What do you do, when two respected and faithful Christian leaders teach different interpretations of Scripture? Be a Berean. In Acts 17:11 we are told of their nobility, because on hearing Paul’s message, “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”
I am thinking about Church government, because of a recent series of blogs by James MacDonald of Harvest Fellowship and Jonathan Leeman of 9Mark sparred over Church leadership. Both men seem to genuinely respect each other, and the debate was in internal and friendly one. But who is right?
MacDonald argued here, that Congregationalism, as known in America, is Satanic, and used by the Devil to divide Churches. He clarifies that he meant the “Roberts Rules Democracy” type of congregationalism in a follow up post.
9Marks authors responded reaffirming a moderate and limited congregationalism here, which attempted to address MacDonald’s legitimate concerns. And it is also, BTW, quite the model of how a Christian responds when a fellow Christian appears to say his position is "satanic"!
MacDonald responded here, and 9Marks had a final follow up here. In essence each of them appear to agree that government by the people of the congregation is unbiblical. This of course seems shocking to an American (and we Canadians share this) liberal democracy mindset, where the “right to vote” is ingrained in our collective psyche. We argue that governments exist “for the people” and so should be governed “by the people”.
Who is the Ruler of the Church?
The problem with the western democratic assumption is this: The Church is not a human, but divine institution. It operates on Divine instructions, from King Jesus. He came, sent from God with a message, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). By this he means “good news”. God’s good rule was returning with blessing and eternal life, for all who embrace the King. It also implied bad news for rebels, who refused to submit. The King didn’t come with a referendum question: “would you prefer to stay in the Domain of Darkness, or be transformed into the glorious Kingdom of God’s beloved Son?” (Cf. Colossians 1:13).
The Domain of Darkness was in essence the establishment of human democracy in Divine things. Eve considered the proposals of the candidates stump speeches: God said “ You shall not eat, or you shall die” and the Serpent argued from the other end of the spectrum, “God’s holding out on you, you will not die, but you will be like God”. Adam and Eve induced the Republic of Sin, by voting for the Devil in landslide victory. As we have become accustomed to, this politician failed to deliver on his promises, and in hindsight, appears to have mislead his voters.
When Christ came in the incarnation, he in essence, “Crossed the Rubicon” into the Republic of Sin. He came to overthrow sin and Satan, and to restore the rule of God, reforming the entire order of Creation.
Crossing the Rubicon
In 49 BC Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River. This was significant, because the Rubicon marked the boarder between the provinces of Cisapline Gaul and Italy proper. Italy was governed by, as the Legion Banners declared by the letters SPQR, standing for a phrase translated, “the senate and the People of Rome”.
Caesar was a governor in Gaul, and by Roman law, commanded the armies their. However, only the elected officials could control Italy. Upon crossing the boarder into the province, all Governors, lost their commissions over their troops (this ensured security from insurrections). Thus when Caesar crossed the River, he was committing treason, and invading Rome.
Of course he had his reasons. Rome was corrupt and decaying. After his victory, he was declared “Dictator for Life”. The people actually adored him, as he reformed the judicial system, restructured the government and secured Rome for its glorious future as the greatest Empire in history. Naturally enough the people did not “vote”, because Caesar was King, not elected official (Historical note, Caesar was never officially a King, but was granted all the trappings of such by the Senate, including having his statue placed in the procession of Kings in the government palaces of Rome).
Now, the republicans, Pompey and Marc Anthony, assassinated the King, with the help of one of his most trusted friends and subordinates, Brutus. This promped Shakespeare to write Caesar’s last words, in his play on this event, “Et tu Brutus?” (You too Brutus?). Caesar’s son Octavius mopped the floor with the rebels and fully established the Roman Empire, never again to have a Republican threat. Now, this is not to speak of human governance systems, but of the Divine regulation of Creation.
Christ, then, crossed the Rubicon, when he “took on flesh” and dwelled amongst us. He came to bring light and life to men. But, this is the condemnation, “men loved darkness rather than light” (John 3:19), and “His own people did not receive him” (John 1:11). He was assassinated and even betrayed by one of his closest companions, Judas (Rhymes with Brutus?). But rather than his adoptive son, Christ Himself was raised form the dead, and as the creed says, “will return to judge the living and the dead” and we are told “of his kingdom their shall be no end” (Revelation ).
The Church in Christ’s Kingdom
Christ is the “Head of the Body”, “Head over the Church”, “Husband of the Bride”, “King of the New Jerusalem”, reigns, “On the throne of David”, sits, “On the throne of God”, and is “Lord of Lords” and “King of Kings”, according to the Bible. In his Kingdom he “rules with an iron rod” (Rev. 2:27, 12:5, 19:15).
Now the Church, is the beachhead as it were, of his final kingdom. We are his ambassadors pleading with the world to embrace Jesus message and his Kingdom (2 Corinthians 5:20). We pray, “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
The Church’s Government is Christ’s Government
The Church’s Ruler is exclusively the prerogative of Jesus Christ, her King.
1. He is the only one building the Church (Matthew 16:18). Yes, we participate, but only upon his pattern (cf. 1 Cor. 3:10, an ancient way of saying, ‘according to blueprint’).
2. Jesus owns the Church, having purchased her with his own blood (Acts 20:28). The Church is his slave and he is the Master.
3. The Divine decree has made him “Head of the body” (Col. 1:18).
4. He alone is described as the “Pastor and Overseer” of souls (1 Peter 2:25).
Therefore to Him alone belongs all the prerogatives of leadership and full obedience in the Church. There are no rights, and no votes (John 14:15, 15:10).
The Church’s Rule in practice is a rule delegated to the Apostles.
1. During his earthly ministry, Jesus delegated to them his earthly authority (Matt. 10:1-4, 11-15).
2. Envisioning the Church, he gave them Heavenly authority (Matthew 16:18-19, John 20:21-23).
3. As Paul notes, as an Apostle he shares a special “Authority, which the Lord gave” (2 Cor. 10:8) and that through the Apostles the voice of “Christ is speaking” (2 Cor. 13:3). Therefore the Apostles may command all Christians (cf. Phmn 9).
4. The very Church Christ is building, is built, “upon the foundations of the Apostles and Prophets” and only upon this pattern of authoritative direction can any today minister (Eph. 2:20, 1 Cor 3:10ff).
This rule is exercised through the living and abiding word of God, written by the Apostles and prophets so one may know “how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church” (1 Tim 3:15).
The Church’s Leadership is a function of interpreting and following the Apostolic instructions.
1. Christ as part of his ministry of building his Church gives gifts to that church, including leaders (Ephesians 4:11). These ensure the unity of the Church, by instructing the people into mature following of Christ (Ephesians 4:3-6, 12ff).
2. These leaders, known interchangeably in Scripture as Pastors, Elders, or Overseers (Bishops), are directed to “Shepherd the flock of God” by the Apostle Peter (1 Peter 5:2), no doubt in an echo of his own commission from Christ “Feed my sheep” (John ). Paul states that these leaders can summarise their commission as “Preach the word” (2 Tim 4:2).
3. Further, these leaders, “exercise oversight” (1 Peter 5:2), or in the words of Paul, “rule” in the Church (1 Timothy 5:17). This especially involves overseeing sound doctrine, both instructing believers and refuting false teachers (Titus 1:9). They also, in following the Apostolic Pattern, oversee others in ensuring the practical needs of the Church are met (Acts 6:2-6).
4. These leaders will answer to God for their faithfulness (1 Peter 5:4, 2 Tim 4:1, esp Hebrews 14:17b). In light of this heavy responsibility, believers are instructed to “remember” them and “imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7), and to “obey” and “Submit” to them (Hebrews 13:17) as they “teach the word of God to [them]” (Hebrews 13:7). On the flip side, the leaders are to “command and teach” (1 Tim 4:11) the apostolic trust (1 Tim 6:20, Titus 1:9). They are even forbidden to allow anyone to “despise” literally “get around” their instruction because of perceived personal weakness, such as age, because this is not their word, but God’s.
5. Finally, Christ has provided, by a command, that those who minster the gospel should “live by it”, thus paving the way for staff elder/pastors . Though they are permitted to pass over this right, as Paul did, for the furtherance of the gospel (1 Timothy 5:17, 18, 1 Cor 9:9ff).
This establishes a very clear order, which sounds very much like the conclusions of James MacDonald. Christ is King, ruling through his Apostles, mediated by the interpretive authority of the pastor/overseer/elders. There is no democracy in these passages. The Church is the Embassy of a Theocracy. The Ambassadorial party does not decide policy, but explains and proclaims it. What role does the congregation have in leadership? As best I can find, the congregation has no role in leadership of any kind. They have a different role.
The Church’s Accountability is the responsibility of every believer.
1. Following what we have seen above, there is an obligation on all believers to encourage their fellows to love and good works, including loving and obeying their leaders to preserve unity (Hebrews 10:24, 1 Peter 5:5, Eph. 4:3) This suggests, that with the exceptions listed below, the saints should be obedient in all the decisions of leadership indifferent or otherwise, provided they are not in conflict with Scripture, just as with other authorities such as Government (Romans 13:1, Hebrews 13:17, with Acts 4:19).
2. All Christians, Elders and Saints alike, are responsible to maintain moral purity in the body (Galatians 6:1, Matthew 18:16-18). Jonathan Leeman at 9marks has argued that this should extend to the approval of members, as guarding the door to the church, is the best way to ensure purity. The right to discipline out, he argues, implies the right to accept in. James MacDonald on the other hand, argues that this is a role that the Elder’s fulfill, as a function of leading the congregation. Obviously, as they are given to be the interpreters of the biblical instructions for Christian living and are selected for their role, because they are living examples of such (), the Elders should take the primary lead in this role. It is important to notice that in the case a charge comes against an elder, it is the other elders, not the body, who determine whether to “admit” or “reject” a charge (1 Timothy 5:19). As this aspect of universal responsibility is not clearly defined by Scripture, as far as practice, it may be a matter of prudence and local exigencies, rather than Biblical faithfulness (in other words, both men may be right, practically).
3. All Christians, Elders and Saints are responsible to maintain doctrinal purity in the body (Romans 16:17, Galatians 1:6-9). Again, for Leeman, this implies the responsibility to participate in the selection of those who will teach the doctrine. This is a very reasonable extension. When Paul and Barnabus were commissioned from Antioch, we are told of their appointment: “it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church” (Acts 15:22). Should this seeming good to the whole church be determined by means of a vote? Should it be the affirmation of the elders leading in this matter? Again, the obvious leaders in this process are the ones charges to safeguard doctrine, not the ones being safeguarded. Perhaps again, this is a matter of prudence.
4. We notice that there are no instructions in Scripture for the congregation to influence such things as the distribution of finds, the administrative direction of the church, or its mission. These are all entrusted directly to the leadership, whether the oversight of the financial administration (Acts 4:35, 1 timothy 5:1-7), general management (1 Tim 3:5), conduct in worship (1 Tim3:15), and generally (Hebrews 13:17).
We must conclude then, that the Church, ruled by Christ, and Christ alone, through his Apostles, as interpreted by his appointed leaders, is not by any stretch a liberal democracy. Ideas that come from that cultural practice must be rejected. At the same time, there does seem to be a warrant for some kind of universal responsibility within the body for all the saints to have a sort of “passive veto” in Jonathan Leeman’s words, in regard to the purity of morals and doctrine in the church. This does seem by reasonable inference to include both input into membership and into selecting leaders. How this is practically done, appears to be a matter of local prudence, under the leadership of the elders in any given congregation.
If it seems prudent in a small group to solicit the wisdom of all, then I see no reason why the leaders should not be able to ask for a general conversation/vote. If it seems prudent in other situations to move forward directly, then that seems to be an elder prerogative. Saints ought to be humble followers of Christ, through their leadership, granting them the benefit of the doubt, and making themselves a “joy to lead” (Hebrews 13:17). Leaders are to be Christ to the people, loving them as Christ would. Being patient (2 Tim. 2:24), respecting them, and guiding them with compassion (1 Peter 5:1-4).