Church Government Part 1

What is the right oversight structure for a church? This simple question has split countless churches and denominations. Unfortunately, answering the question is just as dangerous as failing to do so.

As the Antioch Movement continues to grow, it’s a sobering reality to consider.

Before we continue, let’s recognize we could’ve avoided this entire conversation. One simple book added to the Canon of Scripture is all we needed to decisively settle the debate. Just one sermon from Jesus in the Gospel account, or perhaps even a small chapter buried in a Pauline letter could have resolved the matter once and for all. Why is this missing?

The Old Testament prescribed the precise function of the Temple worship, liturgical calendar, and division of priests (and their clothing!). The New Testament is strangely silent. To be sure, church is described throughout the book of Acts, and Paul’s letters reference the fledging structure, but there is no definitive, linear prescription for how to organize the local church.

Most Bible scholars, representing most church traditions, affirm there is not a clear structure of government presented in Scripture. To be clear, they’ll zealously argue why their structure is the most biblical, but they do so with the acknowledgment that the New Testament is not clear on the topic.

I trust in the leadership of the Holy Spirit to inspire the Bible, so I must accept this reality as God’s will, which prompts me to ask the question: Why? Why was this important detail largely overlooked? Why did God allow this ambiguity, fully knowing the impact on future generations?

The answer to what God didn’t give us is found in what God gave us instead. The foundation of the Church is not in form or structure, instead it’s based on a Person and the new life He provides. If we understand Jesus’ role in the church, our identity in Him, and our charge to love one another, then we’ll discern the right structure. Even if we get it wrong, it’ll still work out because structure is of far less concern.  

Oversight structure is important, don’t get me wrong. A bad one will hurt the church, and a good one will contribute to health. But before we debate structure, we must first reorient our perspective. This begins a five-part series to analyze various modes of governance. It’s tempting to jump right into the detail and miss the most important part. Too much energy is spent on the details of structure—image if we put refocused that energy onto the leadership of Jesus, Godly character, authentic love, and mutual submission to one another.

Jesus is the Head of the Church. Not you. Not me. Not the elders, apostles, episcopate, presbytery, finance committee, congregational vote, or any other human structure. I cannot overemphasize this point: Oversight structures exist to discern the will of Jesus in leading His Church.

He invites us to partner with Him, works through us, and empowers us to serve as priests within His temple, but He is in charge. This trust must shape any structure. I love the example that Jamey Miller and the Antioch Fort Worth elders set by beginning every elder’s meeting with this reminder.

Furthermore, I believe the way we actually live is much more important than the structure we utilize. Jesus clearly stated that we are to love one another, become the servant of all, consider others interests above our own, lay down our life for our friends, make disciples of all nations, care for the poor, and abide in Him (to name a few). Expand the list to remind us to be quick to listen, slow to anger, slow to speak. We’re called to walk in humility, not be greedy, not be contentious, not slander or gossip. You get the point.

If we actually lived this way, then just about any structure works. If not, our sin will sabotage even the best forms of governance. Don’t forget it. This is more important than every other discussion related to governance. The Bible may not provide clarity on the forms of Church, but it’s extremely clear on how the Church is supposed to live.

We submit to the Head and we grow as disciples to walk in Christ-like character. How do we do this?

  1. Bible – The headship of Christ is first revealed in His Word. This is the foundation of any healthy church; when we place reason or tradition on par with Scripture then we’ve put man in charge of the Church, and it never works.
  2. Holy Spirit – The Holy Spirit comes to convict, lead us into all truth, and provide counsel. In the book of Acts, He is mentioned over fifty times. Scripture clearly reveals Him to actively lead the Church. 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4 both teach us that God distributes spiritual gifts among His Body, which are used to edify, equip, and release the Church for ministry. No one person is given the answer; instead, we seek the Spirit together. As we do so, we must remember that the Spirit will never contradict the Word.
  3. Application – The last two points anchor church government, but the complexity of life leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Should we build a building? Or start a new church? Or change the service times? No Bible verse speaks definitively. We need to take the principles of the Word, seek the leadership of the Spirit, and exercise the wisdom of God found in the Body to make these decisions.  

I propose that the best way to seek God in areas of scriptural ambiguity is to start by emphasizing what is clear. We need to wrestle through government, but if in the process, we neglect the fruit of the Spirit or a passionate devotion to Jesus, then our answers will be flawed. Let’s pursue what we know, let’s submit ourselves to the Head and allow Him to transform our interactions with others. I’d much rather get government wrong and still look like Jesus than I would to perfectly install a government, but with a divisive and slanderous attitude. 

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