The notorious Nicolaitins of Ephesus and Pergumum are worth a second look. In my last post I mentioned that their name is probably derived from the Greek words for ‘rule over or by’ and ‘the people’. I identified this group as a class of false Apostles in the early church that attempted to rule over the people and lead them into heretical doctrine and licentious practices. In this post I want to use the word ‘Nicolaitan’ to develop another leadership problem in the church of our day.
Rule over the people
Autocratic leadership structures are all too common in the church of our day. Many of the major church denominations have adopted a hierarchical form of church government where Bishops preside over Ministers/Priests who in turn rule local churches. In the Pentecostal and independent churches, Apostles replace Bishops, and Pastors replace Priests, but the system is essentially the same. In all its variations this type of church government represents a form of ‘rule over the people’. A typical independent charismatic church form of government is a Pastor, or pastoral couple, assisted by a group of Elders, a finance committee and a group of leaders, sometimes referred to as Deacons. The Pastor appoints the Elders and often replaces them on a regular basis. He is the ‘anointed and appointed of God’ and he effectively rules over the people. The committees provide advice and the Elders act as counsellors, but the person in charge is the Pastor.
Pastoral elders are both biblical and very necessary and feature in Paul’s letters, however I have always understood the word ‘pastor’ as a description of ministry and not a title or position. I also believe that church government should be by a group of elders led by a Lead Elder. Countless church ills, splits, and dysfunctions have occurred because of one-man-rule-over-the-people. In addition, when a single Pastor rules a local church then accountability and support, if provided at all, is usually represented by a person higher in a chain of command. Armies may be organised in this manner, but churches are not armies and nor are they one-man businesses.
Rule by the people
On the opposite end of the spectrum are those churches governed by the democratic vote of its members. In the top-down system the members count for very little but in the bottom-up system they count for everything. I don’t believe that this system is much better than the hierarchical systems, yet most churches that do not have a hierarchical system of government have a democratic system. Whereas in hierarchical systems the Pastors are essentially the proprietors, in the democratic system they are usually just hirelings.
I live in one of the newer democracies on earth, South Africa, and I have to say that in practice this ‘democracy’ is simply a form of rule by mass numbers. This will be the case in any group of people where one type/persuasion/race/gender hold an overwhelming majority. I don’t think the church is much different from any other society in this regard. In the natural world bodies are not designed or equipped to rule the head and in the body of Christ the same applies. But if so-called democracy is not the answer, and hierarchical autocracy isn’t either, then what is a better form of church government?
Rule by plurality of Elders
I believe that church government should be in the hands of a group of elders led by a Lead Elder where major decisions are taken by a genuine consensus. New Elders should be nominated by existing Elders but members should have some form of veto power by voting in General Meeting for the appointment of a new Elder. The effective headship of Jesus Christ is exercised through the true consensus of a group of specially called men who are accountable to Him but also to the church membership. Paul’s words to the group of Ephesian Elders captures the essence of this form of church government: ‘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 20:28-29).
No system of church government is perfect and traces of all three systems can be found in scripture, yet I believe that a plurality of Elders has the greatest New Testament support and is least likely to become ‘nicolaitan’.
In my next post I will leave old ‘nic’ behind and move on to other important lessons from the seven letters to the churches of Revelation.