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Church Government: The Problems of Tyranny and Anarchy within the Local Church

By Monte E. Wilson, III
March 01, 2000

I was nine years old when I had my first experience with church government in Baptist World. My father had just been installed as the new pastor. This was his first Wednesday night business meeting—his first ever, for this was his first pastorate after graduating from Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Ft. Worth, TX. After some preliminary decisions voted on and approved by the majority of the 100 or so faithful who attended that evening, things began to heat up. Apparently my dad had plans that rubbed the deacons the wrong way. They sought to run roughshod over the meeting, but dad was trained well and outmaneuvered them. (I think Baptist pastors have to take an entire semester on parliamentary procedure.) At one point, the atmosphere was so charged that everyone under the age of 14 was dismissed. When the dust settled some months later, three deacons resigned, three died, and three publicly confessed that they had never been converted. I kid you not.

What had rubbed the deacons the wrong way was that they had been the unquestioned authority of this church for years and this upstart was threatening their reign. Thinking they could control a freshly minted pastor, they put his nomination on the fast track. They discovered on that Wednesday night that they had miscalculated how the young man would respond to their spiritual tyranny.

The issue was profoundly simple. Who is in charge here? Who is the delegated spiritual authority? The answer, however, was and is not so simple. In a typical Baptist church the majority of the voting members of that local church elects the delegated authority. This is a form of church government called Congregationalism. In some such congregations, this delegated authority must constantly seek the approval of 51% of the members for every decision he wishes to make. However, in other such congregations—with the same form of government—the pastor becomes a mini-pope whose every pronouncement is infallible. In still other such churches, the deacons function as elders, acting more in a Presbyterian fashion.

After 27 years of ministry, I have discovered that it is quite naive for anyone to think that simply because a church’s constitution and by-laws establish it to operate according to a particular form of government—Congregational, Presbyterian, Episcopal—this does not mean it’s actually how things will function! The reality is that you will most often find Baptists conducting business like Episcopalians, Episcopalians operating as Presbyterians, and Presbyterians mimicking the Congregationalists. It makes one pray for a truth-in advertising law in regard to church governments!

By the way, why map out specific requirements for eiders, as well as for the members’ duties in regard to these leaders, if church government is optional or unnecessary? Clearly the Apostle Paul thought it of paramount importance to establish such governments wherever he went (Tit. 1:5). The neo-Amish desire to replace churches with little home Bible studies and prayer meetings where “we are ail priests and need no officers” might sound spiritual, but it flies in the face of Scripture and 2000 years of church history. One cannot help but wonder if this disregard for church is rooted in the problem of everyone’s wanting to do what is right in his own eyes: anarchy with a religious veneer.

Who Lays His Life Down for Whom?

A Biblical case can be made for each of the above mentioned forms of church government. Each of them has a revered history. Each also has its potential weaknesses. Congregationalism can degenerate into a democracy where we vote on God’s revealed will and everyone does what’s right in his (or her!) own sight, a.k.a., anarchy. Presbyterianism may morph into a ruling aristocracy detached from and insensitive to the spiritual needs of the congregation. Episcopacy can lead to an autocracy that is utterly divorced from the local congregation it presumes to lead.

It appears to me that as we move from church to church we witness the polar opposites of anarchy and tyranny. Further, those who suffer damage under a government that permitted one particular sin often run headlong into its sinful counterpart! Did I suffer at the hands of a tyrannical hierarchy? Now I revel in the “freedom” of anarchy!

Ideally, the congregation should focus on honoring and obeying their appointed/elected spiritual authorities (Heb. 13:7, 13). The officers should focus on serving the people as emissaries of Jesus Christ, the Head of the church (1 Pet. 5:1-4). Ail too often, however, the members focus on telling the officers how to do their job; the officers focus on telling the members how they are supposed to submit. No one is behaving as Christ commanded. Neither is willing to yield until the other does what “they are supposed to do.”

I suggest that, as in a marriage, it is the head—in this case, the officers—who must first yield. As Jesus loved and died for us—while we were yet sinners—so too should leaders in the church lay their lives down for those whom they serve. It is Gentile-like authority that forces and coerces. Christ-like authority motivates and inspires through godly living and service.

Building the Walls

How do we guard against tyranny and anarchy?

I think that one of the very first things we must do is to own up to our peculiar proclivities. We should be honest about our particular church government’s potential weaknesses, as well as the community’s psychological bent. (By the latter, I am referring to the community’s personality. For example, does the church lean toward a passive resignation regarding its leaders or toward a militant individualism or family-ism? “Family-ism,” you ask? This is where every family does what is right in its own eyes with no regard for the church’s lawful jurisdiction.) With this self-awareness, we then stand vigilant, prayerfully watching over our weakness in this regard, guarding against failing into corporate sin.

There also must be a clear understanding of the Biblical parameters within which the officers lead the congregation. I suggest the Bible teaches that our churches are to hold its members accountable for maintaining orthodox doctrine (Gal. 1:6-10); for keeping the Ten Commandments (1 Cor. 5:9-13); for doing our part to maintain the peace and harmony of the community (Tit. 3:9-11; Mt. 18:15-20); and for how our gifts are used within the community (1 Pet. 4:10; 1 Cor. 14).

Furthermore, the officers within the community simply cannot govern as they wish. They do not represent their own ideas but the Word of God, and they must not presume to take authority where Scriptures have not given them the right to do so. As Rushdoony has noted, ministers are not legislators but representatives. Subsequently, there must be some sort of functioning body that exercises oversight, holding the leader(s) accountable for keeping their charge.

We must not ignore the Biblical stipulations concerning an officer’s character. The Bible is clear as to what sort of character qualifies a man for office (l Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-11; Rom. 12:3-8). To the degree we ignore these requirements, to that same degree we become vulnerable to spiritual disaster within the community. I would add here that it is also critical that leaders not merely possess godly character hut have the necessary gifting and training necessary for leading a church.

It is also the responsibility of the leaders of the congregation to disciple its members: in Paul’s words, to equip the saints for ministry and for the building up of the body of Christ (Eph. 4:7-12). The goal is for every member to consistently engage his gifts in serving the other members of the community. Leaders following Christ’s charge are not men who fulfill every ministry need of the community, but men who train the members to fulfill those needs.

The spiritual leader(s) is not every member’s personal chaplain or Bible answer man. Some people insist on this sort of spiritual tyranny, hut the godly leader will refuse this temptation to tyranny. How can the member grow if I answer every question, never requiring any research and deliberation on the member’s part? How will the member mature if I make ail of his decisions rather than teaching him how to be self-governing under God’s Word? And how can I, as one individual leader, minister adequately to the many members of the congregation? I must train and equip others so that we ail may be built up in Christ.

To state the matter succinctly: If qualified and duly appointed church leaders will get about the business of equipping all the church members to be ministers and will hold those members accountable in doctrine, morality, and maintaining the peace and harmony of the community (no slander, gossip, or factious behavior), then the problems of tyranny or anarchy will be infinitesimal.


Topics: Church, The

Monte E. Wilson, III

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