Why Church Government Matters

Ten Consequence of Unbiblical Church Government

Does church government really matter? It has been said by many that it does not matter what type of government the church functions with so as long it has some means of government. However, the culture of the church is determined by the government of which it operates. Every form of church government has certain outcomes as a result of that form. For example, I grew up in a presbyterial-congregational form of church government which is a combination of two popular forms. That means there was a board made up of deacons and the pastor. The people voted in the board members and the pastor. The board decided most decisions and then the vote of the people was sought for the larger decisions. I saw certain consequences from this model.

The are several other models of church government. The most popular include presbyterian, congregational, and episcopal, as well as a mixture of these such as, the presbyterian/congregational mentioned above. The presbyterian form of church government is made up of a presbytery or group of elders. These elders are responsible people elected or appointed to serve. Congregational form of government is the power of the people to vote on governmental matters of the church. This is a form of democracy. The episcopal form of government is where the lead pastor is appointed by bishops or overseers. The presbyterian and episcopal both have aspects that are similar to the New Testament model, but have elements that create consequences. For example, the presbyterian form has elders but these elders do not stand in the gifts of one of the five mentioned in Ephesian 4, thus they do not have the grace to govern. They are not of the five-fold gifts, but rather, are respected people in the congregation. When one is given government without the gift to serve in that capacity there will be unintentional consequences. The episcopal form is similar to the New Testament as well. In this form overseers appoint pastors as did Paul and his team. The difference is that it is done as part of an organization structure or denomination and not out of spiritual authority derived from laboring through spiritual relationships. Spiritual authority comes through function, gift, and relationships. By laboring in the gospel, Christ gives a capacity that opens a measure of authority. That is why Paul told the Corinthians that his measure was given to him by God (2 Cor 10).

Even without New Testament church government, for the most part there is peace and order as long as people respect each other and function accordingly. However, we all have heard of some horrendous stories of church conflicts including feuds that required calling law enforcement to a church business meeting. There are results to these forms of church government. These consequences bring about unintentional environments that hinder the Church from being the New Testament Church.

Here is a list of ten unintended outcomes I have observed over the past 40 years. These situations reflect conversations and circumstances observed among my fellow pastors who serve under these forms of government.

  1. The church is political in its operations. There is a sense of political pressure operating even if it is just underlying.
  2. There is a separation between the pastor and the people.
  3. The pastor is often in the place of being uncertain about his or her longevity.
  4. The pastor feels alone. He often talks of being lonely, saying he has no one with whom to be himself.
  5. The pastor is tempted to be looking for greener grass or a bigger church.
  6. The pastor is not free to be open to the people for fear of it being used against him.
  7. The church is more corporate than family. The organization of the church fuels the church rather than covenant life.
  8. The pastor functions out of “position” rather from his “place in the body” (1 Cor 12:18). This sets the church up for everyone else to be positional in their mentality to church life. This hinders the church from functioning as a many-membered body of believers each in their place.
  9. There is performance based ministry.
    Spiritual fathers are not present in their function. Positional mentality does not lend itself to spiritual fathers and mothers pouring their lives into spiritual sons and daughters. The pastor is fearful of being transparent thus non-transparency flows through the church turning discipleship into more classes and teaching rather than giving of ones life.
  10. The board of deacons or trustees can be in opposition to the pastor and does not have the grace to be overseers. An undercurrent of distrust can be ongoing and unnoticed for long periods of time which often erupts in a major conflict.

The churches in the New Testament operated under a team of pastor/elders who were set into their office by an overseeing apostle. They were not voted in or appointed by the people. These churches were led by a plurality of leaders as in Ephesus (Acts 14:23, Phil 1:1). The team of leaders served with mutual respect and recognition of each one’s authority with a lead or senior “pastor.” James, in the Jerusalem church, is an example of a primary leader among a team of elders (Acts 15:13-22). This biblical form of church government is is made up of team of five-fold leaders often called “pastors” these days, but can be any one of the five mentioned in Ephesians 4:11-12. These pastor/elders serve as the governing “board” as a team of shepherds. They have the full authority to give vision, direction, and government to the church.

We find the team-ministry concept throughout the Book of Acts and the Epistles. A team of shepherds served as elders to give oversight and care to the flock of God. We can see such an example in the church at Ephesus, as well. Paul called for these elders and instructed them as a team saying, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the Church of God, which He bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

These elders of the New Testament church were the pastors, overseers, or leaders who had charge of the flock. They were the regular teachers of the congregation who had responsibility to train, oversee, and equip the people (1 Peter 5). They served out of one of the five gifts of an apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, or teacher.

So church government does matter in the culture of a church. The closer to New Testament government a church operates the greater amount of unity, peace, and security resides among the people. The people feel the covenantal commitment of the pastor/elders to the congregation. They know they are there for life. And even if there is a shift it comes as a result of the church enlarging and sending out that leader to plant or work with a sister church thus remaining in relationship. The spirit of the church is family and not corporate.


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