Church government

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Series: The Church in Highlights

‘The New Testament knows nothing of an elder-ruled, elder-governed, or elder-directed church. And it knows even less about a pastor-led church.’ Frank Viola in Reimagining Church.

In the last few posts I have been presenting the parts of Viola’s book that I highlighted as I was reading through it. Possibly his most controversial statements concern the form of church government he believes is evident in scripture as compared to the forms we see in the church of today. He contends that elders are not supposed to rule as a discreet group and that pastors definitely should not rule as kings over their congregations.

I agree, in the main, with his sentiments regarding pastor-rule, but I don’t agree with his understanding of government by a plurality of elders. The ministry of ‘pastor’ appears only in Ephesians 4:11 and in all other instances the Greek word used here is translated as ‘shepherd’. I have always understood the categories mentioned in Ephesians 5 as functions and not titles. 

I have very little patience with church leaders who like to be addressed as ‘Apostle’, ‘Prophet’, or ‘Pastor’. I also don’t like the word ‘Elder’ being used as a title. Titles usually denote positions within an organisation. 

In my view the church is an organism far more than it is an organisation, and as such titles should be unnecessary. Pastors are men or women who nurture, guide and protect the members of the church of the Lord Jesus, the Body of Christ. They are not supposed to rule the church, yet in the majority of charismatic and non-aligned churches this is what happens. Pastors, either self-appointed, apostolically appointed or even member appointed, rule as ecclesiastical princes over their small parts of the Kingdom of God.

It may seem somewhat disingenuous, but in the church that I serve we do have people who are designated as ‘pastors’. The reason for this is two-fold. Firstly, the word accurately describes their main function in the local church – they pastor the people. Secondly, because of the widespread and long held use of the designation ‘pastor’ within the church of today, it is confusing to people, both in and outside of the local church when key leaders either have no designation, or one which is uncommon, such as ‘lead-elder’. We find it better to ensure that our pastors function as humble shepherds who faithfully serve the people in their care. These pastors are usually appointed elders of the church, but this is not always the case.

In my next post I will explain why I favour church government by a group of elders, and then in the post after that I will respond to Viola’s views on professional clergy.

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2 Responses

  1. Anonymous

    Dear Chris,

    I tend to lean more towards the view that local churches are to be governed by a plurality of elders. I also agree that church ‘titles’ are meant to be understood as functions rather than positions.

    I know this debate has been going on for very long and it is a difficult topic, but what role do women play in the church? Can they serve in a local church as elders, or ought only males to be elders?

  2. Dr Christopher Peppler

    @Anonymous My view is that women can and should function in all and any ministry areas in the church. Eldership, however, both a ministry and an office and carries both responsibility and authority. Paul made a case for exclusively male authority in church and family by referring to Eve’s deception in the Garden of Eden (1 TIM 2:11). In the home the man is mandated to fulfil the role of head of the family, and in the extended family of the church they are to fulfil the role and office of eldership. I am aware of there are those who believe that married couples may serve together as Elders but I don’t believe that this has sound biblical support. Male eldership is not a matter of superior gifting, or ‘higher’ position. Men are not superior to women in any way. Male Eldership is for me simply a matter of biblical mandate – it is God’s order for home and church government.

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