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Lesson 12: Who’s in Charge Here? (1 Timothy 3:1 & Other Scriptures)

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July 2, 2017

If you were to ask, “Who’s in charge of the church?” most American Christians would answer, “The pastor is.” Perhaps due to our democratic form of government, almost without thinking we impose that model of government on the church. We assume that the pastor is kind of like the President, the elder board is like Congress, and the members are the voting public. If the guys running the church do a reasonably good job, they can stay in office. But if the voters don’t like their performance, they can vote them out! Even the great American revivalist pastor and profound thinker, Jonathan Edwards, got voted out as pastor of his church! It’s the American way!

There are different views among Christians when it comes to church government, each with some biblical support. The episcopal model is hierarchical: There is one leader at the top. In the Roman Catholic Church, it’s the pope, whom they claim is in the line of direct succession from the apostles. In Orthodox Churches it is the metropolitan. In Anglican Churches, it is the Archbishop of Canterbury. Under this leader are tiers of leaders (cardinals, archbishops, bishops, etc.) who have charge over large regions and cities. Priests have charge over local congregations. This form of church government seems to have emerged by the middle of the second century (The New Dictionary of Theology [IVP], ed. by Sinclair Ferguson and David Wright, p. 143).

The Presbyterian form of government is not quite so hierarchical, although there are tiers of authority. The local church is governed by presbyters or elders, called the session, led by the pastor, who is chosen and called by the congregation. The churches are part of the synod or presbytery, a regional group of elders from different congregations. Above that is the General Assembly that has broader jurisdiction over the entire denomination.

The independent system views each church as autonomous and not subject to any outside authority. Some independent churches, like the Southern Baptists, join together in larger associations or conventions. Churches must adhere to the doctrines and practices of the larger organization. Some independent churches are congregationally governed, while others are under elder rule.

Our church is independent from outside authority, but led by elders who are appointed by the church. Since before I came here 25 years ago, the church has been affiliated with the Conservative Baptist Association, a cooperative association of Baptist churches, but they do not have authority over us. To sum up my understanding of biblical church government:

Christ exercises headship over His church through church-recognized spiritually mature elders who shepherd His flock.

I’ll break this down into three points:

1. The basic principle of church government is that Christ is the head of His church.

All of the different systems of church government recognize Christ as the head over His church. The differences emerge when it comes to how He exercises that headship. But we need to think carefully about the practical ramifications of the headship or authority of Jesus Christ over His church. This means that this church is not my church! I know that it’s easy to say, for example (I have said it myself), “Did you attend John MacArthur’s church when you were in California?” It’s easy to call a church by the pastor’s name. But it’s really not right. Pastors don’t own their churches; Christ does! They’re under His headship.

By the same token, this church is not your church. If you’re a member here, I’m glad to hear that. If you’ve been a member here for a long time, I’m glad to hear that, too. If you give generously to support the ministries here, I’m glad to hear that (although I have no idea how much anyone gives). If you’ve served faithfully here over the years, I’m happy about that, too. But even so, it’s not your church in the sense of ownership. It’s Christ’s church! He is the head of His organic body. He purchased the church with His own blood. I hope that we’re all committed to this church and that we all serve in it and give to support it. But even if we do, it doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to Jesus Christ. He is the head of His body. He is the king over His people.

This means that the main function of church government is to allow Christ to exercise His headship over His church. This means that the church is not a pure democracy, where every member has a vote. I don’t like the word “vote” when it comes to church government, because it smacks of American politics. Americans go to the polls to vote their minds or express their opinions via the ballot box. That’s fine for American government, but that’s not the way the church should operate. The key question on any issue in the church is not, “What is the mind of the members?” but rather, “What is the mind of the Lord of the church?” The mind of Christ is given to us in His Word. We may differ over how to interpret or apply the Word to particular situations. But we all must place ourselves under Jesus Christ as our supreme authority.

Allowing Christ to exercise His headship over His church results in an entirely different way of conducting church business. If you view the church as a democratic organization where every member has a vote, you’re into church politics. Shortly after I came here, I had lunch with a denominational executive who advised me, “You’ve got to build your power base as a new pastor in a church.” I didn’t reply, but I thought to myself, “I’m sorry, but I’m not into building a power base.” If you operate that way, you’re trying to manage and manipulate a bunch of self-willed people expressing their wishes through majority rule.

But if the members are living daily in submission to the Lord of the church and seeking to obey His Word, then when they come together to take care of church business, they deny self and reverently seek what the Lord is saying to His church corporately. That’s an entirely different thing than church politics!

2. Christ exercises His headship over the church through church-recognized spiritually mature elders.

Note four things in this regard:

A. The church is responsible to recognize spiritually mature elders.

In the first churches founded by the apostle Paul and Barnabas, after they had been functioning for a while we read (Acts 14:23), “When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” Later, Paul wrote to both Timothy and Titus, his apostolic representatives, specifying the qualifications that they should look for in appointing elders (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-7) and deacons (1 Tim. 3:8-13), who were engaged in serving the churches. We no longer have apostles or apostolic delegates to appoint elders, but we can follow the Spirit-inspired guidelines set down in those two pastoral letters.

Note that I said, “Recognize spiritually mature elders,” not “vote for elders.” There is a key difference! You might vote for an elder because you like him personally or because his thinking represents your thinking and you want him to try to implement your views in the church. Voting (at least in the American political scene) is often a matter of personal preference. But the issue in church government is not whom you like, but rather, “Does this man possess the qualifications set down in Scripture to function in this office?” Of course, no man possesses all of the qualifications perfectly. But a man should not glaringly violate any of the qualifications and he should generally match them.

Next week I’ll talk about how to spot an elder, explaining those qualifications. But at our church business meetings, rather than voting for your preferences, you should be affirming, “As far as I know, this man embodies the biblical qualifications for elder.” Maybe you live next door to him and you know that he treats his family in a godly manner. Or perhaps you work with him or for him, and you can attest that he demonstrates integrity in the workplace. Or, you’ve seen him deal with people and you know that he has a shepherd’s heart. He takes the initiative to help people grow in the Lord. So at the business meeting, you affirm, “Yes, that man is an elder. He meets the biblical qualifications.”

The members of the church are also charged with holding elders accountable, both morally and doctrinally. This is especially important on essentials truths related to the gospel: the total inspiration and authority of the Bible; the trinitarian nature of God; the full deity and perfect humanity of Jesus Christ; His substitutionary atonement; His resurrection from the dead; His bodily ascension and second coming. We cannot deviate from essential truth!

If an elder is acting in ways morally contrary to Scripture or is teaching things contrary to Scripture, church members need to talk to him, first privately, then with one or two others. If there is still no resolution, they should go to the other elders (as the leaders of the church). If there is still no repentance, it needs to go to the whole church (Matt. 18:15-17).

This implies that church members are responsible to know the Bible well so that they can spot any deviation from its truth, whether morally or doctrinally. Members should not be unconcerned if moral laxity or doctrinal errors seep into the church. If they’re following the Lord, elders should be obeyed (Heb. 13:17). But they do not have autocratic authority to lord it over the church. Rather, they are to be examples to the flock (1 Pet. 5:3).

B. Elders must be men, not women.

There are no examples in the New Testament of women elders. Egalitarian advocates argue that this was merely cultural, so that the early church did not offend the male-dominated society of that time. But in the context of the church, Paul wrote (1 Cor. 11:3), “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.” He goes on to base this teaching on the order of creation, where the man and woman were to reflect God’s image. The hierarchy of authority in the Godhead is the pattern for the hierarchy of authority in the church and in marriage (Eph. 5:22-33). To be the head does not in any way imply or tolerate abusive authority or the superiority of men over women. Rather, the church and the home should reflect the image of the Godhead: Although Christ is completely equal to God, He willingly submitted to the Father to carry out the divine plan and He will be subject to the Father throughout eternity (1 Cor. 15:28).

In 1 Timothy 2:11-12, Paul instructed, “A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.” Again, modern evangelical feminists argue that this was culturally conditioned. But Paul goes on to base his instruction on the order of creation and the fact that the woman was deceived in the fall. Those are historical reasons, not culturally relative reasons.

Also, the qualifications listed for elders (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-7) assume that elders will be men. Paul uses masculine pronouns. Elders must be “the husband of one wife” and manage their own households well. Women may serve on the staff of a local church as pastors and teachers of other women (Titus 2:2), but not over men.

C. Elders must be spiritually mature men.

This is indicated both by the qualifications and by the terms used to describe this office. “Elder” looks at the maturity of the man, not necessarily in years, but in spiritual qualifications. The Bible does not give any age requirement for becoming an elder and the age may vary depending on the makeup of the congregation. A relatively young congregation may have younger elders, whereas an older congregation may require older elders. When Paul told Timothy not to let anyone look down on his youthfulness (1 Tim. 4:12), Timothy was probably in his mid-thirties. Paul goes on to exhort Timothy to be an example to the church “in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity.” He was to be spiritually mature.

“Overseers” (sometimes translated as “bishops”) is used interchangeably with “elders” (Titus 1:5, 7; Acts 20:17, 28). It refers to the nature of the work: they superintend, watch over, or guard the local church. An overseer must be spiritually mature enough to discern spiritual dangers and to guard and guide the flock into spiritual growth.

A third word, “pastor” (= “shepherd”) is used in noun form only once for church leaders (Eph. 4:11). The verb is used of church leaders in several places (John 21:16; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2). It looks at the work from the analogy of a shepherd and his sheep. Jesus is called the Shepherd (= Pastor) and Guardian (= Overseer) of our souls (1 Pet. 2:24). He is the “Chief Shepherd”; human pastors serve under Him as “under-shepherds” of His flock, who will give an account to Him (1 Pet. 5:4; Heb. 13:17).

A fourth term (Greek, prohistemi, to stand before or first) means “to lead or have charge over” (1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 3:4, 5, 12; 5:17; Rom. 12:8). A fifth word (Greek, hegeomai, we get “hegemony” from it) means to lead or rule (Heb. 13:7, 17, 24; Luke 22:26). While it involves authority (Heb. 13:17), it also requires servanthood (Luke 22:26). All of these terms imply a level of spiritual maturity, spelled out in the qualifications for the office.

D. Elders must be a plurality in each local church.

The term is always used in the plural with regard to a single local church (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:5). It may be that one elder had oversight of a single house church. It also may be that one elder, especially the one supported to preach (1 Tim. 5:17-18) will be looked to as the leader among the elders, as Peter was among the apostles and as James was among the elders in Jerusalem (Acts 15:2-21; 21:18; Gal. 2:9). But the church in a city was viewed as a unit over which there were several elders.

There is wisdom in many counselors (Prov. 11:14) and there is wisdom in sharing the responsibility and authority in the church, so that no single person will dominate without accountability. The only one-man ruler in the New Testament is Diotrephes, whom the Apostle John castigates because “he loves to be first” and he exercised one-man, heavy-handed authority (3 John 9-10). Usually, the elders should seek to reach a consensus in major decisions. The more divided they are, the more they need to wait on the Lord and seek His mind through His Word before proceeding.

There are no directions in the New Testament as to the number of elders per church. That should be determined by the number of qualified men and the need for shepherding in the church. The larger the church, the more elders will be needed.

Although there is no concept in the New Testament of elders serving a “term” of office, it’s not a bad idea to have a fixed term so that an elder can be reviewed by the congregation and so that he can determine whether to continue serving or to take some time off. It’s a demanding ministry, and men who work in an outside job can’t always continue to serve as elders year in and year out. Also, family pressures change with the ages of a man’s children, and so it seems wise to allow him to limit his commitment or renew it as his personal circumstances dictate. Our church constitution stipulates one-year, renewable terms for both elders and deacons.

Thus the basic principle of church government is that Christ is the Head of His church. He exercises His headship through church-recognized, spiritually mature elders. What are those elders supposed to do?

3. The main task of elders is to lead through example and teaching as they shepherd God’s flock.

There are three aspects to this:

A. Elders should lead by the example of godly servant leadership.

1 Peter 5:1-3: “Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.”

Elders have charge over the flock (“allotted to your charge”) and are to exercise oversight, but not by lording it over the flock, but rather by being examples of Christlike servanthood. Jesus supremely modeled this when on the night He was betrayed, He washed the disciples’ feet, and instructed them that the leader among them should be as the servant (John 13:1-17; Luke 22:24-27). As leaders, our lives should demonstrate the godly servant leadership of our Great Shepherd.

B. Elders should be able to teach God’s Word faithfully.

The only non-character qualification for elders is that they be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2). This does not necessarily require that an elder be able to preach a sermon or teach a large group. But he should be able to sit down with a younger believer and explain the things of God from Scripture. Titus 1:9 stipulates that an elder must hold “fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.” Some elders should be supported by the church so that they can “work hard at preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17; cf. Acts 6:4). This assumes that the Word of God is our only standard for faith and practice.

C. Elders should shepherd God’s flock.

The job of oversight requires some administration and some oversight of the church’s finances. But the main job of elders is to shepherd God’s flock (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2.) (The word “shepherd” is the same as “pastor.”) It is impossible for one man to pastor a large church adequately, so the elders share that work. The ministry of pastoring involves doing what a shepherd does for his sheep: He knows them; he leads them; he feeds them and guides them into the rich pastures of God’s Word (Psalm 23; John 10:3-4, 9, 14; 1 Thess. 5:12; 2 Tim. 4:1-5; Titus 1:9; Heb. 13:7); he guards them from wolves (John 10:12; Acts 20:29-30); he seeks the straying sheep and helps heal their wounds by helping restore them to the Lord (John 10:16; Ezek. 34:4-5); he corrects the erring or rebellious (2 Tim. 4:2); and, he equips the flock for ministry so that they can serve the Lord as He has gifted them (Eph. 4:11-16).


“Who’s in charge of the church?” Jesus Christ is! He exercises His headship over His church through church-recognized, spiritually mature elders, who through example and servanthood shepherd His flock.

Note one final thing: In 1 Timothy 3:1 Paul says, “It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.” “Aspire” means to reach after. This is not ambition for power and status, but reaching toward spiritual maturity so that you can serve the Chief Shepherd by helping to shepherd His flock. Some of you younger men should have this God-given desire to become elders.

To get there, you should be growing in godliness (the qualities in 1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-7) by daily time in His Word and in prayer. You should be shepherding your own family, setting an example of servant leadership in your own home. You should be serving God’s people by building caring relationships with other men with the goal of seeing them become mature in the faith.

In other words, the church should not put a man into the office of elder so that he can serve. Rather, it should recognize as elders the men who are already godly examples who are doing the work. We need men who desire the fine work of oversight in this flock. We cannot grow without it. I pray that some of you will aspire to the office of overseer or elder.

Application Questions

  1. What are some practical differences between “church politics” and biblical church government?
  2. As Americans who love democracy and freedom, we tend to resist submission to authority. Where does democracy conflict or coincide with biblical church government?
  3. Practically, when does shepherding cross the line into authoritarianism? Is this a danger?
  4. How would you reply to someone who argued that women should be allowed to serve in the same roles as men?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Leadership

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