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Vital Church Truths

by R.J. Anderson

Chapter Six-Church Government

There is, also, a great amount of confusion on this subject. I might say there are only three forms of church government namely: the Autocratic, Representative and Democratic. The Autocratic is where a few people in high position control the affairs of a group of churches. Occasionally someone in a local church, a pastor, a deacon or, someone else gains such control of the church he becomes a real Autocrat of its affairs.

There is also the Representative form of church government where churches elect delegates and these delegates in turn set up boards, committees, etc., which act for the churches. Certainly they are supposed to operate according to recognized and adopted by-laws, but they are usually in a position to interpret these by-laws in such a way as to give themselves much power over the churches they are supposed to represent. It is also true that we sometimes find individual churches guilty of investing broad powers in individuals, committees or officers within their own membership and these individuals or groups manage and control most of the activities of the church.

There is also the Democratic form of church government where the local church controls all of its own affairs without any interference from outside groups or individuals. Every individual member of the church has an equal voice in all the affairs of the church. We Baptists say a great deal about our independence and democracy, but in many instances that is far from true. It is surprising how many Baptist churches have presumed that they have the right to re-delegate the authority God has delegated to local churches. Acting on that presumption they appoint boards, committees, etc., with broad powers both in churches and by messenger bodies.

I might add this statement, in some instances there might be a combination of several forms of government in a church or practiced by a group of churches in cooperative work. Some might call that a different form of government, but we consider it just a mixture of the ones already mentioned.

I use the term local church for convenience sake, but we want to make it clear that we are absolutely certain that there is not, never was, and never can be any other kind of a church.

There are also three departments of government. First, the Legislative or that department that makes the laws. Second, the judicial or the department that hears the case and sees that the law is rightly applied to the case at hand. Third, there is the Executive department which is to see that the sentences and verdicts of the law are enforced. Sometimes in dictator or autocratic forms of government, all three branches of government are controlled by one or at most a few individuals, who make the laws, judge every case and proceed to enforce the sentence. It is a sad truth, but we must face the fact that even in church government (yes, in some churches that call themselves Baptist) there is too much dictatorship.

To stimulate thought let me ask a few simple questions. Did God establish many forms of church government? Would God establish conflicting forms of church government? Did God fail to establish any form of church government? Would an all-wise God establish a church and give no idea how it was to be governed? Did God just leave it to human wisdom to set up any form of government that man saw fit to devise to govern the church which Christ purchased with His own blood? Isn’t the one who founded the church, builds the church, adds to the church, loves the church, meets in every church meeting, walks among the churches and who will one day take the church to be with Himself in glory, the proper one to make its governing laws? If God has told us how the church is to be governed, isn’t it a dangerous thing for man to tamper with God’s government?

Israel was not satisfied with the government God provided for them. They cried out for a king. God warned them they were making a mistake, but still they wanted another form of government, so God permitted them to have kings, but it certainly proved a fatal mistake on their part.

God may permit churches to go on for a long time even though they choose their own form of government rather than following the government He gave them, but it is certainly a shameful and fatal error for them also. God demonstrated His wrath against those who were dissatisfied with His method of government and attempted to set up one of their own making in Numbers 16:1-35. It certainly takes a tremendous amount of presumption on the part of anyone to think he can improve on God’s plan.

Many church by-laws prove the church is an outlaw to God’s laws. In most instances these by-laws are written by some preacher, often so written as to place great power in his own hands and a trusting, unsuspecting church is inveigled into adopting them. I know that churches and individuals, who refuse to submit to man made rules and by-laws, are termed outlaws by those who seem to think they have a right to do things contrary to God’s laws. One should be happy to be considered an outlaw if it means you put God’s law above man made laws. Daniel and the three Hebrew children were that type of outlaws. Peter and John were that type of outlaws, Acts 4:18-20. Those Diotrephes cast out of the church, 3 John 9 and 10 were that type of outlaws.

As we study the Scripture on this subject, we trust we shall clearly see what kind of government God gave to the churches, Autocratic, Representative, or Democratic. I also expect to discover what phases of government God delegated to the church. I am sure God alone holds the Legislative power in the church. He alone made and declared the laws under which the church is to operate. I believe the Scripture clearly teaches that He delegated to the church the power and responsibility to carry on the judicial and executive branches of His government in relation to church life.

After Jesus Christ had founded the church He went back to Glory to be our great interceding High Priest (1 John 2:1; Rom. 8:34). But before going He told them He would send the Holy Spirit to be the administrator of church affairs and He commanded them not to proceed in church work until the Holy Spirit actually took charge (Acts 1:4-5).

I would like to say much about the Holy Spirit and His ministry, but for present purposes we must be content to state a few brief facts in regard to His position as administrator of church affairs:

1. He gives power in testimony (Acts 1:8).

2. He gives boldness in testimony (Acts 4:31).

3. He selects missionaries (Acts 13:2).

4. He selects pastors (Acts 20:28).

5. He directs the affairs of churches (Rev. 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22).

6. The chief instrument through which He works is the Word of God (Eph. 6:17; 2 Tim. 3:14-17).

It is interesting to note, in studying the administrative work of the Holly Spirit in directing church affairs, that He always directs in a way that honors Christ, His church, and the Word of God. Primarily I want to consider the part the church has in its own government. I agree that the Holy Spirit is the administrator. I, also, insist that the Bible is God’s infallible, revelation to His church on the plan of church government, the same as it is on all other subjects it deals with.

If there be those who take issue with me on this subject, I would like for them to inform me where the following things can be found in the Scriptures:

1. Where can we find that the church has a Divine right to make its own laws or in other words to function in the legislative realm?

2. Where can we find any organization of any kind over and above a local church that has authority over the local churches or authority for its existence?

3. Where in God’s Word is there Autocratic or Representative forms of either by those in the membership of a local church?

I do not believe a verse of Scripture can be found to justify any one of these things, therefore, I believe they are not in accord with God’s will. Let those, who insist they are right, defend them, but let them make sure that their defense is more than mere human arguments. I want Scriptural proof.

Let us consider now the positive side of this question. What does God’s Word say about church government? First, let us note the offices God has established in the church. There was the Apostolic office, which ceased when the last Apostle had died. They had no successors, but we do have two offices that are to continue throughout the church age, therefore, the Scripture tells us the exact qualifications that are required of those who fill these offices (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9). If the Word of God recognizes more than two offices, isn’t it strikingly strange that the requirements for these two offices are so fully given, yet no where in the New Testament do we find any requirements given for any other office? The answer is simple. There are no other offices. As to deacons I ask when and why were they elected? What were their duties? How often are they mentioned? What Scripture makes them an advisory board? A discipline board? A financial board, etc., or them and the pastor such boards? We know the word means servant and unless there duties are stated in Acts 6 where in the Bible are they stated? It would be fine if they functioned in that field and stayed within the Scriptural boundary lines of their obligation and authority.

If there be a question as to the use of the words bishop and elder, we will find they refer to the same office, and the word overseer used in Acts 20:28 has the same meaning. You will notice Titus used the words interchangeably. No doubt, elder is the title of the one who fills the office, bishop or overseer describing the work he does. This office is identical with what is commonly called pastor today. The other office mentioned is deacon.

God knew there would be a disposition on the part of some elders to become overlords, so He gave a warning against that in 1 Peter 5:1-4. If there be those who appeal to Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24 to prove that the church is to follow unquestionably what the elder says, we reply that verse 7 refers entirely to former leaders, who have already gone to their reward. I agree verses 17 and 24 referred to their present leaders. The only way they could have been obedient to both their past and present leaders was for the past and present leaders to have been in agreement and we believe that was true in this case. There is only one way their past and present leaders could have been in complete agreement and that was for them to both have been guided by the same rule and no doubt they were all guided by God given instructions namely: His Word.

But what does it mean to rule? I think Christ gave the clearest possible teaching on this subject in Mark 10:42-45. He certainly warned against rulers abusing their position. To rule means to see that the laws are enforced and the overseer, elder or bishop, which ever you want to call him, is simply to see that the church of God is governed by the laws God has given for it.

If a civil ruler tries to force people to do things contrary to the law, we all agree, he should be punished and dismissed from office. If one entrusted to rule among God’s people as an elder, leads the church contrary to God’s law and endeavors to bring rules and by-laws into the church of God, that either adds to or takes from Divine established laws, that man has made himself a subject for church discipline and the church should deal with him more severer, than any other member of the church. Sometimes a deacon or a group of deacons want to be overlords in the church and sometimes the deacons and the pastor form themselves into a group and try to be overlords. Many times they succeed, but the stern fact remains God hates such conduct (3 John 9, 10; Rev. 2:6).

Let us now turn to Matthew 16:18-19 and see church government in action. We see God gave the church great powers in the judicial and executive realm. It has absolute authority to receive and dismiss members. Some may differ with us on this being the right interpretation of these verses, but we believe that is their meaning, but we will find other verses that clearly gives this power to the church as we continue our study.

Next, let us note Matthew 18:15-19. Here the church is dealing with trouble between its members. First, note the absence of a discipline committee. If God had wanted a discipline committee there would surely be one mentioned here. That is another man made office. It is to be told to the entire church and the church action is final. If there was an institution over and above local churches, surely the one not satisfied with the church decision could appeal to the higher order, but no such an appeal can be taken because there is no higher authority to carry out God’s laws than a local church.

Let us note next that God placed the ordinances and mission of evangelizing the world in the church (Matthew 26:26-29; 28:19-20; 1 Cor. 11:2-34). In as much as I have discussed these things in previous chapters, I will not further discuss them here.

In Acts 1:15-26 we see the church conducting an election. Though all eleven apostles were there they claimed no special privilege. Every one present had an equal chance to vote. There was not even a nominating committee. They used the lot system.

Again in Acts 6:1-7 we see the election of what may have been the first church deacons. However, the Scriptures nowhere calls them deacons, but the point we want to note is how they were selected. You will note the apostles only told them the qualifications these men should have. They claimed no special power to act for the church. They did not even so much as suggest anyone for the office. Verse 5 tells us the multitude did the choosing.

Acts 13:1-4 tells of the selection of the first missionaries. The Holy Spirit called them by having the church send them to the work. It is certainly worth noting that the Holy Spirit used the church to work through when He sent out missionaries. There is no board, no council, or group of self appointed men or a group the church had re-delegated their God given authority to, who took over the missionary affairs of the church. If the Holy Spirit worked through the church I am sure He was right. Therefore, we are forced to the conclusion that the local church is the only institution in the world that has the right under God to send out missionaries.

Acts 14:23 does sound as though Paul and Barnabas might have selected elders for these new churches they had organized but a careful study of the verse will show the very opposite to be true. The marginal note in Scofield Bible reads, "to designate by stretching out (or pointing with) the hand." Young’s Concordance says "to elect by stretching out the hand." So we find what was really done was to vote by a show of hands. Then those thus selected by the church were prayerfully set forth to the task by Paul and Barnabas. It is indeed a remarkable proof of the fact that these men of God really believed in the independence and democracy of each individual church, for even after they had gone into these various places, led these people to the Lord and organized them into a church, they still recognized these churches as being capable under the leadership of the Holy Spirit of selecting their own elders.

Surely they were in a position to influence these churches into letting them select elders for them, if they had been so unfair as to want to control the affairs of these churches.

1 Corinthians 5:1-7 speaks of a man in the church at Corinth, who was living such a vile life he should be excluded from church membership. Paul had also organized this church and he tells them the wrong and danger of retaining such a member in their fellowship, yet he does not attempt to exercise authority over the church. He knew that the only way anyone could be Scripturally excluded from church membership is by a vote of the church. The church alone has the power and it also has the duty of purging out those who are a reproach to the cause of Christ.

Some think that 2 Corinthians 2:5-8 might refer to the same character found in 1 Corinthians 5:1-7, after the church had excluded him from its fellowship and he had repented. We do not say it was the same man but we do know it is someone who had been excluded and had repented. Again we see Paul only tells the church what God would have them do. He does not attempt to override the church’s authority. Verse 6 tells us this punishment was "inflicted of many." The expression "of many" means by the majority, so we see this man had been excluded by a majority vote.

Need we give more examples to show that the Scriptural form of church government is democracy? Do not these Scriptures prove that these very missionaries, who organized the churches, recognized them as complete democracies within themselves and respecting that fact refrained from trying to run their affairs?

If God made each individual church the custodian of the ordinances and the commission to teach and evangelize, if God gave each church the power to receive and exclude members, the power to discipline members, the power to send out missionaries, the power to elect its own officers (both elders and deacons), free from any outside interferences, He surely did not believe we need conventions, councils, conferences, synods, etc., to direct the affairs of the churches. In as much as He made no mention of and no provision for any of these other organizations, I am convinced these organizations are not according to His will, therefore, I can not be a part of them or in any way encourage them conscientiously. I believe it is Scriptural for Scriptural churches to fellowship and cooperate together, but I believe the degree of such fellowship and cooperation is decided by the local church with the Bible and Holy Spirit as their guide and no external individual or organization can Scripturally use any cohesive methods to control any phase of the life of a local church.

I believe it is a very serious offense to go contrary to the teachings of God’s Word on any subject and I farther believe that there is much unscriptural teachings on these subjects we have discussed, therefore, I put this booklet into the hands of every member of the church over which I am overseer, so that I might do all possible to keep them from these terrible errors.

I am well aware of the fact that many will say the positions taken. on all these subjects are very narrow and bigoted. However, the only thing that concerns me is the Scriptural position. If my position is Scriptural, as I believe it is, then it is right regardless of what men’s opinions might be. If my position is unscriptural then it is wrong and if all the world agreed with me that would not make it right.

I send this booklet forth with a prayer that it might be helpful to some and harmful to none.

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