Chapter 5: Church Government: Representative and Operative

It should be easier, with an understanding of Christian leadership in general, to concentrate upon specific spiritual leadership in the local church. There are few subjects in the lives of God’s people more important than the proper administration of church affairs.

Forms of Church Administration

Among the congregations of God’s people, a little knowledge of history, and careful observation will demonstrate three types of church government: centralized rule, congregational rule, and representative rule.

Centralized rule: This appears in two forms, the individual and the group. Earlier we learned from the case of Diotrephes that one man may arrogate to himself the right to rule the saints of God, to centralize in himself all authority (III John). This we saw was contrary to the tenor of New Testament principles of church administration.

About 1889 certain bodies in England and Scotland were torn by the divergence named the Needed Truth Movement. This movement resulted in a confederacy of assemblies which claimed to be exclusively the House of God and the Church of God, teaching that all other Christians belonged only to the Church of Christ, the Church that is His Body. In the matter of assembly administration, the assemblies in the confederacy subscribed to a united oversight, sometimes called a district oversight. In actual practice there was among them oversight in four expanding spheres: assembly, municipal, county, and national. All matters of discipline and importance had to be decided or approved by this centralized rule, at one level or the other.

Congregational rule: The reaction of many to a totalitarian rule is a swing to a democratic system. In such a scheme all matters are placed before the entire church, and decisions are made according to a congregational vote. Congregational rule provides the most carnal believer with as much right to direct the affairs of the congregation as the most spiritual. This policy finds no support in Scripture, nor are there examples of it in the apostolic Church.

Representative rule: Elders are not as much the representatives of the church, deputies to act for it before God and the world, as they are the representatives of the Lord, His delegates over His people. There are three assertions in the New Testament which sustain this idea. First, they are divinely appointed (Acts 20:28) ; second, the area of their service is divinely allocated. The Revised Version reads in I Peter 5:2, “Feed the flock of God which is among you, exercising the oversight thereof not by constraint, but willingly unto God; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as lording it over the charge alloted to you, but making yourselves ensamples to the flock.” The New Translation has a note that reads, “Do not be as persons lording it over your possessions, viewing the saints as something belonging to you.”

Third, godly elders must give an account of their rule and those under them when they appear at the Judgment Seat of Christ (Heb. 13:17).

Biblical Church Administration

Representative administration is delineated for us in the New Testament. Let us consider: designation, definition, qualification, function, compensation, and disqualification.

Designation: We know from the tenor of New Testament principles that in a properly constituted congregation there are priests (I Pet. 2:5-9), bishops (I Tim. 3:1-7), and deacons (I Tim. 3:8-13); and that while all are priests, all are not bishops and deacons. We know that all are priests only by spiritual birth, that some are bishops by spiritual endowments and appointments, and that some are deacons by spiritual character and service. It might also be noted that all are priests to worship; some are bishops to rule in the church (Heb. 13:17), and some are deacons to serve the church or serve in the church. From these deductions it is obvious that the bishops and deacons have to do with the administration of the local church.

Definition: It now becomes necessary to define the terms, bishops and deacons.

The bishop: There are three synonymous terms em- ployed in the New Testament to indicate the spiritual leaders among Christians: bishops (Phil. 1:1. I Tim. 3:1-8. Tit. 1:7), elders (I Tim. 5:17. Acts 15:6; 20:17; 21:18), and overseers (Acts 20:28). That these refer to the same person is made clear by the context in which they are found. From these contexts it is also evident that they are used only in the masculine gender. If there is any distinction among the English words, it might be expressed thus: the word bishop suggests spiritual ministry; the word elder, spiritual maturity, and the word overseer, spiritual method. It has been suggested that the word elder sprang from a Jewish source and the word bishop, from a Gentile source. This distinction of source is of little importance to this study.

A bishop or elder is one who engages in a spiritual administration in the local church, this he does with spiritual maturity by spiritual methods.

The deacon: While the name elder or bishop is used in a very specific sense, the word deacon is used throughout the New Testament in a very general sense, and it is also used in both the masculine and feminine gender. The Grimm-Thayer English-Greek Lexicon defines deacon as “one who executes the commands of another, especially of a master; a servant, attendant or minister.” The New Translation of the Bible in a foot-note distinguishes three words which may be translated into English by the word servant: doulos, a slave, a bondman; diakonos (The Greek equivalent of the English deacon), a person who acts or waits in service; and huperetes an official servant, an apparitor.

A brief consideration of the usages of both the verb and noun forms for deacon is very enlightening. They are used in the divine sense of the Lord Jesus (Luke 22:27. Rom. 15:8). They are used in an angelic sense for angels are deacons serving the redeemed (Heb. 1:14). They are used in a secular sense for magistrates are appointed deacons of God (Rom. 13:1-4). They are used in a spiritual sense for Paul, Timothy, and others are called deacons (I Tim. 1:12. II Tim. 4:5), and they are used in a specific sense (Acts 11:27-30; 12:24-25. Rom. 15:31. II Cor. 8:4; 9:12). The specific sense intimated in these passages was the handling of church finances. For our present studies we shall concentrate upon the specific aspect of deaconship. From these considerations, it becomes obvious that deaconship may be any kind of service that is done especially for the benefit of others. Qualifications: These are given principally in I Timothy 3. The qualifications of an elder may thus be tabulated: spiritual, “If any stretch himself to overseership, he is desirous of a good work.” This surely implies spiritual exercise before God. Moral, an Elder must be a monogamist, sober, discreet, decorous, temperate, self-controlled, not contentious, not covetous. God imposes these qualifications upon all His own, but in the case of the elder, God demands that in these he be blameless. He must be irreproachable as an example before the flock (I Pet. 5:3). Social, an elder is to be given to hospitality, to rule his own house well, and to have a good reputation among outsiders. Intellectual, he must also have an aptitude for teaching; this may be in private or public. Our King James Version is weak here. The meaning is not that the elder is liable to teach but that he have the ability to teach. Experiential, a novice is not to be considered an elder; any man engaged in this service for God’s people must be as the name implies an elder, a man of maturity.

The qualifications of a deacon are found in the same chapter. These may be similarly tabulated: Moral, a deacon must be a monogamist, grave, not deceitful, temperate, not covetous, conscientious. With these this requirement is demanded of the deaconesses, “not a slanderer.” Social, he must rule well his own house; spiritual, he must hold the secrets of the faith in a pure conscience; experiential, age is not suggested in this qualification, in its place, an approval under testing is required, and only when a man has been proved reliable may he serve in this capacity. In all these things the deacon likewise is to be blameless for he too is to be an example before God’s people.

Functions: The functions of these two levels of church administration are found in different passages of the New Testament.

The functions of elders: Some of these are found in Paul’s address to the elders of Ephesus (Acts 20:28-38). In this address elders are exhorted to be pastors to feed the flock of God (V. 28). The verb to feed used here has a triple meaning: to feed, to heed, and to lead. They are also exhorted to be sentinels (V. 31). The figure of wolves arising among the saints is a grave one; it pictures men who are cunning and cruel, and who are ready to destroy the sheep of Christ’s pasture. Because of these, elder brethren are to be wakeful, alert. The enemy is ever attempting to infiltrate the churches of the saints. The elder is also to be a pillar of strength upon which the weak and needy may lean; he is to be ready to provide financial help to those who require it (V. 35).

According to other passages of Scripture he is to rule well (I Tim. 3:5; 5:17. Heb. 13:7 & 17). The meaning of the noun form of the verb to rule used in these passages may be noticed in Matthew 2:6 and Acts 7:10. The idea is to rule as did Joseph in the land of Egypt. The godly elder will lead by both example and authority, and this he will do diligently. This concept of the elder is referred to in five separate passages of the New Testament; it is, therefore, the most prominent feature of oversight work.

To summarize the duties of an elder, we might suggest that he should be a pastor to feed sheep, a sentinel to watch for the enemy, a pillar to support the weak, and a leader who by example and authority directs the way.

The functions of deacons: In Acts 6:1-7, we have some excellent illustrations of deaconship. Widows apparently were being neglected in the daily deaconship of caring for the Christian community at Jerusalem. The apostles said that it was not proper that they be deacons of tables for they were called to be deacons of the Word, and they asked the church to select seven brethren to assume a deaconship in temporal matters. Here the general concept of deaconship is seen in the ministry of the apostles: public preaching and teaching the Word, visiting privately from house to house to do this in a quieter sphere, and to write epistles, and to engage in all things necessary to accomplish these objectives. Then we have the specific concept in the almoner, the deaconship in regard to temporal affairs.

The two brethren Barnabas and Paul when they carried the relief fund from Antioch to the famine stricken area of Judea engaged in a temporary deaconship (Acts 11:27-30; 12:24-25). They were also the same as they collected funds for such use (II Cor. 9. Rom. 15:25).

The labour of love manifested by one Christian to another is called a deaconship (Heb. 6:10). In the case of Phebe the deaconess, we learn more of the ministry of deacons. She was a succourer of many (Rom. 16:1-2). The word succourer implies a protector, a champion.

Archippus received a deaconship from the Lord. We are not told what it was, but apparently he was negligent in it and had to be stirred up by the Apostle Paul (Col. 4:17).

Putting all these references together, we learn much about deaconship in the local church. The deacon’s work may be that of administering temporal affairs like the seven men of Acts 6; it may be the collection of money like Paul and his companions; it may be to help and protect others like Phoebe; it may be to carry funds to their destination like Paul; it may be a church assignment in which one can be careless like Archippus. Furthermore, the work of the deacon may be very temporary in nature as seen in several of these references, or it may be continual as in the case of Phoebe.

Disqualifications: Seldom do we realize that according to the divine principles set forth in the Word of God, elders may disqualify themselves through moral failures or become disqualified through physical frailty. Human- ty being what it is, depraved, provision must be made for any possible spiritual or physical deterioration.

Standards must be met: In I Timothy 3:1-7, where Paul states the qualifications required of an elder, we have the English word “must.” The elder must be blameless. This word “must” could be rendered, it is binding upon the elder that he be blameless, or it is necessary that he be blameless. This word emphasizes that God has set a standard with which we must comply; it must not only in measure be attained but maintained, otherwise the elder is disqualified. A brother may be an elder over God’s people only as long as he meets the standard stated in God’s Word; he must be blameless, not sinless but irreproachable.

Sin must be rebuked: In writing to Timothy about elders, Paul uses two different verbs for “to rebuke.” He, in the first instance, writes, “Rebuke not an elder” (I Tim. 5:1); and in second, writes, “Them that sin rebuke before all” (I Tim. 5:20). The apparent contradiction disappears when it is noticed that two different verbs are employed. The first verb, the one at the beginning of the chapter, means to inflict blows upon, to chide with. No one is to so treat an elder in the church; there is to be no display of belligerency. The second verb, the one in verse 20, means to expose, to reprove, to discipline. Even an elder when he sins is not to escape the discipline of the church.

The time for retirement: While we must not base our doctrine upon Old Testament pictures, nevertheless, there are principles in the Old Testament which reveal the mind of the Lord in a very general way. In the Old Testament the Lord gave rules for the retirement of the members of the tribe of Levi. There are two passages which deal with the years of service for a member of the tribe of Levi, Numbers 8:24-26 and Numbers 4:1-4. These divide life into four parts. The first part was the early 25 years. The second part was the five years between the 25th and 30th birthdays. During these years the Levite was to wait upon the service of the tabernacle, to serve a sort of apprenticeship. The third part of his life, from the 30th to the 50th birthdays, was actively spent in the service of the most holy things. The fourth part, the years which followed the 50th birthday, was lived in at least semi-retirement.

It would seem to be the mind of the Lord that when a person’s faculties become impaired either through illness or age, retirement is advantageous to the work of the Lord. The divine principles require that only those who have learned the ways of the Lord in a practical and experiential way and are spiritually, mentally and physically vigorous serve as leaders among His people.

At the conclusion of a monthly business meeting, an elderly brother said, “Brethren, for forty years I have served this congregation in many different capacities; during those years I gave my best. I no longer have a best to give. I am not as alert as once I was. Some of the questions which arise greatly disturb me; furthermore, during meetings like this, I become extremely weary. I ask that you appoint another to assume my duties. While formally I shall not attend any more of the meetings of the elders, I hope to continue in fellowship with the saints and to help all that I can.”

Had others who have grown old in their service realized what this brother did, and had followed his example, God’s people would have been spared much unpleasantness.

The appointment and recognition of elders: The matter of the appointment and recognition of elders has become controversial; therefore, it demands our attention. Some believe that because the Apostle Paul and his delegates appointed elders, they should be humanly appointed today. Others believe that the statement of Paul in Acts 20:28, is absolute and implies that elders are divinely appointed.

Human appointments: It must be remembered that the apostles had endowments and powers which belonged exclusively to the apostolic office. They had power to work miracles (Acts 3:1-11; 9:36-43; 13:9-13). They received direct revelations from God (II Cor. 12:1-10). They had power to deliver unto Satan, a power extended only to a church (I Tim. 1:20. I Cor. 5:5). They had power to command others (I Tim. 5:21; 6:13). They had power to delegate to others the authority to command (I Tim. 6:17). They had power to discipline a church (I Cor. 4:21). No one today possesses these special endowments and powers. Is it proper, therefore, for us to assume an authority that was used and delegated only by the apostles in the appointment of elders?

Paul left Titus at Crete to set in order things that had been incomplete since a previous visit (Titus 1:5), and to ordain elders. A careful examination of the passage demonstrates that Titus merely set before the church men already proved to be elders. The context implies that these elders were being recognized because of their character, ability and work. God had already made them what they were; they had attained to the divine standard, otherwise they could not, according to the context, have been set to function in the church. Furthermore, it would be difficult to believe that Paul did otherwise among the Galatian churches (Acts 14:19-23).

Divine appointment: From Paul’s address to the elders at Ephesus it is believed that the Holy Spirit had made the divine appointment of elders. If apostles and apostolic delegates set elders to function in the churches, it was God who made men into elders. Paul’s appeal to the Thessalonians, “Know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord” (I Thess. 5:12-13), shows that the authority of the elder is not based upon human appointment or election, but upon the relation of the elder to the Lord and the scope of ministry assigned to him by the Lord.

The appointment of deacons: If we accept the principles employed in the appointment of the deacons in Acts 6:1-8 as a common practice today, then the congregation should recommend that brethren who have manifested the prescribed character and reliability be used as deacons; these, then, in turn are appointed by the elders.

Recognition: The Apostle enjoined upon the Thessalonians that they know those who were over them. To know here is to see, to behold, to perceive, and thus to recognize them. This same word appears in Paul’s description of the house of Stephanas (I Cor. 16:15-18). This household was known because it was addicted to the ministry to the saints; consequently, it was so acknowledged. From the outward evidences of character and activity this family was to be recognized. This is the very way in which elders are to be recognized by the churches of the saints.

The recompense of church administrators: The Lord is not unrighteous to forget any work of love, any effort of faith.

The recompense of the deacon: “They that use the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree” (I Tim. 3:13). Several interpretations of this good degree have been suggested. Since the word degree could mean an academic degree, some feel that it suggests a promotion to a higher service, to that of being an elder. That such a promotion is exemplified in the cases of Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, and Paul and Timothy, this might well be the idea expressed here. There are, notwithstanding, others who feel that it means the progressive acquiring before God of a good standing, and a good testimony before men. One thing is sure, the Lord will compensate all that is done for Him.

The recompense of the elders: “When the Chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away” (I Peter 5:4). Shepherd work is strenuous, it implies descending into the valley in search of cool waters and pastures, and climbing into the hills and mountains in search of lost sheep. This type of work exposes one to storm by night and heat by day, and results in weariness, anxiety, and exhaustion. In vivid contrast, the recompense offered for such rigorous serv- ice involves all that is suggested by the wearing of a crown: a palace with its luxury, a throne with its authority, and the crown with its glory. If in shepherd ministry we suffer with Him, the Chief Shepherd, we shall certainly reign with Him.

Tests on This Chapter

1. Name at least two current forms of church administration.

2. What is meant by representative rule?

3. Name two synonymous terms for bishop.

4. What intellectual quality is required in the bishop?

5. What experiential quality is required in a deacon?

6. If the elder in a local church is to be a pastor, what else is he to be?

7. Name the functions of a church deacon.

8. Who appoints an elder over a local congregation?

9. What may disqualify a Christian leader in a local church?

10. Are there any compensations for overseership?