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3. Church Government

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What type of government should the church have? Who are its leaders? It is clear in Scripture that Christ is the head of the church. According to Ephesians 1:22, after Christ was raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father, “God put all things under Christ’s feet, and he gave him to the church as head over all things.” Christ is the head of the church; however, he leads his church through delegated leaders called elders and deacons. The elders provide oversight, teaching, and care, and deacons support the elders by caring for the manual needs of the congregation. In the early church, it seems that every church had a plurality of elders, as the term is almost always mentioned in the plural (Acts 14:23, 15:2, 20:17; Titus 1:5; Jam 5:14). Typically, the only exceptions are when an elder is being singled out or the qualifications of an elder are being given (1 Tim 5:19, Titus 1:6, etc.). With deacons, as mentioned, they were the servants of the church—focusing on manual tasks, such as finances and administration and caring for the congregation. They support the elders so they can focus on their primary ministry of prayer and the Word (cf. Acts 6:2-4). Some believe that though every church must have elders, each one does not necessarily have to have deacons. In Titus, Paul calls him to set up elders in Crete and gives qualifications of elders, but never calls him to set up deacons (Titus 1). Because of this, it seems like deacons are selected on an as-needed basis to support the needs of the church (cf. Acts 6:1-6).

Though the elders are the leaders of the church and the congregation is called to follow their lead (Heb 13:7, 17), the congregation should participate in many of the major decisions. For example, this is clearly seen when the apostles commissioned the church to select seven men (often considered the first deacons or the precursor to deacons) who would care for the widows in Acts 6:1-6. Then, the apostles confirmed the congregation’s choices by laying hands on these men. Also, it is seen in how the Jerusalem church participated in the decision of the apostles and the elders to send leaders to the church of Antioch with letters. Acts 15:22 says:

Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to send men chosen from among them, Judas called Barsabbas and Silas, leaders among the brothers, to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.

Further support for the congregation participating in some major decisions with the elders is seen in Christ’s teaching on church discipline. In Matthew 18:17, the final step before excommunication is that the unrepentant member’s situation is brought before the church, and not specifically the elders. It says: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector.”

Therefore, church government is supposed to be a combination of elder-rule and congregational participation in some of the major decisions. Certainly, everything shouldn’t be brought before the church, as it would take forever for anything to get done. However, certain major decisions, as discerned by the elders, such as buying property, confirming the annual budget, selecting deacons or other leadership positions, and removing an unrepentant member from membership should include the congregation in the process. And as a wisdom principle for following this form of church government, Wayne Grudem said, “Government works best when it has the consent of those governed.”1 Sometimes this form of church government is called elder-led congregationalism.

In the following sections, we will take a more intimate look at elders and deacons, including their qualifications.

Reflection

  1. What stood out most in the reading and why?
  2. What are biblical supports for elder-led congregationalism?
  3. What are other forms of church government?
  4. What form of government is used in your church or church background?
  5. What other questions or applications did you take from the reading?

Copyright © 2020 Gregory Brown

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1 Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 922). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church)

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