A frequently asked question in the local church setting is, "Who is in charge?" People want to know, what is the authority structure?

This is a question that is asked by new members coming into a fellowship. It is also asked by pastoral candidates who are thinking about going to a church. It is asked by many within a local church as they try to discern what might work best for their particular fellowship.

Often the questions are logistical and practical. People are looking for that which might work the best. On occasion, there is a question about the biblical basis for a church's structure. Some people actually want to know what the Bible says and whether the Bible deals with particular questions about structure, style, polity, and authority. Sometimes, these questions are asked by individuals in churches in transition. As churches grow, there seems to be a development, or evolution, from one structure to another. Smaller churches often reflect a more clearly defined congregational structure. Congregational authority is the predominant form of decision-making. In larger churches, there seems to be less direct congregational involvement, with more of the day-to-day decision-making responsibilities delegated to the staff, elders, or pastor.

Many churches also utilize some form of committee or team involvement in the fulfillment of their ministries. Some of these ministry teams have governing authority while others have service or ministry related functions only. I think it is safe to say that most Baptist churches use some kind of partnership in which the congregation makes some decisions, deacons and/or committees help make others, while elders or pastors are empowered to certain areas of authority and leadership.

It may be clearly stated that as churches transition from one governance or leadership style to another, they usually experience growing pains.

In today's environment, there are many "voices" calling for significant and fundamental changes in ecclesiological structures. Some want to move away from the historic model of congregational government; others want to return to this model. In fact, in our own Convention, many lay people are calling for more involvement in church governance since they are the ones who "pay the bills." I hear from pastors and staff regularly who have heard this call come from the pews of their churches.

Yet, other voices are calling for the pastor to be the trusted leader God has placed in the position of authority and leadership. Over the last decades, many have written about the value of a pastor-led church.

We also hear many voices calling for an elder form of congregational leadership.

While the ultimate source for our faith and practice is the Word of God, our Baptist heritage has addressed these issues, as reflected in Article VI of our Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (BF&M).

A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.

The New Testament church is a spiritual fellowship. The Greek word for fellowship (koinonia) is a beautiful word which describes spiritual fellowship, one in which there is a common bond. The BF&M 2000 clearly points out what that common bond is: the fellowship of the Gospel. On the other hand, the church must be organized to fulfill its work as given by our Lord Jesus Christ. How a particular local church is organized is where the discussion ensues. This organization calls for some type of self-government or polity. As already pointed out, there are various forms of church governance in twenty-first century church life. To the surprise of many and chagrin of others, the New Testament does not give specific institutional structural guidelines to the church. Whatever structure it does portray is quite simple and obviously met the needs of the local bodies at that time. There was function involved in the process of structure. There are functional roles discussed that seem to give us some idea of the structure which was present at the time. Many forms of church polity claim their essential ministry concepts are found in the New Testament. All claim to be a way to perform the ministry of Christ in the local church in an effective way.

While the Baptist Faith and Message does make clear that each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ, it states that it does so through democratic processes. I like the words of Franklin Segler, who said that "democratic polity and theory… does not always guarantee democratic practice."1 He also said that the spirit of the persons involved in each instance will determine the quality of the freedom exercised in the decisions and actions of the church. Realizing the many voices that surround us, and realizing that our own confession of faith declares that there is a democratic process that should be a part of church polity or government, let us look to the ultimate Source to see if there is some light it can shed upon our questions. In Acts 20:17-32, we read the story of Paul's farewell to the Ephesian elders. He used the word "elders" in verse 17. This word is in the plural. As many scholars point out, the word is often used synonymously with pastor or bishop.

First Peter 5:1-4, also speaks a word of illumination. The letter is addressed to the elders. Peter identifies that he is an elder by referring to the others as "fellow elders." In this fascinating text, he gives a word of instruction about how elders or shepherds or overseers must manifest a Christ-like character which exhibits itself not only in a lack of greediness, but in an eagerness to serve and a servanthood kind of spirit that seeks to be an example rather than a dictator. While that does not deal specifically with structure, it speaks a powerful word about the need for a Christ-like servant spirit among those who are leaders. Philippians 1:1-2 also gives a word as Paul addresses his letter not only to the saints but also to the overseers and deacons. Again, this word, overseer (or bishop), is often synonymous with leader, elder, or pastor.

Some of the most often quoted verses in regard to these roles are found in 1 Timothy 3 where Paul admonishes the early church to remember the role and the character of overseers or elders. Attention is also given to the spiritual character of deacons or the leading servants of the church.

I think it is clear that the Bible is much more focused on the character and integrity of the leaders than specifically defining the actual job descriptions of the various leaders. Perhaps this was intentional? I believe that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. Therefore, I believe that what is in Scripture is what is meant to be there. I also believe that what is not there is meant not to be there. Our Lord, being a wise and omniscient God, knew that the needs of the Body might change from time to time and from place to place. However, as long as leaders exhibit the kind of character outlined in the Scripture, church governance and polity will be done in a way that honors the Lord!

That being said, I do believe it is a vital exercise to discuss whether or not there should be a plurality of elders, or pastors, and what role they might assume. In a panel discussion that featured Mark Dever, Richard Land, James Leo Garrett, and Paige Patterson, Patterson expressed concern about the growing trend toward "elder rule" in Southern Baptist churches. 2

A proponent of congregationalism, Patterson said that he believes some churches adopt elder rule to fix extreme or unbiblical forms of congregationalism. One such distorted form views the pastor as the slave hired to do the work of the church. Instead of correcting that flawed perspective to a biblical model of congregationalism, some churches have swung the pendulum toward elder rule. Patterson rightly suggested this "fix" might be worse than the problem it sought to alleviate.

I have seen churches react in this sad way. I have seen many churches treat their pastor as no more than a chaplain or a friend who takes care of the sick and hurting, but whose prophetic voice is stifled by a congregation that seeks to decide every aspect of church programming, direction, and vision. This will always stunt a church's growth and vitality.

On the other hand, there is the tendency for pastors or elders to decide that they want to rule rather than lead. This kind of leadership often tends toward an autocratic style that alienates other staff and certainly lay leaders within a fellowship. This unfortunate situation is being witnessed across our country. The CEO model of pastoral leadership is leaving its sad mark all across our Convention. Sadly, this kind of leadership comes often not from theological reflection but from a personal need to be seen as powerful
or important.

Trying to avoid either of these two extremes, what should churches do to be biblically correct yet relevant to the needs of the church?

I think the issues before us today are character and Christ-likeness. I believe that when one leads within a community where the congregation is the ultimate decision-making body, there is a beautiful partnership. In the churches which I have been privileged to serve as pastor, there was a partnership between the pastor, elders or other staff, committees, and deacons which worked very well. There was respect for each of the roles and persons.

Many churches struggle as to whether to have a plurality of elders. In the aforementioned debate, Mark Dever stated his belief in the plurality of elders. Patterson also said, "I do not have a problem with the multiplicity of elders within congregationalism." While I agree with both Dever and Patterson at this point, the vast majority of our churches choose to have a singular pastor, bishop, or elder. I think that is quite fine. Even when additional staff members are employed or lay elders are selected, I think the issue before us is not as much an issue of polity, but of character. Having been a pastor for a long time and having worked with and ministered to pastors for a long time, I can tell of very sad situations that have come from both congregation-led churches, pastor-led churches, and elder-led churches. When humans are involved, there is always going to be the possibility of conflict. Where there is a congregational group of people who look to the Lord for strength and guidance, there will always be a possibility of reconciliation, redemption, and resolution. It is my hope and prayer that all of our churches will seek to have a Christ-likeness that results in resolution of conflict regardless of their polity or structure.

Regardless of the specific style of congregational governance a church may employ, Jesus Christ is the Head of the Body. The congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ. Each church member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. At the end of the day, He is in charge. May our Lord receive preeminence in all things.

1. Segler, Franklin. Theology of Church and Ministry (B&H Publishing, 1991), p.19.

2. Myers, Gary D. "Elders in Baptist churches? Conference examines the idea," Baptist Press, 13 February 2004.

    About the Author

  • Frank S. Page