Biblical Church Government, Part 1

By Phillip G. Kayser · 1 Peter 5:1-5 · 9/14/2003

Introduction: Who cares? What difference does it make?

One of the topics that is almost never preached on is the doctrine of church government. And it's really unfortunate, because it is an incredibly practical and very exciting doctrine once you understand it. What you believe (or even what you neglect to understand) about church authority profoundly affects your view of family. And there are many reasons for this, but just one obvious one is that most American churches rob the family of their privileges, responsibilities and rights. And most people don't even realize it because they are used to big church government. It also profoundly affects your view of civil government, as we will see shortly. But it affects our views of self-government as well. Big church government is just as stifling to initiative and self-government as big civil government is.

When people say about the doctrine of ecclesiology (or the doctrine of the church), "Who cares?" they are betraying a total ignorance of the history of freedom in the West. At the Witherspoon Institute of Law and Public Policy, Joe Morecraft said:

It is not by coincidence that the freest countries this world has known were religiously Presbyterian at their founding. It's not by coincidence that with the loss of representative republican churches there has been a loss of freedoms in our nation. King Charles Stuart I extended his tyranny over church and state and it was called the Episcopal War. The War for Independence was called the Presbyterian Rebellion.

I think you will see as we go through the sermon, that much of modern Presbyterianism has wandered far afield from the Presbyterianism of the 1700s. And such changes in church government have a profound impact upon how people think – sometimes unconsciously and sometimes very self-consciously.

Over the last two weeks I have used early America as a backdrop for the limits of civil government and the qualifications for civil rulers. But what I failed to mention to you was that the founding fathers of our nation – even the ones who were not Presbyterian, agreed that the Presbyterian principles of church government were the best adapted to civil government in America. Some may have done it out of pure pragmatism, but others believed that the Bible itself mandated theocratic republican church government (in other words, Presbyterian church government). John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was also a College Professor who had trained many of the founding fathers in the Presbyterian principles like enumerated, delegated, limited and reserved powers. That was standard Presbyterian doctrine, and it ran totally contrary to the ecclesiology of many of the other denominations.

And you might wonder how boring doctrines like Presbyterian church government could have framed the thinking of so many founders. There were many factors that led to it. One was that at least 1/6th of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were directly taught by the Presbyterian minister – John Witherspoon. John Eidsmoe says, "John Witherspoon is best described as the man who shaped the men who shaped America. Although he did not attend the Constitutional Convention, his influence was multiplied many times over by those who spoke as well as by what was said." Witherspoon trained 478 influential leaders in America. And his students who were present at the Convention argued convincingly for many principles of Presbyterian Republicanism to be included in the Constitution.

A second factor is that most of the key principles in the Declaration of Independence were copied from the Mecklenburg Declaration, a declaration crafted about a year earlier by some Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. It was their own document of secession from England. And that covenantal document framed the way the Declaration of Independence was written. You cannot understand either document apart from the concepts of Divine Right Presbyterianism. It makes no sense whatsoever in the context of Anglicanism, Romanism, Methodism. It does make a little sense in light of Congregationalism since they borrowed many of their views of the local church from the Presbyterians, but even there, it left out some.

A third factor is that most of the American population was either thoroughly Presbyterian, or at least (in the case of Congregationalists) Presbyterian in their views of local church government. Many Anglicans in America were not divine right Anglicans. It was more pragmatic and they were open to borrowing these principles if they were open to Independence. Dr. Loraine Boettner said, "It is estimated that of the 3,000,000 Americans at the time of the American Revolution [and by the way, the US Census Bureau says that it was 2.2 million who were living then, but we will take his higher figure. So let me read that again: "It is estimated that of the 3,000,000 Americans at the time of the American Revolution"], 900,000 were of Scotch or Scotch-Irish origin [mostly Presbyterians], 600,000 were Puritan English [remember the Westminster Confession of Faith?], and 400,000 were German or Dutch Reformed." That's 63.3% of the population that were either thorough going Presbyterians or were Presbyterian in their form of the local church. And then he lists some French Huguenots who were also Presbyterian. So estimates are between 64% and 86% who were at least familiar with the Presbyterian views of the local church. That is bound to affect a culture.

A fourth factor was that virtually every American that went to school was trained not only in the Shorter Catechism, but many had to memorize the Westminster Confession and the Larger Catechism. And just to give you a little perspective, let me give you some fun statistics that have been uncovered. In the years right before the Revolution there were 5 million copies of the Shorter Catechism that had been printed and sold with only a population of somewhere between 2.2 and 2.9 million people (if the census Bureau is correct, it is 2.2 million). That means there were two copies of the Shorter Catechism for every man, woman and child in the country. And part of the reason is that memorization of the Shorter Catechism was mandatory in almost every school in the nation, and homeschoolers were bought up on these catechisms as well.

Richard Gardiner said of many schools, "Their curriculum included memorization of the Westminster Confession and the Westminster Larger Catechism. There was not a person at Independence Hall in 1776 who had not been exposed to it, and most of them had it spoon fed to them before they could walk."

And so, if you look at the back of your worship notes, you will see some rather surprising quotations. I'm not going to read all of them. But look at the third quote down.

"These revolutionary principles of republican liberty and self-government, taught and embodied in the system of Calvin, were brought to America, and in this new land where they have borne so mighty a harvest were planted by … the hands of the Calvinists. The vital relation of Calvin and Calvinism to the founding of the free institutions of America, however strange in some ears the statement of Ranke may have sounded, is recognized and affirmed by historians of all lands and creeds." (Dr. E. W. Smith)

He is saying that Calvin's views (which were Presbyterian) were vital to the framing of our free institutions. The quote of the German historian Leopold von Ranke that he referred to is the next quote:

"John Calvin was the virtual founder of America." (Leopold van Ranke)

That's pretty strong words. And by the way, secular historians have pointed out that Calvin's influence was not just on politics, but economics, the court system and education. It wasn't just Calvin's Presbyterianism, but also his world-view in other areas as well. Look at the quote by D'Aubigne.

"Calvin was the founder of the greatest of republics… [The] American nation which we have seen growing so rapidly boasts as its father the humble Reformer on the shore of Lake Leman." (D'Aubigne)

The historian George Bancroft said,

"[Calvin is] the father of America… He who will not honor the memory and respect the influence of Calvin knows little of the origin of American liberty." (George Bancroft)

And unfortunately, most American Christians know very little of the impact Calvin's views had on America. Timothy Terrell recently said,

"The influence that the colonial churches, especially Presbyterian churches, exerted before and during the war was more than circumstantial; it was decisive." (Timothy Terrell)

Another Boettner quote:

"So intense, universal and aggressive were the Presbyterians in their zeal for liberty that the war was spoken of in England as 'The Presbyterian Rebellion.'" (Lorraine Boettner)

And so it's no wonder then that King George III called the Revolution "the Presbyterian parson's war."

The second president of the United States, John Adams, wrote the book, Liberty of Conscience Traced Back to Calvin's Geneva. This was common knowledge. The idea of limited, delegated powers was unknown except in Presbyterian dominated countries like Switzerland, Scotland and America. Where would you go to find the idea of enumerated powers in a Constitution? You would look to the Reformed Creeds and their Books of Church Order. Churches couldn't do just anything they wanted to do. They were ruled by a Constitution, which could be amended if the amendments could be shown to be Biblical.

Where did the idea that the powers not enumerated in the constitution to the federal government were reserved to the states or the people? It was from Presbyterianism. Presbyterians did not want a highly centralized General Assembly, and they said that ecclesiastical powers primarily rested in the congregations, and those powers that were not explicitly given to the GA or Presbytery were reserved to the local congregations or to the people. And they added the phrase "or to the people" because in Presbyterianism, the local congregations only had those powers which the bible explicitly gave. They were so clear on that. And so all Presbyterian churches in the 1700's were by definition family integrated churches. Now I already gave an extended sermon on how the family integration aspect works. They would have rolled over in their graves to see the high centralization of power in the mainline Presbyterian churches, and even some of the things that our own denomination does. So for those who say, "Who cares?" or "So what?", hopefully you have plenty of reasons to care this morning. Church government is a practical doctrine.

Types of Church Government

Grouped by types of authority of its officers

I am going to try to make this subject as easy to understand as I can, which has the danger of being a bit simplistic. In fact, today we are only going to get to sub-sub-point a) under Theocratic republics. So we are barely going to get into the outline. In fact, I doubt that I am going to preach on most of the things in this outline, unless I get plenty of requests. I hope to finish up next week and focus most of my attention on Roman numeral II. But we'll see. For today, I think it would be helpful if we examined what the options are.

What I have done under point A is to group types of churches by comparing them to four types of civil government. And this really brings to the surface the type of authority that each one wields. As we examine these types of government, I think you will recognize that each one does capture certain Biblical truths. A Biblical republic takes the best principles of democracy, monarchy and oligarchy, and combines them into a form of limited government that produces the ultimate in liberty. And you can read that in the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist papers. So older writers sometimes called that form of government a theocratic republic, whether it was found in the church or in the state.

Benevolent Dictatorships (Many independent churches, some parachurch ministries, World Wide Church of God, Roman Catholic, etc.)

The first of those four types of civil authority could be called a benevolent dictatorship. In civil government, these sometimes work very well. I can think of Oliver Cromwell who was opposed to monarchy, but because of the corruption in Parliament, finally banished the Parliament and ruled as a kind of dictator. And yet his rule was incredibly enlightened, and England enjoyed a fair degree of peace and prosperity. He did persecute us Presbyterians, but overall he was a pretty nice guy. I like Cromwell. I just wouldn't want to go back to live under his reign.

And I bring him up as an example because it may seem unfair to characterize many prominent evangelical ministries as being benevolent dictatorships. In doing so, I am not saying that God does not use these churches and bless them. There are some fine, fine churches that operate as dictatorships where the pastor is utterly unaccountable to anyone, or where the head of the parachurch ministry calls all the shots, or where there is a head bishop or charismatic leader over a denomination. One of my favorite churches growing up was clearly a dictatorship. If the board members that the pastor selected didn't do what he said, he kicked them off the board. Even as a child I thought that was kind of strange. They were rubber stamps. And yet he had an incredible ministry. But there are real pitfalls in that kind of a church, whether it is simply an independent church where the pastor is the benevolent dictator, or whether it is an evangelical denomination where the head bishop is acting as a benevolent dictator. In such situations the head person is not accountable, he can run roughshod over the desires of the congregation. In Episcopal congregations there are frequently situations where a pastor who is well loved by the congregation is forced by a bishop to go to another congregation, and the continuity of ministry is destroyed. But those really aren't the key problems. The key is not that there is one individual heading up a ministry, but whether that individual is accountable. The real question is, "Are all authorities under authority?" And we would say, "Yes. They must be."

Well, what does the bible say? These benevolent dictatorships will often appeal to the fact that every ministry God has ever established in the Bible has always been established and led by one individual. And that's true. They point out that in the Bible, vision casting is by an individual and that God holds individuals accountable for their ministry. They point to individuals in the Old Testament, or to individuals like Titus, Timothy and the apostle Paul who clearly had initiative in their leading. And I don't disagree with that. I have no problem with individuals heading up ministries if they are accountable to the elders. In fact, one of the worst things you can do is to run every ministry in a church by committees. In this church we have one person who heads up the Dominion Resource Center, and who has a check book, but who is accountable. We have one person who heads up the Bookstore, another who runs Technical Support, etc. But they are all accountable. And I am accountable for everything that I do to elders appointed by Presbytery until such time as I get a board of elders. In fact, at the time that elders are elected, you have to choose whether you want me to be your pastor. So we are not saying that micromanaging is a good alternative to dictatorship. That's a false dilemma that is sometimes presented. Beware of arguments that say, "Well, it's either this or its this." Many times there is a wonderful alternative in between.

What we are saying is that all leaders must be accountable, all must be subject to the church constitution, all must have limited powers. Let me repeat that again, because that is the heart of the issue here. What we are saying is that all leaders must be accountable (and dictators aren't accountable to anyone, are they? That is what has gotten the heads of many ministries and many churches into trouble.). Secondly, all must be subject to a constitution (dictators, if they have a constitution, have written it themselves and can change it themselves; that means its not a controlling document. Such a constitution has no power whatsoever to prevent tyranny.). And thirdly, all leaders must have limited powers. And in a dictatorship, unless he limits those powers himself (like Cromwell did), what are the limited powers? Even with Cromwell they changed according to his whim. All leaders must be accountable, all must be subject to a constitution, all must have limited powers.

If you look at the back of your worship notes you will notice that in the second quote even the apostle Paul says that there are limits to his authority. Now this is huge. If even the apostle has limits, then we can't use him as a good example of the dictatorship model, like some people do. Not at all. Paul said, "We, however, will not boast beyond measure, but within the limits of the sphere which God appointed us" [So he is recognizing that he has limits to his authority. He has a limited sphere within which he can operate, and that he cannot go outside of. "within the limits of the sphere which God appointed us] – "a sphere which especially includes you. For we are not overextending ourselves (as though our authority did not extend to you)" [which implies what? – that there was the possibility of overextending himself beyond the powers given to him if he was not careful. But he denied that he was overextending himself. Going on…] " not boasting of things beyond measure, that is, in other men's labors, but… in our sphere… not to boast in another man's sphere of accomplishment." (2 Cor. 10:13-16). And there are many other passages that indicate that even the apostles were not beyond accountability.

Now here is an interesting question? Who were the apostles accountable to? And the answer is, the elders. Elders rule, period. In Acts 13 it was the elders that commissioned Paul and Silas on their trip. But doesn't that contradict the fact that Christ directly called them as apostles? Apparently not. In Acts 13 they were accountable to the elders, as they were in Acts 15 and 21. When the apostle Paul in Acts 15 had the controversy with the Judaizers over circumcision in Antioch, he did not exercise authority independently. If there was any issue in which he could have, that would have been it. But he worked through the elders. And when he couldn't find resolution at the Presbytery of Antioch, he appealed to the broader Assembly of elders who traveled to Jerusalem to discuss the issue. That was a general Assembly. And he submitted to their decision. He does the same thing in Acts 21. The key issue is accountability. And if it was true of Paul, how much more so of each of us. We will get into the Presbyerian principles related to this next week and the practical ramifications. But for now, it is enough to know that while God can and has used dictators, it is neither Biblical nor safe to run a ministry in that way.

And by the way, the monarchies in Israel were limited monarchies with shared power between a lower and upper house of representatives. Just as our president does not have total powers, they did not. So don't think that David was a dictator. Israel was truly a republic, not a dictatorship, though many kings later became dictators and ignored the separation of powers, the constitution, etc.. And again, I bring these biblical principles up because each of these systems of government do have elements of truth. But those elements of truth become distorted when they are taken out of context; in this case, out of context of accountability and limited, enumerated powers.

Oligarchies (Many parachurch ministries; many cults; some evangelical denominations)

A second form of civil rule is an oligarchy. That is rule by a few unelected people. And when individuals in the ruling group die, they are sometimes replaced from loyal family members, or sometimes even from non-relatives who have proved loyal. But it is the committee that selects the replacements and it is self-perpetuating, and almost impossible to get into without showing total loyalty to the Oligarchy. So they are not elected representatives. They have the office by some other right. There were several ancient Greek oligarchies that you may have read about. Modern examples would be Indonesia and Singapore. Indonesia has the rule of "the one hundred families" (even though it varies from 90 some to 130 some). Most oligarchies though are just a small handful of people who rule.

And there are churches and parachurch ministries that are run by a self-perpetuating committee that truly are oligarchies in the technical sense of the word. They are self-appointed and self-perpetuating boards that are unaccountable. There are many cults that follow this method of leadership (Jehovah's Witnesses would be one example). But there are also some wonderful evangelical ministries, mission boards and denominations that are run by oligarchies. I would call them enlightened and benevolent oligarchies with a servant's heart. But there is no mistaking the fact that the authority rests in this oligarchy and there is no authority above the oligarchy to which people can appeal. Even the ones who have constitutions (which are rare) are written by the oligarchy and can be changed at any time. They are not controlling documents. Many of the older missions agencies were oligarchies, and some of them were downright tyrannical. They determined where the money from your supporters would go, and many times it wasn't to you. They determined when and where you ministered and whether you needed to go home or stay on the field. And the members of the oligarchy were on that committee till they died.

I would say that most modern parachurch or church oligarchies are pretty benevolent. Some people think of PDI being a monarchy with C. J. Mahaney being on the top, but I really think it is an oligarchy. They have an apostolic team that coaches and oversees congregations, and the 55 some churches are virtually clones of one another. So this tends to establish a uniformity across the entire denomination. Now I love PDI, and I think they have a lot of neat ministries. I respect them very much, but I worry about their lack of checks and balances in church government. Some charismatic denominations will have what they call an apostolic board – a board of self-perpetuating people to whom every congregation is accountable. Can it work? Yes. God does wonderful things through his people despite deficiencies. But there are major pitfalls in this form of government as well. One is that there are no checks and balances to tyranny. There is no court of appeal. There are no documents controlling the actions of the oligarchy.

Can they appeal to Scripture as well? Yes they can. They have shied away from the abuses of dictatorships, and point out that Biblical ministries were subject to a group of elders. And you might wonder how both can be right. We will see that in Presbyterianism both are right and both are wrong in some respects, but we will get to that in a moment. They will point out that three times in Hebrews 13 it speaks of a multiple number of people who ruled over that congregation: "…those who rule over you…" So there is a group of people in that congregation who have authority. Acts 14:23 says, "they had elders elected in every church." I want you to notice that the churches existed before the elders, but still, we would agree with the ideal. It says, "they had elders elected in every church." So there are multiple elders in each church. If you look under Theocratic Republics, you will recognize that this is principle number e). Acts 20:17 and Philippians 1:1 all spoke of more than one elder in a congregation, and until that was possible, Presbytery (which are representatives from many regional churches) gave oversight to individual pastors like Timothy and Titus and like me. Why? Because, as of yet, Titus did not have elders at his church. And Titus was charged to train and have elders elected. Other churches will point to the fact that Paul always had a team – what they call apostolic teams. In the multitude of counselors there is wisdom. So there is Scripture that they can appeal to.

And Presbyterians would agree with the need for elders either with a church or advising a church. But they would disagree with oligarchies on the following grounds: 1) They violate the biblical principles that we will look at next week of enumerated powers (without enumerated powers you have huge potential for tyranny by a few); 2) of limited powers (who limits the oligarchy); 3) of delegated powers (to whom are they accountable, and who delegated this authority to them?); and 4) of separation of powers (there is only one power in an oligarchy). Most oligarchies also violate principle number b) under Theocratic Republics because they don't have elected officers, which means that they don't have representative government.

Oligarchies can lead to tyranny just as surely as dictatorships can. There is no court of appeal. And let me tell you, if you are the one who is subject to church abuse (and there have been some horrible church abuses down through the years), you will be ever so glad for the right of appeal and for the limits of a constitutional theocratic republican church. In an oligarchy, what are the controlling constitutional documents? There are none. Keep in mind that even Paul's apostolic team was accountable not just to report, but to correct their actions in Acts 21 when the elders asked for correction. Paul spearheaded a correction of Peter before General Assembly. In Acts 15, when the Presbytery in Antioch did not settle the controversy that raged, they appealed to General Assembly. Sometimes people in a local area are too close to the problem to see objectively. So they appealed to a broader church court. The right of appeal is a central feature of Presbyterianism. And you just don't find it in Oligarchies or even in the next kind of church.

Democracies (Some baptist churches, some Independent churches)

A third form of government is a democracy where a people as a whole decide all the issues. If it's a 51% vote, then the 49% can kiss their liberties goodbye because there is no court of appeal. The congregational vote is the highest authority. There is no constitution and there is no higher authority than what the majority wants at even given time. And because the idea of democracy is so misunderstood, I want to spend a bit more time on this. Our politicians keep saying that our country is a democracy. And it is true that it has become much more of a democracy as various checks and balances have been removed. But it is not a democracy even now. It is a constitutional republic. And our founding fathers were even more opposed to pure democracy than they were to a monarchy. Let me read you some of the comments from the delegates who signed the constitution.

Alexander Hamilton said, "We are now forming a Republican form of government. Real liberty is not found in the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments. If we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy, or some other form of dictatorship."

In another place he said, "It had been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience had proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity."

James Madison said, "Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths." (Federalist #10)

And that's why Chief Justice John Marshall said, "Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos."

Even though church democracies are on a much smaller scale, and are thus easier to manage, anyone who has functioned at a congregational meeting where everything is decided by vote knows the contention over colors of carpet, the long hours, the frustrating inaction when decisive action is desperately needed, and the factions and caucusing behind doors that begins to happen. And among Christian groups there are various shades of democracy from pure democracy in older Quaker groups and some brethen where anyone can get up to speak and there really are no distinctions, to the more typical democracies where congregations not only vote for officers, but vote for budget, what color the curtains in the nursery should be, etc.

Can God use godly saints who function in a democracy? Absolutely, yes he can. And I know of many good Baptist, congregational, independent and denominational churches that are democracies. (By the way, not all Baptists follow a democracy. There are Reformed Baptist churches that have borrowed Presbyterian form of local church government. But in any case, God has powerfully used church democracies. I have good fellowship with such, but every time they describe why they are pulling out their hair, I thank God that we have a theocratic, constitutional republican form of government. It is so beautiful, and it gives such liberty.

They too can appeal to Scripture. In Acts 14:23 the means of getting elders is translated as "appointed" in the New King James, but literally means to elect by a lifting of hands. These democratic Baptists and independents will very rightly point out that this was the word that was used for voting in the Greek democracies. They voted by raising the hands. They will point out that in Acts 6:3 the whole congregation was commanded to seek out men for office, and in verse 5 it says, "And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen…" [etc.] Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Methodists and others do not elect their own officers. Officers are appointed by higher ups. But in both democracies and theocratic republics, we believe there is a clear cut case of the right to vote for representatives. But churches that hold to the democratic impulse assume that because the Greek model of electing officers was followed, that Greek democracy was adopted.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Republics like Israel elected representatives, and the representatives were required to rule, not according to their own desires and whims, and not according to the desires of the constituents who were lobbying, but according to the Constitution. There have been many American presidents and judges who have wished that the laws were different, but they ruled according to the Constitution and they put aside their own desires as well as the desires of their constituents.

And the same is true in the church. Nowhere in the bible do you see congregations voting for anything except officers. Once the officers are elected, you find the officers voting. Even though the congregation was present in Acts 15, they don't speak and they don't vote. It was the apostles and elders who voted. Wise elected officials will listen to their constituents, but if they are God-fearing, they will rule within their strict limits and according to the Bible. Otherwise you have the potential on a discipline case or anything else, the tyranny of the 51% majority imposing their whims on the 49% minority. The General Assembly of Acts 15 and Acts 21 were open assemblies in the sense that our GA is – visitors can observe anything. But the only ones who voted were the apostles and elders. That's representative government.

Theocratic Republics (Presbyterian, Reformed)

And by now we already kind of know what our theocratic republic looks like, just by comparing it to the others. In points a-g I give the seven principles of Presbyterianism, but those are identical to the seven principles governing officers in the synagogue system of the Old System. God never changed his mind on how the church should run. So I won't spend the time to go over the rest of page 1 of your outlines. Next week I hope to spend most of my time on Roman numeral II – the extent of church authority.

Christ is the only sovereign head of the church (Eph. 1:20-23; 5:23; Col. 1:18; 1 Pet. 5:2-4), and His Word alone can be the authority of the church

Children of God, I charge you to stand fast in the liberty by which Christ has made you free, and do not allow either church or state to usurp those authorities that God has trusted to you. I charge you to submit to the lawful powers of the church, but also to resist any incursions that the church may bring against your God given liberties. Christ alone is head of the family. Christ alone is head of the church. And Christ alone is head of the State. Let's keep those governments separate as jurisdictions. And may God restore our old liberties in our own generation. Amen.