One of the most unpopular subjects of American evangelicalism is having the right church government. The average Christian is more concerned about immediate results, appearances, and the status quo than the actual competency, functionality, and biblical nature of the church. I compare the countless masses of today’s Baptist, Bible, Evangelical Free, and non-denominational churches to the functionality of a car. Most would rather spend time checking the tires for air and keeping the windows clean than looking under the hood to ensure that there is a working engine.
I don’t know why we’ve missed it. I tell friends or colleagues on occasion that we should have a biblical structure for church – an ecclesiology that is rooted in the unchanging words of Scripture. I suggest that not doing so is a cause for common problems. They heartily agree.
But, for some reason they clam up when I mention the fact that in Scripture, there is no such thing as a single Senior Pastor who is the head of the church. They turn the other way when I mention that there is no such thing as a “Youth Pastor” (let alone youth ministry) in the Bible. All of sudden, their belief in the sufficiency of Scripture disappears, while pragmatism and cultural accommodation take center-stage. “Things are different now,” and “Scripture doesn’t forbid these things, so why not?” is the response. The explicit instructions for church government are then put on the back-burner as something secondary. “We’ll worry about that stuff later, we have more immediate problems to deal with.” (Of course, the great majority of the “immediate problems” are caused by the “stuff” that’s rarely dealt with!)
It’s like saying a car will keep rolling from the momentum of the first push because we keep giving it new paint features and cleaning the windows. In reality, the car never had an engine that could maintain stability and functionality over time to begin with. It isn’t working like it’s supposed to, and problems will develop. But, no one wants to talk about that; it’s dirty and complicated under the hood. Besides, nobody sees what’s under the hood, so why should they care?
The Mindless Cycle of Church Life and Death
We know the story from there: 20+ years pass, people get old and a new generation has new ideas, causing splits and decline. Meanwhile, a new church down the block is specifically created not to have the difficulties of the first church. Yes, they will be successful (so the argument goes), because, now instead of fresh paint (“Our church is relevant!”) and clean windows (“Our church is about living a godly life”) to keep the car moving on the right track, bigger tires (“we’re a church about growth!”) and more fluffy seats (“we’re a church all about love and happiness!”) are going to sustain the church now.
Thus, evangelicalism spawns another denomination. The cancer is treated but the cause of it remains, only to grow again.
Countless denominations are formed because of nothing more than reductionism and a continual ignorance of a biblically balanced ecclesiology. This is easily demonstrated in the slogans of various churches (i.e. “missional, and Christ-centered leadership,” “biblical, and God-centered,” “fellowship for the future,” “making disciples of all nations,” etc.) . A church thinks the entire purpose and function of the Body can be reduced down to one sentence.
It can’t. That’s why the Bible never does this kind of thing – it would spin us out of control into an absolutizing reductionistic frenzy. Suggesting that the purpose of the church can be reduced to one thing or one concept or idea or sentence makes about as sense as asking the question “What’s the most important doctrine of Christianity?” It’s pure nonsense. There’s no such thing as “the most important doctrine of Christianity”; Christianity is a network of interdependent doctrines. That’s what a worldview is: a web of presuppositions. There is no “ultimate one truth” by which all things must be interpreted, except the truths (plural) that are taught in the Scriptures. Besides, no one truth could have meaning without reference to other truths in the first place!
The same goes with church. A healthy and long-lasting church is not aimed at being one-concept centered, or built around what the church shouldn’t be. It must be built around the truths of the church – all of them – taught in Scripture. If we do not do so, imbalance will occur through time, and the church will die, decline, or split, forging another church with its own axe to grind: not to be like the previous church. Of course, this only restarts the mindless cycle of pain, grief, and denominational madness that has, sadly, become the norm for today’s evangelicalism.
God help us if we really think that’s the norm! So much can be easily solved just by giving attention in the right areas, and one of the most fundamental is church government.
Do You Have a Biblical Church?
James White has written the best essay I’ve been able to find on church government, entitled “Sufficient As Established,” published in Five Views of Church Polity (Robert Reymond was another contributor in this volume). And, after having been part of Baptist, CRC, Presbyterian, and other kinds of churches over the flux of the past several years, dealing with my own struggles as a (former) Associate/Youth Pastor, and reading through the New Testament several times observing the biblical pattern for what it means to “do church,” I’ve found that three questions are enough to humble the average church.
Three Questions to see if you have a biblical church (answering “no” to any is a disqualifier):
- Does your church have (and is primarily led by) elders, all who have equal power and authority, and all have the ability to teach?
- If so, do you know them by name? Do they know your name?
- Do church members confess their sins to one another?
These are only three features of a biblical church (there’s not enough room to argue their validity here); many others could be listed (i.e deacons, use of spiritual gifts, etc.). How many churches do you know that even qualify for just these three?
I want to provide two further resources. The first is a visual comparison of a biblical view of church government with a popular/pragmatic view. The second is a list of three church constitutions which I believe meet up to “biblical” standards of church government (the third is my own draft, hypothetical constitution).
A biblical view of church government
A popular/pragmatic view of church government
Three Noteworthy Church Constitutions
Capitol Hill Bible Church
Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church
A Church Constitution (Jamin Hubner)