“Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.”—Acts 20:28
For some reason, writers and preachers who should know better have said for many years (in one way or another) that a New Testament church runs pretty much as a pure democracy. Have you ever heard congregational church government described in that way? But hardly anything could be farther from the truth. And confusion on this point has got many a church off track, and thus hindered the cause of Christ in the world.
The English word democracy comes from two Greek words that together mean “the rule of the people.” A democratic government is one in which the people rule. Although there have been very few civil governments that have operated by pure democracy, the democratic principle, at least in theory, has been incorporated into the republics of the world for years, including our own. In the United States, the executives serving in the various levels of government, as well as the law-makers and some judges, are elected by vote of the citizens.
The Bible actually seems to address the concept of popular rule in the churches, but it does not endorse it. In the Book of Revelation a certain cult and its false doctrine are denounced as “Nicolaitan.” Although history sheds no light on just who the Nicolaitans were, the name suggests an evil trend that we know arose as Christianity moved farther and farther away from its apostolic beginnings.
In Greek, the word means “to conquer the people.” The references to Nicolaitanism in Revelation 2 probably refer to the trend that gave pastors too much power. They began as shepherds, and deteriorated into lords over God’s heritage (1 Peter 5:1–3). They were originally brothers who served as overseers for Christ, but became priests who held the souls of the members hostage to their whims and decrees. Nicolaitanism was and is a terrible heresy, which God hates (Revelation 2:6, 15).
In Revelation 3 we find the church of the Laodiceans, which was lukewarm (verses 14–19). Although there actually was a city named Laodicea, we may gather something from the meaning of this name, too. In Greek it means the rights of the people. Neither the Nicolaitan way nor the Laodicean way is right for the church. The members ought neither to be conquered nor given rule. God’s way is different, and far better.
In his famous address to the elders of the Ephesian church (Acts 20:16–38), Paul gave important insights into how the church of Jesus Christ is to be run. Verse twenty-eight relatse to other passages in the New Testament and draw a clear picture of the proper flow of authority and responsibility in the local church.
Christ the President
Jesus Christ, we might say, is the President of the church, according to the Word of God. He is Head of the church as His Body (Ephesians 1:19–23 and 4:11–15), Bridegroom of the church as His Bride (Ephesians 5:25–27), and Lord of the church as His Temple (Ephesians 2:19–22 and 1 Corinthians 3:16–17). Acts 20:28 says that He is the Owner, too, since He “purchased” the church “with his own blood.”
As Owner and President of the church, He has the right to get His way about everything done in and by the church. Church members must never forget that Christ is the Head, the Monarch, the Boss of His own church. Nobody has a right to usurp His absolute authority over the affairs of the church. Whatever He said should be done, should be done! And His pronouncements about the way things are to be done in and by the church are all over the New Testament. The First Epistle to Timothy was written, it says,
“…that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.”—1 Timothy 3:15
The mission statement of the church is the Great Commission of Christ in Matthew 28. The method of maintaining peace and purity in the church is clearly stated in Matthew 18. Christ’s church has no right to invent its own mission, to create its own system of operation, or set its own policies and standards. Jesus Christ is Owner and President of His organization, and must be pleased in all things.
The Holy Spirit, Executive Vice President
The Holy Spirit is in charge of operations in the absence of the President. Of course, the Head of the church is away on business. He is in Heaven at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us. He has sent the Holy Spirit to administer the church in His place (John 14:12–18).
The Spirit was recognized as the Administrator of the church in Jerusalem, according to the book of Acts. In chapter 5, the hypocrite Ananias is accused of lying to the Holy Spirit (verses 3–4) because he and his wife tried to deceive the church. In chapter 15, the Spirit is credited with being the One Who directed an important decision made by the congregation (See verses 23–29).
One of the reasons the Spirit was sent is to lead the church in the absence of Christ. The truth is that, because Christ and the Spirit are both Persons of the Holy Trinity, having the Spirit with us is the same as having Christ Himself directing the church. The congregation must look to the Holy Spirit for guidance, power, wisdom, faith, unity, leadership, and strength. Churches grow and multiply through the “comfort of the Holy Ghost,” according to Acts 9:31.
Acts 20:28 says that the Holy Spirit is the One Who appoints the pastors of the churches. The word overseers in this verse is a title given to the church officer we call the pastor. It is strange how some churches go about appointing pastors today. Some churches looking for a new pastor will pass around questionnaires to the members asking what kind of pastor they want. Shall he be young, or old; have kids at home, teenagers, or an empty nest; have a seminary degree, a Ph. D., or what level of education; be from the north or from the south; be married to a piano-player or secretary or what? But the selection of the pastor is up to the Holy Spirit. The whole church should seek the guidance of the Spirit in a search for a pastor. He is the One Who chose the pastors at Ephesus! He is the One Who should appoint your pastor, too.
The address of Paul in Acts 20 was given to the “elders” of the church at Ephesus (verse 17), and in verse 28 they are called “overseers.” Paul told them to “feed the church of God,” and the Greek word rendered feed is the verb that comes from the word for shepherd or pastor. Elders are overseers who pastor the church. Elders are told to “take oversight” of the flock (the church) and to “feed” (pastor) it in 1 Peter 5.
Sometimes the Bible uses the word bishop for the overseer, and he is clearly both elder and pastor (Titus 1:5–9). Elder, bishop, and pastor describe the same office in the church. They are given their office by the Holy Spirit, Who leads them in how the church is to be run.
So Jesus is the President of the church; the Holy Spirit is the Executive Vice President in charge in the absence of the President; and the pastors are superintendents (overseers or bishops) appointed by the Holy Spirit to exercise leadership at His direction. Their work involves both ruling and teaching (See Ephesians 4:11–15, 1 Timothy 5:17–18, and Hebrews 13:17). Normally they are paid for their work.
When I was a pastor, a young boy named Jamey came to me one Sunday and asked me a pretty straightforward question: “Preacher, who is boss of the church?” I replied, “It’s Jesus, Jamey,” and he said, “That’s what I thought.” Jesus is the only rightful Ruler of His own church. It’s not the pastor or any member of the congregation, or any group of members. He is the Boss, and He runs things by His Holy Spirit through the superintendents He appoints.
Without dispute, Spirit-appointed pastors have authority in the church. Read about it in Hebrews 13:17 and 1 Peter 5:5. But the obedience given them by the flock is a voluntary, consenting obedience, rather than the submission of a servant to a master. The word for obey in Hebrews 13:17 is a much softer word than the Greek word translated “obey” in Ephesians 6:1 or “be obedient” in Ephesians 6:5. It has the idea of “be persuaded,” rather than the force of taking orders. The pastor’s authority is based on the Word of God and the work of the Spirit. They “rule” by the consent of the family of God. First Peter 5:5 shows the whole church is to submit to each other in great humility as they submit to the elder. The church is to seek the will of Christ, which the Holy Spirit reveals to the pastors.
If a pastor seeks to direct the church contrary to the will of Christ, he is to be replaced. Such wolves are uncovered by comparing their words with God’s Word. Paul said that heretical teachers (“grievous wolves”) would arise among the elders at the Ephesian church after his departure (Acts 20:29–30). The New Testament tells us to reject such heretics (Titus 3:10–11). Failure to maintain the blamelessness required of a bishop as described in First Timothy 3 will disqualify a man from the position. Also the commission of a disqualifying sin, as described in First Timothy 5, will put the man out. It is the Holy Spirit’s way of firing a superintendent. But aside from such unusual circumstances, the congregation should esteem pastors highly (First Thessalonians 5:12–13), and regard their leadership as coming from the Holy Spirit.
The Congregation Cooperating
Some deal with the subject of church government (“polity”) as if various interests are in a struggle for control of the church. Who should run things? Shall it be a board of laymen, or an ecclesiastical synod, or the deacons (who are really to be servants that meet the needs of both the pastor and the church), or the preacher, or the majority of the members? But power struggles are not in the plan of God for the church of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:10). The New Testament pictures the church as a wonderfully harmonious, unified body. Ephesians 4 teaches that God has given ministers to the church (evangelists and pastors) to fulfill a key role in His plan for Christ’s Body:
For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and the knowledge of the Son of God,…speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: from whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.—Ephesians 4:12–16
When the Body has to make a decision together, the authority/responsibility structure we are learning from Acts 20:28 goes into operation. Such a thing happened in the Jerusalem church, as we see in Acts 6 and 15. Notice in these chapters how the congregation cooperated with God in the resolution of a problem.
- The congregation met.
- The matter was discussed.
- The pastors (led by the Spirit) made a recommendation.
- The congregation concurred with the recommendation, believing that they were following the direction of the Holy Spirit.
- Everything ended up in harmony and mutual rejoicing.
Power struggles revolve around, not the question of what should be done, but rather over who should make the decision. There is no room for power struggles in a New Testament church. Jesus Christ is always to have His way. When church members are given the opportunity to be involved in a decision of the church, either by vote or by some other means, they are to express their opinion in a way far different from the way citizens cast ballots in an election. At the polls, people mark the ballot according to whom or what they want. In church Christians express what they think the Holy Spirit is saying that Jesus wants!
Although the congregation is the ultimate seat of authority on the human level in the church, the whole Biblical set-up is designed to put Christ in charge. And when He is in charge, the church is healthy and prosperous! May God’s people put God’s Son in charge of His church, and cease rebelling against Him, for the sake of His matchless cause in this world!