This is a paper I put together over several different years and have referred back to several times as we have begun a new fellowship this year . . .
I appreciate what Danny Akin, President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, said, “Any system will work if the people are godly and mature. However, it seems fairly clear that congregationalism most nearly follows the pattern of the New Testament period. It affirms best other essential components such as:
1. The Priesthood of the Believers
2. A called servant model of leadership
3. Congregational involvement in ministry and discipline
4. Individual responsibility of the believer to God and one another
5. The Lordship of Christ.”
When deciding upon a structure of offices and government for a church, we must lay aside tradition and pre-conceived ideas and instead return to the Scriptures with open eyes. The English word church comes from the Greek word kyriakon, meaning “belonging to the Lord.” Because we belong to the Lord, we understand that we must order or ways after His ways in His Word. Perhaps the most challenging mountains in churches are those of tradition and control. We humans love to cling to the familiar and have a sense of control. Fred Powell, former Senior Associate Pastor of First Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, writes, Extra-biblical tradition is almost always contrary to truth. This tradition is the product of man’s mind and methods, whereas truth emanates from God. One of the most difficult challenges of pastors is to take churched people and try to get them to look at church through the lens of Scripture rather than the lens of their experience or tradition.
Any serious disciple must be willing to look at the hard questions and ask, Lord, how do we apply what Your Word says and flesh it out today?
To begin we must acknowledge that we do not live in the first century. We are not citizens of Jerusalem. We do not ride the immediate wave of the apostles. We are twenty centuries removed! As we seek to apply what the Bible says to our church structure, we have much room for grace, creativity, and addition. We also must differentiate between that which is descriptive in the New Testament from that which is prescriptive. Everything that the Bible describes that the early church did is not an automatic prescription of how it must be done today. Aubrey Malphurs explains,
The issue concerns whether today’s evangelical churches should follow the forms as well as the functions of the New Testament church. There are those who teach that the local church is bound to follow not only the biblical functions or principles of the early church but its forms (methods) as well. An example would be when the church meets. They would argue that the local church should meet on Sunday because of the significance of the first day of the week and because it was the practice of some apostolic churches. There are others who believe that the church is bound to follow only the scriptural mandates of the early church but not its practices or patterns, for the latter are cultural and relative.
The latter view is the best solution to this issue. The twenty-first century church is bound to follow the prescriptive passages of the Bible (commands, prohibitions, and so forth), not the descriptive passages (such as those found in Acts 20:7 or 1 Cor. 16:2). This affects the local church in terms of its liberty and relevance.
Because the Bible is our plumb line, the Lord Jesus is our foundation, and the Holy Spirit is our guide, we keep our feet firmly rooted in the first century, yet we spread our wings and grow into the twenty-first century. In doing so we want to make sure that we adhere to basic principles, precepts, and patterns. And then we want to build our structure and organization around our mission of how to specifically carry out the Great Commission in our particular context.
What is the purpose of any church? To bring glory to the Lord Jesus through the process of disciple-making. This purpose is accomplished through the following ways:
Exalting the Lord Jesus in worship
Energizing the world through prayer
Evangelizing the lost
Establishing believers in God’ Word
Equipping the saints for the work of ministry
Edifying the body through fellowship
Extending into the community
Engaging the culture
Everything a church does must work to accomplish our primary purpose via these eight ways. The wise church orders her structure so as to best accomplish the task. The throne of God is our destiny, worshiping the Lamb of God with the countless redeemed from every tribe and people. The way we do church must be driven by this future reality.
One other prerequisite to building a church structure is answering the question, “Who are the ministers?” The book of Ephesians answers this simply. Paul tells us that when the Lord Jesus conquered death and experienced victory, He distributed gifts. Drawing from Psalm 68, a picture of an ancient wartime victory celebration, he shows that Jesus, instead of keeping the spoils of war for Himself, distributed gifts to the church. What were these gifts? He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, to the building up of the body of Christ. The New Living translation says it this way, He is the one who gave these gifts to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do His work and build up the church, the body of Christ.
J. B. Phillips wrote, “His gifts were made that Christians might be properly equipped for service.”
The lesson here is two-fold. The church is made of equippers and ministers. The called-out vocations, like pastors (many theologians believe that the Ephesians 4:11-12 passage is best translated “pastor-teachers” signifying that they are one), are the equippers. Their primary function is to train the laity, who are the ministers, to do ministry, or to use their spiritual gifts to serve the Lord and others. The New Testament understanding of the church was that every member was a minister. Charles Stanley writes,
I’m afraid the modern church has lost sight of this principles. Instead
of organizing to meet the needs of the body, we hire pastors and expect
them to do it. . . . God did not give pastors to the church to meet the
needs of the body. Pastors were given to train the other body members
to meet one another’s needs. A local church that does not understand
this does not deserve to have a pastor. Why? Because until the
people do, they will expect to serve as if he has all the gifts. It’s a no- win situation. The gifts listed in Ephesians 4 are what I call the equipping
gifts. Their purpose in the body is to equip the other members to
carry on the ministry – not to do the ministry themselves.
Sadly, most churches view the vocational staff as those who are paid to do the ministry. And as a result churches do not fulfill their part of the Great Commission. Powell writes, “Across America we see in most churches and denominations men who are the vocational ministers doing a myriad of things that are not God’s planned assignment. We are told [in the Bible] that the pastor-teacher is a gift to the church and is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. It is clear that the primary task of the pastor-teacher and other vocational ministers is to equip church members as disciples who in turn evangelize, disciple, minister and carry out sundry tasks as a part of the work of ministry.” When this does not happen, “the saints are not equipped for ministry and souls are bound for hell.”
Scripture is clear. The church members are the ministers. They are called to do ministry. So, as the church organizes a structure, she must build a blueprint that empowers the most people to do the most ministry. George Barna wisely writes, “The ministry is not called to fit the church’s structure; the structure exists to further effective ministry.” Church structure is good only as long as that organization, biblically grounded, empowers people to do ministry.
Summarizing our introduction,
1. The Bible is our plumb line, the Lord Jesus our foundation, and the Holy Spirit our guide.
2. We must be forward in our thinking.
3. We must structure around our mission.
4. The congregation are the ministers.
5. Officers, structure, and government exist to empower people for the work of ministry.
With that foundation, the three primary types of church government are called episcopalian, presbyterian, and congregationalism. In his book, What Baptists Believe, Herschel Hobbs wrote, “Episcopal refers to the rule of bishops. Presbyterian means the rule of elders. Congregational refers to the rule of the congregation as among Baptists.”
The episcopalian form, common to Anglicans, Methodists, and Roman Catholics, derives its name from the Greek word episkopos, meaning overseer and translated bishop. The basic concept is that “authority is given to leaders called bishops. Bishops preside over several churches and exercise their authority.” The bottom-line in this system is that the authority to make decisions lies with the bishops.
The presbyterian form of church government is based on the rule of elders. The name derives from the Greek word presbuteros, translated elder. The elders serve as representatives of the church. In this system, there are two types of elders: teaching and ruling. Akin writes, “Teaching elders are ordained by other ministers, while ruling elders are ordained by the local congregation.” Advocates for this structure often refer to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15-16. Elders hold the power to make decisions.
A third type of church organization is called congregationalism. This structure is rooted in the concept that the power to make decisions lies in the individual churches: her members and her leaders. Baptist churches often operate as congregational churches. There is no bishop nor board of elders who rule the church. Instead, the power to make decisions is vested in the individual members under the weekly leadership of her pastor(s) and the spiritual oversight of her staff and deacons. Generally a single pastor is selected, though some churches will expand church staffs to include several pastors. In such cases there is usually a senior pastor who assumes leadership.
Ernest Mosley writes, “In congregational church government the church covenant, the constitution and bylaws, the business and financial plan . . . are to be approved by the congregation.” This plan requires the participation of church members.
Decision-Making and the Holy Spirit
The New Testament witnesses to the moving of the Spirit of God through the bodies of believers. These bodies were known as churches. Some have said that the book of Acts should be known as The Acts of the Holy Spirit instead of The Acts of the Apostles. The book of Acts testifies that the Helper, the Counselor, is the One who came alongside the disciples and was the real Guide for the early church. Jesus promised that this Spirit would enable the church to do greater works than He (Jn. 14:12), help them (16), teach them all things and bring to remembrance what Jesus had said (26), guide them into al truth, speak whatever He hears from the God-head, disclose to them what is to come (Jn. 16:13), and glorify Jesus (14).
The disciples waited for the Holy Spirit to come (Acts 1). In chapter two, they are filled with the Spirit. This baptism and filling changed the way the church made decisions. In chapter one they are still casting lots (26) to discern God’s will. But after Pentecost this method is never used again. Why? Because all believers are now indwelt by the Spirit. The immediate result was evangelism and this distinctive: “everyone kept feeling a sense of awe (Acts 2:41-43). Chapters three to four show us numerous evidences of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the church. Acts 5 brings the accusation that two believers had not lied just to the church but to the Holy Spirit. In Acts 6, the congregation, under the leadership of the Spirit, selects seven men to serve tables, men characterized as “full of the Spirit” (3). Doctor Luke describes Stephen minutes before his death as “being full of the Holy Spirit” (55). In chapter eight, Philip exemplifies a man empowered and directed by the Spirit. Philip’s evangelistic success came from obeying the specific promptings and instructions of the Holy Spirit. Later, in chapter thirteen, the Bible says that while the church was “ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for Me Barnabus and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ “ The church commissioned them, sent them out, and the Scripture says, “So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down” (13:2-4). Again and again, we see the testimony that the Holy Spirit fulfilled Jesus’ words in John 14-16 guiding, helping, teaching, disclosing, and empowering the church to do greater things and thus, glorify Jesus.
How does an individual glorify Jesus? She walks by the Spirit. How does a church glorify Jesus? We walk by the Spirit of God. Henry Blackaby writes, "The church is a body with Christ as the Head. The Spirit of God guides every believer. His indwelling presence can teach us and help us."
Blackaby goes on to discuss the early church’s process of decision-making:
With the coming of the Holy Spirit on the church at Pentecost, God
came to dwell in every beliver. He created the body – a local church – so
that every member needed every other member. In the body of Christ
every believer has direct access to God. God can speak to any and every
member of the body. He can work through the whole body in revealing
His will. In the NT, the Holy Spirit also led the apostles as they guidedthechurch. God led the members and leaders in a mutual interdependence
of serving and decision-making. New Testament examples illustrate joint
decision-making under Christ’s lordship:
• The Choosing of Judas’ Replacement (Acts 1:12-26)
• The Choosing of the Seven (Acts 6:1-7)
• Peter’s Witness to the Gentile Conversions (Acts 11:1-18)
• Barnabus and Saul Sent Out (Acts 13:1-3)
• The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:1-35)
Blackaby describes this pattern of joint-decision-making under Christ’s lordship (key principles of Congregationalism), in his workbook Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God. In the unit entitled “God’s Will and the Church,” he writes . . .
When God speaks to a person about the church, the person should share
with the body what he or she senses God is saying. As each member shares
what he senses God is saying, the whole body goes to God in prayer to
discern His will for the body. In this time God confirms to the body what He
is saying. Individual opinions are not that important. The will of God is very
important. . . . Pastors, church leaders, and members are to have such a
relationship with God and the church body that spiritual guidance is the
outcome. When Christ is able to guide each spiritual leader and member of
the body to function properly, the whole body will know and be enabled to
do God’s will.
A church comes to know God’s will when the whole body comes to understand
what Christ wants them to do. For a church, knowing God’s will may involve
many members, not just one. Yes, God often will speak to the leader about
what He wants to do. That leader then bears witness to the body. The
leader does not have to try to convince the church that this is God’s will.
The leader encourages the body to go to Christ and get confirmation from
the Head. This is why a church must learn to function as a body with Christ
as the Head of the church. The church needs to function like a body with
every member free to share what he or she knows or senses as God’s will.
When God gave directions to our church in Saskatoon, He often gave them
through persons other than me. Many of them came from the members of the body who sensed a clear direction of God and shared it with the body.
We created the opportunity for people to share what they sensed God was leading us to be or do. Our desire was not to find out who was for it and who
was against it. In our business meetings we never took a vote asking, “How
many of you are for this and how many of you are against it?” That is the
wrong question. Every time you ask that question you have a potential church
split. The right question is, “With all of the information and all of the praying that we have been doing, how many of you sense that God clearly is directing
us to proceed in this direction?” This is a very different question. It does not
ask members for their opinions. It asks them to vote based on what they sense
God is saying to the church.
In Saskatoon, as God moved and expressed His will to church members, I guided them as their pastor to share with the other members of His body.
All were given an opportunity and encouraged to share. Each was encouraged
to respond as God guided him or her. This happened not only in worship
(usually at the close of a service), but also in prayer meetings, committee
meetings, business meetings, Sunday School classes, home Bible studies,
and in personal conversations. Many called the church office and shared
what God had been saying to them in their quiet times. The entire church
became experientially and practically aware of Christ’s presence in our midst.
The result of this decision-making process is very similar to that of Acts 2:43 when “everyone kept feeling a sense of awe.” Christ is manifest among His people.
Baptists and Congregationalism
Baptists historically have been noted for their desire to base their practices on the bible instead of man-made traditions. Christian History magazine’s edition that was entitled The Baptists: A people who gathered to walk in all of His ways describes this part of church history as “a people who dared to take the Bible seriously and specifically.” It continues . . .
From small and rude beginnings, the people called Baptist have grown
through persecution, struggle, and misunderstanding. Their flowering is perhaps due to, as much as anything else, their sense of freedom and
their specific attention to the Bible as their sole authority in matters of
faith and practice.
Church Officers: Pastors and Deacons
There are two types of church officers in these churches: pastors and deacons. Baptists have often believed that the biblical titles elder, overseer, bishop, and pastor all refer to the same officers. Hobbs wrote, “There is the office of bishop, elder, or pastor. In the New Testament these titles refer to the same office. The title bishop refers to the function, elder the dignity. Pastor is translated from the Greek word shepherd. The three words – overseer, elder, and pastor – therefore refer to the same office.”
Mosley explains further, “In the past 50 years many churches have added staff ministry leaders according to their needs for ministry in leadership, proclamation, pastoral care. These pastoral staff persons serve in positions such as associate pastors of music, education, counseling, etc. This is not unlike the churches in the New Testament that had several leaders (Acts 11:30; 15:4; 20:17). The need for the plurality of pastors is obvious: organize to grow, not just maintain.
The second office is that of deacon, taken from the Greek word diakonos. The same word is used in the following ways: domestic servants (John 2:5,9), Christ (Rom. 15:8), followers of Christ (John 12:26; Eph. 6:21), servants of Christ (1 Cor. 3:5; 2 Cor. 6:4), and those who serve in churches (Rom. 16:1).
Jim Henry, former Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church, Orlando, Florida, teaches that deacons primarily do three things: keep down murmuring and grumbling, look after the widows (oversee ministry), and relieve the pastors. They serve three tables: The Lord’s Table, the needy, and the pastors. When pastors and deacons fail to work together as spiritual leaders of the church, several things result:
• The pastors burn out
• The pastors neglect the Word of God and prayer
• The pulpit and teaching ministry weaken
• Leadership are less sensitive to the Holy Spirit
• Evangelism and discipleship suffer
• The congregation lose opportunities to be equipped, grow, and serve
Practices differ as to whether or not deacons should be administrators or be doers of ministry. Larry Garner addresses that issue: “The big question remains, Are deacons administrators or ministers? The Seven [in Acts 6] were to be responsible over the ministry needed. The New Testament patterns is that they are to be administrators of ministry. The Scripture states that the seven were put over the ministry to the widows. They were responsible for seeing that the ministry was done.”
Don Wilton, senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Spartanburg, South Carolina, has said for years, “A church should be pastor-led, deacon-served, and congregation-run.”
Empower People to Make Decisions
As a church grows, more people must be added to the leadership base. Sonny Holmes, current President of the South Caroling Baptist Convention, once told me that from his view, among the Baptist churches that are growing, the following transition has occurred: a de-centralizing of decision-making power to ministry teams. Deacons and pastors work together to empower other people to do ministry instead of trying to control or dictate what they do. Holmes also shared that the hardest transition he sees is going from a rural mindset of church, where a few people make all the decisions, to a suburban mindset, where people in the congregation are empowered to make decisions and carry-out ministry. The lesson: empower your staff and ministry teams to make decisions and do ministry!
Bill Hull, president of T-Net International and author of several widely-read books on how churches can best make disciples, believes the average church is entrenched in administration and tradition. Thus, the churches become monuments of maintenance:
“The church needs to be liberated from this slavery to administrative forms and released to its biblical, ministerial functions.” He fears that churches are not “organized for growth and fulfilling their mission.” Instead, they are “organized for security, predictability and safety.”
Hull writes in We Must Sacrifice the Forms for the Function, he says, “The mentality of the present system is management, not leadership. Its focus is maintenance, not mission. And its result is restriction, not release. The solution is to think function, not form. If the church desires to move people toward mission instead of toward institutional maintenance, a new administrative model is needed.” Hull advocates a “ministerial congregationalism supported by a streamlined administrative congregationalism.” In other words, empower the congregation to do ministry while empowering appropriate individuals to make decisions in their various areas. The balance of the system is accountability: “The three loci of power in the church – the congregation, leaders, and staff – must provide checks and balances, which facilitate mission. I suggest this simple interface: Final authority rests in the congregation; delegated authority in the leaders; and daily authority in the staff.”
Empower people on ministry teams and committees to make decisions regarding their respective areas: “Delegating decisions nurtures a feeling of ownership and openness. It makes the church more grass-roots in practice, with those close to the action making the decisions. Those working within their sphere of ministry are endowed with the responsibility and the authority.” When appropriate, they too come to the congregation for input and approval. Every decision does not have to be discussed with the entire congregation. Instead, use congregational discussion times for sharing what they sense to be leadership from the Lord and sharing about things that affect the entire body.
Pastors act as overseers and equippers, helping to empower people to do ministry and thus fulfill the church’s mission. Deacons are able to help oversee ministry areas, protect the church, and lead in ministry. Together they become a vital team, seeking the Lord together for guidance and empowerment and mobilizing the congregation towards the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. Again, Hull shares, “The goal is to get as few as possible meeting as little time as possible for administration, so as many as possible can have as much time as possible for people ministry.”
Wayne Grudem gives a helpful, balancing perspective . . .
It must be clear, in concluding this discussion of church government, that
the form of government adopted by a church is not a major point of
doctrine. . . . Where there are weaknesses that appear to be inherent in
the governing structure, individuals within the system generally
recognize those weaknesses and attempt to compensate for them in
whatever ways the system will allow. Nevertheless, a church can be
more pure or less pure on this point, as in others. As we are persuaded by
Scripture concnering the various aspects of church government, then
we should continue to pray and work for the greater purity of the visible
church in this area as well.
Returning to Akin’s thought, “Any system will work if the people are godly and mature.” Godliness among the Lord’s people is paramount. The power of the early church was greatly due to the reality that they were godly, Spirit-filled people who sought the face of God.