Our Concern with Biblical Church Governance

Article by

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

We are studying the New Testament teaching about the church on Sunday evenings. We are focusing now on the structure and offices of the church. On Sunday, March 1, I argued from the New Testament that there were two ongoing offices in the New Testament church for the management and care of the church: elders and deacons. In addition, I tried to show that elders are also called “pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11) and “bishops” or “overseers” (Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:5,7; 1 Timothy 3:1; Acts 20:17, 28). There is no church in the New Testament with only one “elder” (= pastor/bishop/overseer). Moreover, elders and deacons have distinct functions: elders, governing and teaching; deacons, assisting with the manifold needs of the people. Both take their cue from the Lord: “Let the leader be as one who serves” (Luke 22:26).

I suggested last week that Bethlehem seriously reexamine its structure and offices. Here are the reasons I gave:

1) We could be structured in a way more closely conforming to the normal New Testament pattern (“Paul appointed elders in all the churches,” Acts 14:23).

2) We need to clarify the role of our deacons. Are they elders in the New Testament sense, or are they deacons? Right now they seem to be a hybrid as the “governing” board and yet with the name “deacons.” And who are the “staff” in the New Testament understanding of things? Are we the “elders”? If so, how do we fit into the governing structure of the church? There is much confusion that keeps deacons, committees, boards and staff from finding ourselves and our roles in the New Testament.

3) We need to clarify the role of women in relation to the diaconate. Why are there deaconesses? How do they relate to the deacons? Could it be that by investing the deacons with “elder” roles at Bethlehem, we have isolated women from the very role (deacon) where they should flourish?

4) We need to provide more thorough care for hurting members and more consistent discipline for delinquent members. That this is not done as well as it should be is owing partly to the confusion of roles. Who is responsible, biblically, for this church-wide care of 1,000 people and for following through on disciplinary procedures?

5) We need to develop an ongoing leadership team (elders) where the theological distinctives, the philosophy of ministry, and the vision of the future can be rooted more durably than in the paid “staff.” The church should not be dependent on a few paid staff as the guardians of the vision.

I commend these things to you for your prayer and study. The material from Sunday evening will be available in the sermon file cabinets.

Searching the Scriptures with you,

Pastor John