FIVE BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES OF CHURCH GOVERNMENT
(That You Have Never Ever In Your Entire Life Heard Preached From A Pulpit)
by Gerald R. Thompson
Church as an Institution, Association & Corporation
First: Introduction; Caution
Next: Diffusion of Authority, Priesthoods & Clergy
More: Spiritual Authority and the Right to Rule
And: The Visible Church in Real Life
Last: The Office of Pastor & Religious Corruption
The Church is a mixed entity – in heaven it is a spiritual entity created and governed by God, while on earth it is a temporal entity created and governed by people. But for the purposes of church government, all governing authority comes from people, not God.
In this section we will explore the two-sided nature of the Church, which is also reflected in the way the Church is organized and governed. There is a spiritual side to the Church which God alone organizes and governs, and then there is the temporal or visible side of the Church which is organized and governed by men. If we are to understand the Church and its government correctly, we must rightly divide between these two aspects of the Church.
The Church as an Institution
Each of the four primary social institutions (individual, family, Church and nation) has certain immutable characteristics. Namely, each is: 1) created by God; 2) something you are born into; 3) governed by covenant; 4) has a pre-defined relationship; and 5) a limited jurisdiction over others. I will not rehearse here how each of these characteristics apply to individuals, families and nations.
What concerns us here is that the invisible Church is clearly a social institution in the sense described above. First, we know that it was created by God via the priesthood of Jesus Christ. “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. . . . But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired.” 1 Cor. 12:13, 18. So it was the Spirit of God who created the invisible Church – not men.
Second, membership in the invisible Church can only be obtained by being born-again, i.e., spiritual rebirth. Again, something that no man is capable of – only God can do this. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.'” Jn. 3:5-7. The only birth which men can prompt is physical birth. Only God, who is Spirit (Jn 4:24), can effectuate a spiritual birth.
Third, the Church is of course governed by covenant, namely, the new covenant in Christ Jesus, one of the six divine covenants between God and people. “But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises.“ Heb. 8:6. Plus, we have already looked at the Great Commission (Mat. 28:18-20) as an expression of the terms of that covenant.
Fourth, when I say there is a pre-defined relationship in the Church, what I mean is each Christian is adopted into the family of God as a son, has equal access to God, and is a fellow heir with Christ. “For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, Abba! Father!’ The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.” Rom. 8:15-17; See also, Gal. 4:4-7.
Fifth, the authority which the Church has over others is limited to the tasks it is authorized to perform pursuant to the Great Commission. That is, to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them … [and] teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” That’s it: to make disciples, baptize converts, and to teach. Not to condemn to hell or persecute, to conduct inquisitions, to maintain armies or conduct wars, to free the Holy Land, to force conversions, to kill or punish infidels, or to enforce the laws of God which He has reserved for Himself alone to enforce. Nor can the spiritual Church – through any human agency – grant or withhold pardon or salvation, or determine the eternal destiny of souls.
The spiritual aspect of the Church, that is the invisible Church, is governed exclusively by Christ as its head. Eph. 4:15; 5:23. We have repeatedly seen this play out – in the lack of any priestly class in the Church, in the equal distribution of sacramental authority among all believers, in the equality all believers share with respect to access to God, and the lack of any authority structure within or among the spiritual gifts and offices. Which is to say, God simply has not delegated any discernable authority to men to rule over things which are merely spiritual, including His Church.
I therefore conclude the invisible Church has no governmental structure, as far as people are concerned. Spiritual things fall under God’s exclusive jurisdiction. To the extent people have any authority to rule, it is only in temporal matters. Thus, the only authority which people may exercise with respect to the Church must be confined to its temporal side, i.e., the visible church.
The Church as an Association
This may come as a surprise to you, but the visible Church is not an institution created by God. What else is it? Welcome to the wonderful world of voluntary associations. Allow me to now demonstrate how much your local church is not the same as the invisible body of Christ.
When we examine visible churches, regardless of denomination or creed, we see that none of the characteristics of a social institution (as described above) truly apply. Every visible church organization in the world was formed not by God, but by specific people, at some specific time and place, under the auspices of some civil authority. All you have to do is pull a copy of any church’s Articles of Incorporation or other founding document to prove conclusively that they were not signed or filed by God and dated 30 A.D.
In contrast to a social institution, each voluntary association has these characteristics: 1) it is man-made, 2) it is something you join, rather than being born into, 3) it is governed by contract, not covenant, 4) your relationship to the association can be whatever the association bylaws provide for, (i.e., not pre-defined) and 5) you can quit the association and the association can quit you at will.
For starters, I’ve already mentioned how visible churches are formed, i.e., every local church starts with someone’s decision to form a local church. And that someone is always a human being, not God. There is no visible church yet that sprang up from the ground by divine action.
Second, if you are a member of a local church, I can guarantee that didn’t happen because you were born into it – at some point you joined it. I don’t even need to get into the issue of whether you became a Christian or a member of the Church when you were confirmed as a child or baptized as an infant. The reality is this: neither your childhood confirmation nor your infant baptism occurred as a divine act coincident with your physical birth. Confirmation and baptism are the result of a human decision – the decision of your parents, after birth – not an act of God at birth.
Third, God keeps a record of those who are His in the Book of Life. When you are listed on your local church’s member registry, does that affect how God keeps His records? In other words, does a change on your local church’s member registry change what’s written in the Book of Life? No. Can your local church leaders gain access to God’s Book of Life to see who is, and who is not, in it? No. So, two separate registries, two separate memberships. And two separate entities (visible church vs. invisible Church). Q. E. D.
Which is to say, the Church covenant in Christ does not govern your relationship with any local church. Your local church is not governed by any divine covenants at all. Your membership with them is a matter of human agreement, typically as found in the church bylaws. It is no different, in the eyes of God, or the civil laws, than your membership in any other nonprofit group or association.
Fourth, can a local church grant you the things God grants you – access to the throne of grace, eternal life, and communication by prayer? Let me turn it around – can a local church deny any of these things to you? No. They can’t grant them either. Those things are in the spiritual realm under God’s exclusive jurisdiction. On the other hand, does merely being a Christian entitle you to a position of leadership in a local church? No. How are local church leaders determined? By joining, electing and/or appointing. So your relationship to any local church is not pre-defined from the foundation of the world. Instead, it is governed by your church’s governing documents, whatever they are. But whatever they are, it isn’t the gospel, scripture, or the Word of God.
Fifth, perhaps most telling is the fact that with any visible church, you can join it, quit it, rejoin it, or abstain from joining it at all, all the while leaving your membership in the invisible Church unaffected. You can even switch your local church membership from one church to another. And if a local church decides to discipline you or dissociate from you, it has no effect on your listing in God’s Book of Life, your access to Him, or your spiritual gifts and offices.
Thus, the visible church and the invisible Church cannot possibly be the same – they are completely separate. So what jurisdiction does any visible church have over you, really? Only that which you give it. Not quite the same as God, who can discipline you without your consent in whatever way and for whatever length of time He wants.
But, it is here, on the temporal side, where all human governmental authority in the church resides. The visible church exists in the human realm, and its government has been committed to people. What that government looks like, we will examine in the next section.
Not So Strange
This dual nature of the Church – created by God in some respects, and made by men in other respects – is not unique in society. Consider again the four basic social institutions created by God: individuals, families, the Church, and nations. Notice I did not say “civil governments.” I said nations. What’s the difference? God makes nations, men make governments.
Which is just another way of saying, a nation and its government are not the same thing. We often think of them together as though they are the same, but they are not. I explain this principle in detail in the essay, The Right To Alter or Abolish the Government. In that essay, I show how this principle has played out both in ancient Israel and modern America. Both of those nations changed their form of governments at one point, but it did not alter or abolish the nation in either case.
We have already seen that there are some offices in the Church appointed by God, and others that are chosen by men. Yes, all the spiritual offices are appointed by God. But there are also temporal offices in the visible church, and these are chosen by people. Which means that we can say of the Church, as with nations, the invisible Church and the visible church are not the same thing. Also, that God made the invisible Church, people make the visible church. Don’t allow yourself to be confused by thinking these are the same.
So the fact that the Church has this dual nature – a God-made part and a man-made part – is not that strange or unique. This is the way God does things – He doesn’t do it all himself, He expects us to do our part. You can even see this play out with families in a limited extent – God has created the institution, its purposes and its laws, but people decide who they should marry all on their own. And that’s the way God planned it.
To discern what principles govern the visible church we must look to principles of government God has directed in other aspects of society. We already know the Church is both an institution like other social institutions, and an association like other associations. How are those things generally governed, and how might that inform the way in which the Church on earth is governed?
I refer specifically to the principle that any human government (and that’s what the visible church is – a form of human government) must ultimately be ruled by the consent of the governed. Think about it – civil government, as the expression of the government of nations, is subject to rule by the consent of the governed. Does it make more sense or less sense that God would choose to have other institutions He has created be governed by the same principle?
This is especially relevant since I have already drawn a parallel between the Church and nations, both of which are created by God, both of which are nonetheless governed by men, and both of which are separate and distinct from their earthly governments. So the likelihood that both of them are subject to the principle of the consent of the governed is pretty darn likely.
And voluntary associations – how are they governed? By contract (or agreement) of the members of the association rather than being imposed top-down from a superior sovereign. And isn’t that just the same as consent of the governed? It may strike you as odd to speak of church government in these terms, but when you consider the history of ancient Israel and compare it to the Church, it isn’t so odd after all.
Let’s start by observing three facts about the nation of Israel. First, Israel was clearly created by God – not at Babel as were other nations, but it was made from the descendants of Jacob (renamed Israel) centuries later.
And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel. And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.” Gen 35:10-12.
Second, ancient Israel is the only nation in which God was actually a party to the national covenant (i.e., constitution).
Then he [Moses] took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” Exo 24:7-8.
Third, God was actually the king of the nation of Israel. “And the Lord said to Samuel, Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.'” 1 Sam 8:7.
Are you seeing the parallels here? God created Israel, and God created the Church. God was in direct relationship with Israel via the covenant delivered through Moses, and God is in direct relationship with the Church via the covenant delivered through Jesus Christ. God, as the original king of Israel, was the head of the nation, and God (i.e., Jesus) is the head of the Church. So God was no more or less in charge of Israel than He is in charge of the Church, and vice versa.
Which means that God ruled Israel with an iron fist, right? Not really. For the first 400 years or so following the Exodus (the period of the judges), government in Israel was generally characterized as a time of extreme self-government. “In those days there was no [human] king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Jdg 21:25.
When we get to the time of the introduction of the monarchy, we see in 1 Sam 8:7 (above) that rather than imposing His own will on the people, God told Samuel to “obey the voice of the people.” Yes, people – God makes nations and men make governments. Even in a theocracy when God is totally sovereign over the people.
We don’t have time to rehearse it in detail here, but if you study the manner in which God anointed Saul, David and the rest of the Hebrew kings, you see the same pattern repeated. Namely, that merely being anointed by God did not make anyone a king, ever. Only when the people assented to the choice of a new king did that person then actually begin to rule.
Thus, David was anointed Israel’s king in 1 Sam. 16:13, but it was several years before David actually became king, and then only when accepted as king by the people. In fact, David ruled over only the tribe of Judah for 7½ years. 2 Sam. 2:11. He was not installed as king over the entire nation until the elders of all the tribes of Israel came to David and made a covenant with him, i.e., until David had the consent of the people. 2 Sam. 5:1-4.
The Nature of Ecclesiastical Authority
So what is the obvious lesson here? That God’s people the Church are to be ruled the same way as God’s people the Israelites – not by a king, per se, but by the consent of the governed. Not top-down, by the edicts or decrees of leaders who impose their will on the people. But bottom-up, by the consent of the people, who are the ones with ultimate governing authority. So in ancient Israel, the ultimate governing authority was We the People, and likewise in the visible church the ultimate governing authority is We the People.
In the visible church, the people are in charge, and the leaders serve them. In the language of agency, the members of the Church are the principals, and church leaders are their agents or servants. When church leaders fail to fulfill their duties properly, church members can remove and/or replace their leaders. If the structure of any church is found to be lacking in any way, the members of the church may alter or abolish it, and establish such a new form of government as seems best to them to secure their spiritual well-being.
Logically then, all ecclesiastical authority is derivative and delegated, not original or inherent. All such authority is derived from and through the consent of believers in voluntary association with each other, not directly from any divine source. We have already firmly established the principle that the spiritual Church is ruled solely by Christ in His divine capacity, and all things spiritual can only come from God. Similarly, the visible church (and any ecclesiastical authority) is ruled solely by people, and all temporal authority can only come from them.
In other words, and burn this into your brain well, no church leader rules by divine authority. I cannot stress this enough. God didn’t put anyone in a leadership role or a position of authority in your local church. Church leaders serve at the pleasure of the people (i.e., church members), and whether to hire or fire anyone is an authority that resides with the members, not the leaders. God, would that Your people took this to heart!
Further, accountability runs to the source from which authority is derived. Thus, all church leaders are accountable to the association of believers from which their authority is derived, i.e., general church members. As no ecclesiastical authority proceeds directly from any divine source, no church leaders may avoid accountability to church members by claiming to be accountable exclusively to God. Or to any ecclesiastical group, for that matter.
Understand what I’m saying here. Your church pastor/leader/minister/priest is accountable to God for the spiritual authority, gifts and offices bestowed on them by God. But for everything temporal, visible or physical, your church pastor/leader/minister/priest is accountable to the people who hired him or her. And that temporal authority – by definition – does not include anything spiritual. So if your pastor/leader/minister/priest uses his or her position of leadership (temporal) to govern you or rule over you in spiritual matters, they have exceeded the scope of their authority. In God’s Church, no one has ruling authority over spiritual matters.
But again, I’ll bet my bottom dollar that’s exactly what your pastor/leader/minister/priest does as a routine matter of course. Try to rule over you in spiritual matters, I mean. And, they think they have a divine mandate to do it.
And finally, believers in association with each other always retain the inalienable right (acting by mutual consent) to alter or abolish any ecclesiastical organization, which right cannot be restrained or denied by church leaders. Church leaders have no right or authority to maintain their positions of leadership apart from the consent of believers in association with each other. The visible church has no organizational right to life. Only persons God creates have the right to life. Your local church can be killed at any time by its own members, and that’s OK, because your local church is only a creation of men.
So if your local clergy are off making their own associations of clergy only, separate and apart from general church members, trying to preserve their organizational status against any actions of the church members, that should be a warning sign. Flag on the play! Foul! Dare I even say, Penalty! Can you say, Presbytery, or Diocese?
Teaching and Preaching Authority
At this point you may be asking yourself whether the preaching and teaching performed by your local pastor/leader/minister/priest runs afoul of these principles. Actually not, for the most part. What I have said is that spiritual authority carries with it no ruling authority. But mere teaching (instruction) or preaching (exhortation) is not leadership or ruling authority, per se. The authority to teach (including, but not limited to, the authority to teach granted in the Great Commission) is only the authority to present ideas for the consideration of the hearer. Teaching authority does not include forcing people to listen, forcing them to accept certain ideas, or forcing people to submit to the teacher. Nor does it include using guilt as a form of manipulation.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for people to claim that church members should sit under the teaching of a local pastor. This smacks heavily of the idea of submission – that church members have a duty to attend services and hear the word, or a duty to accept what the preacher says, and have a willingness to be taught. This last element is often euphemistically called having a teachable spirit. But what it means, again, is being submissive. Don’t think you know all that you need to know. Your pastor (someone trained, qualified, and licensed or ordained) will tell you what things you need to know. Trust them. And to some extent, trust them only.
But church members – as well as everyone else on the planet – always retain the God-given right and authority to test what any preacher or teacher says, and to accept or reject what is said. Each member also retains the inalienable right to seek out teachers of their own choosing, no matter who or how many. Obviously, some teachers and preachers will be better than others. But judging who those better people are is always a matter for the individual member to decide – not any church leaders. Absolutely never substitute someone else’s judgment for your own. Good judgment – spiritual discernment, really – is like a muscle. The more you use it, the better (stronger) you get. The less you use it, the weaker it becomes.
Just because God has not put anyone on earth in charge of His Church doesn’t mean He has left us without guidance as to how it should be governed. In fact, He wants the Church to be governed consistent with its true nature as a corporation.
If you look at what the New Testament has to say about church structure and authority, I suppose to the average person it can seem wondrous or perhaps mysterious, and to the average clergyman it will look pretty much like a pastor-centric organization. But if you put on the eyes of a corporate attorney, the scripture practically screams the Church is a corporation. And this analysis applies both to the invisible church and the visible church, although in different ways.
In fact, going back at least 400 years, the modern legal concept of a corporation is based on the historic understanding of the nature of the invisible Church, the body of Christ. Yes – what I’m saying is that the modern idea of a corporation came from the Bible.
Modernly, corporations are generally acknowledged to possess four main characteristics which distinguish them from natural persons. Lawyers use the term artificial person to refer to corporate bodies, and natural person to refer to human beings, because corporations are the creation of man, whereas humans are the creation of God. (Do you see how this distinction between things God creates and things man makes carries over into many different areas of life?)
The four characteristics of a corporation are: 1) it is one legal body with many members (thus giving rise to the axiom that a corporation is a single person in the eyes of the law); 2) it must be chartered or formed by the permission of the civil sovereign authority (in the U.S., either a state or the federal government); 3) it is capable of perpetual life (which is to say, the entity can survive beyond the lives of any of its individual members); and 4) its members will generally have limited liability.
As to this last point, it does not mean there is any pre-defined limit on what a corporation may be liable for. Instead, it means the individual members or shareholders of the corporation will not be personally liable for the debts of the corporation. Thus, the liability of the individual members of a corporation is limited to what they have invested in it – if anything. And in a nonprofit corporation, that investment (by members) is typically zero – at least monetarily.
It is also common for people to talk about a corporation having the ability to enter into contracts, hold property, and to sue and be sued. But in reality these are simply the consequences of being a legal person. Another common attribute of corporations is the transferability of ownership, but this only applies to for-profit or business corporations, which has no application to the Church. Rather, the proper analogy between the Church and the corporate world is a nonprofit corporation.
A nonprofit corporation is distinguished from a business corporation in this key respect: no one owns it personally. Thus, there are no ownership interests to be transferred. In fact, in many states the proper terminology for a nonprofit corporation is a non-stock corporation, or a corporation with no stockholders. So the word nonprofit actually has nothing to do with what a corporation may earn. Rather, a nonprofit entity is one in which no one can profit as an owner. Typically, a nonprofit corporation has members, but these people are not shareholders or owners. Members have voting rights (i.e., a voice in corporate government), but not a financial stake in the enterprise.
And so we see that the invisible Church is very much like a nonprofit corporation. We already know that the Church is one body, or one entity, with many members. 1 Cor. 12:12-14. And God refers to this body as a person when He calls it the Bride of Christ. Rev. 19:7. We have also seen that the invisible Church was chartered or formed by God, the universal sovereign. 1 Cor. 12:18,24,27-28.
The Bible also tells us the invisible Church will be with God forever and individual members of it will have eternal life. Rom. 6:22-23. Thus, the Church as a body will outlive the physical lives of all of its members. Additionally, every member of the invisible Church may be said to have a limited liability. In other words, each person’s liability is limited to loss of their physical life. But a member will never lose his or her eternal reward. See, Mat. 10:28. Also, 1 Cor. 15:50-58.
Finally, no member of the body of Christ may be said to be an owner of the invisible Church. Yet, each member has a voice (via consent of the governed) in the government of the visible church. And in the Millennium, each member of the Church will participate in the government of the kingdom of Christ. Rev. 20:4. So, membership basically means participation, not ownership.
These parallels between the invisible Church and a nonprofit corporation were recognized centuries ago. Unfortunately, the mood of the times (back when many nations approved of the state establishment of religion) was to carry the analogy too far. Thus, temporal corporations were modeled after the singular Head and body concept (i.e., Christ as head, and everyone else as the body). This gave rise to what we modernly call a corporation sole, where (typically) a religious figure or church leader was recognized as the head of the visible church, and everyone else in the church was a member of his body.
Obviously, from our standpoint (now that state establishments of religion are out of fashion), we recognize that the head and body concept applies strictly to the invisible Church, whose head is Christ. Earthly corporations ought not to model themselves after God’s example in that respect. Although, there are still some corporations sole out there, remnants of an earlier time, many in connection with the Roman Catholic church.
But for our present purpose, I wish to establish only that the universal Church is analogous to a nonprofit corporation. Which is significant, seeing as how nearly every visible or temporal church in the Western world is also organized as a (surprise!) nonprofit corporation. It indicates that there is a divine pattern here, given to us for our edification.
Now, being analogous to a nonprofit corporation tells us nothing about the governing of the universal Church, because it is governed exclusively by Christ as its head. But as to the visible church, it tells us almost everything we need to know. And from that starting point, we can next inquire how it is that nonprofit corporations are typically governed.
Nonprofit corporate governance is no big secret. The members elect a board of directors (sometimes called a board of trustees), and the board selects or appoints officers of the corporation. In the nonprofit world, members generally have no rights except to vote for board members and on certain important questions affecting the organization, such as mergers, the purchase and sale of property, changes of name or purpose, and dissolution, etc.
The board of directors/trustees set policy for the corporation, oversee its affairs, and exercise ultimate control of the budget and assets of the corporation. The board supervises the officers and employees of the corporation, and expects reports and updates from them in order to keep advised of corporate affairs. The board usually doesn’t handle the day-to-day business of the entity, but they can form committees to exercise a more direct role in key corporate activities. And in the nonprofit world, board members almost always serve without compensation, i.e., they are volunteers. Typically, but not necessarily, directors/trustees are also members of the organization.
You should be starting to pick up on the fact that a corporate board basically functions as a committee of overseers. And this should tell you where the analysis is going.
Officers are typically compensated employees of the corporation, but they can also be volunteers, depending on the overall budget and whether their tasks are part-time or full-time. Officers tend to be the key employees in any corporation, but it is common in the nonprofit world to have the daily affairs of the entity run by an executive director, who may be neither an officer or director, or either one or both.
Authority and accountability flow in opposite directions. The members have ultimate authority, but since the board members are regarded as fiduciaries for legal purposes, that’s where most corporation laws fix the ultimate responsibility for a corporation. Nonetheless, the members retain the authority (as We the People) to remove and replace any board member, as a general rule. The board has authority to hire and fire the officers, and sometimes the general staff.
In other words, authority flows from the members to the board to the officers and down to the staff. Accountability runs from the staff to the officers up to the board and finally to the membership – in other words, in exactly the opposite direction. All these relationships – and the procedures for holding meetings, resolving disputes, and the distribution of authority – are handled in the corporation’s bylaws. All this is the normal expectation for nonprofit corporate governance.
And when we look at what the scriptures have to say about church governance, what do we see? We see provision for members of the body, elders/overseers who function as a board of directors, and deacons who function as officers and/or staff.
Apparently, this arrangement was first introduced in the early Jerusalem church:
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Acts 6:1-4.
Let me interpret. The twelve, i.e., the original apostles, were the functioning elders or overseers of the Jerusalem church. Peter (one of the twelve) confirms that he was an elder in 1 Pet. 5:1, referring to himself as “a fellow elder.” Their duties centered around oversight and teaching, consistent with Paul’s admonition to Timothy that an elder be “able to teach.” The seven other men selected by the elders were to have the initial primary duty, according to Acts, of serving tables. Yeah, pretty much sounds like deacons to me.
Later on, Paul writes to Timothy concerning the qualifications or requirements for the positions of elder and deacon in the churches.
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. 1 Tim 3:1-7.
Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. 1 Tim 3:8-13.
First, as to elders, the scripture says it is an office that men may aspire to. In other words, you can desire to be an elder, and it is an office you can run for, in essence. You decide you want this position, and other men decide to elect or appoint you – God is not involved in the process. If your church teaches that being an elder is something a person is divinely called to, the scripture does not support that. And although it is not explicitly stated, it is fair to imply a person can also aspire to the office of deacon.
Thus, we know that elders and deacons are not spiritual offices, and the people who hold these positions are appointed by men, not God. This conclusion is confirmed by the presence of stated qualifications for the offices of both elders and deacons. If God were doing the appointing, as He does with spiritual gifts and offices, He would not need a list of qualifications, or tell us what they were if He had one. These qualifications are for our benefit – to help us appoint worthy men to office.
All of this is perfectly consistent with government by the consent of the governed. There is no divine right to rule given to people with respect to the visible church. No elder or deacon sits by reason of a divine appointment.
Second, the visible church, from its very earliest days, was not ruled or governed by spiritual persons (or persons supposing themselves to be spiritual). Which translates into modern parlance as being governed by lay leadership. No priests, pastors, ministers of the gospel, or any so-called spiritual persons are placed in authority to oversee the church at any point in the New Testament. The visible church is to be led by people holding temporal offices, plain and simple. In other words, leadership of the visible church is to be from within, not from above.
Is this arrangement of members, elders and deacons to be taken as gospel? By that I mean, must every church be organized like this, or is there any flexibility in the way the visible church can be organized and governed? It will probably surprise you when I say that, strictly speaking, this arrangement is not required. Yes, it would seem to be the preferred model – and the only one suggested in the N.T. And I don’t have any reason to disfavor it for any reason.
But if we are to take the principle of government by consent to its logical conclusion, we would expect liberty in the choice of the form of government among visible churches, just as we do for civil governments. There is not only one right way to organize a civil government prescribed by God – why should the visible church be any different?
However, this liberty comes with a caveat, namely, we do not have the liberty to choose a form of local church government which ends up conflicting with any of the biblical principles of church government. Thus, for example, we do not have the liberty to establish a priestly class in the church – even by consent – because it would undermine the priesthood of Christ, which as you may remember, is exclusive. So the very existence of a priestly class negates the equality within the Church that the priesthood of Christ guarantees. Similarly with the other principles. So in the long run, permissible deviations from the corporate model are going to be limited and small in scope.
This naturally brings up the question of how well the visible church has fared in observing these biblical principles of church government throughout its history.
A couple of pages back I said, “authority flows from the members to the board to the officers and down to the staff. Accountability runs from the staff to the officers up to the board and finally to the membership.” All of which assumes a “standard” nonprofit corporation setup, where the articles of incorporation provide for members, who elect the directors, who appoint the officers and staff.
However, most state corporation laws allow nonprofit corporations to be incorporated on a “directorship” basis. In a directorship corporation there are no voting members of the organization, meaning that members do not elect the directors. Instead, the directors appoint or select their own members – the board of directors is self-perpetuating. The board may or may not solicit input from the members (i.e., the congregation) as to director selection, but ultimately the choice belongs to the board, not the members.
(A directorship corporation may still have members, if it has bylaws that expressly provide for them. However, there is a difference between having members defined by the Articles of Incorporation, and having them defined only in the bylaws or an internal constitution. The Articles are a public document, which can only be changed by filing with a state office. Also, members provided for in the Articles get all of the protections afforded to members under the state’s corporation laws. Members created by the bylaws do not get those protections, and they have no legal right to vote. Plus, the bylaws are a private document no one has a right to see, and they can be changed at any time. In addition to all of that, if you ever get in a bylaws dispute with a church, courts will generally not intervene.)
This scenario is increasingly being used by churches as the preferred form of corporate organization. There are three main dangers flowing from this choice of an internal arrangement. First, it allows for cronyism to go unchecked. The board will tend to select directors who are friends or relatives of the existing directors and/or the pastor. Second, it takes the power of removal of a director away from the members. The members have no real say in who gets on the board, or who gets booted off. Third, in the event of a church crisis – the pastor is forced to leave because of some scandal, or there is a church split and several directors leave in disgust – what happens to the church is left in the hands of very few people (sometimes just one or two).
In all three of these scenarios, there is no true accountability of the board of directors to the people – the congregation. Even though most (if not all) of the people in the congregation will think of themselves as members (and have probably been told as much). The means of accountability has been eliminated (i.e., the power to change who sits on the board). Accordingly, setting a church up as a directorship corporation is just a blatant (although usually unpublicized) effort to consolidate and control power for the pastor and/or whoever else is really in charge.
But ultimately, what a directorship corporation does is call into question what the definition of a church really is. In the universal Church, the body of Christ, Jesus is the head of the Church, but He Himself is not the Church. Jesus Himself is not the body. The body of Christ – the true Church – is made up of the people who are believers. Without the people who are members of the body, there is no Church. God never refers to the Church apart from the people who are its members. If there is no such thing as a heavenly Church that has no members, how can there be a visible church without voting members? Yet, that is exactly what a directorship corporation is.
You may say, “Well, believers have no voting rights in the heavenly church. There’s no reason why they should have voting rights in a visible church.” Except that Christ actually does rule the heavenly Church by the direct authority of God (i.e., top-down). But your local church is actually ruled by the consent of the governed (i.e., bottom-up). Your church leaders have probably told you their authority comes from God, and God established the visible church. Your denomination probably says exactly that in its organizational documents.
But as we have already seen, this is a grossly mistaken belief. God never came down to earth, incorporated your church, and personally installed your church board. No matter how old your church is, it was formed by people, its organizational documents were written by people, and its leaders were all chosen by people. And no, your church does not trace back corporately or organizationally to 30 A.D.
There is also a definitional principle here. No church, whether visible or invisible, is defined by its leadership. Which is to say, no church exists merely because church leaders are in place. The presence of a leadership structure, or an ecclesiastical hierarchy, is not what makes a church a church. I’m talking about clergy here, folks. A church without clergy is still a church in God’s eyes. And I’m not just talking about a congregation in transition, when a pastor leaves or dies, and they are looking for a replacement. I mean a church body permanently without a clergy person is still a church. God intended the visible church for lay leadership, remember?
Yet, I dare say all, or nearly all, Christian denominations (including Protestant ones) provide in their organizational documents that a church body is not, and cannot become, a part of the denomination unless it is lead by an approved member of the clergy. In other words, a congregation is not a church, unless a clergy person leads it. And there is not one single verse in all the Bible to support such a position.
You have been duped. God established the visible church. Your church leaders have been appointed by God. Your church leaders have spiritual authority to rule. The heavenly church and the visible church are both under the headship of Christ. Pastors and elders are the same thing. Church authority is essentially top-down. Members have no inherent voting rights. A church without clergy is not really a church. Lay leadership operates under the authority of the clergy. Oh, and you owe us some of your money.
Believe what you want, but if your church was formed as a directorship corporation, it only proves that God had absolutely no hand in establishing it, because God never formed a church without members. Ironic, no? And the people who have robbed you of your rights as a member (in the name of efficiency and good order) are just cheaters. Is it any wonder then, that so many churches teach a message of “giving up your rights for the sake of Jesus,” and “submit yourselves to each other”? Ever notice how the submission only ever works one way?
(Note: all church articles of incorporation are a matter of public record in every state in the U.S. All states make their corporate records available online, and the vast majority allow document downloads for free. In those few states who charge for download copies, the cost is really minimal. Do yourself a favor – look up your church’s articles of incorporation and see what is really going on.)
First: Introduction; Caution
Next: Diffusion of Authority, Priesthoods & Clergy
More: Spiritual Authority and the Right to Rule
And: The Visible Church in Real Life
Last: The Office of Pastor & Religious Corruption