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New Testament Church Government
"And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him" (Col. 3:17). This verse should constitute every Christian's marching orders. Further, neither can a congregation hope to please God by ignoring this divine exhortation. Therefore, with Colossians 3:17 in mind, consider "New Testament Church Government" from a perspective not typically examined, but important nevertheless.
Jesus Christ Is The Head Of His Church
Jesus has all authority in heaven and in earth (Matt. 28:18 ASV). By this authority Jesus exercises himself as head of the church and king of the kingdom (Matt. 16:16-19; Eph. 1:22-23; Col. 1:18; 1 Cor. 15:24-28; John 1:49; 12:13; 18:36, 37; Eph. 5:5; Col. 1:13; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:15; Rev. 1:9). Jesus rules his everlasting kingdom (2 Pet. 1:11) from heaven (Eph. 1:20; Acts 7:55; 2 Tim. 4:18), today through His Word (John 12:48; Rev. 20:12-15) and will continue to rule until the end of time (1 Cor. 15:24). Therefore, Jesus is now ruling his church (e.g., church government) indirectly from heaven through the Gospel and what the Gospel authorizes (e.g., visible forms of church government).
First Visible, Earthly Church Government: Apostles (Acts 6:1-4)
In the Jerusalem church of nearly 2,000 years ago, the apostles pre-occupied themselves with proclaiming the Word of God (vss 2, 4). Therefore, the apostles authorized the appointment of men (whose duties resemble the assignments typically given to deacons; vss 3, 6) to attend to the matter at hand, thereby permitting the apostles to continue uninterrupted in preaching and teaching.
Those who make rules are rulers; since the apostles made a rule in this context, they were rulers. Although the apostles had a position of responsibility that was brotherhood wide or actually worldwide (Acts 13:47; 9:15; 22:15; 26:16-17), the context of Acts Chapter Six pertains exclusively to the church in Jerusalem. So, Acts Chapter Six is a history of church government in a local congregation.
However, there are no present day apostles (there were only 14); death alone was not reason enough to appoint a replacement apostle (Acts 12:1-2). Further, the signs of an apostle have ceased (2 Cor. 12:12; 1 Cor. 13:8-13; Eph. 4:11-13), and the qualifications of an apostle (chief of which was having seen the resurrected Christ, Acts 9:17; 26:16) cannot be met today (Acts 1:20-22).
Further, the original apostles still serve in essence and wield an influence on the church through the pages of inspiration (Matt. 19:27-28). The very books that they penned affect all who read and apply them. Therefore, apostles is not the present form of government for the New Testament church.
Second Visible, Earthly Church Government: Adult Male Members
Initially, no mention of elders is made in the church in Jerusalem. Elders are first observed in Scripture in Jerusalem after some time passed since the establishment of the church (Acts 11:30). Also, it appears that no elders were appointed in the initial part of Paul's first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-14:21), but that perhaps a year (according to Clarke) after new churches were established, Paul ordained elders in those churches, at the close of that missionary journey (Acts 14:21-23).
Previous to the appointment of elders in the areas of Paul's first missionary tour, in Acts 14:23, brethren were simply referred to as disciples (Acts 13:52; 14:20), whereas in the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:30; 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23; 16:4; 21:18) and later in the Book of Acts (Acts 20:17) and some of the epistles, elders are addressed separately (Eph. 4:11; Phil. 1:1; Jam. 5:14; 1 Pet. 1:5). Also, apparently churches were established on the Island of Crete that were for a time without elders. Titus was instructed to appoint elders in the churches (Titus 1:5).
In the absence of elders, lacking qualified men due to the newness of the conversion of a congregation's members and the newness of the church itself, congregations functioned for a time without elders. Likewise, today, under similar circumstances, or even should an established work not have qualified men, congregations may have to function for a time without elders. Without elders, congregations of the first century or in our own century, therefore, are authorized to function until qualified men can be appointed.
Since women are restricted from public service in the church over men (1 Tim. 2:11-15; 1 Cor. 14:34-35), women, though, are not authorized to participate in the government of a local congregation. Since believers were identified as men and women (rather than inclusive of children) (Acts 5:14; 8:3, 12; 9:2; 17:4, 12; 22:4), neither are children authorized to participate in the government of a local congregation. Since an individual man is prohibited from governing the church (3 John 9), and because the only plurality of men less than all the male members allowed to rule the church are elders (Acts 14:23; 11:30), and since obviously civil government has no part in governing the spiritual kingdom of God (John 18:36; Acts 5:29), none of these are biblically authorized to govern the Lord's church. Therefore, without men qualified and appointed to be elders, all the male adult members are responsible for the function of a local congregation (until men become qualified to be appointed as elders).
Third Visible, Earthly Church Government: Elders
Those who would be elders must meet divine qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9). Elders are always addressed as a plural number (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2; 20:17; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 5:17; Titus 1:5; Jam. 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1). The New Testament plainly and unmistakably teaches that God desires that elders govern a local congregation under the authority of Jesus Christ, the chief Elder/Bishop/Shepherd (1 Pet. 2:25; 5:4). When a congregation is governed by duly appointed, biblically qualified elders, Jesus Christ is enabled to most effectively govern that congregation, though he resides in heaven. The goal of every congregation should be the installation of this biblical form of church government. However, in the interim, a congregation is biblically authorized to function without elders, governed by the faithful, adult, male members.