Monday, 10 December 2007

The Priesthood of Every Believer and How Churches Should Be Governed

The Priesthood of Every Believer
and How Churches Should Be Governed

As a sometime pastor, and as a scholar of the church (in training), I have an intense interest in what the Bible says about church governance. Does the Bible support the notion of a church governed by the pastor, a board, or the congregation? This post argues for congregational government, tying it to the doctrine of the indwelling of every believer, which is often overlooked in this discussion.

Definitions and Dynamics
Preliminarily, I should define some basic elements of the various types of church governance, with relevant commentary. First there is episcopal government in which an individual has sole authority in the church and rules by fiat. This is seen in Roman Catholicism in which the Pope rules the churches through his bishops and priests, but is also exemplified in the Episcopal and Methodist churches. Since the 1960s (more or less), this type of church governance has (ironically) become increasingly popular within the independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches in the U.S., following the model of people such as Bob Jones, John R. Rice, and Jack Hyles.

Second, a presbyterian model puts church governance into the hands of a board. Although the board is traditionally referred to as an elder board, it might also be called any other number of titles, such as trustees or even deacons (!). But perhaps the most important aspect of presbyterian governance is that this board controls the church and is self-perpetuating. That is, when an elder resigns, dies, or rotates off the board, the church does not choose his replacement, but rather the board chooses his replacement.

Third, a congregational or baptistic model puts church governance into the hands of the congregation which appoints leaders to various positions to facilitate the decision making/implementation process. The pastor may have more or less authority, and likewise other church leaders such as deacons and trustees, according to the previously defined limits outlined in the church's by-laws which were drawn by the congregation.

Plurality of Elders in the New Testament

Before making my argument for congregational government, I should address the claim that the Bible teaches a church governance of a plurality of elders, since this gets stated so often and gets little analytical scrutiny. Yes, to be sure, we know that there were elders in the early church and that the elders surely would have wielded leadership authority. However, this does not automatically mean that such elders reflected a presbyterian model in which they had unilateral control over the church and were self-perpetuating.

We also know that the apostles or their delegates appointed church elders in new churches. But again, this does not necessitate the notion that such elders, in turn, appointed their own replacements or had unilateral authority over the church.

On the contrary, there is reasonably good evidence to suggest that once a church became self-governing, it was the church itself which designated its own leaders, rather than the apostles or their delegates. A case in point is, of course, 1 Timothy, where the church was in leadership crisis, in part, because Hymenaeus and Alexander had been excluded from the church, necessitating Paul's extensive instructions about the church choosing their replacements. This assumes that the list of 1 Tim 3 was not written for the sake of Timothy. In fact, Timothy had just previously discussed the Ephesian situation with Paul at an undisclosed location as Paul was on his way to Macedonia (1:3). If it were Timothy's task to appoint elders, Paul and Timothy would have simply resolved the issue face to face, with the letter disclosing additional words of encouragement to those whom they had already chosen. Instead, the list appears designed to help the congregation figure out whom they should choose as their new leaders.

Doctrine of the Priesthood and Indwelling of Every Believer
Historically, episcopal government dominated the later years of the early church, as churches modeled their governance after the dictators of Rome. Many centuries later, in the Reformation era, the church came to understand the doctrine of the Priesthood of Every Believer, along with the Spirit's indwelling of every believer. This raised serious questions about episcopal governance and ultimately re-distributed or devolved authority from an individual bishop or priest to an elder board.

Baptists, however, took this doctrine more seriously and applied its implications more consistently in terms of church governance. If every believer really is a priest and is indwelt by the Spirit, then it is possible for even the lowest maidservant to be led by the Spirit of God. As such, the input of each person was cherished in the decision making process, at least in theory. (One wonders how freely Baptist women were permitted to contribute in those early years of the movement.) Consequently, while presbyterians were willing to devolve authority away from the monarchical bishop to a small group of elders, Baptists devolved authority all the way to the individual members of the church so that the congregation formed its own governance.

Earlier I said in a sideward comment that it is ironic that so many independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches have retroverted back to a papal model in which the pastor has all authority. Someone referred to these pastors as "protestant popes." What is so ironic about this trend is that this is a wholesale discarding of deeply considered convictions which our Baptist forebears held, and it is done without much serious thought. Baptists ought to embrace the doctrine of the Priesthood and Indwelling of Every Believer since they have traditionally held to this doctrine moreso than any other Christian movement.

This doctrine of the Priesthood and Indwelling of Every Believer puts congregational governance on a solid biblical basis. I'm not aware of any biblical text which speaks against the notion that the church congregation chooses its own leadership and defines the limits of leaders' authority, nor am I aware of any text which suggests that a board or an individual is supposed to have unilateral authority over the church. On the contrary, there are texts which seem to assume that the congregation determines its own leaders, and the doctrine of the Priesthood and Indwelling of Every Believer makes congregational governance the most biblical approach to this important issue.


Timothy said...

Greetings! Found your post in Google Blogsearch and came to read.

>" First there is episcopal government in which an individual has sole authority in the church and rules by fiat. This is seen in Roman Catholicism in which the Pope rules the churches through his bishops and priests, but is also exemplified in the Episcopal and Methodist churches."

Um, there's one small problem with your example. The Pope doesn't rule by fiat. In fact, he doesn't rule at all. The Pope really has very little power. Governance in the Catholic Church is by the local Catholic bishop (episkopos)at the diocese level. Not being Catholic, it's understandable why you might interpret the Church as you did.

This same system is seen in the Anglican Church where the local bishop is the governing authority. The Primate, or Archbishop of a province, has no direct governing authority over the bishops in the province. That's why Archbishop Schori has not control over the breakaway churches and dioceses in her province.

God bless...

James M. Leonard said...

Thanks Timothy for the comment--I'll keep my eyes open for further information on this.

Just a quick perusal of the issue at wikipedia ( digs up this quote:

"The See of Rome, as the sole unbroken line of apostolic authority, descending from St. Peter (the "prince and head of the apostles"), is a visible sign and instrument of communion among the college of bishops and therefore also of the local churches around the world. In communion with the world-wide college of bishops the Pope has all legitimate juridical and teaching authority over the whole Church."

Regarding the Anglican Communion, or more particular the Episcopal Church (in U.S.), there was a situation in recent years in which a conservative priest was removed from a Maryland church by a liberal bishop. ( Here's what is reported in Christianity Today:

"U.S. judge kicks Episcopal priest out of parish"

"A federal judge yesterday handed the Episcopal church hierarchy a victory in the Christ Church in Accokeek, Maryland. Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon opposed the parish's appointment of Samuel Edwards as rector, but Edwards said she missed the 30-day deadline to do so. According to U.S. District Court Judge Peter J. Messitte, missing the deadline doesn't matter; Dixon is the boss, and what she says goes. "She is the highest ecclesiastical authority of the Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church," he wrote. "Even if her decisions … were arbitrary (and the Court in no way means to suggest they were), they were decisions for her, as Bishop, to make. The Court had and has no say in the matter. … By law, the Court must defer to her actions." Chuck Nalls, attorney for the parish, tells The Washington Times it is likely to appeal the decision. The Washington Post, meanwhile, says the decision "represents a major victory for the Episcopal Church's hierarchy in its nationwide dispute with a conservative faction that is seeking to secede from the denomination along with the assets of some parishes."

Perhaps there are some subtleties of episcopal governance that I'm not grasping, but the portrait of authority invested in individuals at ever higher hierarchical levels seems fair enough.

The Seeking Disciple said...

Great post. I fear that too often the Pastor of the local church has become the "do all, know all, be all" CEO rather than the church following the biblical model. I have a few friends in "full time" ministry who love this approach (the CEO type) because it allows them to run the show. How sad that the gifts of the Spirit given by God (1 Cor. 12:7; 1 Peter 4:10) are not used because of either fear from the clergy or an unbiblical model.

Anonymous said...

We are privileged to belong to an non-appellative Anabaptist Body of 14 year duration. Biblical (multiple) eldership, deacons and an unpaid ministry have served Him well. Generous giving (non tithing) allows us to provide 2/3 rds of our budget for missions. (2 families with 6 children in Africa planting indigenous churches))

All our inspired and qualified brothers preach and teach and benefit most from the exercise.

There is no clergy - laity separation.

As we home school sans TV our children and youth define the next generation's zeal for the Lord.

A Biblical Church really works !