Priests, Bishops, Elders, Pastors, Popes, Archbishops, Elders… Congregation?

It seems like there are as many church titles as their are churches but you may be surprised to hear that in the Bible their are only two offices given to the church, elders (also called pastors) and deacons.  You may be even more surprised to hear that God has made the individual members of the church responsible for what goes on in the church, not simply the leaders.  So with all the different churches with their own branded form of leadership and decision making, what is the biblical patter of church government? The first issue with church government what are the biblical church offices.

Pastor/Elder

The terms elder, overseer, and bishop are used interchangeably in the New Testament (NT) to refer to the same office in the church (See Acts 20:17-38 and 1 Peter 5:2-5).  These terms refer to the same office of Pastor emphasizing different aspects of it.  Churches in the scriptures always have a plurality of elders who oversaw the church in many aspects. The qualifications for this office are given in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9.

Deacons

Next there are deacons who are the church servants.  These individuals did not take part in the official leading of the church like the elders but were in charge of taking care of the physical needs of the congregation (Acts 6:1-6, 1 Tim. 3:8-13).  Many churches have deacons who serve as leaders in the church and this is simply not biblical and unhealthy.

What about Apostles?

Apostles were existent in the early church though this office fell out of use after the eyewitnesses of Jesus all passed away as this was one of the requirements to be an apostle (Acts 1:21-22).  This office was part of the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20) laid in the first century, not intended to continue to the present day.  Even thought there are no more apostles living, a faithful NT church is still led by the apostles through their writings now gathered into the NT.

Who Makes Decisions?

The NT pattern seems to suggest it was the responsibility of the church members to install and remove church leaders (Acts 6:3, Acts 15:22, 1 Cor. 5:4). This fits into the congregationalist form of church government which makes the congregation the final court of appeals when it comes to the decision making of the church.  This reality is seen most clearly in the fact that the congregation is always responsible when there is false teaching in the church (Gal. 1:3), immorality in the church (1 Cor. 5), or the need to excommunicate a member of the church (Matt. 18:15-20 esp. v. 17).  These things are never merely left up to the leaders of the church.  The elders (pastors) of the church are never charged with these things or rebuked for failing to do these things, the congratulation itself was called to do them.  In this form of government, the elders lead the church and present things to the church but the church votes as the final court of appeals.  This means the the elders (pastors) lead and teach the church, the deacons take care of physical needs, and the congregation moves forward with decision making under the guidance and leadership of the elders.

Episcopalian Alternative

Contrary to this form of structure there is the Episcopalian form of government which includes Archbishops, bishops, and priests who preside over the congregations in that order of authority.  This form is built off of presumed church tradition rather than the scriptures as these offices as they are used never appear in the Bible.

Presbyterian Alternative

Then you have the Presbyterian form of Church Government which includes a teaching elder and lay elders that form a session in each congregation and some of these elders are part of a regional presbytery and some of these are part of a general assembly which presides over the local churches.  This form of government is argued largely based on the example of the Jerusalem counsel that is formed in Acts 11:1-18 which was made up of the churches “throughout Judea” (v.1).  This group came to a conclusion that was accepted by the churches through Judea and beyond.  This form of government also is meant to bring visible unity to the global church, stability and protect against false teaching though this is not always effective (look at the PCUSA for example). A big problem with this view, though more biblical than the Episcopalian view, is that the local church in the NT is given responsibility to make decisions under the authority of Christ.   Each local church was autonomous and was responsible to Christ, not to a body of higher leadership.  My opinion, based on what I see in the Bible, is that denominations are good for cooperation, not for control or governing. You can find a more in-depth explanation of this position from a Presbyterian pastor here.

Woman Pastors

The final issues when it comes to church government relates to women in pastoral ministry.  According to the scriptures, the teaching and leading role in the church is reserved for men, not because they are superior in value but rather because God made men and women different in roles both in the home and in the church (1 Tim. 2:11-14, 1 Cor. 14:33-3 1 Tim. 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, Eph. 5:25-33).   This practice is rooted in creation as is made clear in 1 Timothy 2:11-14, not in culture or preference. As the text says

“Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” (1 Ti 2:11–14)

Notice the reason that Paul gives here. “For Adam was formed first, then Eve”. This makes clear that Gender roles are not a result of the fall but are rooted in the goodness of God’s creation and in the wisdom of God in creating Man in Woman as equal is worth but different in function.  Furthermore, Paul points to the fall as another basis for gender roles as he says “and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor”.  This is by no means saying that the woman was gullible and the man was not.  Paul is pointing out that the serpent did not go to the man and try to deceive him.  Rather the serpent usurps God’s good creation order and goes to the woman who is the helper (Gen. 2:20), instead of the man who was called to protect and lead.

I hope this article go your mind thinking about the way God intends his churches to be ordered.  We should be thankful for God’s clarity on this issues and be zealous about patiently bringing purity to the church in this area.

If you are interested in reading more about this issue, check out this book of Church Government that I recommend.  Also check out these books below:






Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology

By: John Hammett

After much studies and experience, John Hammett write’s Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, an in depth treatment of biblical ecclesiology (study of the church).  Hammett makes clear from the start that he is writing from a historical Baptist perspective seeking to argue many of the biblical tenants of Baptist church government and structure, though at times he shows inconsistency between the scriptures and many modern Baptist practices in the church.  Hammett is a professor of systematic theology at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and served as a pastor and missionary.  His Baptist teaching and pastoral background as well as his strong devotion to being faithful to the scriptures make him well equipped to write this book.

Summary

Baptist Foundations starts with an introduction where Hammett explains why he wrote the book and what makes it different.  He make clear that this book is not pragmatic but rather theological in that it focuses on what the church is and what God intends for every aspect of it.  After this, Hammett splits the book into five parts with a handful of chapters in each part.  In part one; What is the Church? he goes through the basics of the what the “the church” (ekklesia) seems to mean in the scriptures and he examines the various images also used of the church.  Hammett gives info about the way the church over the course of history has viewed itself, giving the marks of the true church.  The final chapter in part one lays out the way the church is an organized assembly, that is primarily local, living and growing, gospel centered, and spirit empowered.

In Part two; Who is the Church? Hammett addressing two main things.  He first argues that the NT views the church as a gathering of regenerate church members.  He makes clear that, “the church must be composed of believers only” (81).  In this he give four biblical arguments for why we should agree with that statement.  His argument is that the universal church is comprised of only believers, the NT calls for church discipline as the means of preserving church membership, the NT assumes that the church is composed of believers only, and finally, the book of Acts recounts only believers as those who are “gathered in” (Acts 2:41, 47, 4:4, 11:21) with believers left out.  Hammett then explains what happened that led churches to abandon this biblical reality and how churches can get it right.

Part three; How is the Church Governed? tackles the issue of church government.  He argues that the church should be composed of a plurality of elders who are in charge of leading the congregation and a group of deacons who are servants of the church but do not directly take part in leadership as the elders.  He then goes through each form of church government that is used today from the Roman Catholic model to the historical Baptist model.  He argues for the traditional Baptist view that each church should be autonomous under the leadership of Christ with cooperation between congregations but without denominational management.

In Part four; What does the church do? Hammett argues for five ministries of the church and then addresses baptism and the lord’s supper.  He uses Acts 2:42-47 and examines the five things that the church does in that text.  They are devoted to teaching, fellowship, worship, service, and evangelism.  All of these activities must be taking place in a healthy church.  Hammett also examines how different churches in our day take part in these activities.  He then moves on in this part to the ordinances of the church; baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  He begins by looking at the sacramental system as a whole, making clear that these do not bring us greater justification, but are a means of grace where we commemorate the blessings of God that we have been given through Christ.  The first ordinance discussed in baptism.  He states that “baptism is the ‘outward sign’ appointed to Scripture by which we make faith visible.  It is the ‘supreme occasion’ for confessing faith in the gospel” (266-267).  He argues that baptism is only for those who can be reasonably evaluated as having a genuine conversion.  This means that infants are not to be baptized, and even young children who make a profession of faith but who may not fully understand the gospel should not be baptized until a later date.  Baptism is to be done by emersion by the local church.  Hammett ends this part with an evaluation of the Lord’s Supper which he calls the ordinance of renewal.  He sees it as being much like the renewing of a wedding vow (278) and it proclaims the gospel in its very essence.  The Catholic idea that each time the Lord’s Supper is taken, Jesus is crucified is inconsistent with the scriptures, and this ordinance is for believers only.

The final section of the book, Where is the Church Going? Looks at the different movements in the American church and then he examines the state of the church oversees.  The first chapter of this section looks at several different directions that the church is taking.  Hammett  first evaluates seeker churches such as Rich Warren’s church and says that the heart of these churches are often positive, but there is a danger of neglecting discipleship and the building up of the body.  He also looks at megachurches and church with multiple campuses, addressing the challenges and the negative aspects that can be associated with them.  Next, he moves onto the postmodern and emergent church movement, having more of a negative perspective of them.  The final chapter addresses the future of the global church, giving some background of missions and the amazing ways we have overcome setbacks and distractions.  Hammett view in this chapter was optimistic and urgent.  The conclusion consisted of a short call for churches to commit themselves to be faithful in all areas.

Critical Evaluation

The main goal of the book, to gives a fully biblical explanation of ecclesiology was accomplished.  Though Hammett wrote from a traditional Baptist perspective, he did not argue anything merely based on Baptist traditions or organizations, but used the scriptures as his supreme authority and guide.  Each section of the book thoroughly addressed the issues that are most important in the church.  These strengths and many others support Hammett’s book.  He was also right in spending extra time and effort arguing for the Baptist tenants that have been largely forgotten such as regenerate church membership, the priesthood of all believers, and congregationalism under elder leadership.  Through many Baptist churches do not go by this perspective, any Baptist minister reading this book would have a hard time disagreeing with the conclusions that were made because they were thoroughly backed up biblically and historically.

This leads to another strength in the book, and that is its dependence on Baptist history.  Hammett argues that even through the scriptures are our authority, understanding how the church in the past has looked at particular issues will protect us from inserting our own cultural perspective on the biblical text.  This is a balanced perspective that is not often argued so well in similar books.  Hammett is completely right in his use of history to help us understand the biblical teachings of ecclesiology while as the same time, not placing too much weight on it.  Another example of him using history to help the reader understand the biblical text and why the church is the way it is comes in chapter three.  Here he explains how “business in American life affected churches in the twentieth century” (71). He points out the way the single pastor model at least partly came from the CEO model of the modern day.

Hammett does an amazing job in part four talking about the ministry of the church to teach by taking present day churches and presenting the methods they use to teach.  By explaining the way Capitol Hill Baptist Church does Sunday school classes through levels called “The Life Development Institute”, and the way other churches have different teaching perspectives, the reader can know what the church is called to do and how to carry it out practically.  The way Hammett did this helped him accomplish his propose of explaining contemporary ecclesiology to strengthen the church.

Hammett’s exegetical research and knowledge was evident throughout the book.  For example, even through many take for granted a proper understanding of the Greek word for church (ekklesia), Hammett goes in-depth into the NT usage and nuances that are present in the biblical text.  The way he split up the word into the way it is used (31) is extremely helpful to the reader, no matter their theological education level.  He made it simple, yet in-depth so that the reader is able to know when reading the Bible, how the biblical author could be using the word church.  In the same section, Hammett also give the images of the church, one again using his exegetical ability in an amazing way.  He makes the information accessible, clear, yet detailed.  There are no examples of him using any biblical text for his only motives, but stays faithful to the author’s intention in every instance.

The book’s evaluation of seeker sensitive churches throughout the book is very gracious but also quite probing.  For example, he states, “Paul’s statement about becoming “all things to all men” (1 Cor. 9:22) was not given as instruction for Christian worship but as a model for Christian living” as a response to seeker sensitive churches formatting there services primarily for unbelievers.  Hammett does not make the mistake of simply bashing these churches, but he rightly gives some guidelines and some minor corrections that need to be considered before orienting a church to be consumed with getting more people inside.

Hammett does a great job correcting unwise practices in the church and giving practical solutions to these problems.  For example, when looking at baptism, he points out that “rebaptism” are unusually high in our day, and many of these baptisms take place in Baptist churches because young people are baptized before they have been regenerated.  He points out that Baptist churches are often doing a similar thing as the Catholics are doing by baptizing children before they are regenerate.  He give the practical solution of waiting until a professing Christian child is older where they can be evaluated before being affirmed.  Hammett’s assessment is right-on and helpful in light of the negative effect that this mistake has been having.  He is also not overly critical or harsh, but is rather strategically gracious in his assessment giving biblical solutions that work.

There was one major problem in the book in one specific place.  Hammett, as he was discussing Elders, did not disagree with the idea of women teaching men in Sunday school classes and other areas of church life.  He states, “The propriety of women serving in such roles is debatable and deepens… what seems clear is the prohibition of women serving as elders” (171).  Sadly, Hammett fails to look at 1 Timothy 2:12 where Paul says, I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over men in the church”.  Though he is right that Paul is limiting the office of elder to men, he fails to see, or at least make clear, that the reason for this is that Elders have a teaching and authority role which has implications for women teaching in a Sunday School class.

Conclusion

Despite my one major disagreement, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches was well written and biblically sound. I would recommend the book to any Christians, even if they do not identify as Baptist.  I am fully persuaded this if every Baptist pastor sat down and read this book, the world would look much different within ten years because of it.  His call for biblically faithful churches is needed so that the church can go fourth in its mission of glorifying God in all areas.

Book Review by Jonathan Ahlgren
You can buy the book here.

Also see Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age and other books also by John Hammett