Still Re-Thinking Church

By Steve M. Schlissel
March 01, 1997

Christians don't need to know everything to know something. They don't need all the solutions to the church's splintered condition to know that there's a better way. Like Rhymin' Simon sang, "I can't run but I can walk much faster than this." We may not have all the answers, but surely a humble look into the Word can help us do better, eh? ("Eh?" means, Canadian spoken here.)

Take church government, for example. The "biting and devouring" method has not only failed to yield much peaceable fruit; it has left many with two feet planted firmly in a lonely, sterile trench. Perhaps the chief difficulty encountered is the too-common conviction that the Scriptures are somehow bound to present us with a precise delineation of ecclesiastical polity. Doctrine, to be sure, is granted no wide berth or latitude. But we are inclined to follow Reformed minister J.L. Schaver in his assessment that the "Bible contains the general principles of church polity which the Church must construct into a framework, and to this it must add the details as expediency requires."

In our last piece we noted the learned Presbyterian John Macpherson's acknowledgment that codification of order in the early church was not a priori but rather in light of "the ever-growing need of the church." This, of course, was a neat New Testament parallel to the arising of order in Israel-on-the-way to the Promised Land. In Exodus 18, Jethro observed the patent inefficiency of Moses' "alone" administration (v. 14) and offered a better way based on expediency (vv. 17-18). He then outlined a strongly decentralized mode of administration that would furnish justice, satisfaction and relative ease (vv. 19-23).

We should perhaps point out that Arthur Pink, of blessed memory, and others have faulted Moses for heeding his father-in-law's counsel. "Moses did wrong," plainly posits Pink (who, interestingly, conducted much of his adult ministry without the benefit of membership in any church).

On the contrary, Moses did right, as his recitation of the event very clearly implies in Deuteronomy 1:9-18. The form served the function. In regard to the sanctuary, the direct prefiguring of the work of Christ, Moses was indeed warned, "See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you . . ." (Ex. 25:40; cf. Heb. 8:5). And the New Testament keeps up this strictness with regard to the teaching ministry of the church wherein Christ and His atonement are made known to the church and to the world. However, in regard to other arrangements, God was apparently pleased, throughout the Scriptures, to allow sundry forms to serve the single function of administering His Word among His people, just as He, "in divers manners" (Heb. 1:1) spoke a unified message in time past unto our fathers. Arguments for a mode of church government which begin, "Christ would not have left us without exact specifications of form," both beg the question and ignore the facts and implications of what happened in Exodus 18 and the New Testament.

Of course, Christ has not left us without a form altogether: He has left us to build on the synagogue model. Yet it must be borne in mind that the synagogue itself arose out of covenantal need and circumstance, not out of express divine warrant. What is common to virtually all Biblical administrations is the presence of elders. There were elders in Israel before the Law (Ex. 3:16 passim); elders administering the Law (Deut. 21:19; 27:1; passim); elders in the Second Commonwealth (Ezra 6:7); elders addressed by the preaching Peter (Acts 4:8); and more importantly for our purposes, elders in the churches (Acts 11:30; 14:23; passim).

Following the regional, decentralized model of the synagogue, elders were ordained in every church (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; these two texts, incidentally, clearly imply that local churches truly and actually existed when the need for elders had not yet been supplied). Thus, that there ought to be a session or consistory caring for the affairs and folks in each local church seems clear. 

That there must be regularly constituted wider assemblies, however, is not so clear. We do not dispute that there may be wider assemblies; on occasion it is even critical, vital for there to be such. Expediency, you see, sometimes requires them. However, to the proposition that there must be regularly stated meetings of fixed, authoritative, wider assemblies in order for there to be a true church, we do demur. Even the Westminster Confession's chapter (XXXI) on broader assemblies begins—it ought to be remembered—with these assemblies being seen as "for the better government and further edification of the church," not for its lawful existence.

Your homework, dear friend, is to read Acts 15:1 - 16:5, the text most commonly appealed to as somehow establishing the normativity of regular classes or presbyteries, and/or general assemblies and synods. We hope to examine the legitimacy of such an appeal, D.V., in our next article.

Topics: Government, Church, The, Biblical Commentary

Steve M. Schlissel

Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children  and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.

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