our local churches?
Upon a casual reading of the NT we find the biblical pattern for church government to be quiet different from the American version. Here are the constants we find throughout the survey of the New Testament.
- Bishops and Elders are synonymous terms – This is an undeniable fact. These two terms were first separated in the early part of the second century in the writings of Ignatius. (A.D. 105) In the canon of Scripture Bishop/Overseer (episkopos) and Elder (presbuteros) are used interchangeably. (Acts 20:17, 28; Tit. 1:5, 7; 1Pet. 5:1, 2) Why did the New testament writers use two different words? Elder was the term the Jewish believers understood to represent leadership through the ministry of the synagogue. Bishop (overseer) was the term used in the Greek culture for supervisors, officers and state officials. The Holy Spirit inspired the NT authors to use both terms interchangeably in order to identify with both cultures in language associated with authority. Similar to the early greeting of “Grace and Peace.” The former being a Greek greeting and the later a Jewish one.
- Each Church was governed by a plurality of Elders – The early church, once established, did not have the one man show we see today, where one Elder is the face of all teaching. (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Phil. 1:1; Tit. 1:5; Jas. 5:14; 1Pet. 5:1-2)
- Two Offices – Bishop and Deacon – The leadership of a local church is expressed in two offices. (1Tim. 3:1-12; Phil. 1:1) Office of Bishop/Elder has the ruling authority (1Tim. 3:5), while the office of Deacon is for official servants to the local body.
- Church Office held only by men – Offends the feminist element in many denominations, but this is the biblical pattern. The attempt of egalatarians to offer Phoebe as an office holder (Rom. 16:1) and argue for female leadership from one verse in Paul’s ecclesiastical passage (1Tim. 3:11), is extremely weak, unconvincing and lacks historical precedence.
What we do not see in the New Testament:
- Husband and wife hold office together – This practice is prominent in many churches in America, especially in the African-American community. It appears to be more from pride, the milking of the congregation for a double salary and a desire for prestige rather than a demonstration of biblical freedom. It has no warrant in Scriptures, though some attempt to use Aquila and Priscilla as a proof. (Rom. 16:3) Functioning in a ministry does not automatically equal being in the office of oversight in a local church.
- Single Pastor leadership – Even Jesus sent out the apostles two by two. Single leadership is the fertile ground where control and manipulation spring forth. Again, plurality of Elders is the undeniable NT pattern.
- Deacon ruled churches – This idea is completely missing from the NT paradigm. Deacons are servants, not rulers. The practice of Deacons ruling a local church is adopted from the secular form of representative secular government, not from the New Testament. The argument from the Acts 6:3 that Deacons were appointed over the business of the church is very poor exegesis. They were appointed over a specific task assigned by the Apostles, not given ruling authority over the church.
- Deacon and Elder swing board vote – Almost comical, but a part of the landscape of Americanized version of church leadership. Swing boards, at their heart, were created to be able to revolve problematic men out of office. The practice of 1 year, 3 year or 5 year terms of office for Deacons and Elders is a practice borrowed from secular business, not the New Testament.
- Democratic vote – Could you imagine the Church of Ephesus voting on whether they wanted to keep the Apostle Paul or Timothy as a leader? Or the Church at Jerusalem deciding to dismiss Peter and John from leadership? Yet, this practice of democratic vote is what many churches do in regards to spiritual leadership.
The Pattern the Lord has given to us throughout the NT reveals a glaring difference between the early church and the American version. The abandonment of the biblical pattern of church government, and the adoption of a secular version, has brought many problems into American churches. It encourages confusion, division and a shallowness.
Confusion because authority falls into the hands of the wealthy or popular instead of the spiritually mature. Division because men not called by God to rule (deacons) become the hire and fire executives over men called by God to lead. (Elders) Shallowness because if revival breaks out and there is an influx of new believers, the next voting issue (Pastor, Deacons, building, etc…) will be determined by immature new comers instead of spiritually mature leadership.
The simplicity of the NT pattern of leadership offers the healthiest example. It is easily replicated, offers spiritual protection from carnality, and helps believers see and avoid Satan’s work of division. The biggest benefit is that it keeps the local church externally focused upon the great commission rather than becoming introverted and wasting resources on unnecessary and ostentatious facilities designed for selfish pride.
The gospel is not about us…
More to come, stayed tuned