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What is the New Testament form of church government?

By Ronald Dart

The most surprising thing about church government in the New Testament is how little anyone had to say on the subject. Jesus never said, "You will organize my church this way." He NEVER told the disciples that there would be clerical offices, much less offices arranged in a vertical hierarchy. He never explained how they might fill any such offices. There are no instructions to vote or not to vote.

As important as church government is to us, one would think the New Testament would lay it out clearly. It does not. If it did, you would not be reading this. We could just publish "Paul's instructions to the Romans on how to govern their church," or better yet, Jesus' instructions to the apostles on how to rule the church. But Jesus never told them any such thing. In fact, He never told the disciples who would be in charge--probably because he intended to remain in charge Himself.

There is very little direct instruction from Jesus on church government, but it would be wrong to say there is none. There are at least two very important statements. The first turns out to be a caution of what we should not do rather than what we should do.

It seems the disciples had one set of expectations about authority and Jesus had another. They were thinking of an immediate kingdom with Christ ruling on a throne. They had no idea of the circumstances that would prevail for the church during the remainder of their lives. At that moment, they did not even have a clear idea of what the church would be like. Jesus did.

What Jesus Christ said about authority

What Jesus told them about authority among themselves deserves careful consideration. He called them together, and He said this: "Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them" (Matthew 20:25). A vertically structured system of governance with people exercising authority downward, Jesus said, is a Gentile system.

Having said this, Jesus went on to give them His definitive statement about governance: "But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." The apostles were to look, not downward in dominion, but outward in service.

Now I know that many think that a pyramid style of government is Biblical and God ordained. The truth is that it was first recommended by Jethro, Moses father-in-law, as a solution to a problem (Exodus 18:13 ff.). God seems to have neither condemned nor endorsed Jethro's solution. But God's solution to the same sort of problem was seventy elders of equal status, empowered by the spirit (Numbers 11:11 ff.). Perhaps the most significant difference between the two structures is that, in the one, power is focused vertically to the top, while in the other power is diffused horizontally.

When using this as an example for church government, it is a critical mistake to identify the human leader of a church with Moses. Moses is a type of Christ, not of any human leader of the church. To attempt the role of Moses in the church is to usurp the authority of Christ. He is the only head of the Church.

When we understand this, we have grasped the first principle of New Testament church government. Jesus retained the real power to himself (Matthew 28:18), and diffused power among the men who led the church.

By the time anyone wrote anything that is now "New Testament," what there was of church government was already in existence. The New Testament writers took it for granted, and went on to more important subjects. The result is that we are left to gather what we know about church government from fragments and inferences. One of the first things we learn is that ministerial offices evolved. In the beginning there were apostles. With the growth of the Jerusalem churches, the needs grew faster than the ministry. They were meeting the needs on an ad hoc basis, with all the attendant inefficiency, inequity and frustration (Acts 6:1 ff).

No divine revelation regarding government

What is important here is what did not happen. There was no dream, no vision, and no instructions from Jesus about how to plan, appoint deacons, organize the church or distribute aid. His instructions were simple enough: "Feed my sheep." I suppose he thought the twelve were smart enough to figure out a few things for themselves. They were, but only when the need forced them to think about it.

I do not mean to belittle the role of the Holy Spirit in leading the apostles, but the Spirit did not anticipate the problem for them. When the problem surfaced, they called the multitude of disciples together and made their case, not from divine revelation, but from reason. They instructed the "multitude of disciples" to select seven men whom they might appoint over "this business." What process they used we are not told, but it had to involve the exchange of information and recommendations, and some sort of decision making process. Did they vote? They may not have called it that, but by head nodding, hand raising, winking, or ayes and nays, the people chose seven men. And when the people decide something, it is (are you ready for this?) a democracy of some sort.

But there were some decisions the people could not make. Much of the work to be done depended on the gifts of the Spirit, and God decided how those would be distributed.

The apostles made the first division of labor in appointing deacons. They designated a ministry of the word and a ministry of service. The other divisions God made as he gave this gift to one man, and that gift to another woman. The "offices" of I Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4 were created and grew out of the distribution of spiritual gifts. Consequently, Paul can say "And God has set some in the church ..."

It is important to note that prophets are listed second in both lists of spiritual gifts or "offices." Can a congregation vote to decide which of them will be a prophet? Can an authority figure in the church decide which of us will see the future? Can a board of ministers meet and appoint one of their number as the resident prophet? Or is a man or woman made a prophet when the spirit of God moves upon them?

The lists of spiritual gifts are indeed ranked--perhaps in order of importance, perhaps in the order the gifts were bestowed upon individuals. What they do not represent is a hierarchy of authority. If this is the divinely ordained structure of church government, I can tell you what it is not. It is not a structure of Apostle, Evangelist, Pastor, Preaching Elder, Local Elder, and Local Church Elder. It is not a structure of authority where each person on the ladder owes deference to everyone above him on the ladder. To whatever extent it is a structure, it is a structure of service.

In the Catholic church, the Pope is the Vicar of Christ which means he is to function "in the place of Christ when He should be gone." By definition, a vicar is one authorized to perform the functions of another. The error is in the presumption that Christ would be gone.

Another statement from Jesus Christ

When Jesus gave "the Great Commission" to his disciples, he made His second great statement on church government (Matthew 28:18-20). It is in three parts. First He proclaims, "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth." Whatever authority there is in the church rests in Jesus Christ and there is no authority but His.

Second, He gave them their "mission statement," their corporate goals and objectives. This is what they were to be doing with all their resources: Making disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them.

Third, He made it clear that He needed no vicars: "And lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world." Christ would remain in charge of the church, and not necessarily through the twelve. He called and commissioned Saul of Tarsus without consulting any of them.

The idea that God works "through" this church leader or that apostle should be viewed with suspicion. If God can work "through" Balaam's donkey, then I suppose He can work through one of us. But when that one becomes an exclusive channel of God's government, God's grace, access to God or any such, we have created a new vicar of Christ. We have put an ordinary man in the place of Christ. It is idolatry.

Church government is not a major concern in the New Testament. What is important is the sovereignty of Jesus in the life of each of us. Jesus Christ is your Lord; the ministry is your servant.

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