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FIVE BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES OF CHURCH GOVERNMENT
(That You Have Never Ever In Your Entire Life Heard Preached From A Pulpit)
by Gerald R. Thompson
Introduction; Diffusion Principle of Authority
Next: Of Priesthoods, Clergy & Spiritual Authority
For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 1 Pet. 4:17.
Ah yes, one of my all time favorite Bible verses. Why? Because long story short: It’s time for us to get our own house in order, people (who claim to be the people of God)! And for all of you hyper-dispensationalists – no, this verse does not apply solely to Jews.
If you’ve read my Call For Reclaiming Church Government, you will see that I’ve taken a rather severe position with respect to the role (or lack thereof) of clergy in the Church. After listening to comments from readers and thinking on the matter some more, I decided to offer some additional considerations supported by a biblical analysis. The Call, after all, only puts forward propositions and doesn’t provide any scriptural proofs or underlying analysis. But perhaps now is a good time to expand on the subject to give some context to the propositions I have put forward.
In order to understand the biblical nature of church government, we need to examine five key biblical principles, namely: 1) the diffusion principle of authority and how it applies to the Church; 2) the role of the clergy and the universal priesthood of believers; 3) the nature of spiritual authority – who has it, what it can be used for, and whether it gives anyone the right to rule others in the Church; 4) how the heavenly or invisible Church interrelates with the earthly or visible church; and 5) the nature of the Church as a corporation and what that means with respect to its internal governing structure. I doubt you have ever heard any one of these five principles preached from a pulpit in any church.
There is a general principle in scripture that evidence of a fact or a proposition should be established upon the testimony of two or three witnesses. Deut. 17:6; 19:15; Matt. 18:16, 20; 1 Tim. 5:19. Here, I suggest, we may take each of the five biblical principles as a witness, which when put together are found to always be in agreement pointing to the exact same conclusions, and thus provide a quintuple witness of the analysis I am putting forward. In this way we may know that the analysis is true and firm.
Now, let me provide a brief overview of these five principles so you can see the order and progression of the overall analysis. The 1st Principle (diffusion of authority) will lay the foundation that God has not put anyone in charge of the worldwide Church except Jesus (who is in heaven at the moment), leaving the Church without a visible (i.e., human) head until Christ returns.
The 1st Principle leaves open the question of whether God has entrusted leadership of the church at the local level to various “spiritual persons.” So, the 2nd Principle addresses the question of whether God has entrusted church leadership to the clergy or a priesthood. We then move on to the 3rd Principle, where the question is whether the distribution of spiritual authority via the sacraments, spiritual gifts, or spiritual offices is such that we may reasonably infer certain persons are in charge of the church.
The 4th Principle will help us examine the difference between the way the invisible Church which God has instituted is governed, and the way visible church associations are governed. When we get to the 5th Principle, (the Church as a corporation) we will find out who is actually in charge of God’s Church until Christ returns.
Following these, I will take a look at how modern churches function in real life, and the extent to which they follow these biblical principles of church government. I will wrap up this essay with an examination of the office of pastor in greater detail, and also ask the question, Where Do We Go From Here?
(Note: I know the terminology gets confusing at times, but I view the heavenly Church as functionally equivalent to the spiritual Church, the invisible Church, and the universal Church. Similarly, when it comes to the earthly church, it is functionally equivalent to the temporal church, the visible church, and the local church. For purposes of this essay, the distinction I wish to make is between the Church body that God has created and the church organizations that people have made. This distinction is the key to understanding the matter of church government.)
God hates concentrations of power. All the authority delegated by Him to mankind is spread out so that ultimately, no one is in charge of everyone else. And this is no less true in the Church than it is in the rest of society.
All God-given Authority Is Diffuse, Not Concentrated
The Diffusion Principle of authority is that all God-given authority is diffuse, not concentrated – in other words, spread out among a lot of people – and no one is ultimately in charge of everyone else. This principle has three main sub-points: 1) God delegates authority via His covenants with people (that’s how people get authority in the first place); 2) God hasn’t given any person (or subset of people) more authority than everyone else; and 3) the diffusion of powers is the rule (i.e., there are no exceptions).
I first developed this analysis in Legal Foundations: The Framework of Law, ch. 7 (“Legal Institutions”). There, I was concerned with the really big picture – the distribution of authority among the various divine covenants, and especially between the four basic social institutions, i.e., individuals, families, the Church and nations. The idea was that God never concentrated authority or power in any one of these basic social institutions, but made them co-equal with each other and gave them non-overlapping authorities so they would not interfere with each other, and none of them could claim supremacy over the others.
Thus, for starters, God never concentrated power or authority in either the Church or civil rulers when compared with individuals and families. The two most common governmental errors, historically, have been to allow too much power to be exercised by either civil rulers or religious authorities to the detriment of individuals and families. By God’s design, true liberty is achieved only when the rightful authority of individuals and families is respected and secured by civil rulers and religious institutions.
But The Diffusion Principle does not merely apply between social institutions, it also applies within each social institution separately.
So while individual self-government is co-equal with national authority under God, all self-governments (that is, all individuals) are also co-equal with each other. God gave each individual person co-equal authority and no person has any legitimate claim to an inherent right to rule over other individuals. Commonly, we would say that all men are created equal. See also John Locke’s First Treatise on Government (1680), where he argues for the proposition that all men are born free (meaning equally free from being ruled by others), and supports his analysis with an examination of the book of Genesis.
To this end, consider Gen. 1:28, also known as the Dominion Mandate. There, God gave mankind authority over the earth, all the fish, all the birds, and all the animals (literally, every thing that moves on the earth, with emphasis on thing). In the lexicon of the Bible, a man is not a thing, but a being (Gen. 2:7), since people are made in the image of God, but animals are not. So when we look at the Dominion Mandate, no dominion (or the right to rule) over other men (or beings) is granted. The conclusion is that no human has the inherent right to rule over another human, because such an authority would require an express grant from God, and He gave none.
Similarly, all families have co-equal authority compared to each other, and no one can rightfully claim familial supremacy over anyone else’s family. Biblically, there is no centralized clearinghouse for getting permission to marry, to have children, or to take dominion. There is no overriding patriarchy or matriarchy built into society. Thus, when two people get married they leave the authority of their parents and start a new family that has all the same inherent authority as any other family. Gen. 2:24. All families are equal, and have equal authority.
I won’t summarize the analysis here, but again Locke’s First Treatise on Government (1680) is a useful resource on this question. The purpose of Locke’s First Treatise was to argue against Robert Filmer’s book Patriarcha, which to the modern mind was a defense of the divine right of kings, a position which Locke completely destroyed. Yet, Filmer didn’t argue that the English king had special divine authority merely because he was specially chosen by God, as most people today assume. Rather, as suggested by the title, Patriarcha was essentially an argument that the king had this right as the heir of Adam (the first man) by the right of patriarchy.
Filmer argued the English king was the patriarch (or the head of the family) of the entire nation of England and stood in the same place as Adam would occupy if he were still alive. As if Adam would continue to possess familial authority over all other families of the earth, merely because his was first. So Locke’s analysis was largely a deconstruction of patriarchy as a model for the transmission of authority down through the generations. Which, for our purposes, reduces to this: no man has any patriarchal authority beyond his own immediate family. Thus we must regard all families (irrespective of time, person or place) as co-equal in authority with each other.
Similarly as to nations and their governments. When God created the nations post-Tower of Babel, He did not put them in any kind of hierarchy. No nation had any more (or any different kind of) authority than any other nation. No nation had the right to rule over any other nation. There is no right of conquest, per se, and no right of nation-building in the laws of nature and nature’s God. No nation has the right to dominate any other nation either by outside force or internal struggle. As the scripture teaches, God made each of the nations on the earth, and He alone determines where each nation should dwell and how long they should live there. Acts 17:26.
Consider the opening clause of the Declaration of Independence (1776): “When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them …” What is that statement, if not a claim that this new nation being formed will, at its creation, stand on an equal footing with the most powerful nation on earth at the time (Great Britain)? And, that this is an inherent right conferred on all nations by the laws of nature and nature’s God.
Therefore, small nations are co-equal in authority with large nations, new nations are co-equal in authority with old nations, and all ethnic lines and nationalities are co-equal in authority as well.
Diffusion of Authority Within the Church
Now let’s consider how the Diffusion Principle applies to the Church. And the very first question you should ask yourself is whether God would, could or should have dealt with the Church any differently than He has dealt with the other social institutions He has created in terms of the distribution of authority. Is God going to change His whole modus operandi of dealing with men, just because the Church is involved?
We already know: 1) God delegates authority via His covenants with people; 2) God hasn’t given anyone an unequal authority; and 3) there are no exceptions. So as to the first point, which divine covenant applies with respect to the Church? The new covenant in Christ – the best expression of which is in the Great Commission:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Mat. 28:18-20.
This is the clearest statement in the New Testament of a delegation of authority from God to man. Jesus said, in essence, “I have all the authority there is in the world, and here’s the specific authority I want you to carry out on behalf of the Church.” So yes, the Church conforms to the first point as much as any other social institution.
Who has Church authority?
As to the second point, we need to ask whether the authority granted by way of the Great Commission has been vested only in one person, vested only in a specific group of people, or distributed in any manner which is unequal. Who was the Great Commission applicable to?
It is apparent the new covenant in Christ was not given only to one person, because there were eleven people who first heard it, and they all stood in equal position and authority with respect to each other when it was given. Further, if the covenant was limited only to those who first heard it, that would result in a very short-lived Church, i.e., the Church would have died when the last of the eleven disciples died.
On the other hand, the covenant cannot be considered to be applicable solely to the physical descendants of any of the initial eleven apostles. The very fact the covenant is spiritual in nature demands that it cannot be made applicable to anyone by reason of biology, i.e., physical descendancy, because participation in the covenant is obtained only by spiritual means, that is, faith. Do I really have to prove in detail that Church authority (i.e., the Great Commission) is not transmitted to people by means of a physical birth? Rather, Church authority is transmitted to people via a second or spiritual birth. So who the physical descendants of the original disciples were is irrelevant.
Is there any way the new covenant in Christ can be taken as limited to the initial apostles/disciples and their specific designees (i.e., people they chose)? No, because a divine covenant is not an agreement between men that can be assigned to a new party like a business contract. Every person entering into the covenant must come to God directly, not through an assignment, a delegation, or by referral of an existing member, as the means of gaining participation in it. Quite simply, none of the eleven disciples could give their authority away to anyone else. All that was in their power was to invite other people to join in participation – but they did not have the authority to decide who those future believers would be.
When we consider the nature of the new covenant in Christ as a divine covenant, it is evident that it is different from other divine covenants. All of the other divine covenants – Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic – run to the natural/physical/biological descendants of the initial recipients. But don’t make the mistake of assuming (as some Christians have through the years) that participation in the Church covenant is something that can be passed from one person to another as an inheritance or via family lines. Your parents can’t get you into the kingdom of heaven.
Each person is responsible for his own sin and his own salvation. This is a principle far more ancient than the Great Commission. “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” Ezek 18:20, written 600 years before the Great Commission.
Similarly, the appropriation of God’s grace and the redemption He provides is profoundly individual. “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Acts 10:43. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Rom. 1:16. Neither physical birth nor infant baptism will get you there.
Therefore, each person is accountable for his or her own sins on an individual basis, and each person can only obtain God’s grace and redemption on an individual basis. Unless the authority granted by the Great Commission is also delegated to people solely on an individual basis, nothing makes sense. The nature of the problem (sin) is individual, the nature of the remedy (redemption) is individual, and the nature of the means of obtaining that remedy (covenant authority) is individual. These all have to line up, or the salvation process won’t work. The Church covenant only applies to individuals based on faith – individual faith.
Consequently, if you become a Christian as an individual, then you receive the authority of the Great Commission as an individual – without exception. Thus, in every way is the Diffusion Principle proved to be the operative principle with regard to Church authority. If you are a member of the invisible Church, you have no more Church authority than any other believer, and no other believer has any more authority than you. Personally, I find that terribly liberating.
Who is in charge of the Church?
Additionally, the scripture indicates very clearly that Jesus Christ is the head of His body, the Church. “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church.” Eph. 1:22. “… Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.” Eph. 5:23. “And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” Col. 1:18. See also, Col. 2:19.
But Jesus is not here on earth at present. He is the Head of the Church in heaven, but on the earth He is absent. So although the universal or heavenly Church is one body spiritually under the headship of Christ (hereinafter I will refer to this as the invisible Church), the headship of Christ is limited to the spiritual or heavenly realm.
Which means the Church is decentralized in its temporal or earthly government (which I will refer to as the visible church). That’s because no one speaks for Christ or is authorized to act in His name, place and stead to govern either the invisible Church or visible church while Jesus is in heaven. Each local body or group of believers is separate and self-governing as each sees fit. I will explore this distinction between the visible and invisible Church in more detail under the 4th Principle below.
No man or group of men is the head of the Church, because Christ alone is the Head. Thus, all churches report to Christ, and none report to each other by divine command. Which is the same as saying that all churches are co-equal, and no church has the right to rule over or dominate other churches. And in reality, how could it be otherwise? The head of the Church is absent from the earth. For the time being, His rule is limited to heaven. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jn. 18:36. This is a pretty strong argument for the lack of a divine ruling authority within the visible church.
On the plus side, each group, body, assembly, association or church is free to exercise that self-government which God both allows and encourages; and each is also secure in the knowledge that they are truly not accountable to any other group, etc. for how they do that. On the negative side, some groups choose to govern themselves in absolutely horrible ways. One of the major outgrowths of decentralization is the fracturing of the visible church into denominations, essentially destroying any unity in Christ which may exist in the spiritual realm.
Nonetheless, this negative impact does not operate to change reality. God has not placed anyone on earth in charge of His worldwide Church either to prevent the formation of denominations or to prevent abusive group regulation. And until Jesus returns to take charge of the Church on earth, that’s the way things will stay.