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On Church Government?

By David L. Antion

Faulty church government is as dangerous to God's Church as is false doctrine. In fact, wrong government may be the means for false doctrine entering the church.

Today there is a major controversy in churches and among many brethren over governance. What does the Bible itself have to say about this subject?

Let's take a look at what the Bible says about rule, authority and government. In the beginning God told Adam and mankind to rule over the creation. He told us to subdue the creation. He said nothing about subduing our fellow man. But after the flood, Nimrod rose up to subdue fellow humans and became "a mighty hunter "before the Lord." He put himself between the people and God. He wanted the people to look to him as their protector instead of God. In that time a leader was the one who was physically the most powerful. He or she was the one who could defeat opposing forces, conquer enemies, and kill the wild animals.

The Elders of Israel

God sent Moses to the elders of Israel. Even while they were slaves in Egypt the Israelites were organized within their tribes and had elders representing them. Exodus 24 mentions 70 elders of Israel who saw God. Hundreds of years later, in Ezekiel 14 & 20, Israel still had elders representing them.

Those who teach one-man rule or government from the top-down often cite the example of Moses and how he appointed rulers of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.

They quote from Exodus 18:24 "Moses listened to his father- in-law and carried out all he had suggested; he chose able men from all Israel and made them chiefs of the people -- leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens...."

But they either don't know about Deut. 1:12-16 or they conveniently ignore it. "But how can I alone handle your troubles, your burdens and your court cases? Select from your tribes men of wisdom and understanding, men of experience, and I will appoint them to be your rulers." (Modern Language Version). Note that the people had a say in the selection of these men. They selected the men. Moses then appointed their selections. This is the same selection process that was used in Acts 6 which we shall discuss later.

How could Moses know who were the best men to be the leaders for the people? He couldn't. He needed recommendations. That's why we read what we did in Deut. 1:12-16.

Misunderstanding the "rebellion of Korah"

When we look at the rebellion of Korah, the rebellion was not against the government of Moses, but it was certain Levites questioning why God had given Aaron a position above them, that of High Priest.

Notice Moses' comments in Numbers 16:9-10, "Is it a small thing to you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the work of the tabernacle of the LORD, and to stand before the congregation to serve them; and that He has brought you near to Himself, you and all your brethren, the sons of Levi, with you? And are you seeking the priesthood also?" (NKJ)

Aaron did not choose to be a priest. God chose Aaron. It was evident what they wanted. Moses was saying: "Are you not happy that God set all Levites apart, must you have the priesthood also."

God destroyed Korah and his followers because--(see Jude v.11) they went the way of Cain, and ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward, and perished in the gainsaying of Core (Korah).

They had the wrong motives. God wasn't upset because they questioned a regulation. Questioning regulations could be done.

Remember the daughters who complained that they were losing their father's inheritance because there were no sons. They complained to Moses who took their case to God.
Result: they won their case.

Power of the Elders

In I Sam 8 the elders of Israel went to Samuel asking for a king. Even though God was not pleased with the request He continued to work with Israel through their kings.

2 Samuel, chapters 3-5, explains how David ascended to the throne, showing that the elders of Israel decided to make David their king. God had anointed him years beforehand, but the elders of the people actually put him on the throne. Read it for yourself.

Politics was also alive and well at this time in history. In 2 Samuel 15 Absalom conspired to take the throne of David. He won over the people by standing at the gate, telling those with disputes how he would do them justice if he were made judge. In verse 6 we are told he "stole the hearts of the men of Israel." He won the hearts of the elders of Israel. They backed Absalom against David. It was only when God worked a miracle that let Absalom listen to bad advice that David regained his throne.

Later we learn of Rehoboam, who also listened to bad advice and lost most of the kingdom. At first he had the elders of Israel with him as advisors. Then he rejected their advice because his vanity got in the way and he couldn't recognize wisdom when he heard it.

Rehoboam made a mistake by telling his friends what he thought before asking for counsel. In a one man rulership there are always those who will tell the leader what he wants to hear. So Rehoboam's friends just gave him "confirmation" for what he wanted to do. In effect, "tell them that your little finger: will be thicker than your father's waist." So he rejected the advice of the elders and lost ten tribes.

The Word for "Church"

Paul was the first writer in the New Testament to use the term ekklesia to refer to the Christian congregation (his were the earliest manuscripts even before the Gospels were written). To a person of that day, ekklesia referred to the assembly of full citizens in their city. All Roman cities had their ekklesia (political assembly). If a person were not a citizen and wanted to bring a matter to the assembly, he would have to persuade a citizen to take the issue to the ekklesia. It was a very great privilege to be a Roman citizen and to be able to belong to the ekklesia.

Paul called converted Christians the Ekklesia of God. Paul knew his political rights in being a Roman Citizen and used this analogy for the brethren. Our citizenship is in heaven, we are fellow citizens with Christ (See Phil. 3:20; Eph. 2:19; and Gal. 3:27).

Other Greek Words

Some details in the Bible are difficult to understand because of the way it was translated. Translating is sometimes difficult. Here is an example: part of the original meaning has been lost in the Bible regarding the word "leader" or "ruler."

Jesus said to His disciples, "And do not be called leaders (guides or masters); for one is your Leader, that is Christ" (Matt.23:10 (NASV).

The word "leader" is the Greek word "kathegetes" and it is only used here in Matt. 23:8, 10. In the KJV it is translated "master." But in other translations it is translated "leader" or "guide." But this Greek word is reserved ONLY for Christ Himself.

Another word translated "leader" or "those who have the rule," is the Greek word "hegeomai" and it has a broad range of meanings. Among the many words translated from "hegeomai" are "chief," "suppose," "think," "count," and "esteem." This word implies that those "leaders" who are "hegeomai" are ones who are esteemed so by the congregation and are recognized leaders not only by God but by the people.

Hebrews 13:7 tells us, "Remember them which have the rule over you (hegeomai)..." This word refers to a guide or leader and comes from esteem. These people were recognized or esteemed by the people as leaders.
There are two other interesting Greek words related to choosing leaders. The first is "cheirontoneo" which means "voting in the Athenian legislative assembly (ekklesia) and meaning to stretch forth the hands." It is used in Acts 14:23 and in 2 Cor 8:18. The second word, "psephos" means a stone or ballot. It was a casting stone, which meant a type of vote. It is used in Acts 26:10.
Another word used in I Thes. 5:12, is translated in the NASV like this: "But we request of you brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction."

Choosing Deacons?

Some people assert, "God's Government is from the top-down!" They argue that the top person is empowered to pick the people who are ordained and that the people are to have no say. They quote passages from the Bible, including the Book of Acts, where the Apostles ordained the seven deacons.

They quote Acts 6 and place heavy emphasis on the words in verse 3, "whom we shall appoint over this duty". However, they put little or no emphasis on the words above, when the Apostle said, "therefore, brothers, look around for seven men among you of good reputation and full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint for this duty..."

How should our teachers/leaders teach or lead us? We see warnings to the disciples that the government in the Church should not be like the government of the Gentile nations -- i.e. dictatorships (Luke 22:25). Jesus said that those who exercise authority over the people are called benefactors but that it should not be that way among His disciples. The greatest should be servant of all (v.26).

Paul asked the church in Rome to "send me on my way" to Spain (Rom. 15). This Greek word meant to send him by financing his trip and paying his way. Paul plainly said to the Corinthians that he had "robbed other churches by taking wages from them," for the services he gave to the church at Corinth. He implied that the Corinthian church should have paid its own way for spiritual services.

Paul commanded the Corinthian congregation to avoid fellowship with the man who was living with his father's wife (stepmother). Paul told the Thessalonian congregation that they should get to work rather than doing nothing except for idly talking about the end of the world. He even wrote to that church, "He that does not work, neither shall he eat." But to find out how Paul talked to an individual read the book of Philemon. Paul is tactful, caring and artful in his words and phrases.

Lording It Over the Flock

The New Testament warns that elders should not "lord it over the flock" (I Pet. 5:3). It also warns that they must be "easy to be entreated" or easy to approach and talk to and to be reasoned with.

2 Cor. 11:20 Paul chided the Corinthians, "For ye suffer, if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face."

A minister has no right to impose his will over you. How did the apostle Paul exercise his rule (leadership)? By example, leadership, exhortation, teaching, directing, showing and education. How much authority does the church leadership need? Do we need someone to tell us what to do? Are we not all brothers in the church? God works with each of us. An elder was to be the bearer and deliverer of biblical truth. His authority lies solely in the importance of what he says. Authority must lie in the power of truth, not in title or person.

Members need to put those who call themselves "apostles" to the test, like the Ephesus Church did in Rev. 2:2. And they need to "prove all things," like the Bereans (Acts. 17:11). We need knowledgeable brethren, who know the Bible. We need to recognize that all members are responsible for the well being of their church organization. Ministers need to yield to members who have more expertise than they do in certain areas. For instance, if a member works in advertising, he or she probably knows more than the minister how to purchase, formulate, and design ads. In this case it would be wise for the minister to accept expert advice.

It has been said that some men have been ordained who had little Bible knowledge; who were not servant oriented; and who had little love for the brethren. In many churches with "authority from the top-down," deacons and elders were selected who served and catered to those above them. These men and women often were not selected because they served the people "below" them. This is just backwards from the way it should be!

In the New Testament times, did all ordinations take place in Jerusalem? Were all monies sent to "headquarters" at Jerusalem? Did local churches have their own funds?

Central Church Control?

Why did Paul take up a collection in the Gentile churches for the "poor saints in Jerusalem?" If Jerusalem was the headquarters and had all the money - why was a collection even needed?

We don't have evidence of central church control. When God started working with Paul, he didn't go up to Jerusalem for three years. (Gal. 1:15-16)

Ordinations were not controlled through Jerusalem. In Acts 13 the prophets and teachers at Antioch not Jerusalem, were told by the Holy Spirit to separate Paul and Barnabas and send them away. Acts 14:23 shows Paul and Barnabas ordaining elders in every church.

Why were the seven churches in the province of Asia so different? They were contemporary and were just 20 to 30 miles from each other. Nevertheless, the Ephesus church rejected the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, while Pergamos members accepted it. One church was in the midst of fornication and following a false prophetess, while others were willing to be martyred for their faith. How could these local churches have been so different if they had the same centralized government ruling over them?

Christ was upset that the Church at Pergamos put up with the Nicolaitans. The word Nicolaitans is formed from two Greek words. The first, Nikos is defined as a conquest, victory, triumph, the conquered. The second, laos, can mean laity. The meaning could be that the bishops of the church have gained victory or conquest over the laity.

We are all called to be a part of the Royal Priesthood, all members are to be kings and priests, not just the ministry. See I Pet. 2:9 and Rev. 5:10. We all may enter the Holy of Holies in prayer to God, (Heb. 10:19-22). Our bodies are the temple of God, (1 Cor. 3:17). There is only one mediator between us and God, Jesus Christ, (I Tim. 2:5).

There is "leadership" in the Church through the respected elders. We see another Greek word used for "those who have ruled well" and it is from the word "proistemi." This word merely means to "preside, or stand in front of as a leader."

Limited Authority

There is a limit to any and all authority except that of God Himself. An elder does not have the right or the authority to tell you to change jobs, where to move, what kind of car to drive, clothes to wear, etc. These are clearly OUTSIDE his capacity as an overseer of the flock.

Please, seek advice from those who know. If the minister has special knowledge of cars, then ask his advice. If others in the congregation are more knowledgeable in a particular field, seek their advice. But make your own decision.

There is a tendency to go to extremes. Some have felt that since the ministry has no absolute power, that there is no authority at all vested in the ministry by New Testament Scripture. This is simply not so. If this were the case why would Peter warn the elders not to lord it over the flock (1 Peter 5)? Paul exercised great authority to protect the Brethren of the congregation in Corinth (1Cor. 5). He rebuked them for their conduct on the night of the Passover/Lord's Supper (1Cor. 11).

Today's church leadership should be determined by such things as knowledge and the ability to work with, inspire and motivate people. Wisdom, the ability to make appropriate decisions based on available information, is another factor in leadership. These qualities of leadership were present in the New Testament Church, along with the fruit of the Spirit.

Combine all of the above with the knowledge and reverence of Scripture, love for and obedience to our Lord, Jesus Christ, a love for and desire to serve the brethren, and you have the most essential qualities of church leaders.

Church government should be there to promote love in the brethren, peace in the congregation, and to keep evil and sins out of the congregation. When it goes beyond and invades people's lives, shrivels people and makes them smaller, rather than encourages people to grow bigger, then it becomes destructive. Then it is not in accordance with the purposes that we find in the New Testament.

Taken from Guardian Ministries

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