Who Runs Local Churches?
Regarding any organized group of people, there must be leadership or people who take the initiative in matters of direction. The scriptures are explicit and plain regarding the superintendence of local churches. Scriptural elders are men who meet certain necessary qualifications that are set forth in the scriptures and are to be selected and appointed to serve in the local church where they also are members (Acts 14: 23, I Tim. 3; Tit. 1, see addendum 1). These men are not figure heads, but they are to actually "rule" or, if you will, "run" the local church where they serve. The writer of Hebrews penned, "7: Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation" (Heb. 13, see also verse 17). The rule of these men is compared to the rule of a husband/father in his household (I Tim. 3: 4, 5 cp. I Tim. 5: 17). Members are to "obey" these men as they act according to Godís directives (Heb. 13: 17). These men are not to be dictators, but they are to take the leadership and exercise superintendence over the local church (I Pet. 5: 1-4, notice that Jesus is the "Chief Shepherd," He is to be the head of the local church, Eph. 1: 22, 23). This is Godís order and arrangement. However, man has often rejected Godís order and injected his own. This is true in denominationalism and in too many churches of Christ. I want to now briefly share with you who in reality often runs local churches.
The Pastor System. The so called pastor system is very common in the denominational environment. This involves the local preacher heading the local church. He makes most of the important decisions and often independently acts relative to the local church. The "Pastor System" is not only absent in the New Testament, it is totally contrary to what the scriptures actually teach as to leadership and superintendence, as seen in our introduction. In the first place, you never read of "The Pastor." A group of pastors (not one man) who met certain requirements ruled the early churches. While Peter was an elder, he never singularly ruled and, we might add, he also served as a preacher, but the two are not necessarily the same.
The Deacon System. Some denominational churches are run based on what they call the "Deacon System." While a class of men called deacons are certainly taught in the scriptures, you never read of deacons having rule, they are servants who serve under the elders (I Tim. 3: 8-13 cp. Phili. 1: 1).
The local Diotrephes. Diotrephes was the man mentioned by John in his letter to Gaius. There is a sharp contrast between Gaius and Diotrephes. Gaius was a faithful Christian, one who was characterized by love and unselfishness; while Diotrephes was the uncaring, selfish church boss. Relative to Diotrephes John wrote:
"9: I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not" (3 John).
I have personally preached for two churches that had a local Diotrephes. When I moved to work with these churches, these men literally ran the church. Previous preachers had acquiesced to their rule and members were afraid of them. Such a condition is reprehensible and also a sorry reflection on the church for allowing it. You will notice in Third John how John promised to deal with the reign of Diotrephes when he arrived.
The women. While the women or sisters in the local church are of great importance, they are never seen in the scriptures in leadership or ruling roles in terms of the local church (addendum 2). Notwithstanding this indisputable biblical fact, there are churches, even some Churches of Christ that are appointing women to serve as elders. I preached at one place where the elders were afraid of certain women and would not make a decision without first checking with them. While some churches would never "appoint" women to lead, they allow it, nevertheless. I say this because women can rule through their husbands.
Overseeing boards. Denominations customarily have an overseeing board or boards. These external boards often select and appoint their preachers and tell them what to teach and the church what to practice. Many denominations have what they call "Sunday School Boards." These external organizations determine what they teach in their classes. Such is against the simple teaching of local church autonomy seen in the New Testament (cp. Acts 14: 23).
Schools and institutions. The church historian and student is well aware of the role many schools and external institutions play regarding what local churches do and do not do. Seminaries typically train the preachers for the church and discipline them in their particular brand of theology. Many Churches of Christ are not exempt from such control. Various schools are seen today exerting tremendous influence over churches in their circles. More foundations and non-church institutions that are attempting to act like local churches are being introduced. They have more control over local churches and preachers in creating political climates than one might think, believe me.
The young people. One serious impetus of exerting control and running local churches involves the young people. Some local churches have over stepped their bounds in trying to keep their young people in church and out of the bars. Such influence has changed the complexion of religion today. Some churches have more toys, game rooms, and fancier basketball courts than professional recreation centers. They have basically ceased being institutions to study and teach the Bible and have become providers of fun and frolic (many of the older people also love and clamor for such).
The old people. Many young people have left "traditional churches" that have not catered to them and have gone out on their own, starting their own religions. There are more and more churches now especially the more conservative ones that are predominately made up of members over fifty-five. There is not anything necessarily wrong with this, but when these people become a ruling class, based on their own idiosyncrasies, such is wrong. On occasion, decisions and doctrinal positions are made simply based on the whims and desires of the senior members. They are not into basketball, but they like meals, card games, and bingo (the work of the local church is essentially spiritual, I Tim. 3: 15).
Committees and other internal orders. Some local churches are subdivided into a number of active groups or orders, all having entity authority to act and run the church. Back in the early eighties, I preached for a large church that did not then have elders. In the absence of scriptural leadership, they had a committee system. In the first "business meeting" after my arrival, they spent about two hours having each committee report and make their rulings about various matters. I sat in amazement and wondered what I had gotten myself into, so to speak. Toward the end of the meeting, they asked if I had any comment. My reply was, "You have a committee for just about everything, it seems to me the only think lacking is a committee to run and oversee the committees!" I was immediately told, "We have one of them, too."
The weak and ignorant. This may appear unkind, but in way more churches that one might imagine, the weak and ignorant virtually run the church. Some think Romans 14 demands such preferential treatment of the weak and ignorant class (see addendum 3).
The weak and ignorant are often consulted when a new preacher is being considered. Sometimes a word against a man is all that is needed to eliminate him in the selection of a new preacher. All the biblically illiterate have to say is, "He preaches over my head" and he is history.
With some, it is an easy transition from the "weak and ignorant" to the wicked and worldly. Some preachers are barred from holding meetings in some churches because they preach the truth on such socially sensitive subjects as divorce and marriage to another (Matt. 5: 32, 19: 9). "We will protest if brother Doe comes to preach," say the social drinkers.
In conclusion, please do not misunderstand the thrust of this article on "Who Runs the Church." We have scripturally established who is to "run" or superintend the local church. Be it known, moreover, that we do not mean to deprecate certain classes that comprise the local church. Classes such as women, young people, and old people. All these people are precious and valuable in Godís sight and they all have an important place in the church. However, their God appointed place is not leadership. Also, I do not mean to "poke fun" at conscientious brethren who attempt to organize their efforts to cause the local church to do the work God has assigned to it by negatively referring to the "committee system" (see addendum 4). Secular education is valuable and the negative reference to influential schools must not be understood to mean that we are to be against education in its rightful place. Moreover, we are not to be incognizant of babes in Christ and to the weak or indifferent regarding their needs. With all of this acknowledged, however, we still come back to how God wants his church, the one Jesus died for and over which he is the head, ran and the scriptures are plain.
Addendum 1: There are three Greek words used regarding the overseers of God's people. There is the word presbuterion or presbuteros. From this word we have the English words "elders" and "presbytery" (Tit. 1: 5; I Tim. 4: 14). "Overseer" and "bishop" are derived from the Greek episcopos (Acts 20: 28; I Tim. 3: 1). From poimen we have the English "shepherd" and "pastor" ( I Pet. 5: 2, 4; Eph. 4: 11). These three Greek words and the resultant six English words all denote the same function and group of men. Presbuteros (elders/presbytery) suggests one who is mature in age and spiritual development. Episcopos (overseer/bishop) involves ruling ability (Heb. 13: 7, 17, cp. I Tim. 3: 4 and 5: 17), and poimen (shepherd/pastor) indicates the care and watchfulness these men are to give to the flock, the local church.
Addendum 2: The Bible student will appreciate that in the church and home, the rule or headship is assigned to the male (cp. I Tim. 3: 1, 2, 4, 5). This is not to say that in matters domestic, the woman does not exercise tremendous "influence" and "control" (Tit. 2: 5 cp. Prov. 31: 10 ff.).
Addendum 3: While the "weak" in the circumstance of Romans 14 are definitely to be considered, they are not to be allowed to run the local church. Besides, the "issues" of Romans 14 did not directly involve morals or doctrine, but were more matters of a cultural and endemic nature.
Addendum 4: In the absence of elders, certain appointments to do various tasks are observed (cp. Acts 6, notice that even in this "unofficial" circumstance, these men possessed certain qualifications to do their assigned job). However, the "committee system" as mentioned in this material is anti-biblical.