Is There a Biblical Form of Church Government?
I had a dear friend today write me and ask me to show her the biblical model for church leadership and government.
It seems that her local church is going through a tough time on this issue and it is the second time in about as many years that this has happened. The last time it happened it caused a painful split in the church.
I am not an expert on church government but I have walked a few miles in different forms of church government over the years.
The different forms have their strengths and weaknesses.
So when I write this post, I want everyone to understand that I am not picking on one particular church or denomination.
I am trying my best to give biblical analysis to how the early church selected its leaders.
In order to do this, we need to break down this teaching into two areas. What are biblical leaders and what is a biblical form of church government?
What are Biblical Leaders?
Mark 9:35 New Living Translation (NLT)
35 He sat down, called the twelve disciples over to him, and said, “Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else.”
The first thing that Jesus looked for and trained his disciples to be was servanthood.
A biblical leader must be a servant.
This is different than most types of leadership that we see today. Most people want to be leaders because it gives them authority.
A biblical leader has authority because it has been established by his servanthood. It is relational authority rather than positional authority.
When I came to my church here in Pine Haven, I set out to model a different type of leadership. I chose to follow the scriptures about servant leadership.
There have been only 2 times in the last 2.5 years that I have had to exercise my authority because of my position and let the buck stop with me.
Both of those times had to do with people stirring up strife and it was my responsibility before God to put a stop to it.
The rest of the time I have served my people and they have come to know me and my heart, know that they can talk to me and that I love them and am looking out for them.
Because of this, I have relational authority with them and now if I ask them to help with something or ask them to support something, they do because I have first served them and supported them.
New Living Translation (NLT)
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.
Here we see that Jesus looked for and taught his leaders to be self-sacrificing.
Again this is much different than what we see in our world.
Our employers, government, and others in leadership are usually looking to see what is in it for themselves. They want to look good.
A biblical leader should be just the opposite. They should not be looking for what is in it for them or looking for how it will improve their standing in the community or denomination.
A self-sacrificing leader will be less worried about how perfect the worship is, how smooth the presentation is, or how professional everything comes off.
He will be more interested in seeing the worship team grow and learn over their performance, more interested in the needs of the people coming through the doors instead of how smoothly the service goes, and be more concerned about knowing that everyone is offering their imperfect gifts rather than just showcasing the perfect ones.
A sacrificing leader will put his own wants, needs, and desires on the back burner in order to see the best come out in others.
One of the biggest things that people had to adjust to in my church was that I wasn’t going to get upset if they made a mistake. They would not be called on the carpet for some infraction or mistake.
If they messed up the PowerPoint, we would laugh, tease one another and go on.
Because that person was giving a gift.
You don’t belittle the gift or the gift giver. You praise them for giving and trying.
New Living Translation (NLT)
10 “If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities.
Another thing that Jesus looked for and trained his disciples in was faithfulness. He taught them to be faithful in the little things.
Biblical leadership models faithfulness in hundreds of little ways.
Whether it is showing up early to turn on the heat for the service, or staying late because somebody needs to talk to you, you are called to be faithful in the little things.
A leader that is too important to do little things thinks more highly of himself than he ought.
Remember, there are no great men of God, only a great God of man. Jesus modeled this form of leadership when He washed the disciple’s feet.
So understand that when the early church was deciding who would be their leaders, they looked for these qualities in men.
Keep that in mind as we look at how leaders were chosen in the early church.
Instances of Church Government in the Bible.
The selection of Matthias
The first instance we have of the church selecting a leader is found in Acts 1. It is the selection of Matthias.
20 Peter continued, “This was written in the book of Psalms, where it says, ‘Let his home become desolate, with no one living in it.’ It also says, ‘Let someone else take his position.’
21 “So now we must choose a replacement for Judas from among the men who were with us the entire time we were traveling with the Lord Jesus— 22 from the time he was baptized by John until the day he was taken from us. Whoever is chosen will join us as a witness of Jesus’ resurrection.”
23 So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. 24 Then they all prayed, “O Lord, you know every heart. Show us which of these men you have chosen 25 as an apostle to replace Judas in this ministry, for he has deserted us and gone where he belongs.” 26 Then they cast lots, and Matthias was selected to become an apostle with the other eleven.
Here we see that the early church took nominations of qualified individuals.
Now at this point, they only had one qualification. He had to be with them from the beginning.
This is actually a relational qualification.
They needed to know who the man was.
Notice that the congregation that was there didn’t vote but did have a voice in the process. They nominated.
Then they did something that was totally out of the norm of our society. They drew lots. This was because of a belief that God would show His will by how something of random chance would turn out.
This is the one and only time this method was used and it is important to point out that they did this before the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost.
After that, other forms of decision-making were used.
Creating the office of Deacon
The next instance we have of leaders being selected is found in Acts 6.
2 So the Twelve called a meeting of all the believers. They said, “We apostles should spend our time teaching the word of God, not running a food program. 3 And so, brothers, select seven men who are well respected and are full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will give them this responsibility. 4 Then we apostles can spend our time in prayer and teaching the word.”
5 Everyone liked this idea, and they chose the following: Stephen (a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit), Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas of Antioch (an earlier convert to the Jewish faith). 6 These seven were presented to the apostles, who prayed for them as they laid their hands on them.
Here we have what is the formation of the ministry of a deacon.
The word in the Greek used in this text as “running” a food program, or as it is in the NKJV “serving” tables is the Greek word Diakoneo which is where we get our word deacon from and the word that is used when describing further qualifications in 1 Timothy chapter 4.
First of all, notice what a deacon is doing.
Think back to what Jesus taught about leaders being servants.
The Apostles asked the people to choose from among them, people who will serve. Not dictate, but actually get their hands dirty doing the work of serving people who are in need.
Notice the process that they used.
They first came to the Apostles with their problems. In this, they acknowledged the authority of those that were already in leadership over them.
The Apostles then gave them the method to solve the problem they were experiencing and told them to choose from among them 7 men who had 3 qualifications.
- They were well respected by all.
- They were full of faith.
- They were men who have shown wisdom.
Now there is no record of whether or not they voted, but instead, they did come to some kind of consensus among them.
Once again this shows relational authority rather than positional authority. They looked for men they could all agree on.
Finally, once they chose these servants, they went back to those that were in positions of leadership to receive the blessing upon their choice.
This once again makes it a 2-way process than just a simple vote or people getting mad or upset.
The appointment of Elders
The next instance we see leaders being selected is found in Acts chapter 14.
21 After preaching the Good News in Derbe and making many disciples, Paul and Barnabas returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch of Pisidia, 22 where they strengthened the believers. They encouraged them to continue in the faith, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God. 23 Paul and Barnabas also appointed elders in every church. With prayer and fasting, they turned the elders over to the care of the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.
Here we see Paul and Barnabas appointed Elders which includes Pastors in the churches that they had started.
There is no record of voting or congregational approval but since Paul and Barnabas knew these people since they were the fruits of their ministry, they knew the needs of these congregations and knew who was respected and had relational authority already.
It was not arbitrary appointments.
Notice also that they were constantly seeking God on whom to appoint and did so with prayer and fasting. They then left these churches in the care of the new Elder or Pastor that was appointed.
In Acts 28 we see Paul meeting with the Elders that were shepherds and fed the flock of God in Ephesus. Now each of these men had that responsibility and it is known that there was more than 1 group that assembled together as a church.
These were the pastors of the churches that met there, even though there was only 1 church in Ephesus. 1 church, many gatherings.
28 “So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as elders.
Notice here that it is the Holy Spirit that appoints Elders. Even though earlier it clearly states that Paul and Barnabas were appointing the elders, it is clear that they were doing so by the leading of the Holy Spirit.
This is very important because if man appoints an elder, then that elder is tempted to be beholden to that man.
This is why some forms of congregational forms of church government is so fraught with danger.
If people get the idea they control who is their pastor, then when the pastor displeases them for any reason, they take it upon themselves to be the Holy Spirit and decide who is appointed and who is not.
Now the next instance we have of elders being chosen in a church comes from the book of Titus chapter 1.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Titus’s Work in Crete 5 I left you on the island of Crete so you could complete our work there and appoint elders in each town as I instructed you.
Here we have someone who has worked alongside the Apostle Paul that is given instructions to appoint elders.
So once again we see that elders are appointed by a mature leader in the church and not by the general congregation.
Here is the basic reason for this.
Maturity discerns maturity. Spiritually mature people who have been tried and tested in ministry and have been found to be faithful in ministry are best able to tell the heart and motives of those wanting to be leaders.
The discernment for this should not be left up to those that are not tested and mature.
Paul then goes on to give Titus a list of qualifications to look for when appointing an elder. This is not only a good reference for us to look at today, but also shows that Titus was given the authority to choose. He was not given a list of people already chosen.
Finally, both 1 Timothy chapter 3 and chapter 5 give us instructions as well in what type of people are qualified to be appointed as an elder.
I won’t go into all the details but suffice it to say, these people need to be mature believers in the Lord.
It also states that accusations against elders should not be confirmed unless it comes from the mouths of 2 or 3 witnesses.
This shows that getting rid of an elder is a solemn occasion and should not be taken lightly or done because of disgruntled church members.
It should only be done in the case of moral failure.
What is a Biblical Form of Church Government?
As you can see, church government progressed as the church progressed.
What started out as casting lots about people they knew turned into a process where people are tested and vetted in their calling.
The ingredients that need to be in our church government today need to be similar.
Here are the ingredients that I see from scripture.
- Deacons or servants need to be nominated from among the congregation and confirmed by the Elder or Pastor of the congregation and have the qualifications that are listed in scripture.
- Elders or Pastors need to be appointed by those that are mature and tested in ministry and have the qualifications listed in scriptures
- Dismissal of Elders or Pastors should only be done in the case of moral failure. The Holy Spirit is ultimately the one that appointed that leader and ultimately if you dismiss someone for reasons other than moral failure you are risking going against the appointment of God.
Notice I didn’t give you a hard and fast list. I gave you the ingredients.
How you figure out how to implement these scriptural principles is up to you and the congregation that should all be looking to Jesus for leadership of His church.