Principles of church governance
Our Lord is very clear in His Word about how His church on earth ought to be organized and managed. First, Christ is the head of the church and its supreme authority (Ephesians 1:22; 4:15; Colossians 1:18). In turn, under the headship of Christ, the church is to be governed by spiritual leadership consisting of two distinct offices.
The biblically designated officers serving under Christ and over the assembly are elders (also called bishops, overseers, pastors, or pastor-teachers; these terms are used interchangeably in the New Testament; Acts 20:28; Ephesians 4:11) and deacons, both of whom must meet biblical qualifications (1 Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:1-5).
Jesus Christ as the head of the church mediates His rule through the Word of God by the plurality of elders (or pastors) who govern the church. The elders within a local church are assisted by the deacons (Ephesians 1:22-23; 1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9; Acts 6:1-6).
Besides the elders and deacons, there are no other church leadership personnel mentioned anywhere in the New Testament. Christ is in charge. Elders serve under Christ as spiritual overseers of the congregation as a whole. Deacons serve under elders to support them as they lead. All officers serve humbly in submission to Christ for the good of the people of God…
Considering these overarching truths, here are seven biblical principles of church governance that shape the life and ministry of our congregation –
Christ is Lord of all. He is the one true head of the church (Ephesians 1:22; 5:23; Colossians 1:18). He is also King of kings – sovereign over every earthly power (1 Timothy 6:15; Revelation 17:14; 19:16).
As such, we believe that each local church is independent and must be free from interference by any “outside” authority; that therefore Church and State must be kept separate as having different functions, each fulfilling its duties free from dictation or patronage of the other.
To the extent that government authorities do not attempt to assume ecclesiastical authority or issue orders that forbid our obedience to God’s law, their dictates are to be obeyed whether we agree with their rulings or not (i.e. Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 still bind the consciences of individual Christians. We are required to obey our civil authorities as powers that God Himself has ordained).
However, while civil government is invested with divine authority to rule the state, neither of those texts (nor any other) grants civic rulers jurisdiction over the church. God has established three institutions within human society: the family, the state, and the church. Each institution has an arena of authority with jurisdictional parameters that must be respected. A father’s authority is confined to the realm of his own family. Church leaders’ authority (which is delegated to them by Christ) is limited to church matters. And government is specifically responsible for the oversight and protection of civic peace and well-being within the boundaries of a nation or community. God has not granted civic rulers authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church.
Put differently, it has never been the prerogative of civil government to regulate or restrict the worship of the local church. When, how, where, with whom, and how often the church worships is not subject to Caesar. Caesar himself is subject to God. Jesus upheld this ground-rule when He told Pilate, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). And because Christ is the head of the church, ecclesiastical matters pertain to His Kingdom, not Caesar’s. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's” (Mark 12:17).
We uphold the crown rights of King Jesus over every aspect of church life and ministry.
We believe that church government should be structured as simply as possible within scriptural parameters. Instead of opting for a complex bureaucracy, we depend on the Holy Spirit to lead us in accordance with the principles laid out in God’s Word.
Our congregation is governed by the ELDERS of the church, who have been given their authority by Christ. The evidence that demonstrates that Christ has conferred His authority upon these men is twofold: 1) These men will possess an internal compulsion that motivates them to want to serve in a pastoral capacity (1 Timothy 3:1) and 2) These men will receive external confirmation from other Biblically qualified elders who serve to substantiate the pastoral aspirations of these elders-to-be by saying, in essence, “yes, we do see that you possess the requisite character and pastoral giftings and yes, we do see that you are called to the ministry” (Titus 1:5). When internal compulsion meets external confirmation, we can be fairly certain that Christ is calling a man to serve as an elder.
Potential elders are identified and trained by current elders, and subsequently affirmed by the congregation, and appointed by the elders.
Under Christ, these elders are responsible for the overall spiritual oversight of the congregation as a whole (1 Peter 5:1-4). They are charged with the responsibility of shepherding the people “as those who will have to give an account” (Hebrews 13:17). This is a high and weighty calling that can’t be taken lightly.
As men entrusted with a mission to lead, teach, protect and love their church members the way shepherds care for the sheep in a flock, elders are responsible before God for helping God’s people grow up into greater and greater spiritual maturity (Ephesians 4:11-13).
In particular, the elders’ primary responsibilities include the exercise of general spiritual oversight in the following five areas:
Doctrine – Ensuring that the doctrine of the church is biblical; all doctrinal issues in the church will be settled by the elders (2 Timothy 2:15; Titus 1:9; Acts 20:28-31). This is why, for instance, one of the primary duties of an elder is teaching (1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:12). Elders lead, feed, guide, and guard the sheep by giving instruction in sound doctrine, and protecting the local church from the corrupting influences of false teachings.
Discipline – Administering in love and humility the process of church discipline as outlined in Matthew 18:15-20; Galatians 6:1-4; Titus 3:10; 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15; 1 Timothy 5:17-25; 1 Corinthians 5; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11and Romans 16:17.
Direction – Ensuring that the direction of the church is consistent with our purpose, our pillars, our distinctives and our values.
Discipleship – Modelling godliness (1 Peter 5:3; Hebrews 13:7) and teaching the truth that accords with godliness (1 Timothy 6:3), elders tend the flock in such a way that believers develop from spiritual infancy to full-grown Christ-likeness. All believers are called to the task of making disciples, but elders bear an overall responsibility for helping people progress towards maturity in Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13; Colossians 1:28) …
Decisions – Seeking the Lord’s wisdom to steer the church in a scriptural, God-honoring way by deciding on the best course of action in any given situation.
Why don’t we vote at our church?
Scripture seems to encourage the involvement of church members in major congregational decisions. In the New Testament, for instance, we see this principle played out in Acts chapter 6, when men were selected for the distribution of food amongst the Hellenistic widows so the apostles could devote more of their time to prayer and preaching. Acts 6:5 says this; “The announcement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch.”
This passage indicates congregational involvement. It also clearly indicates that a choice was made. What the passage does not mention is that a vote was taken in order to make that choice. Nor was the action initiated by the congregation. That was done by the apostles (men who held their positions without any human vote having taken place).
Churches that operate according to a purely congregational governance model tend to assume a vote was the means to reaching the approval of the congregation in Acts 6, but this assumption does not hold up well under scrutiny. Congregational involvement is implied in this (and several other New Testament passages), but voting, per se, is never laid down as a concrete rule by which we must make decisions in our churches. In fact, when a vote is cast, the voter is sometimes choosing the lesser of two offensive options and will not be satisfied with any outcome. When the church’s vote is not unanimous, congregational voting may well create disharmony rather than unity. Involvement is wise. A vote is unnecessary.
In our church, we try to involve the congregation in major decisions including, for instance, the appointment of a new elder. Questions and concerns about the elder-candidate’s suitability for the role are taken into account, though the final decision rests in the hands of the church’s leaders (i.e. the elders).
This is because the biblical model for leadership within God’s church involves qualified and tested leaders making decisions on behalf of the body. This does not take place without the body’s involvement, but it does take place without granting equal input to those who have not been biblically qualified as elders (according to the elder qualifications established in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1). If equal input is given to those who have not been biblically qualified, the church may be easily led astray – the majority is often wrong.
In short, Scripture is patently quiet on the issue of voting (with only slight, inconclusive evidence to point to the possibility that it may have taken place on occasion). The practice of voting cannot be imposed as a rule, since it is nowhere commanded in Scripture. It was not a part of the cultures of the Old or the New Testament, and it is not required by Scripture. Church voting comes from Western tradition, not from Scripture.]
Under elders who are labouring in submission to Christ, the DEACONS are responsible to care for the physical and material needs of the church. The biblical role of deacons is to ensure that the practical and logistical needs of the church are being met so that the elders can devote themselves to teaching, praying, and leading (Acts 6:1-7).
At our church, rigid and complex church organization is de-emphasized, and only the organization that is needed to run the church is instituted. Committees and subcommittees that vote on various matters so as to run the operations of the church as “representatively” as possible are essentially non-existent in our congregation. Though this may offend our Western democratic sensibilities, the clear teaching of Scripture demonstrates that the biblical norm for church leadership is not a plethora of congregational committees but a plurality of God-ordained elders, assisted by godly deacons.
Christ is the Head of the church. The elders collectively lead the church in submission to Christ through His Word and in dependence upon the Holy Spirit. The deacons are selected by and accountable to the elders. The congregation affirms Christ’s appointed leaders (Acts 20:28). Simple as that.
Only by following this biblical pattern will the church maximize its fruitfulness to the glory of God.
The similarities of the qualifications for elders and deacons in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are striking. Besides the fact that an elder must be “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2) and deacons are not required to do so, there are virtually no other qualification differences; the main difference between an elder and a deacon is a difference of calling, not character. That’s because the primary emphasis for biblical leaders in the local church is always character over competency; godliness over giftedness; spirituality over skill.
Church members should be able to see in their elders and deacons inspiring, albeit imperfect, examples of the character of Jesus.
Christ wants His church to be run by servant-leaders (i.e. elders) and leading-servants (i.e. deacons) whose Christ-like lives model faithfulness to the Word.
While we do believe that women can and should serve as deacons (Romans 16:1, 1 Timothy 3:11), we affirm the biblical teaching that elders must be men.
"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 Timothy 3:1-7.
We understand that male-only eldership is a hotly contested issue in our culture today, and yet the Bible is extremely straight-forward: an elder must be a "one-woman man." Just as God calls men to be the heads of their households, so he calls faithful men to lead his church.
When we let the Bible speak authoritatively across the ages, three things are clear:
Women are esteemed co-labourers in the faith who share the Gospel in many contexts.
Men and women are both used by God in powerful ways.
God has ordained that only qualified men can serve as pastors/elders.
We believe that women and men are created equal in the sight of God, equal as image bearers, equally sinful, equally redeemable, equal in Christ, equally morally responsible to God. Women and men are completely equal in dignity, value, and worth before God; that’s crystal clear (Genesis 1:26-27).
Be that as it may, created differences do exist within God’s program. This applies in both the natural realm, such as the family, and in the supernatural realm, such as the church.
Within the local church, women are prohibited by the Head of the church to teach or exercise authority over men (this includes serving as pastors/elders); however, women are charged with teaching other women (Galatians 3:28; 1 Timothy 2:12; Titus 2:3-5).
As with other considerations in this oft-heated discussion, the question of women serving as elders is not a matter of chauvinism. In no sense whatsoever is this an issue of men being superior to (or more gifted than) women. Rather, God restricts the office of elder to men because that is how He has structured the church to function (and flourish). All of the elders mentioned in the New Testament are male. There is not a single example of a female elder found anywhere in the Bible or in the earliest years of church history. In fact, this pattern of male-only eldership has gone largely uncontested throughout the bulk of the history of the church.
On the one hand, we as a church uphold the God-ordained and significant roles that women play in serving and leading in the church. Every leadership opportunity is open to women except those that are excluded by Scripture (i.e. the office of elder).
At the same time, we will not bend the clear teachings of Scripture to fit the mold of recent feminist re-interpretations of passages that offend our cultural sensibilities. God gets to say how He wants to run His church, not us.
The consistent pattern throughout the New Testament is that each local body of believers is shepherded by a plurality of God-ordained elders. Simply stated, this is the only pattern for church leadership given in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul left Titus in Crete and instructed him to “appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:5) James instructed his readers to “call for the elders of the church” to pray for those who were sick (James 5:14). When Paul and Barnabas were in Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, they “appointed elders for them in every church” (Acts 14:23). The book of Acts indicates that there were “elders” at the church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:30; 15:2-4; 21:18). Again and again, reference is made to a plurality of elders in each of the various churches.
Much can be said for the benefits of leadership made up of a plurality of godly men. A plurality of godly elders, exercising their individual giftedness, squares with the Scripture’s teaching that wisdom is found in a multitude of godly counselors (Proverbs 11:4; 12:15; 15:22; 19:20; 24:6). Their combined counsel and wisdom help to assure that decisions are not self-willed or self-serving to a single individual. If there is division among the elders in making decisions, all the elders should study, pray, and seek the will of God together until consensus is achieved. In this way, the unity and harmony that the Lord desires for His church will begin with those individuals he has appointed to shepherd His flock.
This structure of plurality, we believe, was designed by God to promote (among other things), mutual accountability, mutual pastoral care within the eldership, pastoral integrity, and mutual support in the ministry (for the purpose of increasing the likelihood of ministry longevity).
God has given to the church a plurality of elders to lead, care for, and feed the sheep with the truth of God's Word.
However, to truly be effective, elders need guidance. Additionally, to create ministries that last over the long haul, elders need care. For these reasons and more, we hold to a church governance structure that includes a lead (or teaching) pastor.
Just as God’s Word teaches plural leadership in the local church, we believe that there is enough information in the Bible to infer that the appointment of a lead (or teaching) pastor is both Biblically warranted and practically beneficial.
There is no single verse that “locks down” the biblical apologetic for the lead pastor. Instead, it is a role derived from a pattern of order that is found throughout the Scriptures.
The Old Testament offers a gallery of names that remind us of God’s practice of using one to influence many — Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Nehemiah, Jeremiah — the list could fill many pages. In the Gospels, we are informed that Christ chose the Twelve (Luke 6:12-16), but ordained Peter to fill a uniquely prominent role.
In New Testament times, the Jewish synagogues were ruled by a council of elders, but each council had a chairperson or “ruler of the synagogue.” The early church enjoyed a plurality of leadership, yet it appears that James exerted a unique role and influence (Acts 15:13; 21:18; 1 Corinthians 15:7; Galatians 1:19; 2:12).
Moreover, it’s worth mentioning that Paul wrote his letters to Timothy, not to all the elders of the church in Ephesus. He seems to understand that Timothy has some special responsibility to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:3). He was the one who would “put these things before the brothers” (4:6), who would “command and teach these things” (4:11), and who would “teach and urge these things” (6:2). Moreover, it is to Timothy as an individual man that Paul gives the charge in 2 Timothy 4:1-2 to “preach the word.” This does not mean that the other elders in the church were not to do these things. It just means that Paul seems to have viewed Timothy as having the regular, primary role of teaching the congregation during his temporary ministry in Ephesus. Thus, he encourages him specifically to continue laboring diligently to discharge these duties faithfully.
Historically, the concept of a “leader leading leaders” has been captured by the Latin phrase primus inter pares, “first among equals.” This is the phrase that best encapsulates our understanding of the role of the lead (or teaching) pastor.
By implication, (in consideration of this concept of “first among equals”), the entire eldership, and not simply a lead pastor, is vested with the authority to govern and lead. In other words, responsibility inheres in the group, not the man. The lead pastor derives his warrant to lead from the support and glad follower-ship of the plurality.
Within this team context, the lead pastor humbly leads/serves the other elders in the following ways:
By developing the elders into a unified leadership team.
By providing pastoral care for the eldership.
By facilitating decision-making processes.
By identifying and deploying spiritual gifts among the elders.
By encouraging efficiency.
By coordinating the eldership training to ensure that other men are raised up as elders.
By acting as a spokesman for the elders.
At the end of the day, all the elders, (“under” the general guidance of the lead/teaching pastor) possess equal authority. This authority is derived (from the Word), and not intrinsic; it is limited (by the Word), and not absolute; it is exercised in consistency with the Word, or not at all. Most importantly, it is never to be wielded for the personal gain of the elders, but always for the good of the people, that Christ might be glorified in His saints.
Christ is the Chief Shepherd, and elders are merely under-shepherds (1 Peter 5:4). At their best, elders model Jesus' character, teach Jesus' word, and lead the church by pointing it toward Jesus and his mission. Good elders never lose sight of the fact that they are still sheep themselves; works in progress who need the grace of God just the same as everybody else.
As such, the exercise of an elder’s authority must be chiefly characterized by humility. This is the only way to model the example of Christ.
In Philippians 2:3–7 Paul says this;
“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
Likewise, elders lead from the bottom, not the top. They embrace the fact that in Jesus’ countercultural Kingdom, the way up is always down and the way down is always up. Elders don’t drive the people from behind like dictatorial bosses; they lead the people from the front to shelter the sheep from danger, laying down their lives to promote the wellbeing of the flock (John 10:11-13). They stoop to serve like lowly shepherds; they don’t demand compliance as domineering bullies (Matthew 20:25-28; 1 Peter 5:3).
Similarly, on the eldership itself (and the same thing goes for those serving as deacons), the leaders strive by grace to create a team-culture that is characterized by mutual respect, affirmation, encouragement, service, selflessness and humble-love.
The leaders of Christ’s church seek to foster genuine affection amongst themselves (Romans 12:9). They are devoted to one another in brotherly love, committed to honoring each other above themselves (Romans 12:10). They do their best to live in harmony with each other (Romans 12:16). They think the best of one another, always giving each other the benefit of the doubt (1 Corinthians 13:7). They instruct one another, each person having a teachable spirit, knowing that everybody brings something valuable to the table (Romans 15:14). They serve one another in love (Galatians 5:13). They carry each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), and bear with one another in love (Ephesians 4:2). They do not envy each other (Galatians 5:26), but instead understand that every person is an essential member of the team, with each one contributing different gifts for the building up of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). They tenderheartedly forgive each other (Ephesians 4:32). They submit to each other out of reverence for Christ, deferring to one another whenever possible (Ephesians 5:21). They are always honest with each other (Colossians 3:9). They don’t slander each other (James 4:11) or grumble against each other (James 5:9). They pray for one another (James 5:16). They love one another deeply, even when they sin against each other (1 Peter 4:8).
Most of all, the leaders of Christ’s church realize that the sustainability of this kind of humility is impossible apart from the matchless grace of God in Christ. Christ lived, died, rose, and sent the Spirit in order that those who govern and guide His church might do so in a way that exhibits maturity and promotes unity. “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).