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Elder Rule in an Age of Consumer Spirituality

In looking for a new church home, today’s average evangelical believer bases his choice on a variety of factors. Music quality, facility, children’s programs, and a charismatic leader typically top the list. Knowing that it must compete for “spiritual customers,” many churches frantically endeavor to offer as many amenities as possible. In this business-oriented paradigm, church leaders raise the proverbial finger, determine the direction of the spiritual wind, and set their courses accordingly.

  • Christopher B. Strevel,
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In looking for a new church home, today’s average evangelical believer bases his choice on a variety of factors. Music quality, facility, children’s programs, and a charismatic leader typically top the list. Knowing that it must compete for “spiritual customers,” many churches frantically endeavor to offer as many amenities as possible. In this business-oriented paradigm, church leaders raise the proverbial finger, determine the direction of the spiritual wind, and set their courses accordingly.

Market analysis, however, is a poor substitute for submission to the revealed will of the King, Jesus Christ. He has provided the church’s mission, message, and methods. When professing believers lose zeal for His mandate, it is the responsibility of faithful pastors and elders to call them to repentance and disciple them more carefully, not to capitulate to their whims. To be relevant in the world is to be faithful to the King who rules over the world.

The present spiritual malaise and cultural irrelevance of the churches in the United States require, among other things, a return to Biblical principles of church government, and the professing Presbyterian churches must lead the way by returning to the principles upon which they were founded. The spiritual needs of our people require a diligent, communicative, serving, and accessible eldership that is intimately involved in congregants’ lives, competent to counsel, and exemplary in character.

Church Government Does Matter
One factor that is rarely considered when selecting a church home is its government and discipline. The mention of “government” conjures up ideas of an ineffective bureaucracy and a staid environment that is decidedly opposed to the modern infatuation with dynamism, change, and novelty. In addition to the fact that most of the selection factors commonly used lack any warrant from Scripture, the organization of the church is not to be treated indifferently.

If a church lacks Biblical organization, regardless of how many other “assets” it boasts, its foundation is weakened. Submission to the exclusive headship of Jesus Christ over the church requires that each congregation of believers be governed in a manner that is consistent with His word in the Bible, the only infallible guide of faith and practice.

As the Bible provides many precepts and examples pertaining to the form of church government that is consistent with the will of Jesus Christ, it is incumbent upon believers to defend the importance of Biblical church government.  Adherents of Presbyterianism in particular, who have historically stressed not only the importance of church government but also the Biblical warrant of their particular form of church government, must regularly set forth not only the copious Biblical support for their claims, but also the practical and urgent necessity of returning to them for the glory of Jesus Christ and the further reformation of the church.

To recognize and appreciate the Biblical model for church government, the office of apostle must be clearly understood. The apostles were not merely church leaders, as claimed today by some pseudo-apostles. They were the living voice of Jesus Christ. To receive them was and is to receive Christ (Jn.13:20). Their doctrine, decrees, and official, repeatable actions are binding and authoritative for the church in every age. Their names are symbolically written on the foundation of the heavenly Jerusalem, indicating that the church is strong and faithful to the degree it builds upon their foundation (cf. Rev. 21:14; Eph. 2:18-20). The things that they wrote are the commandments of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor. 14:37).

Because of their unique calling, historical relationship to Jesus Christ, and foundational nature, the office of apostle has now expired. Apostolic succession is properly defined solely in terms of fidelity to apostolic doctrine, whether in those records personally written by an apostle or proceeding from the immediate apostolic company, i.e., Mark/Peter, Luke/Paul. Therefore, because of the authority of the apostles, in setting forth the principles for Biblical church government, we must follow their writings and authoritative example. Their instructions and practice in this area are clear and copious.

How the Church Should Be Governed
Christ alone is Head of the church (Eph. 5:23-25; Col. 1:18), both in heaven and on earth; therefore, mortal men who claim supreme headship over the church are usurpers. Second, the instructions and example of the apostles indicate that the church is to be governed by multiple, elected elders (Ac. 14:23; Tit. 1:5). Third, these elders, (whether or not one adopts the view that all elders are functionally equivalent or that teaching and ruling elders represent distinct functions within the eldership) must operate in terms of parity (Ac. 20:28; Tit. 1:5-7).

The clear implication is that the government of the church is not hierarchical. In this light, it is important to recognize that “bishop” and “elder” are used interchangeably. “Elder” describes the office; “bishop” describes the function.

Elders are invested with a real authority from Jesus Christ to oversee the doctrine and life of the congregation (Ac. 20:28; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:2-3). To the degree that elders govern in submission to the Bible, their commands must be obeyed, or church discipline must ensue (Mt. 18:15-20). The enthroned Jesus ratifies in heaven their careful discipline decisions made on earth.

Elders are elected by the people, not imposed upon them against their will. The verb translated “ordained” in Acts 14:23 means “to confirm by the raising of the hand,” and is used in classical literature in the context of civic assemblies.

The power to ordain resides in Presbytery, which is composed of elders drawn from churches in communion with one another (1 Tim. 4:14). Finally, individual members, congregations, and presbyteries have the right to appeal local decisions to a higher court within the church, i.e., presbyteries, general assemblies (Ac. 15). This aspect of apostolic practice has been called connectionalism.

The Presbyterian Model
The foregoing summary requires what has come to be called Presbyterian church government, not because any single Presbyterian body perfectly embodies them, but because consistent Presbyterianism alone corresponds to the Bible’s teaching on the God-ordained organization and government of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. These principles, properly understood and applied, would further reformation in the church, as they did when John Calvin’s Institutes, the seminal work of the Reformation theologian, gave them wider currency in Reformed churches.

For example, Biblical church government absolutely forbids one-man rule in the church, whether at the top of a despotic hierarchy or an independent autonomy. Such government forms inevitably result in tyranny over Christ’s sheep or the failure to avail the church of the corporate wisdom of multiple, elected, qualified elders.

Because of the principle of parity, even professedly Presbyterian churches must guard against the tendency to view the ruling elders as the “court lackeys” of the preacher or teaching elder, whose theological education may indicate a greater breadth of knowledge but does not entitle him to superior authority or dominance. An exclusive dependence upon lay-leadership in the church, an implicit principle of most mega-church and dynamic church leadership models, is forbidden by the fact that elders are ordained, possess real authority, and must be obeyed.

Governmentally, the church is not a populist organization in which every man and woman should have his say or is qualified for leadership. The New Testament qualifications for eldership are as authoritative for the church as John 3:16. Character, not charisma, qualifies a man for office in the church. Finally, the Biblical resolution to problems in the church is not to walk away, either in disgust or to escape disciplinary sanctions, but to appeal to the local Session, Presbytery, and if necessary, a General Assembly of all the churches.

Presbyterianism is suited to meet the spiritual and cultural crises of our times because it possesses the sanction of Jesus Christ, the Head of the church; protects God’s people from “fly by night” spiritual paradigms and heterodoxy; and shepherds the flock with the compassion and authority of Jesus Christ, the Great Shepherd. It affords the checks and balances of power that hinder the rise of tyranny, as well as the corporate wisdom and involvement that are essential for the growth in holiness and influence of a particular congregation.

It is “dynamic” in that competent, responsive, and caring elders are the most qualified within the congregation to address rising needs within the church and face the spiritual challenges presented by believers living in an apostate culture.

Most importantly, in an age that demands the right to pursue organizational paradigms that promise rapid success, there is only one model that has the blessing of Jesus Christ. To move forward with the discipling of the nations and the shepherding of His precious flock with any expectation of success, the church must immediately repent of failure to heed His Word in her organization.

We Need to Do Better
Unfortunately, the precious gold of Presbyterian church government has become dim even in churches that profess the name. Can we honestly say that our churches are organized and governed in such a manner that would lead men to consider communion with us, feel safer under our care, and better instructed under our leadership? Are the elders involved in the lives of the sheep? Are they responding to their concerns and questions, showing regular hospitality, setting an example of holiness and love for Jesus Christ? Are they diligent in overseeing the life and doctrine of the congregation, through Christian education, safeguarding the pulpit from error, and practicing restorative discipline?

Admittedly, in an age that values image over substance, individualism over authority, and novelty over history, Presbyterian church government may seem passé. However, zealous defenders of Presbyterianism must never tire of reminding believers that this model enabled the Church to overcome early heresy, tyranny, and corruption. It sustained a Reformation whose reverberations are still felt 500 years later, and will, if zealously implemented again, provide a foundation for further reform — and an antidote for the shallow, unbiblical, and whimsical models of government that dominate the current evangelical church.

  • Christopher B. Strevel

Rev. Christopher B. Strevel currently pastors Covenant Presbyterian Church (RPCUS) in Buford, Georgia. He also oversees students in Bahnsen Theological Seminary specializing in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. He currently resides in Dacula, Georgia, with his wife of twelve years, Elizabeth, and his three children, Christopher, Caroline, and Claire.

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