Assembly Nuts & Bolts: Church Government

The purpose of this study is to look at how decisions are made in the assemblies.

Apostolic Government of the Church

At the beginning, the apostles taught the fledgling assemblies. The NT is filled with letters written by these men. Their letters contain guidance and encouragement, as well as commands. That we no longer have apostles is evident from their designation as “the twelve” (e.g., Mat 26:14; Luk 8:1; Joh 6:67; Act 6:2; 1Co 15:5), indicating that the group was limited in number. It is also evident from their qualifications, which included being a witness of the Lord Jesus in resurrection (Act 1:22). So although the apostles no longer command the churches, their influence lingers on through their letters and the inspired truth they contain.

Government by Overseers

The only other body of people exercising authority in the NT are those known variously as “elders” or “bishops.” That the terms “elder” and “bishop” describe the same role is evident from Acts 20:17,28. The meaning of “elder” is easy to discern – an elder is an older man. In the context of the church, however, it also has the idea of spiritual maturity. Physical maturity and spiritual maturity usually accompany one another. The meaning of “bishop” is less obvious. The Greek word episkopous (meaning “overseer”) was anglicised and over time morphed into the English word “bishop.” The translators of the AV and other translations chose not to translate the word literally as “overseer” when it is used to designate a church role or office. The translators of the AV did not wish to undermine existing ecclesiastical practices. The tide has turned, however. John Nelson Darby’s New Translation and most translations now render the word as “overseer.”

Another less common designation is “pastors” (lit. shepherds, see Eph 4:11). This stresses simultaneously the care the shepherds should have for the assembly and the authority they exercise over the assembly.

The Hebrews epistle refers to those that “rule” (13:7,17,24). 1 Timothy 5:17 refers to “elders that rule well.” This terminology is evidently used of those who were overseers or elders in the churches to whom the author wrote. The word in 1 Timothy 5:17 (proistemi) carries the thought of one who superintends as a protector or guardian. The word “rule” in Hebrews (hegoumenon) is used for the sort of leadership that a shepherd exercises over a flock of sheep. But it is also used for the rule of a king over a nation (Mat 2:6) and of Joseph when he was Pharaoh’s right-hand man in Egypt (Act 7:10). It is clear, therefore, that an elder or overseer exercises a form of benign authority. The authority involves shepherd care (1Ti 3:5).

Ideally, each assembly should have more than one elder (Php 1:1); that is the norm in the NT. This can pose difficulties when an assembly is small and/or lacks suitably qualified men. This ideal should not be readily abandoned, as the alternatives (decision making by the whole assembly or unqualified men) are liable to lead the assembly into difficulties. It seems that in early days there were churches without overseers, since Titus had to go to churches that were already established and appoint them. That being said, his role was to identify men already performing the role (Titus 1:5). But it is probably the case that after the churches were planted it took a little time for suitable candidates to emerge.

Much of an oversight’s work is low-key and is scarcely noticed by the assembly. They are (or should be) the oil that lubricates the day-to-day running of the assembly. They make phone calls, send emails and engage in conversations to make sure that things function properly. Among their more prominent responsibilities are making announcements, interviewing candidates for baptism or fellowship, inviting speakers, sending gifts, etc. They decide these things together. Although there is no guidance as to the way they reach decisions, Scripture indicates that they should operate by consensus (Phm 14). The ideal, as with all assembly decisions, is that they be of one mind (Php 3:15-16). If they cannot arrive at a consensus, it is better to “wait on the Lord,” as decisions taken where the overseers are divided are liable to cause difficulty. Of course, if the overseer is willing to lay aside his concern because, for example, he does not consider the matter to be sufficiently important, or where he is not confident that he has the “mind of the Lord,” that is another matter.

Provided it is recognised that Scripture does not support the congregational model of church government (where decisions are taken by the church), there is often a great deal of wisdom in involving the assembly in decisions that will require cooperation. For example, if the hall needs redecorated, the decision as to when the work is to be done, what colours are to be used, etc., are best taken with the knowledge and approval of the assembly. Likewise, even if a decision is to be made by the elders, it may often be prudent to advise the assembly so that any concerns can be raised. If it is proposed that a series of gospel meetings should be convened, the elders may wish to advise the assembly of the time proposed so that they can be made aware of any problems that may exist with the timing. But most decisions, particularly those that involve the exercise of spiritual judgement, are for the elders.

Much of an overseer’s work is work that others may do. Just as the qualifications for overseers (1Ti 3; Titus 1) are qualifications all should aspire to, so much of the overseers’ work should be engaged in by all who desire to help the testimony. These include being hospitable (hence the desirability of an overseer’s being married), being teachers of Scripture (though not necessarily publicly), being upright in behaviour and having a good testimony (see 1Ti 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9).

To be continued.