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.