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Some Questions on Church Polity

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Question #1:  In all my biblical teaching, under different teachers, I have been taught there are four leadership positions in the church. Overseer (Pastor), Elders, Deacons, and Deaconesses. Each has different mission in life. Now I have a new teacher that says an Overseer and an Elder are the same. We have even changed the Elder board name to Overseer Board. Except for  Titus and a few other passages I can not seem to find any biblical basis for this merger. Can I get your biblical knowledge on this subject? Is an Overseer a Elder and an Elder a Overseer? Doesn't fit with what I have been taught so any knowledge you can give me would be most appreciated.

Response #1: Let me say by way of general overview that I have always had a problem with reading too much into what scripture says about local church organization for the simple reason that I believe scripture to be deliberately vague on the subject. As you correctly point out, beyond the point that there should be a group of elders in charge of polity and doctrine (to leave aside the "bishop/overseer" question for a moment), and other officials in charge of general ministries (deacons), there is really very little said at all in the Bible. And most of what is said about these officers concerns their necessary qualifications for service rather than the scope of their service.

I am sure that this is deliberate. With so many troubles in the churches to which Paul ministered, it seems to me that the great apostle had numerous golden opportunities to spell out once and for all the proper form of church government, if that were really something that ought to be spelled out. I proceed from a contrary hypothesis, namely, the Bible and what it really means is the whole point of "church", that is, the assembly together of true believers in Jesus Christ. Since everything else is subordinate to hearing and learning the Word of God, the problem of local church organization need not even come up. If the group follows the teaching of the Word, then the elders only really need to function when there is disharmony with scripture either in the teaching or its reception, while the deacons carry out the group's collective ministries (which would mostly consist of charitable activities that for a variety of reasons require a collective approach).

But when groups add a building, a mortgage and other financial and legal responsibilities, and when they begin to morph into something that more resembles General Motors than a small group of believers who love the Lord meeting in someone's home, then inevitably that group will encounter problems and difficulties for which there is no close guidance in scripture and to which no organizational scheme no matter how well thought out will be a panacea (a fact which begs the question of whether large churches are even a good idea at all).

I find it most revealing that while scripture says virtually nothing about local church polity (let alone "denominational polity"), this area has historically been the source of more strife among Christians than probably any other single cause. To put it bluntly, in my view, churches getting smaller rather than larger and becoming less concerned with details of governance rather than more so would be a healthy trend. As it is, of course, the major trends in this country certainly are exactly in the opposite direction.

Peter, Paul, and John, about whose dealings on this subject we know more than about any other authoritative figures in scripture, do not make organization the issue, but rather the teaching of truth, the specific content of what believers ought to believe and teachers ought to teach. To me, the reason seems clear. Time and material circumstances change, but the gospel is meant for all peoples in all places and for all time. It is doubtful that any one particular form of organization could handle all future possibilities. But, on the other hand, the truth has, is, and will always be the truth. If teachers are teaching the truth, and if the truth is being received by those who hear it and lovingly applied to every Christian walk, then almost any polity could work.

Hyper-attention to the particulars of church government is not only, again in my view, a problem, but it is also a symptom. Generally one finds this symptom where a group or a denomination has ceased to focus upon the true mission of the Church of Christ, namely, teaching and learning the Bible, then carrying out the truth in one's personal walk with Christ and in the individual ministries to which each one has been called. Codifying one view of what might constitute some minutely small portion of the truth is no substitute for deeply desiring to know all of God's truth. I think of the Roman Catholic church and many old line and some newer Protestant groups and cannot see that all the time and effort devoted to this issue has had any positive effect whatsoever - much to the contrary in fact.

I do not have a problem with a church such as yours earnestly desiring to do what the Bible says to do. My point is that the Bible doesn't lay on many specific requirements at all, and almost every church has already satisfied those basic requirements de facto if not de jure by having 1) a governing board, and 2) officially sanctioned individuals who carry out collective ministry. As I see it, this is a case where less is definitely more. Regardless of what the polity is, churches always and inevitably find their own rhythm in working through and with what has been put in place. No specific system can be perfect since none is specifically ordained by the Bible (beyond the two points just mentioned), and no one is perfect - it is always the case that there will be strong links and weak links in the personnel who fill these positions. Church polity, therefore, is one of those many areas where the Bible appreciates that since circumstances and people will vary greatly; therefore flexibility on non-essential points must be the rule. In my way of thinking, trying to be dogmatic where the Bible is purposely flexible is potentially just as bad as trying to be flexible where the Bible is dogmatic. In either case, one finds oneself fighting against scripture, and that is a losing proposition.

I am certainly not suggesting that you make a point of all this - I am not sure it matters whether one considers the episkopos-bishop-overseer 1) a separate office; 2) a synonym for elder so that all elders are also overseer-bishops; or 3) the head elder, a kind of first among equals. Since there is no biblical foundation for a "super-bishop" in charge of more than one local church, in practical terms all three of the possibilities listed above amount to exactly the same thing in the actual functioning of a local church in any case, and here is why:

        1) in all human organizations, it is inevitable that one person will come to have some degree of dominance; if there is a "pastor" who is so named and so hired, he will almost certainly assume that role, so in practical terms, he would fulfill #1 above, regardless of title.

        2) in all such boards, there is give and take; the congregation, represented by the board, hired the pastor and are very much aware of his life, life-style, and teaching; he can do nothing in a vacuum, so that no matter how great his influence, he is still only one man in a group, regardless of official title, so that from this point of view he might just as well be called an "elder" corresponding to #2 above.

        3) While the pastor (or person doing with the main teaching responsibility however named) does not have unbridled authority, he does have more influence than any one else for all sorts of obvious reasons.  Therefore regardless of his title, whether "pastor" or "bishop-overseer" or "elder", he is both a member of the governing board and its de facto leader. The Presbyterians have historically gotten around all this by calling the pastor the "teaching elder", but they might just as well have said "overseer-elder".

The point is, that no matter how one rearranges the names and the offices, in my experience, observation, and study of Church history, #3 is always how it works out for churches that are not perversely subject to some un-biblical, extra-church authority (like an R.C. or Episcopalian bishop). The real question whose answer I would be eager to know is 'what goal is this reorganization trying to accomplish?' For if it is to make things "more biblical", my view is that it would be the odd and exceptional church which does not already meet the very broad and flexible biblical guidelines.

Here two other similar e-mail response that you might find helpful in addressing this question:

Deacons and Elders

Church Polity and three other passages.

Is the Local Church Meant to be a Patriarchy?

Mega-Churches, Emergent Christianity, Spirituality and Materialism.

In our Lord,

Bob L.

 

Question #2: 

Somewhere in the Bible are some verses that I just can not find. From Acts to the James there are some versed that instruct the church to gather all the elders and out of the Elders select one Overseer. I hope that I am not having old age dreams about this. If you know were it is can U share please.

Response #2:

I don't think such a verse exists. Comparing Acts 20:28 with Acts 20:17, we find out that overseers/bishops are the same as the elders (cf. Phil.1:1 - why would elders be left out?). There are regulations for overseers and also for deacons (1Tim.3; Tit.1; cf. 1Tim.5:17ff); there is the misguided appointment of the "twelfth" apostle by Peter and company (Acts 1:15-26); and there is Paul's charge to Titus to appoint elders (Tit.1:5); but I know of no scripture that distinguishes between elders and overseers (especially not to select one out of their number). As pointed out above, elders and overseers are the same office, just expressed in a different way (see the link for more info: Church Polity). There are a number of passages where more than one elder is in view, and at least one passage, Acts 20:17, where there is more than one overseer/"bishop". The word "elder" connotes respect as well as age, whereas "bishop" or overseer focuses on the function of the elder in keeping the flock in line (largely, I would argue, through diligent administration and dedicated teaching of the Word of God). While it makes sense for a local church to have one person who is the leader (however that leadership is defined or delimited), scripture, as far as I know, doesn't specifically give a formalized process or delineation of duties for precisely the reasons outlined above: in the Church universal the truth of the Word of God is to be absolute; in the organization of the local church, flexibility is required for maximizing the output of the teaching of the Word. If there were one unbending system, like the Roman Catholic organization, we would all be eventually constrained from ever even getting closer to the truth (as in Roman Catholicism).

In our Lord, the Great Overseer/Bishop of the sheep, Jesus Christ.

Bob L.



Question #3:
 

Thank you for your reply. I will continue to agree to disagree in love as always. I have it stuck in my brain because I believe I have read such a verse or verses. I feel from my reading and what I have been taught over the years that there is a formal leadership process in the church but not as rigid or the same as the Catholics. Our leadership is individual church based instead of organizational church based. I hope that makes sense. That, to me, is were our flexibility comes from. Some more verses to study. Some more studying to do. I do agree HE is the Great Overseer/Bishop of the sheep, Jesus Christ.

Response #3:

I don't disagree with anything you just said - except that I don't know of such a verse and upon checking couldn't find anything like it. In my experience, the very nature of human beings and human organizations is such that "one person" ends up being in charge, whether that person's authority is very great or just slightly elevated above that of his peers - and that is true even in organizations that are deliberately set up to avoid formal "one man rule" structure (every committee has its "chairman"). I also agree that the local church is indeed divinely authorized, but that is the only thing formally authorized besides the existence of authoritative leaders (elders / overseers) and administrative officials (deacons). I think if you have a look at this link I referenced last time, you'll see that our positions are pretty close (Church Polity). Ultimately, the authoritative teaching of the Word of God (or lack thereof) is what determines leadership in a local church. Those who are really laboring in the Word are naturally going to have everyone else in the church either gravitate to them or oppose them. In our Laodicean age of lukewarmness, teaching the Bible authoritatively from careful exegesis of scripture is very divisive because most people don't want to hear it. Inevitably, those who want to follow what the Bible really says and who are willing to do the hard work necessary to find that out quickly become "persona non grata" in most churches. Most people just want a "warm and fuzzy" short message once a week. But the Word of God challenges us and causes us to look at ourselves as we truly are (Jas.1:22-25). This explains why there is so little depth of Bible teaching in the churches in this country - and why this ministry is on the internet.

In our Lord Jesus,

Bob L.

 

Question #4: 

I have been a believer for 11 years and joined a Baptist church shortly thereafter. Your writings have given me much to think about, and pray about. My questions are: What body of believers do you belong to? You speak of the "elect" and that mankind was created to replace the fallen angels. Does this indicate that only a certain number of people will be saved? Where do you stand in the Calvinistic approach to salvation? Thank you and I look forward to your comments.

Response #4:

In terms of belonging, I would wish to say that I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ, an association I share with every person who has ever placed their faith in the dear Lord who bought us with His own blood on Calvary's cross. I am not a member of any denomination nor of any particular local church. In my considered view, not only is such a thing not necessary for salvation nor biblically mandated in any way – it is also potentially spiritually dangerous to the extent that a person relies on membership for any measure of spiritual security (please see the link: "The false doctrine of 'Institutional Security'"). Not that there is anything wrong with church membership per se, and from what little I know about Baptist doctrine and polity from my fellow seminarians, most of whom were one stripe of Baptist or another, your church does not teach membership as necessary for salvation. But if I'm not mistaken, they (in company with most other denominations) do a pretty good job of intimating that joining a church is what all Christians do, therefore if you don't join . . . . (whatever fills in the blank can't be good).

Jesus has called us believe, to grow, to minister and produce for Him. To the extent that my brothers and sisters in Christ do this well in the framework of a local church, I am all for it. My own personal experience is that the local church has become in the majority of cases and denominations more of a socializing and social work organization. I don't have any problem with either activity - until it is called Christianity or begins to substitute for it. Christians need spiritual food from the Word of God, and, in terms of their own ministries, the ministering of the truth they learn to contribute to the salvation, spiritual welfare, and spiritual growth of their fellow believers is the essence of our calling. If it had been my experience that I could accomplish my duty to my Lord in a local church, that is where I would be. But as the end times approach, this Laodicean age in which we live is more and more lukewarm, and I don't see many opportunities either for myself or for my fellow believers who dearly want to grow closer to Jesus the only way one can do that – through Jesus' Word, the Word of God – to do so in your average local church. I do know some men who have had some success – all as independents. But even here the story is mixed. I also know some very good men who have dedicated themselves to the Word and to teaching the Word who are essentially personae non gratae because of their commitment to what is truly important (as opposed to programs, numbers, money, music, etc.).

We are indeed called by God and selected (or "elected") by Him from ages past, but not independent of our free will. Our will is free in that we can choose for Him through His Son in this life we are given to live. That is the whole reason for our being here, the point of this "exercise" we call life. He knew what we would do, but He still gives us the opportunity to choose for Him, and our lives after salvation continue to be composed of choices – will we put Him, His Son, the truth, spiritual growth, growing closer to Him and helping others to do likewise ahead of everything else in life, or not? In the history of the world, while there will be representatives of every race, and nation, and tongue in the ranks of the Church of Jesus Christ, the road is steep and the gate narrow, and few are willing to find and enter it. Even among those who do, the number who realize fully what we are supposed to be doing here and respond appropriately, making their relationship with the Lord their top priority in thought and word and deed, are even fewer. But for those of us who have dedicated ourselves to live and grow and produce for the Lord, come what may, the heartaches and opposition in this life may be severe, but the eternal weight of glory of our proper response that we the proper Church will receive on that day of days is not to be compared to anything the eye can see or the heart dream.

I hope that this helps to answer your questions. Please feel free to write me back about any of this. I have written about this subject one way or another in many of these studies, but you may find the following links helpful for further study:

        Predestination and the Plan of God

        Our will vs. God's WILL

        The word "chosen" in the Bible

        Election in the Plan of God

In our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Bob Luginbill
 

Question #5: 

Can women be preachers? I have long wondered about this. I personally believe it is ok, but have been in disagreements about this. Can you offer help? I found your "answer" to my question already. I do however, have an answer as to your response. You stand by 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 as the REASON that you believe that way...but, I ask you this: do you know WHY that was said at that time? I can answer for you: women at that time were told to not speak because prostitutes would come into the church, and speak against the preacher, and others. This was to keep confusion out, and not let Christians be mistaken as prostitutes. So, basically, in THESE times, I personally would disagree with what you have claimed.

Response #5:

It's not only 1st Corinthians 14:33-35. Here is something else scripture has to say:
 

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.
1st Timothy 2:11-12 NIV

As I say in one of my postings on this subject, the above words are pretty hard to explain away. As to your suggestion that Paul's words in 1st Corinthians 14:33-35 are related to "prostitutes" who "would come into the church, and speak against the preacher", well, there doesn't seem to be anything in the context of 1st Corinthians 14:33-35 which would substantiate such a theory. Paul does, however, explain his reasoning in the more direct passage quoted above as follows:
 

For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.
1st Timothy 2:13-14 NIV
 

Now we are all sinners, and all capable of being deceived, and all have been created by God. But the priority of creation, and the fact that Adam sinned deliberately rather than by being deceived has produced the male-female authority split which obtains here in time (cf. Gen.3:16), and will until we are all functional equals in the kingdom of heaven.

Under such circumstances as we are facing now, however, Paul clearly saw (and all scripture is in unison with his words) the pattern of male authority as something that was to hold true in the Church as in the home.

For me, the bottom line is not what I or you or anybody else "feels about it", but rather what the Word of God says about it. As I say in the posting "Does the Bible prohibit women from preaching or teaching in the Church?":
 

Therefore, from the very start, we need to approach this question as one of God's will, not our own will. Every believer has to respond to the will of God, to the leading of the Spirit, picking up their cross and following Christ. God will make clear to each and everyone of us what it is He wants us to do.
 

In some respects, all of this is really very easy. The three criteria necessary for teaching the Word of God are 1) the gift, 2) the preparation, 3) the call. Ultimately, unless someone is given the gift of teaching the Word, they have no business doing so, and if God has given a woman the gift in spite of what scripture says, then who am I to stand in that woman's way? On the other hand, if He has not given the gift, then it is a dangerous thing to do to go against scripture and assert that one has such a gift when in fact one does not. So, in the end, it's not what I think or what anyone else thinks; rather it is what God says and what God does that is important. Our job is to listen to what He says and accept what He does, growing in our faith, our hope, our love through believing and applying the Word of God day by day.

If you have not already done so, you may find the following link useful:

            More about Women Preachers


In hope this is of some help to you.

In Him who is the Word of God, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Bob Luginbill


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