Assembly Nuts & Bolts: Church Government

Decisions by the Whole Church

Arguably, the two most important decisions in the NT are those that involve “receiving” (Rom 16:2) someone to the assembly and those that involve “putting away” (1Co 5:5; 2Co 2:6). The NT indicates that the whole church is involved in these two matters. This no doubt is because these decisions would be unworkable unless they commanded common assent. Thus, while elders no doubt should meet to discuss receiving or putting away and should have views which they can recommend to the assembly, the whole church must be consulted.

The act of receiving someone is a corollary of the idea that church membership is not open to just anyone (1Co 14:23) and that accepting someone into an assembly involves a decision on the part of the assembly. Often these decisions are routine and uncontentious (e.g., where a visitor with a letter of commendation arrives, there does not need to be a meeting of the whole church, as their letter provides the basis for reception). Likewise, someone who is well known is received without much fanfare. But the decision becomes more significant and therefore merits closer attention when someone moves into the area and wishes to settle permanently or where the person is newly saved and wishes to join. Another difficult case is where someone wishes to join where there are potential problems with their membership (e.g., he or she has left another church “under a cloud” and/or there are reasonable concerns as to their beliefs or conduct).

Is this decision a democratic one? No. Democracy assumes that each person entitled to vote has an equal vote. No account is taken of their wisdom or character. In the assembly, however, it is recognised that some members carry more weight than others. Some may lack maturity. Some may be inconsistent. Some may be contentious. Factors such as these affect the weight to be attached to their views.

By the same token, putting away is done by the whole church (1Co 5:4,13). This, again, is a practical necessity. In the NT, where someone is put away they not only lose assembly privileges but social interaction with church members is restricted (1Co 5:11). This expresses the view that social fellowship and spiritual fellowship are bound up with one another. There is little point in discipline if it is undermined by church members treating the individual as if nothing had happened. To make this workable the whole church puts away. It is an assembly decision.

Church Government in the Denominations

To those who have grown up in the assemblies and have no experience of other forms of church government, it can be a surprise to discover how much diversity there is in Christendom. The main form of church government is that practised by the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox Churches. It is what is called an Episcopalian form of government in that government lies in the hands of bishops. The bishops are headed up by an archbishop. In the Roman Catholic Church, their archbishop is the Bishop of Rome, popularly known as the Pope. The Anglican Church is headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Eastern Orthodox Church is split into a number of episcopates, each headed up by a primate. The Patriarch of Constantinople is regarded as the most prominent of these primates.

After the Reformation, another form of government began to manifest itself. It was called Presbyterianism (presbyterous translated “elder” in the AV). The denominations that are Presbyterian in nature are generally governed locally by means of the presbytery (the elders) who have responsibility for a group of churches. Beneath them is a further group called the “session,” with responsibility for an individual church. In most Presbyterian churches there is a central body called the General Assembly, which meets once a year, presided over by a moderator. The General Assembly decides issues by vote and has the power to bind churches within the denomination.

Assembly Autonomy

Although most churches have central decision-making bodies, the assemblies have largely set their face against such an approach to church government. There is no reference to a central decision-making body in Scripture. The only possible analogy to it is the meeting in Acts 15. But in truth, that meeting was a meeting between representatives of the church in Antioch (Act 14:25,26; 15:2,3) and the church in Jerusalem (Act 15:4). It was also a meeting where apostles were present, as well as elders from the two churches. There is no indication that thereafter churches created elected bodies to decide issues of general significance. As history shows, however, Church councils proliferated in the early years of Christian testimony. Christendom developed massive ecclesiastical structures to govern their various denominations.

The analogy of the lampstands in Revelation 2 and 3 is sometimes used to illustrate the autonomy of the local assembly. Each lampstand stood on its own base. The implication is that each was autonomous of the other. A clearer expression of the point is found in the text itself. It is evident that the Lord addressed each church individually. Each was accountable for its actions. No church was held accountable for another church’s actions. Thus it can be said with confidence that Scripture does not teach the need or desirability of a central decision-making body.

In this connection, those who move among the Lord’s people as teachers or evangelists need to walk a fine line between being influencers and decision-makers. They should not use the respect in which they are held to press their agendas or to impose their mind on assemblies. It is perfectly acceptable for overseers to take advice from those whose judgement they respect. But it must be emphasised that advice is all they should get. The ideal of assembly autonomy is not infringed where elders discuss matters of mutual importance with the elders of neighbouring assemblies. This is often a constructive way of building a harmonious approach to thorny issues. They are equally at liberty to consult teachers or evangelists whose judgement they respect. But they must never lose sight of the fact that the final choice is for them and them alone. They must make their choices in the fear of God and with the good of their flock in view.