In my mind, it really is that simple. Shepherds rule sheep. Elders rule congregations. Of course, there is a bit more to the subject than this.
I recently listened to a sermon by Pastor Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Mark is one of my favorite preachers. He is committed to expositional preaching. He is serious about the local church. He is passionate about truth. I think, however, he is on the side with the weaker biblical argument when it comes to the subject of church government. Mark’s premise: the congregation itself is the last, final, earthly court of appeal.
Now, remember, in our piping-hot discussion of whether I am a Baptist or not, I made quite clear that I do not separate over this issue. The Bible is explicit in its qualifications for two church officers: pastor/elder/overseer and deacon. I believe that the terms pastor, elder, and overseer are interchangeable. I do not see, however, in Scripture a mandate for an exclusive elder-rule or exclusive congregational rule in church government. I do think the evidence leans more strongly toward elder-rule though.
In his message, Mark makes three arguments to support his premise of congregational rule.
- The congregation itself is the final court of appeal in disputes between brothers.
Supporting texts for this argument are Matthew 18:15-17; Acts 6; Galatians 1:8
- The congregation itself is the final court of appeal in matters of doctrine.
Supporting text for this argument is 2 Timothy 4:3.
- The congregation itself is the final court of appeal in matters of discipline.
Supporting text for this argument is 1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Corinthians 2.
What I do NOT dispute is that the Bible teaches a congregational form of government. I believe that the local church is autonomous (self-ruling). What is in dispute is whether the “final court of appeal” is the congregation itself or the elders/pastors of the church. For further understanding, I want to briefly summarize the three spheres of church polity:
- Episcopalian: This form of church government maintains that there are three legitimate church offices: bishop, presbyter (or rector of priests), and deacon. Bishops alone have authority to appoint other bishops, presbyters, and deacons. Denominations embracing this form of government would include Roman Catholics, Methodist, Anglican, and Orthodox.
- Presbyterian: The local church is governed by the session, which is composed of ruling elders elected by the membership, with the teaching elder or minister as presiding officer. The next highest- ranking body is the Presbytery, which includes all the ordained ministers or teaching elders and one ruling elder from each local congregation in a given district. Above the presbytery is the synod, and over the synod is the general assembly, the highest court. Denominations using this from include Presbyterians and Reformed.
- Congregational: The ultimate authority for each local church resides within that church; each church is completely autonomous. These denominations would include Congregational, Baptist, Mennonite, Evangelical Free, and Independents.
Now within each of these spheres, there are various ways churches have structured their government. Within the congregational sphere (which I embrace), there are several different approaches:
- Single pastor/elder: some describe as a monarchical episcopacy
- Corporate board: like many deacon boards function
- Pure democracy: congregation votes on everything
- “Holy Spirit” rule: really scary system
- Plurality of elders: group of leaders who rule the church
Mark Dever and many other pastors would subscribe to the single pastor/elder structure, while I am more convinced of a plurality of elders. In addition, Mark would describe the congregation as the final court of appeals whereas I would say the pastors/elders are the final court of appeals.
Now, I’ll try to contrast the two positions. See what you think is more biblically based. I’ll refer to “Congregation as final court of appeal” as position A. “Pastor/Elders as the final court of appeal” will be position B.
To be fair, I should say that in one sense, the two positions are not that far apart. Both positions would hold to roles for both pastor/elder and congregation within the church. Mark Dever (A) certainly believes that the pastor/elder has a tremendously important role in the church; however, he gives final authority to the congregation. In my position (B), I certainly see the involvement of the congregation in church government, specifically in the matters of brotherly dispute or discipline (Matthew 18:15-17; Acts 14:23; Acts 15:22). However, I maintain that the elders/pastors carry the final authority.
Since I have taken the burden of proof on myself, here is the biblical evidence I would submit for the pastor/elder as the “final court of appeal.” To accomplish this, I want to briefly survey the use of the biblical words for pastor in New Testament. Each, I think, contributes to a proper understanding of who an elder/pastor is, what he is to do, and how he is to fulfill his responsibilities.
The first term is presbuteros, the word we translate “elder.” This title refers to who a pastor/elder is. The term is used in two primary ways in the New Testament: (1) to describe an older man or (2) to designate a community official. Twenty-eight times in the Gospels and Acts it refers to the members of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Twelve times in Revelation it identifies the 24 elders—representatives of the redeemed people of God. Nineteen times in Acts and the Epistles it identifies a unique group of leaders in the church.
The second term is episcopos, the word we translate “bishop” or “overseer.” This title refers to what a pastor/elder does. It is a common word for an office holder in the Greek culture. It is used of secular officials of various kinds, especially local officials or any official who acted as a superintendent, manager, controller, or ruler. The Septuagint uses the word for army officers (Num. 31:14), tabernacle administrators (Num. 4:16), supervisors of the temple repair (2 Chron. 24:12, 17), temple guardians (2 Kings 11:18), and a city supervisor or mayor (Neh. 11:9). It occurs only five times in New Testament: one time of Christ (1 Pet. 2:25) and four times of church leaders; it is especially used for Gentile congregations such as Ephesus. It is a general word like supervisor, manager, or guardian.
1 Timothy 5:17 develops the idea of overseer even further. The word “rules” means “to put before,” “to set over,” or “to rule”; it is also translated:
- “Leads” (Rom. 12:8); refers to the gift of administration
- “Manages” (1 Tim. 3:4–5); refers to an elder’s oversight of his “household”
- “Managers” (1 Tim. 3:12); refers to a deacon’s managing of his “children” and “household”
The word “especially” is used 12 times in the New Testament. This Greek word occurs eight times in Paul’s epistles. Every time Paul uses this word, what follows it is a subset of what has come before. (Gal. 6:10; Phil. 4:22; 1 Tim. 4:10; 5:8, 17; 2 Tim. 4:13; Tit. 1:10; Philem. 1:16)
So, In 1 Timothy 5:17 the point is:
- All elders are supposed to “rule.”
- Some elders rule particularly well (kalos).
- While all elders are to be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2), some work hard at preaching and teaching; the implication is that some elders have greater teaching responsibilities, probably because of superior gifts.
The third term is poimen, the word translate “pastor” or “shepherd.” This title refer to how a pastor/elder leads (by protecting). The noun form occurs 18 times in the New Testament. It is used of:
- Actual shepherds; keepers of animals
- Christ (e.g., Heb. 13:20–21; 1 Pet. 2:25)
- Only one time of church leaders; translated “pastor” in English versions (Eph. 4:11)—“pastor-teachers”
The Greek construction puts the two words together. And means “that is” or “in particular,” so teacher becomes explanatory of pastors. The word emphasizes the shepherd’s primary role: teaching or feeding the sheep. The verb form is used three times in context of the church’s leaders.
- John 21:16—Christ demanded that Peter shepherd His sheep.
- Acts 20:28—Paul reminds the Ephesian elders that they are to shepherd the church.
- 1 Pet. 5:1a, 2a—Peter charged the elders scattered across Asia Minor to shepherd the flock of God.
The first three centuries had a strong agrarian mindset. During the Reformation, the term “pastor” was popularized as a reaction to the “priest” or “bishop.” It probably was never intended to be a title but rather a description of what an elder does.
One final passage to consider is Hebrews 13:17, which states: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.”
While the congregation is certainly involved in matters where the Bible prescribes, it seems to be more of an affirming role, rather than a determinative role. The teaching and example of the New Testament, from my study, is that the shepherds rule the sheep. The sheep obey the shepherds. The shepherds are responsible for the sheep and will give an account for the sheep. In my opinion, many good churches have allowed the governmental models of democracy and representation to permeate the local church. That is why so many of our deacons function as ruling boards rather than the servants they are instructed to be. While it may seem very “American” to insist on majority rule, the reality is that in many of our churches the majority are not the spiritually mature. God gave very specific qualification for pastors/elders to ensure that they would generally make wise, spiritually mature decisions.
Now, obviously, if a leader teacher error, he must be put out of the congregation, disciplined as the Bible instructs. A leader should be gentle and loving, an imitation of the Good Shepherd (Psalm 23), who leads by still waters and offers rest in green pastures, who directs down paths of righteousness. A ruling pastor/elder who is more of a dictator or maverick will not do for the church of Jesus Christ. One who sows discord or confusion among the sheep needs to turn in his shepherd’s staff. A good shepherd will give his life for his sheep, will know them by name, will be eagerly followed by his growing and dependent flock. Such is the leader I desire to be. Such is the leader God wants me to be.
Tomado de… Bowing Down