In a perfect world we would not need to govern people in the earthly sense, because everyone would behave just as they should. Obviously, the same would be true in the church. However, the church is full of sinners, redeemed sinners, but sinful people nonetheless. Yes, we have a new heart and a new position in Christ, yet we still sin every day we are on this earth. Pastors and leaders are not even exempt from this plight. The great reformer, Martin Luther, is known for often using the Latin phrase, “simul justus et peccator”, which means that we in the church are simultaneously both saint and sinner. With this in mind, we need a plan to help us flawed saints to function properly in community with one another. Proper church governance is a necessity in order to hold men and women accountable to God and to each other.
We know that the Holy Spirit birthed the church: as believers, we are now redeemed men and women under the “Head” who is Christ (Ephesians 1:22, Colossians 1:18). According to Ephesians 4, Jesus also equips people through dispensing spiritual ‘gifts’ to His church. Within God’s various giftings, He has provided leaders to serve His church. They are to lead under His guidance and by His Spirit as they use the spiritual gifts that He has graciously provided. However, (and this is very important) God has set these leaders in the ‘body of Christ’ to be part of an accountable whole. Let’s remember that church leaders are gifted people sharing the Gospel, yet they themselves are still growing in the likeness of Christ.
Since God has given spiritual gifts to His church for the purpose of governing (while at the same time there is the persistent problem of sin) how must we organize to carry out His mission on earth? Well, God has made it abundantly clear: we are to function as a body (1Corinthians 12:20). How then does a body function? A body functions as a set of equal and necessary parts all connected to the head, the command center for the body. No body part is any greater than any other as the Apostle Paul so eloquently elaborates. When one part of the body is valued or looked at as greater than the rest, it gets unhealthy. Only Christ Himself, the preeminent Head, is greater.
Keeping this very important fact in mind, let me share three essential points to consider when selecting a style of church governance. These are general guidelines not intended to get into the ‘nitty-gritty’, but to emphasize that we have some clear non-negotiable guidelines that apply no matter what governance model a church adopts.
Is the model Biblical?
God appoints leaders to the church to protect the integrity of the Gospel (Acts 15), and to build up His people in the Word of God (Acts 6:1-7). There are many profound examples of leaders in both the Old and New Testaments of Scripture. For example, Moses, Joshua, David, Jehoshaphat, and Esther (among many others) were leaders appointed by God in the Old Testament. Christ Himself also appointed and empowered apostles, by the Holy Spirit, to be leaders in the New Testament. Of course, Jesus was undeniably the greatest leader who ever lived, so ultimately we want to follow His leadership model. Hermeneutics 101 is interpreting the whole of Scripture with Scripture itself. We call this maintaining the unity of Scripture. Therefore it makes sense to apply this principle to the formation of our ecclesiology. It’s helpful to glean from all the men and women God used throughout Scripture as leaders of His church, but especially Jesus.
In the New Testament, we are given clear structural guidelines for what governance should look like in the church. In Acts 6:1-6, Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5, and Acts 20:17 we see that leaders need to be “appointed” to oversee or “govern” the church. In 1 Peter 5:1-4, 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:6-9 we also see the character traits that must accompany the overseers. Please take time to read these passages, they exemplify what the Apostles require in the lives of those who would govern under Christ’s authority.
Is the model spiritual?
By spiritual I mean, there a spiritual purpose. Spiritual oversight of the church is necessary, but also spiritual oversight of the governing members. The purpose of church governance biblically is to help keep the church in a spiritually pure place – a place in which Christ is supremely exalted. Whenever sinful human agendas cloud the true purpose of the church, a spiritually minded governing body should graciously, yet firmly, steer people back towards the glory of Christ. When adopting a governance model, questions should be asked about what safeguards should be in place in order to maintain the spiritual focus of the leaders and the flock they are shepherding.
Is the model sustainable?
As the gospel goes out from the church, the Lord adds to the church, and in many cases multiplies the church. The church is then continually reproduced in other communities, cultures, and contexts. In a church’s history there is always a founding group of oversight, but as time goes on and people are added, will the founders’ model endure to the next generation? Will the model work in other cultures and in missions? These are good questions to ask. For example, certain corporate models of organization familiar to the American church, do not work well in other ethnic contexts. Overseas missionaries will tell you that what works in America does not always work well in the country they serve in. Therefore it is important that the guidelines laid out in Scripture are appropriately contextualized to each unique culture where Jesus is building His church. This requires much prayer and sensitivity wherever you may be serving in the Lord’s Kingdom. Christ does not want to see the church’s advancement crippled under the weight of man made tradition. Ultimately, if a church governing body seeks to continually maintain its biblical integrity and remains humble in exalting Christ alone, it will be impossible for the Gospel to be marginalized, no matter what culture we serve in.