Let’s go back to where we started: Jesus is the Head of the Body and He emphasizes our character over our structures. Furthermore, I believe the Bible provides examples of church government that each hold important truths. Rather than draw a battle line around one specific model, I think a healthier approach is to learn from each model and incorporate certain elements. I believe different churches will land on different forms, but if we keep the heart right then we can still partner together and avoid claiming authority beyond the teaching of Scripture.
Let’s assume we get the foundations right. This is a bad assumption; in fact, if we’re actually committed to it then we probably won’t have time to debate government. That probably explains the lack of explicit teaching in Scripture. That being said, we still need to organize the church.
One critical component of this conversation is disciple-making and church-planting. Rather then scouring Acts as legal document for how to organize the Church, I believe we focus on the core message: The Church is meant to live on mission and expand, and the Church is being actively led by the Holy Spirit.
Let’s let mission shape the formation of government. Growth will cause problems, but it’s the right kind of complication. When we read Acts through this lens, I think it changes the tone. These new believers were actively and sacrificially engaged in the mission of God while they sought the leadership of the Spirit in all things. As the church grew, they responded by organizing structures, holding councils, and establishing teams, and these were based on a mutual submission and a missionary mindset. I believe that if these mindsets are lost then we no long can claim to be a biblical church no matter how we organize.
I think a few passages provide a glimpse into how these forms can merge together.
Acts 6:1-7 describes the first structural adaption. The elders (apostles in this instance) recognized a problem and invited the church into finding a solution, but within certain parameters. The church chose a new tier of leaders, and then the apostles commissioned them through the laying on of hands.
Acts 13:1-3 is used by several groups to reinforce their model: Verse 1 appears to describe elders within the church, in verse 2a “they” could represent the church or the elders, verse 2b-3 represents an apostolic commissioning which emerged into governmental authority for new churches.
I think this passage is a healthy balance. A diverse team of wise leaders led the church, they recognized an apostolic grace on Paul and Barnabas and released them into ministry, while the whole church provided support and “owned” the vision.
Acts 15:1-35, 16:4-5 is perhaps the most vivid example of this governance. The initial problem resulted in a sharp disagreement among believers. The church at Antioch responded by sending a delegation to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders. The leaders showed respect for each other, and crucially, demonstrated an eagerness to discern the Scripture as well as the ongoing work of the Spirit together in unity. In the end, it was James who made the decision, but collaboratively with the whole group. Verse 22 shows the apostles, elders, and whole church in agreement. In 16:4, we see this decision extending beyond the two churches in question.
Paul exercised apostolic authority like few ever have and Peter was the original apostle appointed by Jesus Himself, yet both submitted themselves to an elder team led by James. The elder team, however, was primarily focused on the spread of the Gospel and not political concerns within the Jerusalem church (a decision which had major ramifications). The church as a whole was brought into the conversation, at least in some way. Ultimately, it was Word and the Spirit that proved the most important voice.
I believe attempting to build a linear model around the details of Acts 15 is a mistake, but instead we should build a model around the spirit of Acts 15. This was not a permanent Presbytery with elected representatives of the major churches; instead, it was a relationally-connected group of churches that willingly submitted to one another and put the mission first. No one group attempted to wield unilateral authority. This is seen throughout Acts, and I think should serve as an ideal model—based on relational and spiritual principles, not a perfected structure.