Two Necessary Principles for Church Government

Contentious times prevail in our country and the various churches in the United States.  There is no order or harmony in civil government or church government. Both have a constitution but the state does not follow the secular constitution and particular churches do not follow the sacred constitution.  My primary concern is the malicious mistreatment of the sacred constitution, commonly known as the Bible.

I believe in God!  I believe in Jesus Christ!  I believe the Bible teaches predestination! All these are familiar assertions frequently heard from the lips of Christians everywhere.  Muslims and Christians believe in God, but which God.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church) and the Methodist Church believe in Jesus Christ, but which Jesus Christ.  Baptists and Presbyterians believe in predestination, but which view of predestination.

Theological liberals have accused theological conservatives with divisiveness because of doctrine.  In fact the war cry of the liberals during the middle of the 20th century was “doctrine divides, service unites.”  They were wrong.  However, I grant that the spirit of the postmodern age opens the door for a form of neo-ecumenism.  Doctrine no longer divides because the legitimacy and credibility of a creed has become personal relative among many creedal and confessional churches.  (Denial will not ease the pain of this truth.)  Every branch of the church has been touched by postmodern theory, to a greater or lesser degree.

What kind of church and confession are we passing on to our offspring?  If churches follow their current neo-ecumenical course, there will be no doctrinal distinctions.  Everyone will do what is right in his own eyes and loudly proclaim that “we must agree to disagree.”  It is not possible to agree to disagree. It will not stand the test  of logic and intelligent discourse.  It is possible to say that one or the other is wrong and maybe both are wrong.  To agree to disagree is to fan the fire of ecumenism.  It will destroy the church by deception.  We should all remember that Jesus called some churches “synagogues of Satan” because they had a false profession (Revelation 3:9).  The only protection the church has from “false professions” is the biblical form of church government. God designed the government of the church to protect it from false doctrine and promote order and harmony.

The reason that various denominations have so many different gospels and so many different doctrines can be found in the fact that although they may have one common creed, they have an unbiblical form of church government. Churches everywhere seem to have forgotten that God is the governor of the Universe.  The Word of God in the Book of Psalms declares,  “The Lord has established His throne in heaven, and His kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19).  God’s government must be the factor that determines church government.  Common law and humanly devised statute law is not sufficient to rule God’s kingdom.

This generation of God’s people is past due on their responsibility to call the entire church to task on the very issue that has divided the church.  What has divided the church?  Is it the doctrine of God’s saving grace?  Is it the doctrine of God’s holiness and man’s responsibility?  Is it over the consummation of all things?  No, the church is divided over the government of His church.

Since we believe the gospel and we believe that born again sinners need to hear the gospel, then it would seem normal and sensible for God to give us the means to preach and teach the gospel and for that matter preach and teach the whole counsel of God.  However, the condition necessary for the church to determine who has the right and authority to decide which gospel is the right gospel and which doctrine is the right doctrine is biblical church government.

The reason the church is divided and the reason there are so many denominations is they have not determined who has the right and who has the authority to settle a controversy in the church.

Paul faced the same dilemma in his day as we face today.  There were two different versions of the gospel.  In Acts 15 “some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue (Acts 15:1,2).  According to one gospel salvation is by grace through faith in Christ.  The other gospel taught salvation by grace through faith in Christ plus the necessity of circumcision according to the custom of Moses.  Please notice that Luke brings to our attention the fact that the brethren were the subjects placed under the duplicity of doctrine.

If they are brethren, they should have every desire to settle the controversy.   A brother implies kinship, a covenant relationship and therefore a unity of doctrine should be the norm.  Instead the church was divided over the question of keeping the law of God for the salvation of the soul.  Brethren are sinners and subject to disagree and find themselves on the opposite end of some doctrine, but the Bible makes it clear that Paul could not live with two different gospels.  Neither did Paul seek the advice of two church courts.  If they were brethren it would seem that they would be willing to discuss the controversy and come to unanimous decision (See Acts 15).

The Governor of the universe gave two principles so His people could establish the biblical form of church government.  The first principle is the Word of Truth.  This principle calls for constitutional government.   John Calvin recognized this principle in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Under the heading “necessity of church constitutions Calvin said, “many unlettered persons, when they are told that men’s consciences are impiously bound by human traditions, and God is worshipped in vain, apply the same erasure to all the laws by which the order of the church is shaped” (Institutes 4.10.27).  He is right because man-centered worship tends to replace God-centered worship.  The same principle applies to the government of the church.  Calvin continues:  “Yet since such diversity exists in the customs of men, such variety in their minds, such conflicts in their judgments and dispositions, no organization, is sufficiently strong unless constituted with definite laws…Therefore…when churches are deprived of them, their very sinews disintegrate and they are wholly deformed and scattered” (Institutes 4.10.27).

God regulates the manner in which the church must be governed.  When the church is deprived of God’s regulation and God’s constitution of church government, then the church is deprived of God’s government. At the present time the evangelical church has not agreed on the doctrine of God’s government.  The prophet Amos left a masterpiece for the New Testament church.  “Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?” (Amos 3:3).

God’s government is constitutional.  However, the contemporary church has heard little if any about God’s plan for constitutional church government.  There is a tendency to ignore the principles of God’s government as unimportant to the congregation.

The government of the church is under the supreme headship of Jesus Christ. It is well known that there must proceed from the headship of Christ a particular form of church government. The government of the church is not merely an optional stand in for modernity’s managerialism.   The principles of church government must be founded upon the Word of God. Jonathan Edwards, although a Congregationalist, said to the Scottish Presbyterian minister, Ebenezer Erskine, that “as to the Presbyterian government, I have long been perfectly out of conceit of our unsettled, independent, confused way of church government in this land; and the Presbyterian way has ever appeared to me most agreeable to the Word of God, and the reason and nature of things” (The Works of J. Edwards, Hickman ed., vol. 1, page cxxi). It is true that many in the history of the church understood that the guiding principles in Scripture demand a representative form of church government.  Edwards like so many more seemed content with what they viewed as an acceptable form of church government, thus denying the ultimate authority given to the elders by the Lord Jesus Christ.  The spiritual government of the church is not merely pragmatic or utilitarian. The government of the church is the source of order and authority for the church to carry out its mission.  The church cannot carry out its mission of making disciples without sound biblical God appointed church government.

The second principle God gave His people to establish a biblical form of church government is “rule by order.”  The elders in the Old Testament ruled by order, according to God’s law (See Exodus 18).  The elders made binding decisions.  The fashionable “thou shalt not judge” is not God’s plan to settle matters of doctrine and practice.  In the Old Testament judgment was the work of the elders at the gate.  In the New Testament judgment is the work of elders who come together as representatives of the church.  The immediate thought and words of any Christian is “what about the sinfulness of all men, including the elders.”  True, but the elders were men who had been set aside according to God’s constitution.  In the Old Testament the qualifications for the elders was not merely old age.  God’s constitution says they must be “able men, such as fear God, men of truth, [and] hating covetousness.”  In the New Testament the qualifications are more specific than the general qualifications found in the Old Testament.  The elders make vows thus calling them to account for the purpose of judicious adjudication of all matters pertaining to doctrine and practice.  Therefore care must be taken in the selection and ordination of elders.  If the elders are ungodly, unruly, and ill equipped, then their decisions will be ungodly, unruly, and deficient of God’s constitutional government.  A number of ungodly men making ungodly decisions are not the biblical form of church government found in Scripture.

The most prominent example of biblical church government previously referred to is found in Acts chapter fifteen.  The decision of the court was in agreement with the Word of God.  Since the representatives of the court were under constraint to judge justly, they could not possibly disagree with the Word of God.  When a decision is contradictory to the Word of God, then the constitutional principle was abused or ignored.   An ungodly decision does not come from a godly church court.  Furthermore godly people must not obey an ungodly decision.  Until local particular churches decide to obey the biblical principles, there will be no peace and harmony in the visible universal church. Start a reformation in your local church.

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