Church Government Part 1

Posted: February 16, 2009 in Uncategorized

All week we will be looking at Chapter 47 of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, which deals with church government.  Today we will cover church officers such as apostles, elders, deacons, etc.

Grudem prefaces his remarks by stating that although he believes there is a preferable form of church government, he does not think that the issue is a “major doctrine” worth separating over. 

The Waynester defines a church officer as “someone who has been publicly recognized as having the right and responsibility to perform certain functions for the benefit of the whole church.”  He cautions that unless an officer is “publicly recognized” that congregants will naturally begin to wonder who is responsible for what!

The first office he discusses is that of an apostle.  Grudem acknowledges that a strict lexical definition of the term means “a messenger” and that the New Testament utilizes this definition a handful of times (Phil. 2:25; 2 Cor. 8:23, etc.).  However, the title construed in context normally means much more than just someone bearing a message.

The New Testament sets forth two qualifications for an apostle: (1) “having seen Jesus after his resurrection with one’s own eyes (thus, being an ‘eyewitness to the resurrection’), and (2) having been specifically commissioned by Christ as his apostle” (see Acts 1:22; 1 Cor. 15:7-9, etc.) 

Who were “the apostles”? The eleven surviving disciples, Mathias (Judas Iscariot’s replacement), Paul, Barnabas, James (the brother of Jesus) and possibly several more (See Rom. 16:7, which is a highly disputed verse).  Indeed, as Grudem rightly notes, Paul guards the title of “apostle” jealously (2 Cor. 1:1; Col. 1:1, etc.)  Thus, it would seem, that the office of apostle passed away with these fifteen men.  Although the Great and Powerful Grudem does not deal with, I think this is of vital importance.

The early church was also supervised by elders (or pastors or overseers or bishops…the terms are actually synonymous in the New Testament).  Apparently, there were always a pluarlity of elders (notice “elders” in Acts 14:23) and each church was expected to have them (James 5:14 assumes it).  Elders were expected to be able teach (1 Tim. 3:2) and to “shepherd” (i.e., lead and care for the members of the church) (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2, etc.).   In turn, church members were expected to submit to their leadership (Heb. 13:7).

Elders were to be “above reproach” and most churches look to 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1 to define what this means.  Grudem rightfully cautions churches to exercise wisdom and patience here.  It is easy to ignore the 1st century context behind these passages.  For example, “a one woman man” (1 Tim. 3:2 and Titus 1:6) does not necessarily mean a person who has not been divorced.  Paul was writing in a polygamist culture and utilizes the present tense (i.e., a husband of only one wife not two or one with a concubine or is prone to visit prostitutes, all of which was fairly common at the time).

One side note, I think the term “elder” should actually be scrapped because it doesn’t imply “shepherd” in the 1st century sense.  In fact, given the number of nasty church fights many have witnessed in North America, the term carries a lot of baggage! 

Elders were apparently appointed, not elected, leaders of the early church (Titus 1:5).  Grudem protests that the word translated as “appoint” can also mean “install” but the latter almost certainly is not in view and would not have been understood as we understand it today.  Grudem also points to texts such as Acts 15:22 which speaks of “the whole church” choosing men to send with the decision of the Jersulam Council but here the Waynester is running beyond the evidence.  Again, the term ekklesia, oft translated “church”, actually meant “a gathering.”  Luke does not invest the theological depth to the term that Grudem does for the inspired author uses the same term to describe mobs in the streets!  Moreover, in context it appears that the “ekklesia” here is the Jerusalem Council not the whole church in the city!

Although Grudem does not touch on it, the “theological” rational for electing elders actually comes from the tradition of doing so within Jewish synagogues.  Something to consider before your next church election i.e., division and near split! 

It is impossible to resurrect the apostles and their disciples (i.e., Timothy, Titus, etc.) to appoint elders today, so I would simply urge caution in how you select leaders because we simply cannot imitate the early church in this regard.

Deacons were also church officers who were apparently appointed by the early church leadership (see Acts 6). Their responsibility was to minister to the needy, so as to free the apostles and elders to focus on preaching and teaching.  

Grudem argues that deacons were always males.  He points to 1 Tim. 3:12 and argues that when Phoebe is referred to as a deacon that a better translation is “servant.”  Yet, the terms are synonymous.  Moreover, in 1 Timothy 5:9-13 Paul refers to “enrolling” older widows as servants/deacons. 

Dr. Caroll Osburn argues in his book “Women in the Church” that one must confess that 1 Timothy 3:12 is simply unclear in the original Greek and that Paul’s comments could easily be interpreted as simply re-iterating that male deacons are to be “one women men.” 

For time’s sake, I have to cut this discussion short and return to it at a later date but I think it is clear that I believe Grudem has greatly oversimplified the matter.

So, in sum, I think the term “elder” should actually be scrapped because it doesn’t imply “shepherd” in the 1st century sense.  Moreover, I am not convinced that any office should be restricted to males.  I do agree that church leaders should be above reproach in the lives they are living now and that focusing on a person’s past is irrelevant as long they have repented. 

More on church government tomorrow.

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