Growing up in a fundamentalist church, I easily excepted the idea that one man alone made the decisions for the congregation. I found it odd the first time that I set through a Baptist business meeting, and odder evens till when the Pastor asked permission to spend the money. How in the world could the congregation do this!!! It was so unbiblical – or was it?
Three basic forms of church government exist today:
- Monarchial ministry “top down” government (mainly independent fundamentalist congregations, where one person rules with little or no accountability and no congregational voting);
- Congregational “bottom up” government (democratic churches where the “majority” rules);
- Bureaucratic rule of a few elders (all having equal authority – Church of Christ or Presbyterian).
There are many variations and mixtures of these three basic forms of governance.
In the New Testament, we find scarce evidence of a church order, only that the ministry is divided (episcopate and the diaconate) and that some did have some authority as overseers. It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to consider the role of the Jewish synagogue shaping early views of Church Governance, especially in the Pauline congregations. So, we start there, examining what the New Testament gives us as examples of communal governance.
Synagogues were led by a (group of) ‘ruler(s)’ of the synagogue and a ‘servant(s)’ of the synagogue. In the Apostolic age, these offices became the overseer/Bishop/Elder and the deacon. We see in the Gospels, that while sometimes, one man spoke for the local synagogue, there times when a group of priests or leaders spoke. It is not my intent to give you a full index of Scripture of a plurality in the ministry, but here are a few:
After that, he taught daily in the Temple, but the leading priests, the teachers of religious law, and the other leaders of the people began planning how to kill him. (Luk 19:47 NLT)
Then Jesus began to tell them that the Son of Man must suffer many terrible things and be rejected by the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but three days later he would rise from the dead. (Mar 8:31 NLT)
After the usual readings from the books of Moses and the prophets, those in charge of the service sent them this message: “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, come and give it.” (Act 13:15 NLT)
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. (Tit 1:5 NLT)
Do not neglect the spiritual gift you received through the prophecy spoken over you when the elders of the church laid their hands on you. (1Ti 4:14 NLT)
What about biblical precepts? Does the bible allow for a monarchial pastor?
And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Eph 5:21 NLT)
Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they are accountable to God. Give them reason to do this with joy and not with sorrow. That would certainly not be for your benefit. (Heb 13:17 NLT)
Even Paul, the great Apostles, submitted to those in Jerusalem, the greater Apostolic council for authority, but they did not go on their own authority:
While Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch of Syria, some men from Judea arrived and began to teach the believers: “Unless you are circumcised as required by the law of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Paul and Barnabas disagreed with them, arguing vehemently. Finally, the church decided to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem, accompanied by some local believers, to talk to the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent the delegates to Jerusalem, and they stopped along the way in Phoenicia and Samaria to visit the believers. They told them– much to everyone’s joy– that the Gentiles, too, were being converted. (Act 15:1-3 NLT)
We have to understand that the Church did not spring from a vacuum, but for a long time, rested with the synagogue. They adopted their plurality of ministry, and followed the Christian precepts of submitting one to another. A ministry should be a team, with accountability provided because of this. I do not agree with a pure congregational system, nor with the monarchial ministry seen so often in fundamentalist churches. Instead, I believe that that the Church should have something along the lines of the presbyterian system, in which you have a group of overseers, but perhaps with one as a first among equals.
For further reading, I would highly recommend this little book. This exercise is not supposed to be comprehensive, but a start of a discussion. I would very much like your input, especially those that feel that the singular pastor is biblical. Can you provide Scripture for a church governance system in which the pastor maintains absolute control over every aspect of the congregational business?