FIVE BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES OF CHURCH GOVERNMENT
(That You Have Never Ever In Your Entire Life Heard Preached From A Pulpit)
by Gerald R. Thompson
The Visible Church in Real Life
Next: The Office of Pastor; Of Religious Corruption
The witness of church history shows that over the years the visible church has taken great pains to suppress, subvert and sidestep all of the basic principles of church government God gave the Church for its benefit.
Concentration, Not Diffusion (Rejection of 1st Principle)
The biblical witness is that God has not placed anyone on earth in charge of the visible or the invisible Church. Unfortunately, history bears witness that people have not been entirely satisfied with this situation, and it seems human nature wants to impose a divine chain of command where there is none. Thus we see that the vast majority of churches – regardless of their form of government – have made an effort to concentrate church power and authority in just a few persons, notwithstanding God’s refusal to put anyone in charge.
There are three general types of church government, i.e., hierarchical (alternately called episcopal), congregational, and presbyterian. While there are definite differences in the level of bureaucratic entanglement involved with each one, for most purposes they all reduce to the same thing in the end. The inevitable tendency of human nature (or so it seems) is to concentrate power in the visible church instead of diffusing it.
Notwithstanding the great latitude God has given to Christians, or the resurgence of independent and home churches in recent years, the predominant form of church organization utilized in the last 2,000 years is the hierarchical model, as exemplified by Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and the greater Anglican Communion (including the Episcopal Church in America).
A hierarchical or episcopal church is characterized by multiple levels of ecclesiastical authority, that is, multiple layers of clergy. At the lowest levels there are clergyman who have charge of a local congregation or parish, and even at this level there may be a hierarchy of senior pastor, executive pastor, associate and assistant pastors, ministers of music or education, etc. But an episcopal church ensures there are additional layers (or a hierarchy) of clergyman above these, forming synods, diocese, presbyteries, etc., which may include one or more layers of bishops (overseers) and councils, and may even be capped off with a supreme pontiff, as with the Catholics.
Hierarchical churches also share a number of additional characteristics, i.e., new church plants are top-down (decided at the upper levels and implemented at the lower levels – but not by ordinary church members in any event), the hiring or assignment of ministers is top-down, and church property tends to be owned by the hierarchy, not the local congregation.
And despite the ballyhoo made by Presbyterian churches that they are modeled after a republican-style form of government, in reality they function just like an episcopal church in many ways. Thus, there are multiple layers of ecclesiastical authority (General Assembly, over the Presbytery, over the local clergy) which inevitably tend to concentrate power up the line. Plus, the ecclesiastical superstructure tends to control the assignment of ministers, and it is not unusual for church property to be owned by the Presbytery, not the local congregation.
Historically, both Catholicism and Orthodoxy have made the claim each of them is the exclusive earthly representation of the invisible Church. They have each claimed, in essence,”unless you are part of us, you are not really a Christian.” I do not know how widespread this claim is among other hierarchical churches. Any claim of exclusivity of this nature is a fundamental denial of the Diffusion Principle, by which all churches are on an equal footing.
This kind of obvious exclusivity is generally not present among non-hierarchical churches. Still, you can get a sense of how exclusive any church believes itself to be by how many other churches it will hold fellowship with (or to speak Christianese, extend communion to). When a church grants fellowship or communion, it is a signal that it acknowledges the legitimacy of the other group. To withhold communion is to deny an equal footing. Congregational churches are not immune from this type of behavior.
To deny fellowship or communion is inherently heavy-handed. It takes what is essentially an individual decision (Am I a Christian who is worthy to partake of communion wherever it may be offered?) and turns it into a corporate decision (No matter what you think, we will decide whether you are worthy to share our communion table). It is tantamount to saying that communion will be extended on the basis of membership in a particular visible church, rather than the invisible Church. It’s hardly a basis for equality among church groups. And it trashes the concept of Christian liberty (i.e., individual conscience) along the way, taking power out of the hands of the individual and putting it elsewhere.
In a number of ways, the Reformation didn’t go nearly far enough – primarily in the areas of church authority and deference to the supposed ecclesiastical authority of the clergy. A Second Reformation of ecclesiastical authority is long overdue.
Reestablishing the Priesthood (Rejection of 2nd Principle)
It is bad enough that in the greater part of the visible church the clergy openly refer to themselves as priests. What an absolute insult and subversion of the eternal and exclusive priesthood of Christ, who eliminated the need for any human mediators between God and men! But why should that be a surprise? Jesus said, “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” Mat 23:9. Nevertheless, how very many people call their minister Father, a practice in direct disobedience of the command of Christ!
Less common, perhaps, but just as offensive to the gospel, is the title of Reverend. What is that title, if not a claim the person it applies to is a holy person? But we know beyond any doubt, all men are equally unholy. None are righteous, no not one. People of God – why do we let anyone get away with this? Why are you calling your minister Father or Reverend? This practice only continues because people go along with it.
Yet, names and titles are just the tip of the iceberg. Even more sad is the fact that clergy in churches all over the world effectively function as priests, even if they don’t use the title. At a very basic level, the very existence of a clergy class is every bit a de facto priesthood. By its very nature, the clergy-laity distinction sets apart certain people from all others based upon a purported distinction in spiritual authority. What is this, if not a division in the body? A division that, if the clergy are to be believed, is by God’s design. Yet, God’s word specifically prohibits class divisions within the Church – visible or invisible.
This division of the body is reflected in all sorts of ways in nearly every church organization in the world. What is clergy, if not that certain people, and certain people only, can wear certain clothes, use certain instruments, stand in certain pulpits, go into certain rooms (just like the priests in Israel), perform certain rites and ceremonies, preside over certain services, lead corporate worship, etc.
Does your church have a room designated as a sanctuary? You do know that all physical sanctuaries were abolished by Christ, right? Is your church called a temple? Are there places in your church designated as a nave, a narthex, or an altar? You do know there are no altars in Christianity, right? Apparently, a lot of people don’t know it. Or they do know, but don’t care – which is worse.
Does your church have two pulpits – a greater pulpit (stage right) and a lesser pulpit (stage left)? Who may stand in the greater pulpit? Clergy only. Who formally presides over corporate worship in your church? The clergy – unquestionably. Because corporate worship can’t happen unless a clergyman is present, am I right? Try holding a worship service without one in your church and see what happens. How is this anything other than a division in the body, dividing those who can from those who can’t?
And this is only the half of it. The other half? That only clergy can be employed as pastors, opt out of social security, enjoy the tax benefits of a minister’s housing allowance, be recognized as a minister of the gospel under law, be members of an ecclesiastical hierarchy and participate in the medical and pension benefits thereof, etc. Oh yes, many are the special material privileges of being a member of the clergy. Did you think this was just about spiritual authority? Follow the money.
Who Are the Preachers of the Gospel?
I see no evidence God put clergy in authority over the Church, or over people with other various callings, gifts and offices, such as teachers and evangelists. Rather, I see the scriptures holding out preachers as fellow-heirs and fellow ministers alongside, and equal in authority to, the other gifts and offices. Valid, but not at the top of the heap. Necessary for the body, but not in charge of it. Although, notice that I refer to such people as preachers (or ministers) and not pastors.
One of the logical conclusions of seeing the various spiritual offices as equal in necessity and authority is that none of them is more entitled to earn a living or to solicit contributions from church congregations than the other offices. And before you start quoting 1 Cor.9 at me, consider this: nowhere in that chapter, nor in 2 Cor. Chapters 9-11, is the language directed towards pastors. If anything, one can make a case those chapters are specifically directed towards apostles only, and who among pastors today claim to be an apostle? Very few. Or, at best, the language is directed to preachers of the Gospel – but again, preaching is never linked in scripture with being a pastor.
Do you think it mere coincidence that none of the New Testament writers ever refer to themselves as a pastor? And even though the books of 1st and 2nd Timothy and Titus are commonly referred to as the pastoral epistles, are you aware that the word pastor is never used in any of them, even once? Go ahead, get out your concordance or online Bible and check it out.
Paul variously refers to himself as a minister, preacher, apostle and teacher – but never as a pastor. Curious. And while apostle and teacher are listed among the spiritual offices in the Church, neither minister nor preacher are. Nor is a preacher ever equated with being a pastor anywhere in scripture. Curioser and curioser. So who are the preachers of the gospel? Seriously – who does the scripture say the preachers of the gospel are? Truth be told, it never does, in so many words. But we can still reason it out.
Are evangelists preachers of the gospel? I should hope so. Isn’t that what an evangelist does – preach the gospel? Is an apostle a preacher of the gospel? Well, if the apostle Paul is any indication, then yes. What about teachers and prophets, who teach the word of God and speak forth the word of God – are they preachers of the gospel? Wait – are you saying they’re not? What is being a preacher of the gospel if not speaking and teaching the word of God?
So what is the scriptural evidence, except that all of the spiritual offices are ministers or preachers of the gospel. There is nothing in scripture to indicate that pastors are more a minister of the gospel than any of the other spiritual offices in the Church. And maybe less (see below). Equality – not division – is the rule governing spiritual offices in the Church. And if this is the case, there isn’t much need for a priestly class or a clergy-laity distinction, is there?
Assertion of Spiritual Authority (Rejection of 3rd Principle)
Much of the analysis of the abuse of spiritual authority in the visible church is wrapped into the discussion of the reestablishment of the priesthood. After all, who are the people exercising sacramental authority in your church? The clergy.
I am happy to say that in recent years, I have seen a number of local churches allowing the heads of families to baptize their own children and to administer the elements of communion to their own families. This is a good thing. But most people don’t understand the logical implications of what they are doing. Namely, that they don’t need their pastor’s permission, blessing or oversight to do these tasks, not do they have to come to church to do them. They could just as well do these things at home, by themselves, on their own authority. And in God’s eyes, it would be equally valid with doing them in a public assembly.
Which is why it is to the everlasting shame of the visible church that any of its ministers refer to themselves as having sacramental authority akin to the O.T. priests. And this is done even in some Protestant churches. For example, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church provides that “Pastors shall preach and expound the Word, to be God’s prophet to the people and to be the people’s priest before God.” Book of Order (2015-2016) Rule 9-5(A)(2). A footnote to that text provides, ” Priest’ highlights the Pastor’s special responsibility to pray for the needs of the congregation and regularly administer the means of grace through the ministry of the Word and Sacraments.”
Which is essentially no different from the way a priest is defined by Roman Catholics. “The priest is the minister of Divine worship, and especially of the highest act of worship, sacrifice. In this sense, every religion has its priests, exercising more or less exalted sacerdotal functions as intermediaries between man and the Divinity.” Catholic Encyclopedia, Priest, at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12406a.htm. I assume you understand that sacraments (Protestant) and sacerdotal functions (Catholic) are essentially the same thing. For shame, for shame.
Also, have you noticed how infrequently the spiritual gifts and offices are discussed in the overwhelming majority of churches? It’s as if they don’t exist, for the most part. And frankly, it is not enough that a church offer a sermon series on spiritual gifts from time to time. My belief is that it is the responsibility of every church congregation – as a means of building up and edifying the saints – to help each church member to identify his or her own spiritual gifts and offices, and then empower each member to use them as they see fit.
Just once – just once!! – I would like to attend a church where, once I start attending regularly, someone would ask me what my spiritual gift or office is, and when I say teacher, not to run for the hills, but to embrace it and encourage me. No, I’m not holding my breath. Or if I didn’t know, they would offer to help me identify my spiritual gifts and/or office. Why don’t churches do this? I’ll tell you why. Because once they know what your gift is, they have a responsibility to let you utilize your gift in the body. And that’s the last thing any church wants.
I mean, think of the chaos! Letting people do what God has equipped them to do. It’s madness! We have to put a lid on that. That would destroy the pretended spiritual authority of the clergy, and my God! – the church would fall apart if that happened. Whose outlandish idea was this anyway? The very idea, letting people get it into their heads they possess any real spiritual authority on their own. It could shake the very foundations of organized religion. We have to stamp this out now!
You think I exaggerate? Then why does every single church avoid identifying the spiritual gifts of their members like the plague? For starters, some church members might find out they aren’t actually saved yet, and that would be just disastrous – it could jeopardize church contributions. The only thing worse than doing that, in most churches, is to start talking about God’s laws …
Go back and read Eph 4:11-16 again. Yes, again! Do you see it?
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children …
Your church wants you to believe they are equipping you and building up the body of Christ, but how do we become equipped and built up according to the scriptures? Through the spiritual gifts and offices God bestows. So if you don’t know what your gift and/or office is, how well equipped are you? Not very. If you know what your gift and/or office is, but your church won’t let you use it in the congregation, how built up is the body of Christ? Not very.
What is the ultimate result of this failure to equip (and empower)? People in the pews lack maturity. If that is the case, how will a church treat its members? Like children. Does your church treat you like a child, needing constant help and guidance, not being able to decide things for yourself, or like a mature adult, in whose judgment the church trusts, allowing you to use your discretion in the exercise of your gift and/or office? Sorry, that was a rhetorical question – we both already know the answer. Why do you think some ministers want you to call them Father?
Here’s another thought for you to chew on along the same line. Some hierarchical churches regard their leader as a person who is purportedly chosen by God, who speaks for Christ, and who is the actual earthly head of the Church in Christ s absence. This is epitomized by the Roman papacy, where the pope is claimed to be the successor of Saint Peter, in particular.
The Orthodox Church prefers oligarchy to monarchy, apparently, vesting supreme authority in what amounts to one or more committees, i.e., the bishops and ecumenical councils. The Anglican Communion claims that its bishops are direct successors to the original apostles by reason of holy orders – essentially, a mechanism for choosing apostolic designees (an idea I have already discussed and discredited).
Why would any church make this dubious claim – that somehow they received the mantle of leadership of the Church from one or more of the original apostles? Especially when there is absolutely no evidence for such a thing in scripture? There is only one reason I can think of – to claim a special dispensation of spiritual (i.e., ecclesiastical) authority; essentially, to claim supremacy as to church government and other so-called spiritual matters when in reality there is no supremacy available to be had.
Your church doesn’t merely want to treat you as a child – they want to control you. And it is so much easier to control the masses if church leaders claim to speak for God.
The Keys of the Kingdom
Before moving to the next point, let me address head on the matter of Mat. 16:18-19, which is used by the Catholic church and others to variously justify the papacy, the clergy, ecclesiastical authority, and conflating the visible and invisible churches. Jesus said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
It is easy to see why people get confused by this text due to the similarity of the name Peter (petros) to the Greek word for rock, i.e., petra. But here is the key to understanding verse 18: the word “rock” does not refer to Peter. In a sense, the rock upon which the Church is built is the bedrock principle that Jesus is the Christ, which Peter acknowledges in the prior two verses.
But more to the point, the rock is Christ. We know that Christ – not Peter – is the chief cornerstone of the Church. See Ps 118:22; Isa 28:16; Eph 2:20. Plus, Jesus is often referred to as a rock in scripture. See, 2 Sam 22:32, 47; Ps 18:2, and 1 Cor. 10:4 (“the Rock was Christ”). So when Jesus said, “on this rock I will build my church,” He was affirming Peter’s recognition of who Jesus was, and using that recognition as the basis (or the rock) upon which the Church would be built. So ultimately, when Jesus said “on this rock” he was referring to himself.
So what about verse 19 and the keys to the kingdom? It is clear from the larger context (Mat 16:13-20) that this is part of a conversation Jesus is having with the twelve disciples, not just Peter. So when Jesus gives the keys of the kingdom out, He is giving them to all the disciples equally. How do I know this? Because Jesus repeats the binding and loosing language in Mat 18:18, where He again is speaking to all the disciples, not just Peter. Which, at a minimum, means that Peter didn’t receive anything (in Mat. 16:19) that the other disciples did not also receive.
We can therefore interpret this language in a manner consistent with the Great Commission, where Jesus is again speaking to all of the disciples. What He says to all of them is to be understood in a representative capacity on behalf of all believers who were to follow them. Neither the Great Commission, nor the binding and loosing language of Mat 16:19 and 18:18, were intended to apply solely to the people who first heard them. All subsequent believers stand on an equal footing with the initial disciples in terms of the authority granted by Christ to His Church.
Consequently, neither Peter, nor the twelve, nor their heirs nor designees, received any special, unique or peculiar authority with respect to the Church. Moreover, nothing in Mat 16:13-20 even remotely suggests Jesus is making a distribution of governing authority to certain individuals. No one could come out of that committee meeting and claim to be in charge of the whole enterprise, as subsequent New Testament history confirms. Did Peter ever claim to be the leader of the worldwide Church? No. Then how can his heirs claim to have what he never claimed for himself? So in the long run, who has the keys to the kingdom? Every believer.
The Visible and Invisible Church Are One (Rejection of 4th Principle)
I have made a fairly forceful case that the invisible Church and the visible church are two completely separate things, because one is created and ruled by God, and the other is made and ruled by men.
But doggone it, visible churches keep trying to confuse the issue anyway, have you noticed? Baptism, in particular, is used by many churches as a way to associate (or directly tie) membership in the local assembly with the spiritual conversion experience, so as to make it seem like you are joining both the invisible church and the visible church at the same time, thus blurring the distinction between the two. However, there is absolutely nothing in scripture which ties baptism (either water or spiritual) to local church membership.
Other mechanisms include infant baptism and confirmation to create the impression that somehow parents and the church can cooperatively induct a child (who has no idea what is really going on) into church membership and/or the spiritual “covering” of the church, creating the false impression that the visible church is something you can be born into. In fact, the whole idea behind bringing a person under the covering of a church is to maintain control. Don’t leave the local church, or you will lose your covering!
The Roman papacy is certainly the most obvious, but not the only, example of the leader(s) of a visible church claiming direct authority from God to lead the church and provide for its spiritual guidance. What does this do, except reinforce the idea that the visible church has been created and ruled by God – if not directly, then at least by His chosen agents? The idea that the visible church is man-made and man governed is entirely suppressed in very many churches.
If you have ever heard a minister say that Christians have a duty to submit to the governing authorities in the Church, this is a blatant effort to cause you to believe that your relationship with local leaders is pre-defined by God and also that they have a pre-defined jurisdiction to rule over you in specific ways. Yet, the phrase governing authorities is derived from Rom. 13, a text which applies solely to civil government and has no application to a local church whatsoever. So don’t be fooled by such trashy theology.
Yes, friends, your church – your church – is actively engaged in making sure you never draw a clear distinction between the invisible Church and the local congregation, even though scripture makes it abundantly clear that they are two entirely different things. (I can hear the voice of Yoda speaking to me as in a movie:) Keep you in the dark, they will. Give in to the dark side, you must not.
There is only one reason for claiming the invisible Church and visible church are the same, namely, for the purpose of claiming and exercising spiritual authority a/k/a ecclesiastical authority. If they are the same, then church leaders have a plausible argument for exercising spiritual and ecclesiastical authority, but if they are not the same, that argument evaporates.
But more than anything else, they want you not just to believe, but to accept without question – and accept without ever really thinking about it – that everything your church leaders say and do has the authority of God behind it. To be brutally honest about it, to the extent your church leaders blur or ignore the distinctions between the invisible Church and the visible church, they don’t want merely to treat you as children – they want to control you. You are to be passive, and submissive. Show up, pay up, and shut up.
But, you might say, “my church leaders are such nice people.” Yes, yes they are nice. But have you ever heard any of them tell you what I’ve shown you in this essay? Are they using different Bibles? For the most part, no. But if they’re telling you some truth, but not the whole truth, what do we call that? False testimony. Bearing a false witness of the scriptures. Yet they do it so nicely.
Rejection of Lay Leadership (Rejection of 5th Principle)
The essence of any hierarchical church is to deny and reject lay leadership of the visible church. The whole point of an hierarchical structure is to superimpose a multi-layer system of clergy over all church functions as well as all matters of spiritual doctrine and practice.
On the other end of the church government spectrum, supposedly, is the congregational form of government. Whereas hierarchical or episcopal churches are organized top-down, congregational churches are organized bottom-up, meaning that each local church is self-governing and is, for the most part, independent of other churches. However, many congregational churches choose to loosely associate with others of like mind in associations or conventions. Whereas hierarchical churches tend to look like a monarchy or oligarchy, congregational churches tend to look more like the United States under the Articles of Confederation (that is, a weak union as opposed to a strong union).
But don’t be fooled – a congregational church is, in many ways, just a scaled down version of an hierarchical church without all the bloated bureaucracy. Often the pastor – whether the sole pastor or the senior pastor – is a practical monarch, the local church is his kingdom, and his word is law. At least in Catholicism you can almost always find others of like mind in some segment of the church – because it is so large. But in a congregational church there is rarely a safe haven. If you disagree with the pastor, you will likely end up leaving – whether by your choice or by his.
Ostensibly, the Presbyterian form of government is supposed to be halfway between the other two. It is set up as a representative government, with a board of elders (or a “session”) who are elected by the members, and who rotate in and out of office (but are elders for life). The catch is the clergy are also usually elders – so-called teaching elders as distinct from ruling elders – so if you think the lay elders are actually in charge of things at the local level, you are sadly mistaken.
The other catch is that Presbyterian clergy are not members of the local congregation, but are actually members of the overriding presbytery (i.e., ecclesiastical superstructure) which regulates the local congregations. Local church members usually get to vote on whether to “call” a pastor, but candidates always come from a pool of candidates approved by the presbytery and who are usually already members of it. Clergy pensions, insurance and like matters are often controlled by the presbytery, not the local congregation. Not exactly the epitome of lay leadership or control.
In many churches, we see members who are divested of any real voting rights – all selections of trustees and staff are made by clergy. Many clergy regard themselves as not being accountable to the general membership, even when they occupy a position as an elder/overseer. Many clergy are not even members of the organizations in which they work – their membership, their authority, and their accountability all run to what is essentially a third party – i.e., a separate ecclesiastical structure, such as a diocese, presbytery, or whatever.
Often, the clergy are nothing more than an employee or staff person, yet somehow they are at the top of the authority pile and everyone is accountable to them. Which turns the entire corporate model of governance (authority flows from the members to the board, to the officers and then down to the staff) upside down. In my experience, in the vast majority of cases, even when clergy see themselves as part of the member-board-officer structure in some limited respects, there will always be significant ways in which the pastor/minister is simply out of that chain altogether.
So here is what all forms of church government look like at ground level. Hierarchical – the local priests are in charge of local congregations, but they are selected by the ecclesiastical hierarchical and are accountable not to church members, but the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Congregational – the pastor is in charge of the local congregation. He may be brought in by a vote of the members, but once installed, he is accountable to no one except his cronies who he has stacked on the board of trustees. Presbyterian – clergy are in charge of local congregations yet must be approved by the ecclesiastical hierarchy; they are not accountable to church members, but only to the presbytery.
Are you starting to see a pattern? Regardless of the ostensible form of church government, the clergy are always in charge, their allegiance is usually owed elsewhere than the local congregation, and they never view themselves as accountable to local church members. Let me be more blunt: regardless of how a local church is organized, clergy always think they are in charge. And for the most part, they actually are. According to conventional wisdom, this is the way things must be according to divine will. Such is the sad state of affairs in the visible church today.
Now of course, in the real world there are many variations on theme and what we might call mixed government organizations, modeling parts of their government after one type and other parts from another. But the bottom line never changes. Except for perhaps the so-called home church movement, which is pretty insignificant compared to the rest of the world of churches, the clergy is always in control and they always view themselves as accountable solely to God, not to church members.
The basic problem with this whole situation, of course, is that God never put the clergy in charge of the visible church. But, like a bunch of dupes, people allowed this to happen anyway.