A Glimpse at Church Government
Our portion of Scripture today presents us with a wonderful opportunity to deal with the matter of church polity. This is fitting since the last time we were in Acts together we spent a couple of weeks discussing God’s design for civil government. We will now deal with God’s design for church government.
A basic question to ask is this: Is there even a divine design to the leadership structure of the church, or are local assemblies at liberty to construct whatever structure they see fit? This leads us to a follow up question, which is: If there is a divine design to church government, is there a specific God given purpose to the offices of leadership? In other words, are there objective functions for those who govern the body of Christ, or are those in leadership permitted to function however they want to?
I believe this text reveals to us that there is not only a divine design to leadership in the church, but that there is also a clear and specific purpose to the positions of leadership that God has established to govern His people for His glory. Our duty as a body of believers in Jesus Christ is to gaze upon His divine blueprint of His church as it is revealed in His all-sufficient Word, and faithfully live in accordance with it.
Let us begin by understanding that there are only two God ordained offices of leadership in the church. First, there is the office of Elder, which is more commonly known as Pastor, but also referred to as Bishop or Overseer in the Scripture. They are all referring to the office of an elder. Second, there is the office of Deacon, which simply means servant.
It is important we understand that God desires His church to be led by a plurality of pastors, and not just one. We see this both implicitly and explicitly in the Scripture. We see it established by example and by instruction.
Consider what Paul does after his first missionary journey. Instead of taking the quickest way home, he turns around and goes back through all the churches he just planted. In Acts 14 Luke records for us what he was doing. Apart from “strengthening the souls of the disciples” and encouraging the churches, he was appointing “elders for them in every city.” He went through and established an eldership. A body of pastors to govern the church.
We see that the church in Ephesus was governed by a plurality of pastors. Consider Acts 20:17 when Paul is saying farewell to the Ephesians. Luke says, “17 From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church.” The church in Philippi was led by a plurality of elders.
The necessity of a church being led by a plurality of elders is seen in Paul’s letter to Titus. He says to him in Titus 1:5:
“5 For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you.”
In 1 Peter 5:1, Peter speaks to the pastors of the church saying, “Therefore, I exhort the elders among you.” Again, the churches are being led by a plurality of pastors and not just one.
Not only does God desire His people to be led by a plurality of pastors, but He also desires them all to be qualified to do so. How do you know if someone is qualified to be an elder? Christ tells you in 1 Timothy 3:1-7:
“It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. 2 An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. 4 He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity 5 (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), 6 and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. 7 And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”
The Spirit also provides us with a list of pastoral qualifications in Titus 1:5-9 through Paul when he says:
“5 For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you, 6 namely, if any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion. 7 For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, 8 but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, 9 holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.”
By the way, the qualifications of an elder are what every believer’s life ought to look like. Paul instructed Timothy to be an example of the believer. These are not extraordinary qualifications, but really the outcome of the ordinary working of the Spirit in the life of a maturing believer.
Not only does God desire His people to be led by a plurality of qualified elders, but above all He desires them to all be willing. 1 Peter 5:1-5 says:
“1 Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, 2 shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; 3 nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. 4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”
The Scripture also reveals that God has intended for His church to be cared for not only by Pastors, but also by a second office in the church known as deacons. Again, His desire is that this too be held by a plurality of men. We understand this was the case in the New Testament church when Paul writes to the Philippians stating this in verse 1:
“Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons.”
We also see a plurality of deacons being implied in Paul’s letter to Timothy when he instructs him that, like the elders of the church, deacons must meet specific qualifications before being appointed to the office. 1 Timothy 3:8-13 states:
“8 Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, 9 but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach. 11 Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things. 12 Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households. 13 For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.”
I want us to get but a glimpse of the structure of church government and to see that there are only two God ordained offices of leadership within it, which are Elders and Deacons. By God’s design the church is to be led by a plurality of willing, capable, and elder qualified men, as well as by a plurality of willing, capable, and deacon qualified men. This is what the Scripture teaches, and this is what has been commonly understood throughout the history of the church. Both offices of authority are distinct, and both are necessary and vital to the church body. It is critical we grasp the fact that without them functioning as they ought to, the church inevitably suffers in various ways.
We see this here in Acts after Luke describes how the disciples were increasing in number. The church had now exploded in population. Luke no longer records for us an approximate number. He stopped doing this in Acts 4:4 after making mention that the number of just the men in the church came to be about 5,000. When we consider that marriage was common practice in society, as well as having children, we can easily assume that the church in Acts at this point had well over 15,000 individuals within it.
The church of God was dramatically increasing in number. The Lord was continually adding more people to His body, and the Twelve Apostles were striving to fulfill the commission they had received from Jesus to tend to His sheep and shepherd them by teaching them to observe all that He had commanded. Remember their commission in Matthew 28:19-20:
“19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Recall the gracious moment we witness between Jesus and Peter at the sea of Galilee in John 21:15-17. Keep in mind that this is not only after the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, but also after Peter’s display of unworthiness when he denied knowing Him. John says:
“15 So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.” 16 He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep.”
Truly, there is no question about it, that the Twelve were striving to shepherd the sheep of Christ to the glory of Christ.
Our text, however, reminds us that through all their striving to be faithful to their commission they were still no more than common men, and, therefore, they were incapable of meeting every possible need within the church. This created a problem. As Luke says:
“1 Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food.
Within the vibrant life of the church, significant needs were not being met, which resulted in a complaint arising from the Hellenistic Jews. These were Jews that were Hellenized through Israel’s captivity and dispersion among the nations. To be Hellenized means that though they were loyal to Judaism, their culture and language was conformed to the Greeks way of thought. In society this caused hostility between them and the native, Hebrew, and Aramaic speaking Jews who had not absorbed the Greek way of life. Hellenized Jews were, therefore, treated as second class citizens in society.
This thinking undoubtedly carried over into the church in various ways. Perhaps not only in a sense where believing native Jews did not prioritize believing Hellenized Jews, but also in a sense where those who are accustomed to being treated as second class citizens read ill intentions into a situation in which it did not exist. In other words, perhaps no one had actually done anything against them because they are Hellenized Jews, but because Hellenized Jews are accustomed to being treated as second class citizens, they view such neglect as an intentional act when it was not.
Whether or not the sin of partiality was at play among the church in this account is of little importance to us right now. What we do know is that widows in the church were being neglected, and the body of people who were characterized as being of one heart and soul were now on the brink of division.
It is no surprise that neglect had occurred because the disciples were increasing in number as the gospel spread and the twelve Apostles were the only ones at this point who were distributing to any who had need. The shepherds of the church were merely incapable of meeting the needs of all the flock. What do they say when they are presented with this dilemma? We will attend to it right away? No! They say:
“It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables.3 Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
As I have already stated, this text reveals to us the necessity of Elders and Deacons functioning properly within the church. It shows us how vital each office is. It is true that we are not in a prescriptive text. We do not find ourselves in a portion of Scripture that is prescribing for us something to do. We are, however, in a descriptive text. One that records for us the life and of the church, especially its order and purpose of leadership. Today we will specifically deal with a Pastor’s priority, and then next week we will consider the directive of deacons.
The Chief Architect and Supreme Authority
Let us ask ourselves: What is to be the priority of Pastors everywhere? This is not so much a question about pastoral duty. That is a pretty straightforward matter. Simply put, the duty of pastors are to protect, to feed, and to lead the flock of God according to the Word of God. Acts 20:18-21, Paul says to the Ephesian elders:
“28 Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. 29 I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.”
Pastors are those whom Christ has given to His church for the building up of His body. Ephesians 4:11-13 says:
“11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.”
To fulfill the demands of the office, pastors must do as the Apostles did and devote themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word for the edifying of the saints and the evangelism of the lost.
If this is their duty, what then is their priority? This is a matter of what is to be most important to them as they carry out their duty. To answer this question, we should first consider a couple of things.
Some of you are aware that there are two truths that have proven to be a great relief to both my heart and my mind since becoming a pastor:
- The first is that Jesus Christ is the One who builds His church. He said in Matthew 16:17-18 after Peter confesses Him to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God:
“Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”
Christ is the Chief Architect of His church, not me. Though I am certainly a vessel through which He accomplishes this job, I have never been tasked with building it. He is the One who calls. He is the One who justifies. Jesus said in John 10:14-16:
“14 I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, 15 even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd.”
Yes, the Lord Jesus Christ is the One who builds His church.
- The second truth that fills me with not only relief as a pastor, but purpose as one, is that Jesus Christ is the head of the church He is building. Colossians 1:18 says that Jesus is the:
“Head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.”
We are one flock with one Shepherd. Christ is the Supreme Authority over His church, not me. Just as I am not tasked with building His church, I am not tasked with functioning as its head.
It Is because of this second truth I would argue that the chief responsibility of pastors everywhere, without exception, is to ensure that Jesus Christ retains His headship over His church. They are to make certain that Christ has preeminence in everything, and that they do not usurp His authority.
The question is, how do they do this? How can elders ensure that Christ shepherds His sheep whom He bled and died for? How do pastors make certain that Jesus Christ retains His headship over His church? The answer is before us in Acts. By devoting themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.
Prayer and The Word
Let us just ask ourselves a couple of questions here:
- What is prayer? Prayer is that form of worship whereby, we acknowledge our own individual insufficiency and dependance upon God’s being all-sufficient. It is that act whereby we show that we are in a desperate need of the wisdom, and power, and care of our God. It is that humble act of adoration where we assume His sovereignty over His creation. Prayer recognizes that creation has a King, and the Church has a head, and He reigns from His throne, and no person or thing can ever frustrate His plan and purpose. To pray is to delight oneself in the Lord.
Do we realize that when pastors do not devote themselves to prayer they inevitably usurp the headship of Christ over His people. They lead the church upon their own wisdom and strength as if it does not have an all-knowing and all-powerful Head residing over it. They inevitably look to themselves as the sustainer of the church and treat Christ as unnecessary.
- How does Christ speak to us today? Through His Word.
Any Pastor that does not devote themselves to the careful study and exposition of His Word usurps Christ’s headship over His people. They treat their thoughts and opinions as more important than the Word’s of Christ which are living and active and sufficient for all matters pertaining to life and godliness.
The primary duty of an elder, of an overseer, of a pastor, is to teach sound doctrine from the living and active Word of God, so that Christ functions as the churches head.
Paul instructs Timothy that for a man to even be qualified for the office of pastor, he must be “able to teach.” Titus 1:9 says that a pastor must be able to “hold fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching.” To “hold fast” means that he must cleave to doctrine, and he must do this because his duty requires “that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine, and to refute those who contradict.” He must be equipped in the Word to contend for the faith which has been once for all delivered to the saints.
Just consider Paul’s instruction to Timothy on what to do as a pastor. In the letter, Paul writes to Timothy so that he might know how the church is to conduct itself. In 1 Timothy 4:6, Paul tells Timothy to be “constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine” which he was following. In verse 13, Paul instructed him to “give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching.” In verse 15, Paul told him not to neglect the gift within him, but to take great “pains with these things”, to “be absorbed in them.” In verse 16, Paul says to him:
“Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things; for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.”
A Pastor is to be devoted to sound doctrine. They are to be constantly nourished by it and teaching it. They are to take pains in their study of it. It is to consume them not merely for their own benefit, but the benefit of all who hear them. Why? Doctrine is critical. Bad doctrine destroys people, but sound doctrine brings life both quantitatively and qualitatively. In other words, it does not just provide a person with eternal life, but also the means to lay hold of that eternal life and live it abundantly in the here and now to the glory of God.
It was Charles Spurgeon that admonished young pastors under his tutelage to not puzzle people with careless, unstudied thoughts. Spurgeon spoke about a man that talked about having an idea one day, and without giving any consideration to the validity of the thought just threw it out from the pulpit for all to hear. There are a lot of people like this who get behind the pulpit. They give no thought to what they are saying they just throw it out. A thought tickles their fancy, and rather than think as to whether it is doctrinally consistent and of benefit to the believer or whether it is doctrinally inconsistent and thus damaging to them, they thoughtlessly throw out their idea for all to hear. As Spurgeon says:
“That is a very good thing to do with most of your new ideas. Throw them out, by all means; but mind where you are when you do it; for if you throw them out from the pulpit they may strike somebody, and inflict a wound upon faith. Throw out your fancies, but first go alone in a boat a mile out to sea. When you have once thrown out your unconsidered trifles, leave them to the fishes.”
We are all to hold every thought captive in Christ. How much more so elders of the church who have been tasked with shepherding the souls of Christ’ s sheep? The pulpit is no place for a pastor to ponder doctrine. It is a place where he is to come prepared in heart and mind to proclaim it accurately.
Regarding a pastor’s duty to devote themselves to sound doctrine, consider Paul’s second letter to Timothy. There are at least five things Paul instructs Timothy to do with sound doctrine in this letter: Retain it, Guard it, Entrust it, Study it, and Preach it.
In 2 Timothy 1:13, Paul says to him, “Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me.” Just as a cup retains water within it, Timothy was to hold on to doctrine. In verse 14, Paul tells him to “Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you.” In other words, contend for the faith. In chapter 2 verse 2, Paul says this to Timothy:
“2 The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
In other words, “Deliver sound doctrine to trustworthy men capable of delivering it to others.” In verse 15, Paul commands to devote himself to the study and handling of the word:
“15 Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”
Finally, Paul says to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:1-5:
“I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. 5 But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
Again, a pastor is to be devoted to the Word. He is to be like Ezra the scribe who “had set his heart to study the law of the Lord and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.” This is just what Ezra did. In Nehemiah, Ezra read the word of God to the people of God. He stood with the book of the Law before the entire congregation elevated at a wooden podium which they made exclusively for that purpose. From there, he and the leaders of Israel explained the Law to the people. Nehemiah 8:8 says:
“They read from the book, from the law of God, explaining to give the sense so that they understood the reading.”
A pastor spends his time drawing near to God through the study of His word exegeting the Scripture, that is to draw the truth out of it, all so that he may then explain it to God’s people to give the sense of it so that they understand the reading and can conform themselves to it. This is the devotion God requires of pastors.
What was it the Apostles said to the church? It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables.In other words, “It is not good for us to turn aside from our commission to meet this need.” For them to neglect their God-given duty would result in a far greater issue within the church. It would be as if it were severed from its Head, Jesus Christ.
Many people have a misconception of pastors and do not realize that the pastoral office is one of serious, laborious, and prayerful study. It certainly does not stay in the study, but it must begin there. How can pastors lead people to God, without first drawing near to Him themselves in the study of His Word through which He reveals Himself? Before Moses could speak to the people about the things of God, He had to first spend 40 days on the mountain with Him. It is the same with Elders. We cannot take people where we have not been ourselves.
Elders must be both a student of the Word, and a student of church history. How else will they contend for the faith which has been once for all delivered to the saints, if they do no understand what the saints have adhered to from generation to generation? How will they be able to effectively guard the sheep from the various false teachings that have been seeking to infiltrate the church since its inception if they neither know the truth, nor the teachings that have taken on different forms throughout the life of the church? It was Cicero that said:
“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”
The Lord says to us through Jeremiah:
“Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths,
Where the good way is, and walk in it;
And you will find rest for your souls.”
Again, the Pastoral office is one of serious and laborious study.
I often find that the more I study the more stupid I get. It is not that I do not learn in my study. In fact, I find the exact opposite to be true. I learn much. In my learning, however, I find out how little I actually know. I discover how deficient my understanding of a given topic truly is. I see how many men and women have gone before me in greater distances of the truth. The more that I study I realize that what I believed was me mining tremendous treasures of truth, was actually me just scratching the surface of it. I find that what I thought was me plummeting to great depths of truth was just me wading on the surface it.
So, I say that study makes me stupid. It shows me how small I really am in thought. It strips me of every ounce of pride I have in my current understanding. It reduces me to nothing, and reminds me that the church does not need me. It needs Christ. Since it needs Christ, I must devote myself to Him in prayer and the study of His Word, so that you might get Him, and all of Him, and none of me.
May we see in this portion of Scripture that the greatest priority of pastors is not people, but Christ. The church is not master over pastors, Christ is. They are subservient to Him alone. May we understand that when they prioritize Christ by devoting themselves to Him through prayer and the Word, Christ retains His headship and people are genuinely cared for. I appreciate Tom Ascol’s observation when he says that:
“The greatest theologians in the history of the church have been faithful pastors. And the greatest pastors in the history of the church have been careful theologians. Obviously, the names appearing on both lists (with rare exceptions) are the same. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Gill, Edwards, Fuller, Spurgeon, and Lloyd-Jones were pastor-theologians. They were men who took the apostolic qualifications for elders seriously and, in fulfillment of their calling to shepherd God’s people, faithfully gave themselves to the work of theology.”
These are the type of men you want to lead you.
Church, it is important for you to appoint willing, able, and qualified men, because these are men who are to keep watch over your souls. Would you go to see a doctor who did not really care about their job and was unwilling, or unequipped and consequently unqualified? No, you would not. Know that Pastors are to be physicians of your soul. Just as an unwilling, unequipped, or unqualified medical doctor can do you great harm to a person, so can an unwilling, unequipped, or unqualified elder. It could be argued that they could do much worse. To the best of my ability I will never put a man before you to appoint as an elder that shows unwillingness, or inability, or is disqualified because of his character.
Remember as well that these are the men God commands you to submit to as the governing authorities over you within the church for your good and His glory. Hebrews 13:17 says:
“17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.”
In the future, may we appoint godly men of high esteem.
Will we ever find a worthy man? Never! Without Christ we are all but depraved dust deserving of eternal damnation. It is because of His grace alone that we are who we are. He who knew no sin became our sin and bore it on His body on the cross so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. We were all dead in sin, but He made us alive in Him. The only One who is worthy to lead you is Christ, and it is He who sees fit to graciously give men to His flock to function as under shepherds to Him.
May we understand that being qualified never equates to being worthy. The standard God gives us to hold men up to does do not call us to look for those who are perfect, but for those who are pressing on toward the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
May God give us men after His own heart who are willing, able, and qualified to lead us, and understand that what this church needs most is not themselves, but Christ and His gospel!
 Acts 14:22-23
 Philippians 1:1
 Acts 4:32
 Acts 4:34-35
 Job 42:2; Psalm 33:11; 115:3; Isaiah 14:27; 45:6-7; 46:10; Daniel 4:35
 1 Timothy 3:2
 Jude 4
 1 Timothy 3:15
 The Greatest Fight in the World, Charles Spurgeon; Page 42
 Ezra 7:10