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New church governance book sets forth 5 perspectives

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–What is the most biblical way to structure church government?

That is the central question addressed in “Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity,” a new book edited by Chad Brand and R. Stanton Norman from the Broadman & Holman publishing arm of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Brand is associate professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and Norman is associate professor of theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

Perspectives on Church Government features five chapters written by five different scholars. Each chapter defends a different view of church government and ends with responses from the other four scholars.

No single view of church government should be considered an essential tenet of Christian orthodoxy, Brand and Norman write in the introduction. They believe, however, that developing a biblical perspective on church government is highly important for anyone seeking to minister effectively in the context of a local congregation.

Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forrest, N.C., defends a model of church government in which a single elder leads the congregation.

“Each and every member has equal rights and responsibilities,” Akin writes. “However, aspects of representative democracy are not ruled out. Certain persons may indeed be chosen by the body of believers to lead and serve in particular and specific ways. Those who are called to pastor the church immediately come to mind.”

Because the New Testament does not specify the number of elders required in a congregation, a church may have just one elder if only one man in the church meets the scriptural qualifications for the office, Akin writes. Even in cases where there is a plurality of elders, Akin interprets Scripture to suggest the one elder should emerge as the “first among equals.”

Robert L. Reymond, professor of systematic theology at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., argues for a Presbyterian model of church government in which individual congregations elect elders. Those elders “are to rule and to oversee the congregation, not primarily in agreement with the will of the congregation but primarily in agreement with the revealed Word of God, in accordance with the authority delegated to them by Christ, the head of the church.”

Unlike the congregational model, Reymond argues that each local church is not an autonomous unit. Instead, the New Testament teaches that congregations should form a “connectional government of graded courts,” which exercises spiritual and moral oversight over individual congregations.

James Leo Garrett, emeritus professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, presents the democratic congregational model of church government. According to Garrett, final human authority in a church rests with the entire congregation when it gathers for decision-making.

“This means that decisions about membership, leadership, doctrine, worship, conduct, missions, finances, property, relationships, and the like are to be made by the gathered congregation except when such decisions have been delegated by the congregation to individual members or groups of members,” Garrett writes.

While congregationalism allows for pastoral leadership in local churches, Garrett argues that congregations that adopt elder rule in some form move toward the “erosion or rejection” of congregational polity.

Paul F. Zahl, dean of the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Ala., supports the Episcopal model of church government. The New Testament does not mandate any one model of church government as essential for a biblically functioning congregation, he contends. Therefore, Christians must opt for a form of church government that most effectively contributes to the well-being of the church.

Under the Episcopal model, churches are governed by a three-tiered leadership structure, Zahl writes. Deacons are the first order of leaders and act as servants in local congregations. Presbyters or elders are the second order of leaders and act as overseers in local congregations. Bishops are the third order of leaders and oversee the activities of elders and congregations.

James R. White, adjunct professor of theology at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif., and president of Alpha and Omega Ministries, advocates a plural elder-led congregational model of church government. Like Akin, White argues that the ultimate human authority in a church rests in the gathered congregation and that the congregation should elect elders to lead the church.

Unlike Akin, however, White argues that the Bible calls for more than one elder in each congregation and does not elevate one elder as the “first among equals.” Elders may perform slightly different functions within the congregation according to their giftedness, he writes.

White concludes that all Christians must seek to discover the Bible’s standards for church polity if they hope to build up the body of Christ effectively.

“The issue [of church government] is an important one, despite the fact that it hardly appears on the ‘radar screen’ of the modern church. It truly reflects how much we really believe Jesus is Lord of his church and is concerned that it functions as he has commanded.”
Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity is available at LifeWay Christian Stores or online at www.lifewaystore.com.