Church Government

Denis Clapham, Birmingham

Today we witness many kinds of government both in the world and in the church. All are marked by varying degrees of righteousness and repression. We do well therefore to reconsider the nature of the government that God means His churches to have, knowing that the form which expresses His will must be the best. At first men were set in every church for the purpose of establishing and maintaining godly order. These men are variously called elders, Acts 14. 23; 20. 17; Titus 1.5; bishops, Phil. 1. 1; and overseers, Acts 20. 28; though each of these titles applies to the same body of men.

1. Who Appoints Elders? The apostles? Their delegates? An assembly? Existing elders? Or are they self-appointed? Initially it was the apostles who appointed elders in the churches that they had planted, Acts 14. 23. Then, in the absence of apostles it was those who acted on their instructions, Titus 1.5. Apostolic directions were written to give an authoritative outline of the characteristics required of overseers. Subsequently, existing overseers were thereby enabled to recognize those who earnestly desired the good work of overseership, 1 Tim. 3. 1-11, and to point them out to the church so that they might be known by all, 1 Thess. 5. 13. It is, however, God Himself who sets some in the churches to guide them, 1 Cor. 12. 28. He alone is the One who makes overseers, Acts 20. 28, and they should only be recognized when seen to be fitted by God for the work.

2. What is their Work? Baptizing, marrying and burying members? Arranging for speakers? Organizing meetings or the work of maintaining the fabric, and the fixtures and fittings of the meeting place? Keeping accounts or making returns to civil authorities as required by law? Or is it primarily to ensure that gospel activity is promoted in Sunday School, Youth Group or other meeting? What say the Scriptures? Clearly their work is to:

i. Shepherd, 1 Pet. 5. 2; Acts 20. 28.
ii. Lead (i.e., stand before), 1 Thess. 5. 12; 1 Tim. 5. 17.
iii. Watch, Heb. 13. 17; 1 Pet. 5. 8.
iv. Labour, 1 Thess. 5. 12; 1 Tim. 5. 17; Acts 20. 35.
v. Govern, Heb. 13. 7, 17, 24; 1 Pet. 5. 3.
vi. Steer, 1 Cor. 12. 28.

From the above it is evident that their chief work is concerned with the spiritual wellbeing of the saints, although some or all of the earlier-mentioned matters may also be their concern.

3. What are their Qualifications? Since Christ is the Chief Shepherd, 1 Pet. 5. 4, as undershepherds they must be like Him. Therefore they will be meek and lowly in heart, Matt. 11. 29. Their word will be with grace, Luke 4. 22. In purpose they will be steadfast, Luke 9.51. Their love will know no limit, John 13.1. And their regard for the Word of God will be such that its fulfilment will be of paramount importance to them, John 19. 36. In a word, without a Christ-like character, other qualities will be worth little. Two sets of qualifications (or disqualifications of those not measuring up to them) are given in 1 Timothy 3. 1-7 and Titus 1. 5-9, which must not be regarded as being only more or less necessary to be met. Even the police force will not bend its rules to take in otherwise good recruits!

4. How are they to be Regarded and Treated? As equals? To be avoided? To be challenged whenever their lead seems to meet with a minority approval? Bearing in mind that true shepherds are made by God and given by Him as gifts to the churches; and that they will, if truly Christ-like, not be overbearing, spiteful or partisan, they ought without exception to be:

i. Acknowledged, 1 Thess. 5. 12.
ii. Esteemed very highly, 1 Thess. 5. 13.
iii. Honoured, 1 Tim. 5. 17.
iv. Trusted, 1 Tim. 5. 19.
v. Obeyed, Heb. 13. 17.
vi. Submitted to, 1 Pet. 5. 5.

A right attitude towards authority, wherever vested, calls for humility on the part of those of whom subjection is required. It should not be irksome to respond to godly men who are motivated by the love of Christ in what they do in the church.

5. To Whom are they Accountable? A metropolitan or diocesan bishop? A central committee? Fellow-elders? The church? Nobody? Perhaps elders as well as church members sometimes need to be reminded that:

i. The Flock is GOD'S, 1 Pet. 5. 2.
ii. The Church is GOD'S, Acts 20. 28.
iii. The House is GOD'S, 1 Tim. 3. 15.
iv. The Heritage is GOD'S, 1 Pet. 5. 3.
v. The Temple is GOD'S, 1 Cor. 3. 17.

While every one of us will finally give account of himself to God, Rom. 14. 12, elders who watch for the souls of the saints must also give account to God with joy or sighing in that day when the work of all will be reviewed, 1 Cor. 3. 13; Heb. 13. 17.