THE CHURCH: AUTHORITY BY WHICH THE CHURCH IS TO BE GOVERNED
Terry Wolever was the editor of the Particular Baptist Press before he went to be with the Lord in 2020. Particular Baptist Press is a ministry of Sovereign Grace Baptist Church of Springfield. Website:
When we think of whose authority we are under in the local visible body, do we truly comprehend that Christ Jesus is “the head over all things to the church, which is His body”(Eph.1: 22-23)? If you do understand and embrace this as a first principle, surely you will seek to do all, as one of our early ministers in this country put it, “according to the express direction of God’s word, remembering you are the servant, not the law-giver, and have no authority to mutilate, change, or dispense with the injunctions of God your Saviour.”
Though having no authority to do so, there are those who are calling upon us today to leave our churches because of an erroneous assumption that they are all apostate and God is not to be found in the institutional church. Some would also decry the “patternism” found within our churches. Must we, they would seem to say to us, do “all things according to the pattern God showed to thee in the mount” (Hebrews 8: 5)? We must if we would be “divinely instructed,” as Moses was. One of the complaints the Lord had with Israel under the Old Covenant was that they sought not His counsel, especially on matters of great consequence. Is the church of the Lord Jesus Christ a matter of great consequence? If we are agreed that it is, the choice is really a simple one―follow the dictates of an endless array of everchanging opinions from fallen sinners just like ourselves, or the infinite wisdom and counsel of the Most High God. The same God, I might add, who has called us from darkness into His marvelous light.
Love to Christ will be manifested in loving what He loves. The title of a book I recently purchased may best sum up this sentiment in a few words, “Christ Loves the Church and So Should You.” Love for Christ and for His church will lead us to desire to know His mind on how we ought to govern and be governed in His house (1 Tim. 3: 15).
Having laid aside that which may be trendy or novel among men, the question for us as earnest Christians then is, “what saith the scripture” (Rom. 4: 3; Gal. 4: 30) as to which form of practical church authority is truly biblical―the single elder/pastor (or co-pastors), congregational rule model or the plurality of elders, elder-rule model? For it is these models that we as evangelical Christians most generally find ourselves concerned with. Advocates of either might be surprised (but hopefully not chagrined) when I would contend that both are biblical. Yes, the truth is that the one is neither superior to the other, nor to be advocated with disdain for the other. The New Testament, as well as our own denominational history, provides ample evidence that each has a rightful place in our church polity. Good men of scriptural integrity have utilized both. And under both models we have had (and may have even witnessed) outstanding leaders, genuine revival, and the salvation of souls. If we truly respect the independence of the local church, while at the same time recognizing the vital necessity of an interdependence and spirit of cooperation among churches of like faith and order, we will accept the fact that the churches we interact with may differ in their church government and therefore shouldn’t seek to ‘shame’ another into doing things the way we may think best. If we are asked what we think is best, then that is an altogether different matter. One of the greatest hindrances to our spirit of unity among the brethren is our tendency to look askance at one another for holding differing views on church authority.
The success, if I may use the word, of either elder rule or congregational rule will always reside with the individuals in whom the authority is vested. Abuse can take place in either model. Most all of us I’m sure have known of pastors who shouldn’t have been, as well as elders who shouldn’t have been. The real issue revolves around this―can we trust the man or men who are set over us to lead us in “the doctrine which is according to godliness” (1 Tim. 6: 3)? If we can, and do, should we not “esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake” (1Thess. 5: 13) ?
One often voiced criticism of congregational rule in our day is that the average person in the pew is too worldly or not spiritually minded enough to govern the affairs of the church. This to me would speak more to a failure of leadership and teaching from the pulpit, than to a problem in the pew. Where there is a lack of loving and corrective church discipline and the inculcating of spirituality among the membership by teaching and example, how can one expect people to excel pastor?
We have all heard the stories about ‘absentee’ or ‘inactive’ members showing up to vote on important matters in the church and swaying the vote negatively. Yet might we not ask, why are there such ‘absentee’ or ‘inactive’ members? Are these of New Testament faith and order? Would not a more biblical stance on church discipline take care to see that no such persons clutter the rolls (and voting) of our churches? Again, it is not the model of congregational rule which is at fault, but a failure in other areas of church polity: membership qualifications, upholding of covenant obligations, and other basic discipline.
Each body of believers and every believer must remember that they are accountable to Christ, the Head of the church, both collectively and individually. Collectively as a congregation, we can experience either the commendation of the Lord by His obvious blessing on our endeavors for His glory or run the risk of having our lamp stand removed. And we know as individuals that we all must give an account of our stewardship and faithfulness to our local body. Paul’s admonition to young Timothy, as one in position of authority, was that he might be “an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4: 12). While each of us has undoubtedly failed in these six areas at some time or other, yet that shouldn’t deter us from striving to attain these ideal Christian virtues. In this regard it might be of help to honestly inquire of ourselves, both as pastor/elders and as members, “What kind of church would my church be, if everyone in my church was just like me?” Are you an example of faithfulness to others in the church, especially to our young people in the rising generation, or indifferent as to whether you are or not?
The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is at one and the same time not one of our own making and yet one of our own making. It is not of our own making for it is a conception of Heaven. Its institution, officers and ordinances are of divine origin. But its being what it can and should be has been entrusted to a very great degree by the Lord in us. To the degree that we yield ourselves to His authority over His church collectively and individually will manifest the degree to which we magnify the grace of God and give glory to His name. We should honor those to whom honor is due as the officers of His church. A favorite author, William R. Williams (1804-1885), in his own skillful way, has so well stated that “God has all varieties of gifts in these His ministers. There are some whose minds are formed for patient inquiry, and others for impressive statement and irresistible appeal. One man shows his strength in his prayers, and another in his sermons, and yet another in his pastoral visits…and the attempt, sometimes apparent, to make any individual teacher the standard, to whose personal endowments every other must be conformed, or suffer rejection, is an attempt to mend God’s better methods of using all and all varieties of gifts in His school. Peter could neither speak, write, nor act like John; and John was incapable of assuming the tone and port of Peter; and neither could dilate, with the broad magnificence, or dive into the deep mysteries of truth, with the unfathomed profundity of Paul: yet Paul, and Peter, and John were all servants of the same Christ, organs and channels of the same Holy Spirit, and efficient servants of the same Church of the Living God…the divine and the human, the visible and the invisible, combine as the appointed teachers of the Church as it is God’s school: the mortal usher seen, but the Great Master by whom and for whom he works, unseen.”
If those in authority over us in Christ’s church help us to more clearly see and know this unseen but Great Master, can we expect anything better this side of glory?