Church government

The Regulative Principle

The sheer diversity in today's church government - papal, episcopal, presbyterial, democratic, and even non-government (Brethren, Quakers) - testify how important the Regulative Principle must be adhered to, strictly and uncompromisingly. As soon as the church departs from this principle, confusion follows in its wake. When, on the other hand, this principle is followed, the result is an evident unity in doctrine and church life, which is well-pleasing to God and healthy for his people.

The Regulative Principle states that what the Bible commands is to be adopted and practiced; what is not commanded is to be rejected and a ban placed upon it. The Reformed branch of Christendom has been and still is the most consistent of all denominations in the application of this principle.

This principle forbids Christians from introducing anything in the worship of God, in church government or any other area of spirituality, anything that is not directly and explicitly commanded in the Scripture. Thus pragmatism and any other consideration is excluded when it comes to ordering the church in its leadership and administration.

In church government, then, we are to seek for a pattern set out already in Scripture by the Holy Spirit, so that Christ's redeemed people may be properly and advantageously led. This does not imply that it is always easy to arrive at this said pattern, but by study and serious application of the Scripture, I believe wholeheartedly (laying aside all prejudice and ill-conceived thoughts) that this pattern may be discovered and applied today.

God has one methodology today in the government of his militant church: his way is delineated for us in His Word. There is no other, and we are not at liberty to invent or adopt new ways and means for church government. Only that one is pleasing to Him.

The pattern I see is as follows: every church should ideally be led by an eldership with no distinction among them as to authority, though they may, obviously, differ in the measure of their giftedness. Pastors, elders, presbyters, bishops, governors, are all biblical terms to describe church leaders, used interchangeably.

The High View of church government.

It seems to be normative today to have Christians roaming around without holding a fixed membership in a local church, where proper discipline is maintained and the Word is preached in purity. This reflects on our poor and inadequate understanding of what God is accomplishing among us; it is derogatory of Christ who, to obtain redemption for his church, the Bride, suffered death. Christ's church is glorious, even though it contains many blemishes and defects. No local church on earth is free from the taint of sin; there is always an element of corruption and mixture. This does not mean, however that we neglect to exercise the proper church government that is delineated for us in the New Testament.

What do we mean when we refer to the "High View" of church government? Historically we see this being exercised eminently among the Puritans, whose reverence for God and his Word is well-known.

The church is not some interim dispensation, such as the Dispensationalists would have us believe. It is rather the culmination of God's revelation, instituted after the coming of the Son of God, though it existed in germ form before his coming. As such, the church is the reflection of God's wisdom. God's rule and sovereignty comes to a special manifestation in the local church. The theme of the gospel is the kingdom of God, whose King is Jesus Christ. "I have set my King upon the holy hill of Sion" (Psalms 2).

The church, and everything that transpires in the church, should therefore reflect God's goodness, his holiness and his order. It is the pillar and bulwark of the truth. To the church is given the deposit of truth. The church manifests Christ's rule, his gracious rule over the souls of redeemed people.

That is why it is important that its governmental structure be in conformity with the Word, for Christ, as the Prophet, speaks to us pertaining all things through the Word, as brought and interpreted to us by His Spirit. It is not up to church members to adopt any type of church government they see fit. The church is not a democracy where everyone has his vote; rather the church is a theocracy where Christ rules by his Word and Spirit.

That is why the leaders (bishops, elders, pastors, presbyters, call them what you may - these terms are all inter-explanatory) are called upon to lead according to the mind of Christ. Not on principle of pragmatism, tradition, or any other idea, but rather in strict accordance with the Bible.

Again, an element much missing in today's evangelicalism is the loving and proper exercise of church discipline. It seems that nobody has the right to admonish another personally, not even the pastor. A church member thinks that he may live in sin and that's nobody's business. According to the High View of church government it is the business of the church to confront that so-called brother in love, to pray for him and to encourage him to seek repentance. If not, then stronger steps have to be taken (Matthew 18) to such an extent that he may be excommunicated.

Then, again, the preaching and catechism classes have to be in accordance to healthy doctrine. By faith and practice the church has to adorn the doctrine of God, and not cause unbelievers to blaspheme. The High View caters as a check on heretics who sneak in and attempt to disseminate their perverse ideas. The pulpit is not a free for all, as if anyone can share just anything. Arminianism, neo-evangelicalism and worse types of heresies and false doctrine are kept at bay. The High View insists that in the church the principle of Sola Scriptura is honoured and thus God is glorified in the obedience of his people.

Another aspect is the worship of God. The High View holds to the regulative principle of worship. The main elements are worship - singing, reading of Scripture, preaching, prayer - are regularly exercised. Nobody except God decides what is to be done, how the service is to be conducted (with reverence and godly fear) and what it will include, and what will be excluded. God has spoken: let all the earth be silent before him. The church is not a hit and miss enterprise. We often hear that the church consists only of volunteers. But we must remember that God's people are willing in the day of his power. They are submitted to him, and our allegiance to Christ is best expressed when we obey his commandments. From the very first God has shown us his will concerning the church.

Through much spontaneity there was still a visible order and organization. Paul left Titus in Crete to set in order the things that were still lacking, among other things, to ordain bishops in every church. This leads to stability and order and a sense of direction, for bishops are meant to teach the whole counsel of God.

On his return trip Paul and his companion ordained elders in all the churches that were established. Nothing haphazard here: a church is complete and things auger well for the church when, in dependence upon the Lord, the gifts given to believers are exercised with mutual care and love. Not everybody setting up his little band, but the whole church operating in unison, under Christ its head.

The most efficient manner of church government

Every local church should have its own eldership (a body of ruling elders, Philippians 1:1, among which one or more would be all the more gifted in teaching, 1 Timothy 5).The churches of Christ do not necessarily need synods, annual assemblies, area superintendents, episcopal bishops, general secretaries or some other kind of denominational authority. The Lord, the living head of the church, personally governs and empowers local churches, which are humanly autonomous, independent and governed by Christ - through the instrumentality of the presbytery (eldership). The bishops, known also as elders, are appointed by Christ, chosen by him and set apart by him. The local church recognizes the gifts and calling of the individual to rule and teach by the laying on of hands in ordination. Such a leadership must be trusted to function, and be obeyed for the sake of its work (1 Thessalonians 5), but the eldership must not lord it over God's heritage or try in any way to dominate or abuse its authority ("which the Lord has given us for building up and not for tearing down", 2 Corinthians 13). Their work included the task of bringing the entire fellowship to stand committed to the ministries of the church.

Thus my view of church government is neither extreme congregationalism nor a full-fledged Presbyterianism (with classis, general assemblies, synods, etc.). Though independent from outside influence, the local church should seek to be interdependent with other churches of like faith (cf. the Antioch church seeking to resolve a doctrinal issue by referring it to the Jerusalem church, Acts 15).

The diaconate is meant to help and assist the elders in the temporal affairs of the church, such as financial management (cf. Acts 6). But the deacons do not exercise control over the elders as such; rather the contrary. The elders, in all decisions that affect the church, should communicate clearly and transparently to all members what their plans are and seek the consensus of the church. They are always to promote the unity and prosperity of all the saints.