Assembly Nuts & Bolts: Church Government – Alan Summers

(These articles was written by Alan Summers and appeared in the Truth & Tidings Magazine, August- 2020)

Assembly Nuts & Bolts: Church Government Pt1

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).

Assembly Nuts & Bolts: Church Government Pt2

by Alan Summers

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.

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