Note: This report was received at the 1963 Conference. Every member of Conference was exhorted to study the material in preparation for the Adjourned Session scheduled to discuss whether or not the committee should write legislation based on this study. At the Adjourned Session a new committee was elected. They were not prepared to report to the 1964 Conference. The committee reported to the 1965 Conference with an alternate understanding of Church Government. The Chairman appoint a committee of six ordained men; three from the 1965 committee and three who are advocates of the 1963 report’s viewpoint. This committee of six was tasked to present a paper for annual conference 1966 in which will be set forth the areas of agreement. The report was presented at the 1966 Conference which harmonized the two viewpoints. The 1966 report was accepted and was tasked to write legislation on Church Government which including phasing out the role of District Superintendent. Legislation on Church Government was adopted and worked on at the 1967 Conference and Adjourned Session, the 1968 Conference, the 1969 Conference and Adjourned Session, the 1970 Conference, the 1971 Conference and Adjourned Session. At the 1972 Conference, there is Second Reading on some of the legislation and permission is given for it to be printed in the Articles of Faith and Form of Government.
Report of the Committee to
Study Church Government
[1963 Yearbook, pages 47-61]
In attempting to fulfill its responsibility to study Church government and to make recommendations to Annual Conference concerning the government of our denomination, this Committee has spent many hours in study and discussion. We have had many differences of opinion, but unitedly we seek that which is right and best for our Church. We submit the following report as a summation of principles found in the Scriptures concerning Church government. As the recommendations indicate we desire study and discussion of these matters by the Annual Conference prior to preparing final legislation.
I. Introduction: Why Have Biblical Church Government?
II. Biblical Principles Pertaining to Particular Church Government
III. Biblical Principles Pertaining to the Government of a Fellowship of Churches
IV. Some Implications of These Principles
I. Introduction: “Why Have Biblical Church Government?”
The Bible Fellowship Church professes to desire to be under the authority of Jesus Christ her Head. Christ has expressed His direction for His Church in the Scriptures.
We need Biblical Church government because (1) Our Church is not ours but Christ’s, (2) Christ has expressed His will for His people in Scripture and (3) Scripture includes some statements on faith and conduct including some teaching on organization.
We will have problems if we do not desire Biblical Church government. Some of these are: (1) that we will have no objective standard by which to determine if our government is the best for us, (2) that we will have to decide where to stop laying aside the teaching of Scripture if we lay it aside here, (3) that by a pragmatic approach of adopting a system that seems to work best now we may be creating problems for the future, (4) that by not seeking to know the will of God as fully as we might we may miss part of God’s blessing.
If we are to have Biblical Church government, we must decide what we believe the Bible teaches on this subject. We submit the following as a summary of Biblical principles as we understand them.
II. Biblical Principles Pertaining to Particular Church Government
A. The Source of Particular Church Authority
The source of authority in the particular Church is Christ the Head of the Church. No office bearer in the Church has authority in himself, his authority is delegated authority – given by and exercised for Christ (I Cor.12; Rom. 12; 1 Peter 4:10f). Christ as Head of the Church has chosen to exercise His authority through men chosen by Himself and elected by the people of the particular Church (Acts 14:23; I Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Those so chosen to rule the particular Church as Christ’s undershepherds are termed elders/bishops in the N. T. They are responsible to Christ primarily and to the congregation secondarily (Heb. 13:7, 17, 24).
The officers of the Church on earth are ruling elders, teaching elders and deacons. Christ, as prophet, priest and king to the church, has been given all authority in heaven on earth and in the church (Col. 1:15-18). Thus He is the source of all authority. This fact can easily be overlooked and given little more than lip service and theoretical recognition, or it can be a guiding principle in formulating Church order.
B. The Nature of Particular Church Authority
The authority of Christ is conveyed to men who are termed elders/bishops. Since it is conveyed directly from Christ to men, it is proper to refer to this authority as “primary authority,” “direct authority.” This is in contrast with the authority vested in assemblies (Acts 15 for example) which is “secondary authority,” “derived authority” – authority derived from the particular church elders who convey to the assemblies any authority they possess, for there is no higher permanent office or authority in the N. T. Church than that of elders/bishops.
The authority of the particular Church can be referred to in the following ways:
1. It is spiritual authority – it concerns things spiritual, not juridical.
2. It is primary authority – it is received directly from Christ not indirectly.
3. It is general authority – it is not limited as is the authority of major assemblies.
The authority of the particular Church is ministerial and declarative, moral and spiritual. Nowhere is the Church vested with any other authority. Neither is this authority derived from some federation, union or assembly; it is directly from Christ Himself. For this reason it is called primary authority. The particular Church does not get its authority from the denomination but the converse.
Thus there is a real sense in which each particular Church can be referred to as autonomous. Each particular Church has all that is essential to a church – the preaching; of the Word, the observance of the ordinances, the oversight by duly elected elders and the exercise of discipline. Christ is the Head of each particular Church as well as the Church universal. Each particular Church, regardless of size, wealth or circumstance, is equipped with all that is essential to its government. In Christ it possesses the fulness of the body; it is a church.
C. The Bestowal of Authority
This has been alluded to above. The authority of Christ is conveyed to the particular Church through elders/bishops. They are essential to the very existence of a truly N. T. Church. In the N.T. they always exist in a plurality. They are divided into two classes: teaching elders and ruling elders (I Tim. 5:17). The N. T. knows of no higher permanent officer-bearer. They are referred to as ruling a congregation, the congregation is referred to as ruled (Heb. 13:7, 17, 24). Negatively they are not to lord it over the flock, positively they are to take oversight (Acts 20:28) and rule (I Peter 5:2).
The authority possessed by the elders/bishops is not by virtue of innate ability or acquired skills, rather it is Christ’s authority conveyed to His undershepherds for the oversight of His hock. It is primary and direct, coming from Christ to the elders/bishops.
D. The Exercise of Particular Church Authority
The authority of the particular Church is exercised autonomously and in connection with other particular Churches.
Who comprises the governing body on the particular Church level? It is not the pastor, he is an elder among elders. It is not the congregation, they are ruled by the elders. It is not the deacons, they do not rule but serve. It is not the trustees, they are not referred to in Scripture. In the light of our study it is the elders of the particular Churches. They are selected by the people, chosen to preach the Word and observe the ordinances, rule and exercise discipline. Possessing elders who are selected by the people for the purpose of ruling Christ’s flock as He directs, each particular Church is complete, lacking nothing essential for the conduct of the affairs peculiar to it.
N.T. Principles Affecting Particular Church Government
1. Christ is the Head over all things to the Church.
2. Office-bearers are to be chosen by the people.
3. Bishops and elders are identical in the Church.
4. In each Church there was a plurality of elders.
5. There is a parity of the clergy (teaching elders).
6. There is the exercise of appeal to the assembly of elders, and the right of government exercised by them in their associate capacity.
F. The Relation of Particular Churches to Agencies
Since direct authority is conveyed from Christ to elders and since primary authority resides in particular Churches, the boards and agencies of the fellowship are the servants of the Churches to whom they are accountable and responsible.
Inasmuch as particular Churches by nature and design seek fellowship of other Churches of like faith and order, finding it impossible to engage in certain types of work single-handedly, boards and agencies are set up in order that through united action the Christian mandate might be carried out. Since one phase of the work of the Church is carried out on the upper level, and since boards and agencies are usually elected by and report to the upper level, it is quite possible to think that the only accountability and responsibility is that to the upper level. This mode of thinking is easily adopted. But it is unbiblical in that it by-passes the particular Church, the divinely ordained rulers of the Churches and the primary source of Church authority. Thus it is not wrong to say that the boards and agencies are servants of the Churches and by the Churches is meant the particular Churches comprising the fellowship or denomination.
The study of upper-level government will not contradict nor detract from what has been said above concerning the particular Church authority; it will, however, bring out other facets of truth which will result in modification of the prerogatives of the autonomous particular Church in the realm of practice. Autonomy will not be denied but neither will independency or isolation be espoused. Each aspect must be taken together to get the whole picture and the true N.T. emphasis. Nevertheless, it is worthy to note here that no union with other churches destroys the autonomy of the particular Church. On the other hand, autonomy does not permit particular Churches to remain in isolation or act as a law unto themselves. The very nature of the Church itself demands the contrary. Hence there will be times when the particular Church will be called upon to forego its own privileges and rights for that of the greater good of the universal Church
or fellowship of Churches, just as the individual member will be called upon to forego his privileges and rights for the welfare of the particular Church.
When the Biblical teaching relating to the upper-level and lower-level are brought together, and each strand given due consideration, the ideas of autonomy and authority are made harmonious by the equally Biblical teaching concerning the nature of the Church, namely the teaching concerning mutual subordination and interdependence. It is not autonomy without authority, neither is it authority without autonomy. It is autonomous authoritarianism made possible by mutual subordination. This, of course, can easily be abused, and hypothetical questions can be raised without end. But the doctrine of justification by faith can be given the same treatment. Thus the former cannot be rejected by easy abuse and one-sided questions. Neither can it be rejected by playing one strand of Biblical teaching to the convenient neglect of the other.
III. Biblical Principles Pertaining to the Government of a Fellowship of Churches
A. Biblical Evidence for the Existence of a Fellowship of Churches
The essential unity of the Church demands that particular Churches organize into a wider fellowship. There is only one Church (Eph. 4:4, 5). This Church is both visible and invisible. All agree that the Church as invisible is one, but many Bible-believing Christians do not recognize the need for the visible manifestation of our unity. The need for this manifestation is well recognized in modernist circles and has issued in the National and World Councils of Churches. We are not interested in this type of unity because it is not Biblical in its roots or fruits. However, there is a truly Biblical one-ness of the Church. As the fellowship of believers in one spirit is the basis for the unity of the Church as invisible, so the unity of the Church as visible proceeds on the basis of the visible profession of faith in Christ through common worship, ordinances and government. Is it not our responsibility to represent Christ in as complete a way as possible? If so, then isolated assemblies do not give an adequate picture of the unity of the church. This brings to our attention the second line of evidence.
The word “Church” is used in Scripture to designate several assemblies working as one organization. This line of evidence is based on several factors. First, in Acts we read of the great numbers converted in the early days of the Church. ( Acts 2:11 – 3,000; 2:47 – “added day by day”; 4:4 – 5,000 men – not counting women; 5:14 – multitudes; 21:20 – thousands, literally myriads). However this group in Jerusalem was called “the church in Jerusalem” in Acts 8:1 and 11:22. When we couple this large number of believers with the facts that the apostles were present (Acts 8:1) plus the prophets, evangelists and elders in Jerusalem, we have sufficient office-bearers for several assemblies. All these people were organized in such a way that they had concerted action; they could function as a unit (Acts 6:1-11).
A second line of support for this claim is that there probably were several “Churches” that made up the church in Corinth. I Corinthians is a letter which deals with such specific problems that it was probably not originally a circular letter, but rather addressed to one group. However in it Paul speaks of women keeping silence in the “churches” (I Cor. 14:33b-34a). Could there not have been more than one assembly in the “church at Corinth?”
The two main types of ways in which Paul describes Churches is a third area of support for the claim that the term “Churches” is used of several assemblies. Paul uses two types of greetings: he greets the church in the house-hold of Priscilla and Aquila (Rom. 16:5), and he greets the Church at Corinth. One is a personal designation, the other is geographic. Why should there be two types of designations for the same group?
A fourth area of support for this claim is the long list of greetings in Romans 16. Apparently these others were part of the Church at Rome, but not part of the Church in the house of Priscilla and Aquila. Diversity of language or culture, as well as sheer weight of numbers,
may have demanded several churches in a given area. Yet because they were recognized singularly it seems evident that there was organization between assemblies – and that a rather close-knit organization.
The Scripture contains examples of Churches uniting for concerted action. This third line of evidence is the most easily recognized and is also the strongest. There are two major instances of united action in the N. T. The first and best known is the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15. Here two Churches had their “elders” meet and make a policy decision on a problem common to both the Churches. Laying aside for the moment the nature of the authority of the council and how it was constituted, Let us not miss the fact that this was united action. The other major reference to united action is the collection for the saints at Jerusalem mentioned in Romans 15:26 and II Cor. 8. On this occasion many churches in several parts of Greece united to help their brethren.
It might be objected that neither of these arrangements were permanent and, therefore, should not be used as examples for our organization today. However, in the context of the general unity of the Church, they point in the direction of more permanent union when continuing needs for constructive action arose.
From these three lines of evidence it is clear that what we have come to call denominations are not outside the pale of revelation, but are essential to the revealed mind of God.
B. The Biblical Evidence for the Nature of the Authority in a Fellowship of Churches.
If there is to be an organization of churches then the relationship between the particular churches and the group must be defined. This definition takes place in the realm of authority.
The source of authority in a fellowship of Churches is Jesus Christ. What makes the Church the Church? Only Jesus Christ makes the Church into the Church by redeeming men to God by the sacrifice of Himself and by calling the redeemed to be part of His body (Eph. 5:25-27). Who rules the Church? Kings rule nations; presidents or boards rule companies; fathers rule home, but only Jesus Christ holds sovereign power over the Church (Matt. 16:18; 28:18-20). He is the founder as well as the administrator of the Church. Therefore, He is the source of authority in the particular and universal Church. In any fellowship of Churches therefore, He is also the sole source of authority. James Bannerman says it this way:
The church has no source of life apart from Christ being in it; the ordinances of the church have no deposit of grace apart from Christ present within them; the office-bearers of the church have no gift of power, or authority, or action apart from Christ ruling and acting through them. ·It is most important to remember that it is in this high and very peculiar sense that we are to understand the expression that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only Head of the Church. (The Church of Christ, I, 199)
This must be true in practice as well as theory.
The nature of authority in a fellowship of Churches is moral and spiritual. Authority is “rightful power; the right to command or act.” (Websters New Inter-Collegiate Dictionary) This definition distinguishes authority from power. Power does not necessarily include the right to command or act; power is the ability to bring about its desire. Authority is the right to bring about one’s desire. A six foot six, 250 pound sergeant has the authority and the power to make the privates do what he desires; a four foot eleven inch, 125 pound sergeant has the same authority, but may not have the power to bring obedience. In this section we speak of the nature of authority not power.
When we discuss the nature of authority, we are not discussing whether or not it is to be obeyed. By its definition authority is the right to be obeyed. Thus when we discuss the nature of authority, we are discussing (1) on what basis that authority is to decide whether or not it is to be obeyed and (2) by what motivation a specific authority expects to achieve submission.
Submission to some authority is forced. This happens when big boys give orders to little boys. The little boys do not enjoy a physical beating and so they obey. Under this type of authority, power is the motivation of securing submission. This type of authority does not demand inner submission, but only outward compliance. We all live under this type of authority in our federal, state and municipal governments. We do not support with heart-felt desire all the activities of our governments but we pay our taxes and obey the laws. We may complain bitterly that the law is wrong or that the purpose for which our tax money is used is not to our liking; but
if we obey the law and pay our taxes we are citizens in good legal standing with the government. Despite our dislike for our government and our complaint about it, we cannot be disciplined or punished as long as we have not broken the law. This is legal and juridical authority. This authority overlooks motive and attitude; it judges only in terms of outward acts. Only overt acts of disobedience may bring discipline. Submission to this authority is motivated primarily by fear of punishment. In other words, legal and juridical authority depends primarily on power to bring about its will. This legal and juridical authority is that which characterizes civil government. It is the only kind of authority that obtains in civil government because there is no basis of union among the governed deeper than the appeal of utilitarian principles among selfish men. The basis of juridical judgment in authority is external only; the motivation in this situation is expedience.
The Church has a deeper basis of union. This basis is obedience to truth constrained by divine love. This deeper basis of union allows the Church to have a more penetrating type of authority; moral and spiritual. When Christ gave His great commission, He declared that the means of extending His rule is by teaching (Matt. 28:18-20). The Church cannot be entered on any terms other than inner, willful submission of the individual to the truth of God’s Word, in response to God’s call. Nor can one remain in the Church apart from continued, inner, willful submission to God’s Word. This is clear from the many passages of Scripture which teach that outward acts – “going forward” in a meeting, signing a decision card, living a moral life, being
baptized, being received as a member of a particular church, nor even serving as an officer of a church – do not make one a believer, i.e. a member of the Church. To be a member of Christ’s Church one must inwardly, willfully and completely submit to the truth of God. Because this is true, Christ could call Peter the Rock when Peter submitted to the truth of Christ (Matt. 16:13-23).
Peter’s refusal to submit to the teaching of Christ meant that at the time of Peter’s opposition to Christ’s teaching regarding His death, Peter was not in submission to the authority of Christ. Outwardly Peter was still following Christ; inwardly he had ceased to follow. Peter had committed no overt sinful deed between verse 16 and verse 22 of Matthew 16, but one day he wept bitterly in repentance for the sin which began there. This kind of authority does not judge by external conformity, but by internal attitudes; the Lord demands truth in the inward parts. When one is under this kind of authority, he does not ask how much I can get away with without punishment; but he asks what inner attitudes enable me best to conform to the authoritative standard. In the Church the authoritative standard is the Word of God as interpreted by the fellowship of which one is a part. Because few men — even sanctified men — think alike in all respects, and because the Word of God is complex, each man who is a part of any fellowship will not agree with every other man in the fellowship concerning each point of interpretation of revealed truth. Each man joins that group with which he has the widest area of mutual understanding. Because moral and spiritual authority demands submission to the truth, men, who differ with the majority an a point of interpretation of God’s Word in an area in which the group has determined to record an official opinion, are obliged to lay aside personal preference for the expressed will of the group. In this way each individual demonstrates his conviction of the fact that he is not infallible in his interpretation or infinite in his understanding. The basis on which one decides whether or not he is obedient to moral and spiritual authority is inner conformity or submission. Thus moral and spiritual authority is differentiated from legal and juridical authority on the basis of its judgment on the nature of submission. If the Church is to be the Church on the personal, particular Church or fellowship-wide level, its authority must be inner and spiritual, not just outward. The Church is no longer the Church when its members or agencies give only outward compliance rather than inner submission to its authority.
The other major area which differentiates legal authority from moral and spiritual authority is motive. Love is the motive of this kind of authority. This produces not only a willingness to judge action on the basis of inner attitude; but also it produces the eagerness to do the right even when doing the right demands self-denial. Paul speaks constantly of the fact that it is God’s love which calls forth the best in us (Rom. 12:1, 2). Christ does not force men to obey Him, Christ commands men to the love and service He seeks by the constraint of His love (II Cor. 5:14-17). That which is acceptable to God is done for love of Him and is done so that we conform to His standard inwardly and completely not just outwardly. This is acknowledging moral and spiritual authority. This is the only kind of authority known in the N. T. Church. On the personal level when an individual is not morally and spiritually subject to Christ, he is not a Christian. In corporate Church life when an individual or agency is no longer morally and spiritually in submission to the will of the Church or fellowship of which he claims to be a part, then he is no longer in reality a part of that Church. If we will not allow this truth, then what is it that distinguishes the Church from man-made organizations? When the members of the group detect a “shadow of turning” in the attitudes of one who claims to be a part of the Church or group, then those members exercise discipline through counsel and prayer with the one whose attitudes are improper. If the individual is really morally and spiritually under the authority of that group, he will receive such counsel and thereby become more intimately at one with the group. If that individual does not receive such counsel; he makes clear by his refusal to submit to his brethren that in reality he is not one of them.
This kind of authority on the one hand does not eliminate the need for discipline in the Church; it makes true discipline (training) possible. The Church must always exclude those who have already excluded themselves by failure to be a part of the Church on the moral and spiritual level; but the Church cannot exclude any who are morally and spiritually part of her. Christ, in giving “the power of the keys” to men, gives power to bind and loose on earth only that which has been bound or loosed in heaven (Matt.16:18; John 20). On the other hand this type of authority does not demand from all members of the group uniformity of thought in every detail. In other words this kind of authority does not bind one’s conscience. There is liberty of conscience on every matter; each man must thing for himself. But where the group has declared its will, each one who claims to be a part of the group must lay aside his view at this point, if it differs with the majority of the group. This demands the kind of self-denial which Christ says must characterize those who are His disciples (Luke 9:23). If the Church does not make those kinds of demands on itself, then it is robbing its members of opportunities to develop spiritually the individual lives of the members.
Thus a fellowship of Churches seeks to know the mind of Christ; His will is manifest in the decisions of the group and is morally binding upon those who are morally and spiritually part of the group. The moral and spiritual nature of the authority of the fellowship of Churches demands the same inward obedience for love of the body of Christ as individuals give personally to Christ and His truth.
In the absence of the kind of spiritual intimacy evidenced in Acts, all human relations tend to rule by law. “The spirit of the city takes the place of the spirit of the family and men ask where legality lies and not what love would have them do” (Kennedy: Presbyterian Authority and Discipline, p. 91). Should the Church be a family or city? We ask not what it is, but what it should be? This type of moral and spiritual authority is actually more demanding than legal authority because its basis demands inner submission and its motive is more comprehensive than fear. In the Acts 15 record we see the length to which this moral and spiritual authority can take men. Antioch had a problem and felt constrained to consult the Church in Jerusalem. This happened apparently because of Antioch’s desire to be subject to the Head in an area where He had not left specific command. The depth of the concern or motivation was evidenced by the fact that they consulted a wider body of believers to be the more sure of arriving at the correct decision. The standard or basis of their action was their mutual understanding of Scripture in the light of the Spirit as teacher. Could Antioch or Jerusalem be a fellowship of Churches if each had done as it pleased? (This is the attitude of the independents today.) Could Antioch or Jerusalem be a fellowship of Churches if one or the other forced its will upon the other by threats of excommunication? (This is the attitude of the juridical mine of the Church of Rome today.) Moral and spiritual authority demands inner conformity as well as outward agreement, but it also is the only Biblical and practical way to promote the actual oneness of the fellowship of the Spirit which is to be the characteristic of the Church.
The progression of the authority in a fellowship of Churches is by mutual subordination. We have said that the source of authority in the Church is Jesus Christ. From Him authority proceeds to the particular Churches and office-bearers. By virtue of the fact that the individuals who are members of one particular Church are themselves morally and spiritually bound to Him; therefore Christ’s power is with the particular Church. Christ has also designated that there should be rulers or those in authority in the particular Churches (Acts 20:28; I Thes. 5:13; I Cor. 16:15, 16; Hebrews 13:17).
Does Scripture make provision for a development in the line of authority beyond this? Inasmuch as there were N. T. illustrations of inter-church cooperation there must have been some authority on which to operate. In Acts 15, Antioch had every right to decide for itself what to do concerning the O. T. law, but they wanted to consult their brethren. This desire did not originate in a previously drawn up mutual union agreement. What gave the impetus to their desire? Did it not proceed from the unity these brethren felt with their brethren in Jerusalem? Being one in Christ they sought mutual aid in seeking direction to answer their problem. If Church organization is to remain true to its nature, this desire to subordinate oneself to the brethren must control.
Having asked direction from the brethren, they carried out the “decree.” The test gives no evidence that Jerusalem: demanded the meeting with the elders from Antioch; but because they were brethren, they were glad to meet with them and perhaps to concede more than they originally thought they would concede. This subordination was mutual. It is not one-sided; nor does it originate in James or the Apostles. To quote Hort:
There is not making of formal conditions of fellowship, but the Elders, as taking the lead in making so great a concession on the part of the Jerusalem Church, might well feel that they had a right to expect that the four restraints which had been set forth would be accepted. Hence in the letter sent to Antioch the authority, even the Apostles notwithstanding the fact that unlike the Jerusalem elders they exercised a function toward all Christians, was moral rather than formal; a claim to deference rather than a right to be obeyed. (Hort, The Christian Ecclesia, pp 83).
The upper group had no authority other than that brought there, from local. Churches by duly appointed office-bearers. Thus we can recognize the Biblical emphasis on the authority of the particular Church and still escape the anarchy of independency. If brethren are not willing to submit morally and spiritually to one another in Christ, are they brethren?
This relationship is not only one of subordination, but it is mutual (i.e. entertained, proffered or exerted by each with respect to each of the others of a group; reciprocally given and received). The N. T. does not recognize any permanent office-bearer higher than that of elder. James at the Jerusalem Council did not assume the position of a bishop. Even an Anglican of Lightfoot’s dimensions maintains that the episcopacy was a post-New Testament development. In the N. T. subordination was that of equals submitting to equals. Even the apostles were hesitant to exercise their authority, and Peter speaks of himself as a “fellow elder.” This distinction is important because Jesus Christ is truly the Head of the Church. No man is nor can be. As long as the top position is unoccupied by a man, Christ is the Head, and the authority and subordination is either spiritual and moral or it does not exist. When a man is made the head, Christ may continue to be the true Head with the man as an undershepherd, but we (being human) tend more quickly to make the subordination and~authority legal and juridical rather than moral and spiritual. This openness at the top with the resultant emphasis on moral and spiritual mutual subordination of equals under Christ is an essential to the N. T. picture of Church Government.
The extent of authority in a fellowship of Churches is limited. The authority of the group is limited in three general areas. First, because the authority of the higher assembly (fellowship) is not original, its authority is brought to it by authoritative office-bearers, its authority is derived. Therefore its authority is smaller than the group from which it is derived.
The derived nature of the authority of the Church is demonstrated also in Acts 15 record of the Jerusalem council. The letter sent by the council demonstrated that the council had authority, but the tone of the letter shows clearly an unwillingness to press that authority. Even when this decision is called a “decree” we understand that the word takes its character from the
nature of the group or individual who makes it. Thus the “decree” of an emperor is one thing; the “decree” of a philosopher another. There is an abundance of words for “command” in the N. T. but since none of these are used, and since the council is hesitant about claiming broad authority,
it is clear that no legal or juridical authority is assumed. F. J. A. Hort, the Anglican scholar who by his church connections should favor a legal view of the council’s authority, says:
It was in truth a delicate and difficult position, even after the happy decision of the assembly. The independence of the Ecclesia of Antioch had to be respected, and yet not in such a way as to encourage disregard either of the great mother Ecclesia, or of the Lord’s own apostles, or of the unity of the whole Christian body. Accordingly we do not find a word of a hint that the Antiochans would have done better to get sanction from Jerusalem before plunging into such grave responsibilities. But along with the cordial concurrence in the release of the Gentile converts from legal requirements there goes a strong expression of opinion, more than advice and less than a command, respecting certain salutary restraints. A certain authority is thus implicitly claimed. There is not evidence that it was more than a moral authority, but that did not make it less real. (The Christian Ecclesia, pp. 81-83)
The authority of the decisions of the group was binding upon the members of the group. This must be so. If a group composed of authentic representatives of a number of Churches at their requests, stays within its limitations, and presents a decision in keeping with the direction of the Holy Spirit and the mind of the group, the Churches are morally and spiritually bound to accept the authority of the group and abide by its decisions. If one member of the group does not like one decision of the body he does not leave because spiritually he counts himself as part of the body. This being so, he will submit to the group’s decision though he would have done differently.
Second, because the particular Churches are given authority to rule, the authority of the fellowship must be limited to matters which pertain to the fellowship or to matters on which the individual Churches have agreed to unite. The authority in areas of inter-church effort rest unquestionably with the fellowship. The authority on local matters is in the hands of the rulers of the particular Church unless the local groups desire to deal with specific areas collectively. The desires of the particular Churches come to the fellowship-wide level as recommendations with the attitude of “this will be done, if it suit the body,” the desires of the body come to the particular Church with the attitude “because you are one with the rest of us, we know you will want to do this.” Is this very much unlike the relationship described in the latter part of Ephesians 5?
Third, because every Church assembly is composed of men and men err; therefore the authority of the fellowship is conditioned on being true to the Scriptures. The moral and spiritual responsibility is to Christ. Therefore all the office-bearers are not shepherds but undershepherds. Recognizing this subordination encourages every believer in exercising his priesthood to do as the Bereans of Paul’s day. Since Scripture is our only objective revelation of the mind of Christ, all decisions of Church faith and order on the local or fellowship-wide level must be limited by the degree to which those decisions are true to Scripture.
To summarize we would say that the N. T. does indicate that Churches should unite to form fellowships. These fellowships are to recognize the Lordship of Jesus Christ by allowing Him to rule through duly elected office-bearers who demonstrate their leadership by serving and stand on one level before the Head of the Church. In their inter-relationships the Churches are to be mutually subordinate to one another compelled by a moral and spiritual desire to subject themselves to their brethren. These inter-relationships have but one purpose: the up-building of believers and evangelism of the lost to the glory of Christ its Head.
IV. Some implications of These Principles
A. Particular Church Level
1. A board of elders is the governing body of the Particular Church
2. Elders are equals among equals thus giving a wider exercise of the authority of Christ’s Headship
3. Elders are to be elected, because of scriptural spiritual qualifications, to rule, rather than the choosing of individuals to perform specific tasks.
B. Fellowship-wide Level
1. Because the authority in a fellowship of Churches is Christ, we would desire greater openness of His exercise of authority through greater distribution of authority and responsibility to laymen and pastor of our Church. This would come by not demanding that our District Superintendents serve on so many committees by virtue of their office.
2. Because the nature of authority in a fellowship of Churches is moral and spiritual, we would desire greater concern for the Churches on the part of the Boards and Committees of the Annual Conference. While the Churches ought not to dictate to the various agencies of the denomination, their requests must be considered and answers given to their problems. This is an attitude and therefore cannot be legislated. However, if we could recognize that the churches possess primary authority and the fellowship-wide government secondary authority, we would be obliged to give answers to the inquirers of our Churches.
3. Because the progression of authority in a fellowship of Churches is by mutual subjection we would desire a greater recognition of the equality of elders. This would come by a willingness to commit more authority to the hands of qualified laymen and by a willingness to evaluate the office of District Superintendent.
4. Because the extent of authority in a fellowship of Churches is limited, we would desire a greater recognition of these limitations. This would be realized by a greater willingness to decide issues on the authority of Scriptures, by writing our legislation to recognize the primary authority of the particular Church in comparison to the secondary authority of the upper level.
C. Conclusion – We cannot here enumerate all the implications because we have not worked on specific legislation. We do recognize that because some of the implications listed here might necessitate major changes in our government that, therefore we may have to legislate or at least formally agree to periods of transition that could be years in length. In our minds it is better to know where we are going before we begin rather than simply deciding on the final destiny as we go.
1. Because we recognize the seriousness of the implications of these matters to the general functioning of our whole denomination we recommend the following:
a. That this paper be studied by every member of the Annual Conference.
b. That a date for an Adjourned Session be established to discuss these matters after study.
c. That at this Adjourned Session we vote on the following revision of Article XVIII of our Faith & Order and also vote whether or not the Government Committee should prepare legislation based on these principles.
The Church is the body of which Christ is the Head.(l) All those redeemed by His blood (2) and born of His Spirit are members of that body and are in mystical union and communion with Christ (3) and fellow believers. (4) The Church is universal and local, visible and invisible. The visible Church consists of all those professing faith in Christ. The invisible Church is composed of all those born of the Spirit. (5)
The purpose of the Church is to edify the saints (6) and to evangelize the world. (7)
The Head of the Church administers the affairs of His body through overseers chosen by Himself and selected by the people. (8) The overseers of the Church are to be prayed for, obeyed and honored. (9)
A properly constituted particular Church must include the ministry of God’s Word, the observance of the ordinances, the oversight by officers (10) and the exercise of discipline. (11) Although particular Churches are autonomous, they do not remain isolated but are united to other particular Churches. Through subordination to Christ the Head and through mutual submission to other particular Churches and to the fellowship of Churches, the particular Church gives expression to the true nature and unity of the body of Christ. (12)
(1) Col. 1:18a; (2) I Peter 1:18, 19; (3) Romans 6:5. 6; (4) I Cor. 1:10; (5) I Cor. 12:13; (6) I Cor. 12:7, 11; (7) Matt. 28:19, 20; (8) Eph. 4:11, 12; (9) Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24; (10) I Peter 5:2, 3, 5; (11) Matt. 18:7; (12) Acts 15, Romans 15:26, II Cor. 8
2. We recommend the adoption of the following as legislation:
1. Each Church shall determine the number of elders needed to comprise the Official Board. The Official Board is to recommend to the congregation the number required for efficient oversight of the Church. The number decided upon shall be elected to a three year term of office. Approximately one-third of the number shall stand for election each year.
2. The Official Board shall be composed of all the active elders of the Church. They shall designate from among themselves trustees (the number of trustees is to be decided by each congregation on the basis of Official Board recommendation). The necessary committees within the Official Board shall be appointed by the Pastor with the approval of the Board. Additional committees may be appointed as deemed necessary by local conditions.
3. Churches desiring to have class leaders, stewards, deacons, building fund collectors, may either elect them to office or have them appointed by, but not necessarily from among, the Official Board. This matter is to be decided by each Church on the basis of Official Board recommendation.
Note: Election to an office other than .that of elder, does not make one a member of the Official Board.
3. We offer the following answers:
To resolution on p. 68B of Year Book, 1962 –After lengthy discussion on the subject of Discipline, we concluded that without unanimity of understanding and agreement on the basic principle of Church government, it would not be feasible to attempt to write material for legislation on this subject.
To resolution on 68H of Year Book, 1962 — Whereas, we have taken cognizance of the resolution on page 68H relative to Duties of Members, therefore, we recommend that this resolution be retained for further study.
Jansen E. Hartman, Chairman
Willard E. Cassel, Secretary
Carl C. Cassel
Donald T. Kirkwood
R. C. Reichenbach
James G. Koch
James R. Cressman
Robert W. Gehret
A. L. Wentz
[Committee to Study Church Government]