Government of the Local Church / Assembly
The governance of each local assembly should be in line with the pattern or blueprint laid out in the New Testament. No matter how large a local congregation may grow or how mature the believers may appear to be the true strength of an assembly can only be measured by its adherence to the commands of Christ and the teaching of the Scriptures. Radmacher believes so strongly that the New Testament pattern should be followed that, “Deviation from the pattern can bring nothing but failure.”25
Not that adherence in matters of government and polity is all that matters. But these things must be evaluated when considering the overall picture. An assembly may have correct organization and still be lukewarm or spiritually immature. The character and spiritual life of the men in leadership is what matters most. Proper structure helps facilitate growth while an improper structure may actually hinder spiritual development of the saints.
“Democracy” is government by the people. In this system supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them. Some believe that the local assembly should be run strictly by majority rule. Issue by issue and doctrine by doctrine, the local congregation makes decisions based upon the preponderance of votes. This may sound attractive in politically democratic societies but this is not the biblical pattern. Although all believers are priests and have direct access to God, not all believers are equally mature or qualified for leadership. In a truly democratic system an elder in an assembly has no more authority than any other individual.
In the ultimate sense, officers have no more ecclesiastical authority than any other member. Each has but one vote on any issue.26
This is not the idea expressed in the New Testament. All believers have equal access to God but not all believers are equally entrusted with discerning God’s will for the congregation. In a true democracy all women share an equally authoritative vote. This is unbiblical as the New Testament teaches that a woman is not to exercise authority over men in the assembly (1 Timothy 2:11-14).
Each individual believer is to show discernment in matters of lifestyle and doctrine but some believers have specific gifting or greater discernment that would enable them to better make decisions than others. The books of Timothy and Titus make it clear that some in the local congregation may even be disqualified from participating in leadership. Both biblical and secular history are replete with examples of the majority or consensus of opinion being wrong. In assemblies where a unanimous vote is required one individual can place the elders and members of a congregation at his mercy.
In some congregations “membership” status is required to cast an official vote. Biblical wisdom suggests that not all members are equally capable of making spiritual decisions. Why should a “member” who only comes to meetings a few times a year have an equal say about the direction of an assembly as an elder who is knowledgeable of the inner workings and relationships of the saints? Elders are to be chosen on the basis of their spiritual qualifications and maturity. They are generally better qualified to make many of the decisions.
Autocracy and Clericalism
“Autocracy” is unlimited authority invested in a single person over others. “Clericalism” is a group or class of ordained religious persons having power over the common people or laity. The laity are a class of people excluded from the clergy because of their lack of official recognition, ordination, or professional knowledge.
The majority of groups in Christendom have departed from the biblical pattern in that they divide members into a caste system of clergy and laity. They normally accept the authority and rule of one man in spiritual matters over all others. This is ironically true even among independent groups who claim some form of congregational or democratic government. It may be claimed that all members have an equal say but in reality most decisions and nearly all of the teaching are vested in one man. Normally this man is known as the “reverend” or “senior pastor.” Some groups go to even further unbiblical extremes and place “bishops,” “cardinals,” or even a “pope” over other Christians and local assembly leadership.
The assertion is made that this organizational structure is for the betterment of all congregations. In reality it is a departure from the New Testament pattern that leads to the spiritual immaturity of many members:
All this is done with the intention of providing more efficient organization for the Church. The root cause is the increasing lack of the Holy Spirit’s power in the Church, which grows with the increasing departure from the spiritual order. Thus a vicious circle is established-lack of spiritual power leads to departure from God’s order and departure from God’s order produces still greater lack of spiritual power.27
The leadership of many local churches has become invested in so few people that many believers have been discouraged from exercising their spiritual gifts. Those who minister have become a separate caste of professionals. Because congregations are not equipping people to do the work of the ministry, those who want to minister have sought out (in some cases are required to seek) specialized theological training. This formal training often widens the gulf between the have and the have-nots. Those who have not received formal training or ordination are frequently further discouraged from ministering. This is especially true when it comes to a member of the clergy sharing the pulpit. Some members of the clergy may be willing to share other ministries with “laymen” but most would never think of sharing teaching duties with those who are not trained professionals. The New Testament assembly did not have a specific time of teaching or an exclusive pulpit. There were times set aside for instruction in apostolic doctrine but the ministry of the Word was normally shared by Spirit led men in the assembly.
When you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has an interpretation, has a revelation (First Corinthians 14:26).
“Oligarchy” is governmental authority vested in a few persons. The New Testament teaches that local assemblies are to be governed by a form of limited oligarchy. It is limited in that the power vested in the “few” is not supreme and may not be lorded over others. It is limited in that it extends only to one particular local assembly. It may be more appropriate to define this as a form of plural servant leadership. There is no biblical justification for one man or a group of men to have authority over more than one local assembly. The New Testament clearly teaches the individual autonomy of each local ekklhsia.
Though the apostles and their delegates did exercise authority over more than one local church, elders and deacons in New Testament times did not. Therefore, today, since apostles have passed off the scene, local churches are autonomous.28
Ryrie is partially correct in his assessment of apostolic authority. The apostles were responsible for the spiritual care of more than one local assembly but their power was neither binding nor absolute. In Acts 15 the apostles, elders, and brethren came together at Jerusalem to discuss whether it was necessary for Gentile believers to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. After Peter, James, Barnabas, and Paul spoke it was decided by all that it was not necessary for Gentile Christians to obey Old Testament law. There was no enforceable power in this decision. Each local assembly was free to accept or reject this advice, even though it came from the apostles and other godly men. This was spiritual advice that was received by spiritual Christians. There was no “teeth” in this recommendation. No local assembly could have been disciplined by others for refusing. There were no binding organizational ties between assemblies. Spiritual advice and encouragement were offered but other assemblies were not required to accept it.29
The oligarchic form of government appears to have its background in Jewish councils and synagogues. Luke writes of the trial of Christ by the Sanhedrin, “As soon as it was day, the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes, came together and led Him into their council” (Luke 22:66). The members of the Sanhedrin were called “elders” (presbuteroi).
Over every Jewish synagogue, whether at home or abroad, a council of ‘elders’ presided.30
Synagogue leaders had no specific teaching or religious duties.
It seems certain upon the evidence that in these Jewish communities, to which in the first instance the apostles naturally addressed themselves, there existed a governing body of elders whose functions were partly administrative and partly disciplinary. With worship and teaching they appear to have no direct concern.31
In the meeting in the synagogues there seems to have been a great deal of freedom as to who should address the congregation. There was no ordained teacher. The elders of the synagogue handled administration and discipline. Any qualified man could address the assembly. If there was a visitor present he might bring the message.32
So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written…Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down (Luke 4:16, 17, 20).
This was the normal order of service for Jewish synagogues.
The reading of the section from the Prophets (Haphtarah) was in olden times immediately followed by an address, discourse, or sermon (Derashah), that is, where a Rabbi capable of giving such instruction, or a distinguished stranger, was present. Neither the leader of the devotions… nor yet the preacher, required ordination… the only points required in the preacher were the necessary qualifications, both mental and moral.33
The adoption of plural leadership from Jewish synagogues in no way lessens the importance of the need for assemblies of all ages and all cultures to follow the general New Testament blueprint. This can be shown in that there are other aspects of leadership that the New Testament assemblies did not adopt from Jewish councils and synagogues. One of the main differences is that the New Testament office of Deacon has no parallel in Jewish religious culture. Since the pattern of oligarchic leadership was observed in every Scriptural instance it can safely be assumed that this was the model established by the Spirit of God and inscripturated with apostolic authority.
25 Earl D. Radmacher, The Nature of the Church (Portland: Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, 1972) p. 384.
26 Robert Saucy, The Church in God’s Program (Chicago: Moody, 1972) p. 114.
27 Alexander R. Hay, The New Testament Order for Church and Missionary, p. 262.
28 Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology, p. 408.
29 Donald L. Norbie, New Testament Church Organization, p. 27.
30 J. B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (London: MacMillan, 1869) p. 94.
31 Edwin Hatch, The Organization of the Early Christian Churches (London: Rivingtons, 1888) p. 59.
32 Donald L. Norbie, New Testament Church Organization, p. 19.
33 Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947) I, p. 445.
Copyright 2008 by Joe Fogle. All rights reserved.