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Truth-driven church government

We probably all know the axiom called the 80/20 rule that is often applied to churches.  That is—20% of the people do 80% of the work and 80% of the people do 20% of the work.  That has been shown over and over again in the North American church.  You can draw many possible conclusions from that axiom, like:  Many of those people can’t be believers.” Or, “the church is full of idolatrous people who spend far too much time on the things of this world and have no time left for ministry in Christ’s church.”  Or, “what a testament those statistics are to the laziness of North American evangelicals.” There is doubtless some truth in those assertions and we must examine ourselves to see if we fit into any of those categories.  But what if part of the reason the “80/20 rule” reigns in churches is because the way the church organizes, structures and carries out her ministries impedes sincere believers from actively ministering in the church?  Could it be that there are many in the church who are willing, perhaps anxious to serve Christ, but the church unknowingly sets up unscriptural barriers that hinder that?

The leadership of our church has concluded that how we structure the church’s ministries is crucial in freeing people to serve in areas where they are gifted.  We have also become convinced that the structure of our church ministry has been in fact, unknowingly unbiblical in places and has therefore kept people from the ministering.  Church structures and procedures are the stuff of church constitutions and by-laws.  To bring our structure in line with Scriptural teaching, a revised church constitution was approved more than 15 years ago, but the revision addressed only certain areas.  The new revision just completed lays out a refreshingly Biblical way of structuring church ministry.  It also solves one of the inherent problems with the current constitution.  Several years ago, a leadership team from our church went to an equipping seminar with Leith Anderson, pastor of Wooddale church and a recognized expert in church management.  Dr. Anderson stunned us when he said that ours was the longest church constitution he had ever read and he had read over 1000!  As many in leadership will attest, mastering the document has been about as easy as learning Arabic.  Now by God’s grace, after years of work, the church board will soon be presenting a new completely revised constitution for the church’s consideration that maintains the spirit and truth-driven reforms of the old document, while at the same time, making it shorter and more user-friendly. 

The leadership wants us to take the unusual step of focusing on these issues today and next Sunday for at least three reasons.  First, after many years of preparation, we are earnestly beginning to implement the sweeping reforms called for in the current constitution.  Pastor Larry was recently installed as our first non-vocational pastor-elder and Lord willing, two more will soon follow with three more men in the elder training program.  The vision of a multiple pastorate or “plural eldership” is finally becoming a reality.  Because it has been several years since the original vision for leadership was shared with the entire church, we want to refresh our understanding of the Biblical vision.  Second, we want you to see that these proposed changes are not arbitrary.  We are not simply moving to a different leadership model we’ve seen in other churches.  These changes spring from our desire to bring us into closer conformity to Scripture because we are convinced that we must in all ways submit to the Scripture where it clearly speaks.  Three, as a board, we want to give the church membership adequate opportunity to interact with these proposed changes.  We are providing a number of different opportunities for you to hear and provide input into this process.

After two messages from the pulpit, we also have planned “town hall meetings” on January 19th and 21st and February 9th where anyone at Mount of Olives can attend and have a more in-depth discussion about the proposed changes and ask questions about the vision or the specific changes.  We in leadership make no claim to divine inspiration of the new document and you as Christ’s body can perhaps help us make it better.  That’s why we welcome your input.  The small groups will also soon be interacting with these two messages and discussing them in their meetings.  Finally, please know that you are welcome to speak with any of the pastors, Larry, Daniel or myself and Paul Anderson—(who is very familiar with the document) about any questions or concerns you may have about it.  The proposed document is on the church website and we invite you to please read through it.  I hope you are hearing that the leadership wants this process to be thorough, transparent and filled with integrity so that when we vote on the new constitution on February 12, the membership will do so with a good understanding of what’s in the document and what it means to our church.

Next week, we want to go into some of the specific changes you’ll see around here if the church approves the document.  This will include how these changes will impact our current ministries and how they operate.  They will not eliminate the ministries, just structure them more wisely.  Today, we want to demonstrate that there are Biblical truths and Biblical principles that must be drawn on in order to govern our church and conduct our ministries in a way that more fully honors God.  Please don’t tune out because you couldn’t care less about church constitutions.  These two messages are more about the Word of God and Christ’s church than about a constitution.  One of the convictions that has been propelling this process is this—The way in which we as a church govern ourselves and carry out our ministries must be truth-driven.  That is—we believe the Bible has some explicit directives about how we should govern our church and do our ministries.  In other areas, there may not be explicit Biblical teaching on how to organize our ministries, but there are Biblical principles that must be integrated into that process.  One of the challenges in determining what the Bible has to say on these issues is that our denomination, the Baptist General Conference and many other Baptist fellowships for the last century or so have communicated the message that the Bible has very little direction to give on this topic.  When I was in seminary, the professor teaching my church polity class stated very clearly that the Bible did not definitively speak on this issue. 

One of the implications of that alleged, Biblical ambiguity has been that when BGC churches have been established, up until recently--there has frequently been very little thinking about the question, “what is the most Biblical way to organize ourselves?”  When our church was established, the original “framers” maintained a congregational form of government where the congregation, not the leaders have the last word on certain church-wide issues because that is a long-standing Baptist distinctive and is also faithful to the Scripture.  The way this functioned in our church when I arrived was that the Pastor was the one elder and the church board would oversee the church finances and other “administrative issues” requiring leadership.  That was what most other Baptist churches were doing.  The pastor was the one elder and the governing board was called “the deacons.”  However, because there are too many pastoral responsibilities for one person to perform, the church board also has provided pastoral leadership in certain areas.  In other words, the board has been a hybrid, wrongly doing some things that qualify as pastoral leadership and rightly doing others that involve traditional deacon roles such as handling the finances. 

The church has also utilized “standing committees” that meet monthly to carry out the day-to-day oversight of church ministries—Missions, Trustees, Christian Education, Worship and Watchcare and Women’s Ministries.  That’s what we had when I came here.  Each committee has had a board member sitting on it to provide input and communication with the board.  From the stories I have heard, that model wasn’t chosen because someone sat down with the Bible and asked, “What model of ministry leadership best expresses pertinent Biblical principles of leadership and ministry?”  No, that was the way other BGC churches organized themselves—it made sense to our leadership and so it was constitutionalized.  That’s the way virtually all Baptist General Conference churches organized themselves in those days.  It’s only been in the last 20 years that several evangelical pastors and scholars have gone back to the Scriptures and re-discovered what the Reformers knew.  That is--that the Bible does indeed have much to say about church government—either explicitly, or in principle.  Today, we want to spend some time looking at the Biblical teaching.  This is a summary treatment, so fasten your seatbelts! 

First, we want to treat the explicit Biblical teaching that supports having multiple pastor-elders or a “plural eldership” and deacons.  We taught this in detail many years ago and it can be found at the Welcome Center and it’s also posted on our website.  Very broadly, the Bible explicitly calls for a church government that is composed of both pastor-elders and deacons.  First, let’s address pastor-elders, a title we use because the Scripture uses the terms “pastor” and ‘elder” (along with overseer) interchangeably.  It’s important to know that eldership is the ONLY form of church leadership presented in Scripture.  In Acts 14:23, Luke speaks of Paul’s practice among the churches he planted.  23 And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.   In James 5:14 we read, 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.”  First Peter 5:1-2 says, “1 So I [Peter] exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly;”

Second, in the Bible eldership is always plural.  There is no passage in the New Testament that speaks of a church, regardless of size, that has only one pastor or elder.  There is simply no record of such a thing. For a church to have one elder is simply not consistent with Scripture.  The only limit to the number of elders a church should have is the number of qualified men and the qualifications are in First Timothy chapter three and Titus chapter one.  This plural pastor-eldership has manifold responsibilities.  First, they must protect the church from false teaching. Paul says in Titus 1:9 speaking of the pastor elder, “9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Second, elders must feed the flock. First Timothy 3:2 says that elders must be “able to teach.”  Deacons are not required to meet this qualification.  Paul says in First Timothy 5:17, “17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”   The reference to “ruling” in that verse also suggests that the elders are to provide leadership to the church.  To rule in this sense means to “lead, direct, manage” and that responsibility is given to elders, NOT deacons.  Also, nowhere in Scripture are these elders assumed to be only vocational pastors or “paid staff.”  Although paying pastors is not wrong and the “double honor” for those who labor in preaching and teaching refers to monetary reward, the New Testament elders that were appointed were in many cases not vocational “clergymen,” but gifted and dedicated non-vocational pastors.

The New Testament teaches that the pastor-elders in the church are given substantial, but not unlimited authority.  The pastors are never to lead the believers they shepherd in ways that violate the Scripture and if they do, the believer should obey God, not man—when the Biblical teaching is clear.  On the other hand, Hebrews 13:17 says, “17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”  The leaders are to be obeyed because they will be held responsible by God for how they shepherded the flock and, with that kind of awesome responsibility must also come enough authority to lead the flock. 

The responsibilities of deacons in the church are much less clear from the Scripture.  Some of our leadership went to a large twin cities church several years ago to hear a lecture on Biblical eldership and the pastor said, “We’d have deacons if we knew what they did.”  Most scholars believe part of the Biblical basis for deacons is found in Acts chapter six.  There the early church chose seven men they knew to be “full of the Spirit and wisdom” who were called to serve the physical needs of the body.  They were to ensure the Grecian widows had enough food because they had been overlooked in the daily distribution.  The word “deacon” literally means “servant.”  Deacons are servants of God who are to assist the elders in ways that free them for the ministry of prayer and the Word.  That’s not much detail to go on and the qualifications for deacons in Paul’s Pastoral Epistles don’t shed any more light on their function.  They are simply to be spiritually mature people and as such will have influence, but not leadership authority in the church. 

Also, from our study of Scripture, unlike pastor-elders, deacons can be either men or women.  As you will see from our summary on the website, it would seem that the New Testament teaches that churches should have spiritually mature men and women who assist the elders and exert godly influence in the ministries of the church.  Given the very slight information given about them in Scripture, it seems that the specific function of deacons can be left up to each local church.  As to how the Biblical principles on church leadership impact the way we do ministry on a committee level, I will go into detail on that next week.  It is the view of the board that, broadly speaking, our current standing committee and subcommittee structure does not well integrate Biblical teaching and are therefore not the best way to oversee the ministries of our church.  Again, the ministries done through committees are vital and must be performed, but a different structure would carry many advantages.    

Now, let’s look at some general Biblical principles and how they should be applied to how we structure our ministries.  First, the way in which we structure ministry in the church should be explicitly ministry-oriented.  By that I mean-- the kind of structure implemented should be chosen because it specifically encourages wide ranging ministry to occur.  One Biblical example of this we have already seen.  The over-arching purpose of the pastor-elders according to Ephesians chapter four is to “…equip the saints for the work of ministry.”  The elders are coaches in some sense who, through their understanding of the Word and their teaching gifts, are by God’s grace able to train people to effectively minister.  Too often, people in church ministry are discouraged because they volunteer for a specific church ministry but receive no coaching.  To use an example, let’s look at the worship team ministry, which in our case is well equipped compared to other ministries.  A person has never been on a worship team, but is musically gifted and appears to be spiritually fitted for it.  They come to the first worship team rehearsal with no Biblical equipping in what is involved in leading a church in God-centered, Christ-exalting, truth-driven, prayer-dependent worship.  This expertise does not simply appear by osmosis—it must be learned—someone must equip you with it.  All those who serve on ministry teams or committees need that same kind of Biblical coaching pertinent to their ministries.

Currently, this equipping occurs mostly through sermons and the occasional workshops because, with only two pastors here for the last several years, it has been impossible for the elders to have the time to do that kind of intense, ministry-specific equipping.  In our worship team example, this absence of coaching not only inhibits Biblical, God-honoring worship; it also places the people on the worship team in the position of doing ministry they have not been prepared for.  This can be very frustrating for a conscientious worship leader.  

An example of this kind of ministry-equipping took place several years ago when our children’s ministry leaders went to a Desiring God Children’s Ministry Conference.  Several children’s ministry leaders through the years have attended the same conference. That equipping has revolutionized the children’s ministry here and has been incredibly helpful in our children’s ministry.  That occurred because the leaders were equipped with a God-centered approach, but that equipping did not occur in-house, we had to go outside for it…and pay for it in time and money.  That kind of equipping should ideally be done by the local church elders, but the “one pastor” model makes this kind of equipping impossible, even if the pastor has the skills and knowledge to do it.  Our current model for ministry with few pastors and monthly standing committees is simply not ministry-oriented.  There are several other ways in which our current structure is not oriented toward ministry that I hope will become apparent as we move into the other principles and especially next week, when we get more specific about the explicit constitutional reforms we are proposing.

A second Biblical principle that is crucial in implementing a structure for ministry in the church is--it must encourage body-life involvement.  That is, the model should be designed with an eye toward encouraging as many people as possible to be involved in ministry.  As we’ll see next week, our current structure provides perhaps as many barriers to involvement as it does opportunities.  Paul writes to the Corinthians about spiritual gifts, “7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”  That means that every believer has at least one gift that through them God has placed into his church for the building up of that local body.  Ephesians 4:15-16 astonishingly says, “15… we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”  That tells us that spiritual maturity in a local church is dependent (in some measure) on each individual believer doing what he/she has been called and gifted to do.  In other words, if a believer in a local church is not actively using his/her gifts and passions, that not only stunts their own growth in the Lord, it negatively impacts the spiritual health of the entire body!  To compound this, we know from Jesus’ parable of the talents that God will hold all believers accountable for how we use our gifts and talents. I hope you can see that structure is important—eternally important!

Just to hint at what will follow next week, let’s look for example at our current Worship and Watchcare committee configuration.  Currently, the Worship and Watchcare committee is responsible for everything from leading our Viewcrest Nursing Home ministries, to planning church social events, to training greeters and ushers, to supervising praise team and the other music ministries…to overseeing special services among other things.  Suppose a person in the body is gifted in welcoming new people into the church—they have a burden to make new people feel loved and accepted and encouraging others to do the same.  That ministry fits under Worship and Watchcare.  If you are that person, how inclined are you to sit through a two to three hour monthly committee meeting where five minutes of the discussion is devoted to your area of giftedness?  Understandable, many will not do that because it’s a poor use of their time.  Likewise, if you are burdened and gifted to give oversight and vision to the nursery ministry here, is it a good use of your time to be asked to sit on a monthly Children’s Ministry team committee that oversees many other ministries for which you have no passion?  Our current structure often discourages body-life participation and the new structure addresses those kinds of problems.

Another Biblical principle in structuring ministry is those who minister must be subject to healthy accountability.  That is, if the ministry or a person involved in a ministry is going off the Biblical trajectory, someone needs to be able to quickly step in and bring course correction.  If a person who agrees to take on a responsibility consistently fails to perform, someone needs to look into that lapse in a timely manner.  Maybe the believer is being disobedient and needs correction, but perhaps the person is going through a personal crisis of some sort.  Again, with a one-shepherd model, the pastor often doesn’t even know the ministry is failing until it’s too late and people end up getting hurt.  No one with any leadership authority or spiritual influence is there to oversee the project—be it an elder or a deacon the elders designate.  Right now, the way in which we do accountability in many venues is this:  After the person’s three year term is up, we “solve” the problem by not ever again recommending them for that ministry.  That is a poor model for several reasons. It does nothing to help or equip the person who has been ineffective—they are just quietly rejected and therefore do not grow from the process. While they are failing in their ministry, they may feel terrible about it and the rest of the committee or subcommittee feels pressure to pick up their slack.  The group functions inefficiently and other ministries suffer as a result.

A final Biblical principle is flexibility and sensitivity to the changing winds of the Spirit.  Church history (our own as well as others) teaches us that some ministries in a local church are given by God to function on a temporary basis--for a limited season. God brings a particular group of gifted people together to do something they are uniquely burdened and gifted to do.  A subcommittee is formed and it is institutionalized.  People are greatly blessed by the ministry and the institutionalizing hardens.  What happens when the people who initially felt that burden move away or are called to other ministries?  If it’s been institutionalized, we know what happens.  The ministry continues year after year, but without the zeal or gifts of those whose vision it was in the first place.  The ministry deteriorates, people are frustrated and frustrated people can cause problems.  One reason this kind of thing happens at times in the church is because it is the Spirit who births ministries and often, they are only for a season.  The lack of flexibility in our standing committee structure does not provide for that very well.  For example, when someone is particularly moved by the Spirit to begin a new ministry.  Assumedly, the elders are able to equip the person, but it doesn’t fit well into the existing committee structure.  Either the believer with the vision for ministry operate independently from the committees and takes the entire weight of the ministry on his/her own back or, since “his/her” ministry does not fit into the preexisting categories, they or the church decide it must not be from God.  This inflexibility can greatly hamper new ministry creation, discourage people from using their gifts in the body and most importantly, it grieves the Spirit of God.  Jesus tells us in John chapter three that, the wind of the Holy Spirit “blows where it wills.”  It is unpredictable and spontaneous at times.  A church heavy on structure and light on flexibility simply cannot follow the spontaneous leading of the Holy Spirit.  And we are foolish if we believe that God is pleased with the artificial boxes an inflexible ministry structure puts him in. 

Next week, we will put legs to these broad truths as we apply them to our specific ministries and see how the elders and deacons fit in.  Until then, what I hope you have heard is that how we structure ourselves matters very much and if we are to function in a more God-dependent, God-honoring manner, we must bring our ministry structure under the authority of the Word of God.  This is true in those areas where the Scripture explicitly speaks, but also in those areas where Biblical principles should be applied to ministry. May God give us the grace to bring all things in our church under the authority of God for his glory and our joy and growth in ministry.


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