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Church Government


When we talk about church government, we are speaking of church leadership. Who is calling the shots? Who is qualified? Why are they qualified? What kinds of decisions need to be made?

The New Testament speaks of the leadership in the church by using the words elders or overseers. Keep in mind that the body of elders were given to a church in a city, not a small group within the city. This is huge and must be understood. Refer to the chapter “One church in a city.” We will cover the difficulties this has caused later during this chapter.

The word presbytery comes from the Greek word presbuteros, which means elder. L eadership by elders, plural, is found throughout the scripture.

When God sent Moses to deliver the Israelites from the Egyptians, Moses was told to “gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared unto me ….” (Exodus 3:16)

In the Old Testament, elders provided leadership and were the representatives of the people, (Deut. 21:19; Exodus 24:1; Num. 11:16; Lev. 4:15).

Elders were present in the time of the judges (1 Sam. 16:4), the period of the kings (1 Sam. 16:4; 2 Kings 19:2), and the time of captivity (Ezek. 8:1; 14:1; 20:12). Elders provided leadership in the rebuilding of the temple after the return from captivity (Ezra 5:5, 9; 6:78, 14). Information on Jewish history during the intertestamental period also bears witness to the leadership of elders in the synagogues.

When Jesus came in the New Testament, we also see references to the elders, rulers, and rulers of the synagogue(Matt. 15:2; Mark 7:3; John 3:1; 7:26, 48; Mark 5:22; Luke 8:41; cf. Acts 18:8,17).

It is important to realize that there was a continuity of government within the church in both the Old and New Testaments. The apostles did not create something radically new; they built upon what was already established in the Old Testament. When the apostles talked about church offices, the hearers recognized much of the governmental framework which was already in place. Therefore, leadership by elders is not only a New Testament church government; it is B iblical church government.

The modern day idea of one man calling the shots for a group is not Biblical, nor does it work. Having a pastor with a board of deacons really telling him what to do behind the scenes is also another sick tradition of men.

In the New Testament church, there was only one church in a city and the elders were recognized publicly by a true apostle. The elders operated and functioned for the church in one locality or city. We do not have that basic framework to build from today. I can literally count on one hand the people I’ve met, who I believe, understand and have a true depth of revelation that on a practical level that only geography should divide the church. As a result of our current practice, we have multiple pockets of believers meeting in separate groups within the same locality. It’s not a problem that there are many meetings and gatherings in a city. The early church had the same practice. But all the gatherings had their identity in the one group that they all belonged to, the church in the whole city. The fact remains that without the proper understanding that there is only one church in a city, we are only left with multiple “churches” each having their own autonomous authority. The elders or leadership in one assembly do not have any authority in a different assembly, even if they are located within blocks of one another.

Because we continue to practice division in the church and do not adhere to one church in any given locale, the basic New Testament way of a group of elders being given to a city or locality of believers is not available – unless the whole town takes down their signs, abandons the names of their “churches” and all come together under one name (such as the church at Corinth, the church at Philippi, the church in Denver, the church in Franklin).

Although we have quite a mess today, the very heart of the leadership pattern does not have to be lost. As we all meet together in whatever form of fellowship we are in, the heart of the New Testament example is that it only makes sense that the older guys who have been around for awhile would be heavily involved in decisions. These days, in a typical fellowship, the elders would not be appointed by an apostle (a sent out one), but the older men who are in the Lord and have the overseeing qualifications and abilities should function as such.

Does the fact of plural eldership mean that any older man should be in on making decisions for the church? What about the rest of us who are not older? We will answer these questions as the chapter unfolds.

An extremely important observation should be noticed at this point. Although in the New Testament we do see a group of elders being very involved in decision making, we also see plenty of examples of the whole assembly making decisions together and bringing closure on issues.

Basically, the idea is that decision making or change in direction for a group should be done in a plural setting. I see a consistent thread in scripture that would look something like the following in a modern setting:


Brothers meeting, Saturday morning 9:00 AM

Who is there?

The older men who have been around a while are there. We may call them the brothers who tend to lead out a lot. If there are brothers in our midst who are very involved or who care deeply about church matters, then they should be there.

Does that include every brother? No. Some of the guys that we are meeting with may not be as involved. That is not a bad thing at all. I would say that in a larger size group, that many brothers would be of the mindset to simply work at their job, love their family, love the brethren, have a family over for a meal during the week, attend the meetings of the church and that’s about it. For many brothers, they will be able to adequately function in their gifts of serving and loving others and not ever feel the need to be in on decision making meetings for the church. If everyone decided that we needed to meet on Tuesdays instead of Mondays or that we should be doing more evangelism on Saturday mornings is not really a big concern of theirs. They are happy and quite content to trustingly go with the flow.

Back to the Saturday morning meeting: Is anyone excluded from this meeting? No. It is not a closed meeting. If anyone wants to come, let them come. One brother may want his fourteen year old son present to sit in and listen for training purposes. That’s fine.

What about ladies? Anyone who has read the New Testament is aware of 1 Cor.11 that describes the authority structure in that that the husband is the head of the wife and that Christ is the head of the man. If a lady has valuable input or concerns, it would be proper for her to discuss it with her husband. If he felt it was the Lord speaking, he could make it his own and then bring it up to the brothers. I do not think it is profitable for ladies to be put in a position to have to discuss heavy issues, or have a “back and forth” discussion with other men. Also, if another man shares an erroneous idea concerning direction for the church, another man way want to lovingly “crush” his idea. Sometimes it may be sharp. A man should not have to do this with a woman. It is not proper for a man to enter into debate with a lady.

What goes on during this meeting?

Prayer takes place. There is plenty of worship. There are discussions of church matters. There is more prayer. There are discussions of overview, the big picture, the direction the group is going, and issues of vision. Then, there is more prayer. How are the meetings going? What should be changed? What is good? What should we keep? What should we stop doing and why? Various needs in the body are presented and discussed. Brothers or sisters who may need to be pursued are mentioned. More prayer takes place. Current difficulties or anything that needs to be worked out may also be addressed. If at all possible, none of this should be done in an argumentative way. The time should be saturated with prayer. If a man has a problem with another brother, he should go to him in private if at all possible. Then, there should be some more prayer.

I guess you get where I’m at on corporate prayer. Talking in a group tempts people. Not that it doesn’t need to be done, but talking about issues or difficulties can be a temptation to pick up an offense, to feel like someone has corrected you, or that someone spoke “down to you.” Then, you are tempted to retaliate and correct the brother who corrected you because you were hurt or offended.

I’ve been in countless meetings discussing issues and working through things in the church. These meetings are a real test to see what you’re made of. Staying humble and truly listening to one another can be a real trial. To feel accused or attacked by an individual or even a whole group and to just sit there and take it or to truly respond in peace and not out of a reaction will really test your bottom line. Sometimes we will work through some real heavy and sensitive issues and stay totally at peace as a group. Many times we truly find the Lord’s heart on the issue, and it turns out extremely well. Sometimes we will start out fleshly and irritated and end that way as well.

The point is that you will do much better as a group as these times are interrupted often with prayer. Be slow to speak, prepare your heart and stay committed and devoted to one another – no matter what.

As issues are discussed, there is to be a humble and natural tendency to defer to the older men, to the ones with spiritual authority, and to the group as a whole. There should be a strong climate in the room of wanting to really hear one another. We should regard each input as very important. And more than anything, we should want to defer and “go with” the other brother’s opinion if we can. We should consider each opinion heavily, because it could actually be God speaking to us.

Then What?

As the brothers come to some closure on issues or topics, it would be Biblical to throw it out to the rest of the church in the next meeting time.

Let’s look at a few examples of when and how decisions were made plural in the early church.

Acts 6:5 – “But the statement found approval with the whole congregation.”

This is referring to the incident when the apostles did not want to take time to serve tables but wanted to fully spend their time speaking and preaching. They summoned the congregation and told them what they wanted to do which was for some of the other disciples to serve the tables. Why does it say that the statement found approval with the whole congregation? Because it’s important that it did find approval. If the church had a problem with it, there would be disharmony and dissention. It was good that the apostles communicated because it gave opportunity for everyone to join in with the new idea and go with the flow. There was no place for disjointedness or men doing their own thing without communicating. Even the apostles saw fit to communicate with the others what they were thinking. This communication was not with the purpose of having a vote. Throwing it open to everyone is not for the sole purpose to see if someone disapproves, but only because it’s common sense. How strange it would be for a man to lead out with something that involved and affected everyone without saying something first to everyone. The apostles with great honesty and frankness even told them the purpose and reason for their plan. They didn’t want to spend time serving tables. They said it and didn’t protect anyone from the truth. Everyone joined in and they were all in it together. The apostles did not avoid communicating as to head off a possible confrontation or discrepancy. They just said what they were planning and was as simple as that.

More Examples of the Group Being Involved

Acts 1:15-26 .

This is when Peter “stood up in the midst of the brethren (a gathering of about 120 persons were there together) and said…..” Basically, we need to choose someone to fill the place of Judas. The point is that he said what he thought to a whole lot of people. There is safety and freedom in the body. Someone would have checked him if he was off.

Often in the book of Acts, they were ALL TOGETHER in one place, then a man stood up and said what he thought should happen, then they ALL DID IT TOGETHER. Everyone had the opportunity to be a part of the plan, the purpose, and the heart behind it, and the execution of it. I’m sure there were many there among the 120 who had no opinion of the matter. That is fine and to be expected. They did not all vote. But they all did it together.

I hope you read Acts chapter 15 for yourself. You’ll see that they were not afraid to talk, speak and work things out together. Men stood up and said things. They great and the small heard it all. It is pretty clear that not everyone was part of the decision making process. That’s not the point. The point is that everyone was included to hear, support, and have opportunity to join in. The early church did not avoid messes.

Ch 15 V 34 “But it seemed good to Silas to remain there”. Does this contradict? No way. A man can always do what he wants independently of everyone else and it is not necessarily sin. And ultimately we know that the head of every man is Christ. But when the body is present and available, why would we want to do things independently? When we avoid, protect, and do not want to throw things out to the body, something is off. There is no need for decision making to rest with an individual or even a group of limited individuals when true body life is present.

I see an ongoing, open men’s meeting as being vital to healthy church government. The brothers should move together, giving preference to the older ones as much as possible.

Those who have the “rule” over you?

These couple of verses, which often have been misinterpreted concerning church government, have giving place to men controlling others.

1 Tim. 5:17 “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine.

In Hebrews 13:17 “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.

The word “rule” here is the Greek word proistemi, which means “to set or place before, to set over, to be over, to superintend, preside over to be a protector or guardian, to give aid, to care for, give attention.”

To be subject to an older brother is to realize that he has some years on you in the Lord. It simply means that it would be very beneficial to listen to the older guys and to those with more experience. Why? Because they probably know more than you do. The whole idea we have created of leaders making sure the non-leaders submit is not God’s way. No one is to make anyone submit. Nowhere does it say for husbands to require the wives to submit. They should do it on their own because it is fitting. Even unbelievers know that those who have gone before them and are older, typically know more, have wisdom, and should be listened to. This is not an authority structure Peter is setting up here. Peter is just saying it would be unprofitable for the younger guys to not listen to the older wiser brothers. “Who have the rule over you,” – those who are teaching you, have gone before you, are protecting or guarding over your life in God. This is not a legal binding authority structure. There may be an older brother who is not spiritually mature who God has not used to teach you anything. Those who are more mature than you and actually make it a practice to help you in your life – don’t resist them.

The person “who has the rule over you” can change. Remember, the only true authority is the Word of God. As different people in the Body have the Word of God for your life or your particular situation, then they have the rule over you. But, it is really the Word of God that has the rule over you. God can use someone in your life for a while, then they could go off the deep end, this doesn’t mean you should submit to their ideas if they go off in error. The Lord may use a particular person to speak His Word to you for a season, then He may use someone else. We should listen to those who are having the rule over us.

Those who have the rule over us, is a spiritual dynamic. It can change for different seasons, for different areas, and for different needs. One brother may have the rule over you in the area of finances. A different brother may have the rule over you in the area of eating right. It is more that you recognize their wisdom or authority in these areas and you actually give them the rule over you voluntarily, as the Lord leads you to do so.

It can also happen that someone who is not older than you can have the rule over you. Many times, your peers and those who are younger in the Lord than you will have the word of the Lord for your life. If you are listening for God in one another, you will hear others speak into your life, no matter their age or status. Remember that God uses the foolish things to shame the wise. He often reveals His wisdom to babes and not the wise and intelligent. Jesus came into Jerusalem riding on a donkey. That’s His style. He doesn’t usually come to you in the ways you may typically expect, because He is speaking to the humble and to those who are truly seeking. Don’t miss Him because of the package the message is in.

How beautiful it is when an older brother receives instruction from a younger one. It is the Word of God that has the authority, not men or the vessel. It is very possible for a younger man to have the rule over you because God has given him wisdom into your particular situation or weakness.

Now, keep in mind that the King James translates 1 Peter 5:5 in saying You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

In the above passage we see that we are to all to have humility toward one to another. Peter is saying that the younger folks should listen to the older folks that have been teaching them and speaking into their lives. But also that everyone should have humility and be subject to one another. We should all listen to God in one another!

Ephesians 5:19-21 says, “…speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.”

This is a beautiful verse, and one of my favorites in the New Testament. As Paul is telling us the kinds of things we should be doing in everyday body life, he also tells us that we should be mutually subject (submitted) to one another.

Since Paul was on the subject of submission, in the very next verse in Ephesians 5:22, Paul gives us a very different directive concerning submission. Paul tells us, “ Wives, be subject to your own husbands,as to the Lord.” This “as to the Lord” part is a real big deal. It does not mean “because the Lord said to.” It means that the wives are to receive instruction and leading from their husband as if it was the Lord Himself leading. I will not get into the topic of husbands and wives here, it is not my point. There is a clear explanation of this in a number of passages. The point is that Paul makes a distinction between the type of submission wives have with husbands, as opposed to the mutual submission that we are all to have with one another. Paul makes an extreme point when he describes a wife submitting to her husband as “unto the Lord.” He does not use this type of language anywhere else in relating to each other. Mutual submission concerning brothers is not the same submission as wives relating to husbands.

As a side note, I must insert that there is a verse in the Old Testament (Isaiah 9:6) that speaks of the Messiah saying “the government will be on His shoulders.” I’ve personally observed saints use this verse to say that we should not have to be concerned with church government because the Lord is in charge of things like that. The word government in this verse simply means “dominion” or “rule.” The purpose of the verse is to describe and testify of who Christ is in His power and sovereignty. It is stating that He will have dominion. It is in no way excusing us from having to deal with government among us. This verse is not to be used to justify the practice of ignoring situations and to not deal with anything openly and honestly.

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