The Elder Structure of Church Government |

Strauch, Alexander

Excerpted from Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership

The local church’s structure of government makes a statement about the nature and philosophy of its ministry. The local church is not an undefined mass of people; it is a particular group of people that has a unique mission and purpose. I am convinced that the elder structure of government best harmonizes with and promotes the true nature of the local church as revealed in the New Testament.

[Earlier] we enumerated three practical reasons for a plurality of elders: 1) balancing people’s weaknesses, 2) lightening the work load, and 3) providing accountability. Now we will consider four ways in which the elder structure of government complements the nature of the local church.

Of the different New Testament terms used to describe the nature of the church—the body, the bride, the temple, the flock—the most frequently used is the family, particularly the fraternal aspect of the family, brethren. Robert Banks, a prominent leader in the worldwide, home-church movement, makes this observation in his book, Paul’s Idea of Community [regarding] the frequency and significance of these familial expressions:

So numerous are these, and so frequently do they appear, that the comparison of the Christian community with a “family” must be regarded as the most significant metaphorical usage of all.... More than any of the other images utilized by Paul, it reveals the essence of his thinking about community.

The reason behind this preference for the familial aspect of the church is that only the most intimate of human relationships could express the love, closeness, privileges, and relationships that exist between God and man, and man and man, as a result of Christ’s incarnation and death. The local Christian church, then, is to be a close-knit family of brothers and sisters.

The reality of this strong, familial community supersaturates the New Testament [whose] writers most commonly refer to the believers as brethren. Peter refers to the worldwide Christian community as “the brotherhood” (1 Peter:2:17; 5:9). The terms brethrenbrother, or sister occur approximately 250 times throughout the New Testament. These terms are particularly abundant in Paul’s letters. The New Testament displays the family character of the Christian brotherhood in many practical ways: The early Christians met in homes... They shared material possessions... They ate together... They greeted one another with a holy kiss... They showed hospitality... [and] when appropriate, they disciplined their members.

Be Not Called Rabbi

Brotherliness also provided a key guiding principle for the management of relationships between Christians (Romans:14:15, 21; 1 Corinthians:6:8; 8:11-13; 2 Thessalonians:3:14, 15; Philemon 16; James:4:11). Jesus insisted that His followers were true brothers and sisters and that none among them should act like the rabbis of His day who elevated themselves above their fellow countrymen:

But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries, and lengthen the tassels of their garments.

And they love the place of honor at banquets, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called by men, Rabbi.

But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. (Matthew:23:5-8; italics added)

In complete obedience to Christ’s teaching on humility and brotherhood, the first Christians and their leaders resisted special titles, sacred clothes, chief seats, and lordly terminology to describe their community leaders. They also chose an appropriate leadership structure for their local congregations—leadership by a council of elders. The first Christians found within their biblical heritage a structure of government that was compatible with their new family and theological beliefs. Israel was a great family, composed of many individual families, and it found leadership by a plurality of elders to be a suitable form of self-government that provided fair representation for its members. The same is true of the local Christian church. The elder structure of government suits an extended family organization like the local church. It allows any brother in the community who desires and qualifies to share fully in the leadership of the community.

Not only is the local church an intimate, loving family of redeemed brothers and sisters, it is a nonclerical family. Unlike Israel, which was divided into sacred priestly members and lay members, the first-century Christian church was a people’s movement. The distinguishing mark of Christianity was not found in a clerical hierarchy but in the fact that God’s Spirit came to dwell within ordinary, common people and that through them the Spirit manifested Jesus’ life to the believing community and the world.

It is an immensely profound truth that no special priestly or clerical class in distinction from the whole people of God appears in the New Testament. Under the new covenant ratified by the blood of Christ, every member of the Church of Jesus Christ is a holy saint, a royal priest, and Spirit-gifted member of the body of Christ. Paul taught that a wide diversity of gifts and services exists within the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12), but he says absolutely nothing about a mystical gap between sacred clergy and common laity.... The New Testament...stresses the oneness of the people of God (Ephesians:2:13-19) and the dismantling of the sacred-secular concept that existed between priest and people under the old covenant (1 Peter:2:5-10; Revelation:1:6)....

Clericalism does not represent biblical, apostolic Christianity. Indeed, the real error to be contended with is not simply that one man provides leadership for the congregation, but that one person in the holy brotherhood has been sacralized apart from the brotherhood to an unscriptural status. In practice, the ordained clergyman—the minister, the reverend—is the Protestant priest.

Biblical eldership cannot exist in an environment of clericalism. Paul’s employment of the elder structure of government for the local church is clear, practical evidence against clericalism because the eldership is nonclerical in nature. The elders are always viewed in the Bible as “elders of the people,” or “elders of the congregation,” never “elders of God.” The elders represent the people as leading members from among the people.

When establishing churches, Paul...left behind a council of elders chosen from among the believers to jointly oversee the local community (Acts:14:23; Titus:1:5). Obviously that was all he felt a local church needed.