CHURCH GOVERNMENT

 

The enormous differences among the denominations are staggering. One church keeps the Sabbath and other Old Testament ordinances. Some churches have elaborate worship services that appear to appeal to men rather than to God almighty. Entertainment has become a major focus in some denominations. The leaders in a number of denominations wear gowns and other strange paraphernalia that probably resemble the clothing worn by Jewish priests under the Mosaic covenant, even though the new covenant is not a carnal arrangement as was true of the Jewish law. One of the latest changes in denominationalism is what are being called "contemporary worship services." Is there something wrong with following the New Testament pattern? Have these denominations lost all respect for the authority of scripture?

 

One of the greatest differences among denominations is the government some of them have instituted. For example, one denomination claims to have apostles, Melchizedek priests, presidents, and so on. At least one church has dozens and dozens of officials. One church is governed by deacons, another by stewards and still others by different arrangements. Again I ask you: Have these denominations lost all respect for the authority of scripture? Do we institute the form of government we like rather than the one authorized in the word of God? May I say as forcefully as I am able: The church of the New Testament is not a democracy? Decisions are not made by popular vote.

 

I am fully aware of the foolish notion that the Bible does not provide a pattern for the church, including the government of the church. I shall not take the time today to show that the Bible provides one pattern after another. But all serious Bible students know that Paul outlines the pattern for partaking of the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:23-34). Oddly enough, many of those churches that object to "pattern theology" do not feel free to add a third or a fourth or a fifth element to the Lord's Supper. Neither do they feel free to partake of the Lord's Supper any time they feel like it, although that may be changing.

 

What is God's pattern for the government of the church? The Mosaic covenant arranged for a special group of men called "priests." There is no scriptural authority - ­I repeat - no scriptural authority under the new covenant for a special office of the priesthood. Every Christian under the new covenant is a priest. The Apostle Peter identifies all Christians as "a holy priesthood" (1 Pet. 2:5). The Apostle John says that Jesus Christ "has made us kings and priests unto God and his Father" (Rev. 1:6). In the first century there were apostles and prophets. In the Christian era, no person on earth can qualify for either of these positions.

 

The book of Acts and Paul's epistles teach that elders are to lead the church of our Lord. On his first missionary journey, the Apostle Paul preached the gospel in the city of Derbe. "And when he had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they (he and Barnabas) returned to Lystra, and Iconium, and Antioch, confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God." Now please listen carefully. "And when they had ordained elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed" (Acts 14:20-­23).

 

Some observations on this passage are in order. The word "ordained" just simply means "appointed." Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church. The elders of the church in Derbe had no authority over the elders in the churches at Lystra or Iconium or Antioch. Churches of Christ in the first century were independent and autonomous. There was no bishop or archbishop or presiding elder over two churches or three or more. The idea of an association or of a synod or of similar conglomerates has no basis in scripture.

 

Paul and Barnabas did not appoint additional apostles to govern the church or churches. Neither did they appoint priests in those churches. They appointed elders. Later Paul instructed Titus, his own son after the faith: "For this cause I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city as I had appointed you" (Tit. 1:5). The elders had authority over one congregation, as Acts 14:23 makes plain. There is no scriptural reason to think that any eldership ever had authority over any church except their local congregation.

 

The wisdom of having an eldership over only one congregation ought to be apparent. If an elder or an eldership had authority over several congregations, there was possibility that the elder or eldership could not provide the leadership those churches needed. In addition, if an eldership were over several churches departed from the faith that would likely affect all of the churches in an association or synod. If the churches were under local elderships, that would be less likely to happen. All one has to do to confirm this last observation is to study the current situation among denominational churches. Most of the congregations associated with the major denominations became liberal when their presiding bishop or elder decided that the Bible is not an infallible guide. The Presbyterian Church USA is a good example of having leaders who did not respect the Bible as God's inspired word. Many of the congregations in associations or synods were not free to determine their own destiny. They generally followed the leadership of their presiding bishop or elder. They were led astray from the teaching of scripture by bishops like John Shelby Spong, James Pike and other radicals.

 

Some modem denominations make a distinction between elders and bishops. That is because of their tradition or because they want to do it. The Bible does not allow for such distinctions. In his farewell address to the elders of the Lord's church at Ephesus, Paul used the words "elder" and "bishop" interchangeably. Luke records: "And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church." Please take careful note of Paul's admonitions to those elders. "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he has purchased with his own blood" (Acts 20: 17, 28).

 

The Greek word correctly translated "overseers" is episkopous from which we derive our English word "bishop." According to divine inspiration, the elders at Ephesus were the bishops (or more correctly, overseers) of that church. You do not have to be a student of the Greek to arrive at that conclusion. In 1958 Dr. A. M. Renwick and his son-in-law, Dr. A. M. Harman-both Church of England scholars-­published a book with the title, The Story of the Church (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company). Dr. Renwick points out that in the apostolic age some of the officers in the church were temporary and others were permanent. The office of the apostle was a temporary one (p. 19-20). There are no legitimate apostles today. The apostles constituted a unique class for the establishment of the Lord's church. But no arrangements were made for a permanent office of apostles. Anyone who claims to be an apostle is a pretender.

 

Dr. Renwick affirms that elders were permanent officers in the church. They are variously described as bishop, pastor, shepherd, steward, and overseer. All of these terms provide a different aspect of the same office. Dr. Renwick observes: "Paul addressed his letter to the Philippians to 'the bishops and deacons.' It was a small church in a small city, yet it had a plurality of elders." He quotes Dr. J. B. Lightfoot, one of the Church of England's greatest Greek scholars, as saying: "It is a fact now generally recognized by theologians of all shades of opinion, that in the language of the New Testament, the same officer in the Church is called indifferently bishop and elder, or presbyter" (p. 21).

 

In his letter to Titus, as I have already indicated, Paul says he left Titus in Crete, that he would set in order the things that were wanting or lacking, and appoint elders in every city as Paul had ordered him to do. Please listen to what follows in Titus. "If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not self-willed, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of gain" (Tit. 1:5-7). Did Paul instruct Titus to appoint elders and then give him the qualifications of a different office, a bishop? Or are the offices the same, as Bishop Lightfoot of the Church of England believed?

 

Scholars of most denominations - at least those with whom I am acquainted - ­believe that the elder and the bishop occupy the same office. In his Commentary on 1 & 2 Timothy & Titus (Waco: Word Books, Publisher, 1974), Dr. Ronald Ward has written: "The introductory words, for a bishop, are highly significant. The apostle has just given directions with regard to the appointment of elders or presbyters. He justifies his requirements for presbyters by listing what is necessary for a bishop. It is obvious that a presbyter is a bishop. A bishop is a generic term and refers to all bishops. When we say that 'a soldier must be brave' we mean 'all soldiers'" (p. 240).

 

Dr. D. Edmond Hiebert agrees with Ronald Ward. Dr. Hiebert's commentary on Titus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978) says: "The leader's true position and personal qualifications are given in vv. 7, 8. The switch in v. 7 to "overseer" shows that 'elder' and 'overseer' or 'bishop' are interchangeable terms, yet with a different connotation. 'Elder' (presbuteros) implies maturity and dignity of the man, while 'bishop' (episkopos) indicates his work as the 'overseer' of God's flock" (p.430).

 

Before I make some observations on the organization and work of the Lord's church, I must say a few words about elders. I believe that preachers of the gospel have some of the most awesome responsibilities any human being can accept. But they are not so serious as are the responsibilities of elders. Elders not only must lead the flock of God; they must also make sure the preachers are teaching the truth of God's word. The elders are responsible for all the teaching that is done in the local congregation. If the preacher teaches error, the elders must remove him from his position. Elders are shepherds. They must lead the flock. They must also protect the flock from wolves in sheep's clothing.

 

I hope you have noticed in our brief study the simplicity of church government that God himself ordained. There are no elaborate structures that govern all the churches of Christ in any given area. Each congregation is independent and autonomous. We cooperate in projects that are too large for any single congregation. For example, the International Gospel Hour depends on hundreds of churches and thousands of individuals to broadcast the gospel over more than 200 stations nationwide and over the Internet worldwide. The contributions from churches and from individuals are purely voluntary. We have no authority to require anyone to give to this effort. The work of this program is under the oversight of the elders of the West Fayetteville Church of Christ in Fayetteville, Tennessee. They make sure that what I preach is what the Bible teaches and only what the Bible teaches.

 

Not only is the government of the church of Christ the very essence of simplicity; so are our worship services. If you have never attended the worship services of churches of Christ, you need to know exactly what occurs. The preachers wear ordinary clothing; they reject the names that many denominational leaders wear, such as, reverend, the right reverend and your holiness; the church buildings do not have statues or icons.

 

We have congregational singing as prescribed in Paul's epistles. Please listen to these verses. "Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord" (Eph. 5:18-19). "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord" (Col. 3:16). The goals Paul had in mind in these verses cannot be fulfilled with mechanical instruments of music.

 

It ought to be obvious from these passages that the Holy Spirit authorized singing. Tragically, many churches couldn’t care less about authority. If they want to include certain activities in the worship services, so be it. If it feels good, do it. For many years Dr. John L. Girardeau taught at Columbia Theological Seminary, a conservative Presbyterian seminary, in Columbia, South Carolina. His students asked him why he opposed instrumental music in the worship of the church. His response was an excellent book with the title, Instrumental Music in the Public Worship (Fayetteville, TN: International Gospel Hour, n. d.). The book was originally published in 1888 in Richmond, Virginia. Since the book was in the public domain, the International Gospel Hour republished the book two or three years ago. It is a devastating critique of instrumental music in the worship of the New Testament church.

 

One paragraph from Dr. Girardeau's book will have to suffice for this lesson. "Attention, at the outset, is invoked to the consideration which serves to establish the following controlling principle: A divine warrant is necessary for every element of doctrine, government and worship in the church; that is, whatsoever in these spheres is not commanded in the scriptures, either expressly or by good and necessary consequence of their statements, is forbidden.... This truth operates positively to the inclusion of everything in the doctrine, government and worship of the church which is commanded, either explicitly or implicitly, in the Scriptures, and negatively to the exclusion of everything which is not so commanded" (pp. 6-7). Very simply, Dr. Girardeau affirmed: We must have authority for all acts of worship, for the government of the church and for the church's teaching.

 

Churches of Christ partake of the Lord's Supper every Lord's Day. It is a simple and dignified celebration of the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. We do not engage in two worship activities at the same time - singing and taking the Lord's Supper. We do not leave the impression that the Lord's Supper is the most important part of our worship to God. But we do believe it is important enough that we eat the Supper every Lord's day. Paul told the Corinthians: "For as often as you eat this bread, and drink this cup, you show (or proclaim) the Lord's death till he come" (1 Cor. 11:26). The Lord's Supper is a powerful sermon. We want to preach that sermon every Lord's day.

 

Giving is a significant feature of our worship. Paul commanded the Corinthians: "Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, so also you are to do. Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God has prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come" (1 Cor. 16:1-2). While churches of Christ emphasize what the Bible teaches on giving, they do not pressure anyone to give. The members of the West Fayetteville Church of Christ give generously to support the International Gospel hour and many other activities, but not one time in my fifteen years with this congregation have I heard our elders put pressure on the members to give. They honor these words: "Every man according as he purposes in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Cor. 9: 7). Our elders outline the work they believe we ought to be doing. They encourage the members to be generous in their giving, but they never beg or cajole or make false promises connected to giving.

 

Faithful churches of Christ support strong gospel preaching. I know there are some exceptions, but generally speaking, elders among churches of Christ demand that preachers "preach the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). When Paul met with the Christians at Troas, he preached to them and continued his speech until midnight (Acts 20:7). Preaching is such a vital part of our worship to God almighty. It must be scriptural, sound and loving. There is never any justification for the preacher's being ugly-spirited or harsh. Elders of the church must require preachers to study, to live what they preach and to preach the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

 

Churches of Christ also emphasize prayer, just as the first church of Christ did. "And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts 2:42). Prayer should draw us closer to God and to one another.

 

I close with this challenge. All churches should do Bible things in Bible ways and call Bible things by Bible names.

 

Winford Claiborne

The International Gospel Hour

P.O. Box 118

Fayetteville, TN 37334