The Government of Jesus’ Church
When Jesus said, “I will build My church, ..” (Matt. 16:18) His right of ownership was fully established. With the rights of ownership come also the right to structure the church according to His own good pleasure. But there are literally thousands of religious institutions, all claiming some touch with Christ, yet with such a wide variety of governmental forms that hardly any of them are alike. There is only one religious institution in this world that is governmentally identical to Christ’s original church. Which is it?
There is a large variety of church government represented in both protestant and catholic religious circles. Some religious groups favor the convention form of government, where local churches within a specific denominational framework voluntarily band together in a central organization called the convention. Through their representatives, they formulate policies for that particular denominational body, as well as perform work as an aggregate body.
Other denominational organizations favor a form of church government called a Synod. A Synod is a council or an assembly of local churches, which forms a particular denomination. Some large denominational bodies are made up of a group of synods. Then there is a form of church government that may be called “monarchial.” This form of church government is patterned after a monarchy with one man at the top as supreme ruler, various cabinets and consulates under him. This is the form of church government represented by Roman Catholicism.
Some of the religious cults pattern a form of church government after our own representative form of democracy. Mormonism, for example, is organized from a president at the top, who is also called prophet and seer, with a group of so-called “apostles” under him, who govern a large number of “stakes” and “wards.” Do any of these kinds of government even resemble the kind Jesus gave His church? If so, which one is it?
Looking for the kind of government Jesus authorized in His church can only be successful when we consult His last will and Testament. Let us begin with His own words. “All authority, both in heaven and on earth, has been given to me” (This is Matt. 28:18). Jesus received total authority from the Father and gave His chosen apostles the worldwide commission to preach His gospel, based on that authority. If Jesus has all authority, none is left for any other governing agency or body. “All authority, both in heaven and on earth, has been given to me. You go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you, and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20). Jesus left no authority for anyone other than Himself. He delegated only responsibility; He never delegated His authority to anyone.
Upon His authority, His disciples were allowed to make disciples through preaching the gospel. Jesus invited the entire world to “come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me, for My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt. 11:27-30). This great invitation invites people to learn of Him. There is but one way to learn of Christ today and that is through the word He revealed to the world through the men who were inspired to write it down. Jesus promised His apostles, “When the Spirit of truth is come, He will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). When the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles they received, not part of the truth, but all of the truth. There is no truth that pertains to one’s relationship to God, through Christ, not revealed to the apostles. Listen to our Savior. To His disciples, He said, “He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me” (Matt. 10:40). Through His specially chosen apostles, He alone governs His church.
Since Christ rules His church through His apostles, and since they no longer live on earth, how can He govern? Jesus anticipated this precise matter. He said to the apostles, “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28).
Regeneration means generating something again. God generated (created) the world in the beginning. That was a physical creation of heaven and earth. Jesus spoke of another generation, in which He would sit on His throne as supreme monarch, and the apostles would sit on twelve thrones to judge “the twelve tribes of Israel.” Judges do not rule -- they serve under the ruler, Jesus Christ, as His ambassadors. And should we stumble at the fact that they no longer live among us, therefore cannot judge, we should remember that Jesus still rules, while no longer alive in the flesh.
This regeneration is the New Testament age, when Jesus promised His church would come into existence. That is the age in which we live and will continue to live until time ends. Thus, Jesus is now reigning over God’s people and the apostles, through their inspired words, continue to be judges. The fact that Jesus called His church “the twelve tribes of Israel” is in accord with other statements in the New Testament. The short book of James was written to “the twelve tribes that are scattered abroad” (James 1:1). The church was made up in part of converted Jews, who still retained their tribal identities, but not their former religious views and practices. In fact, the whole church, both Jew and Gentile, were referred to figuratively as “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).
The apostles, through preaching Christ’s gospel, made disciples in every nation on earth. They did this through preaching His gospel. Then, they taught them to “observe all that” Christ commanded the apostles. As time came for them to “go the way of all flesh,” they followed Christ’s authority and set up a system by which the church would be governed after their departure. First, they made sure Christ’s gospel would continue to be preached. Paul wrote a young evangelist, “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). Anticipating the claim that even angels might bring another revelation, he wrote to the churches of Galatia, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). So sure was this made, that the anathema of God rests even on an angel who would preach anything other than what the apostles, under Christ’s authority, preached in the first century.
Those who were made disciples by apostolic preaching were formed into local groups called “churches of Christ.” Paul used this very expression in Romans 16:16 where he said, “The churches of Christ salute you.” Churches here refers to a number of local churches, all following the apostolic order. Within each of these local groups, by Christ’s authority, the apostles ordained men who were called “elders” to superintend the group. A very plain statement of this is found in Acts 14. Luke tells us of Paul’s travels that led him to the Asian cities of Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium. After having made many disciples in each city, he and Barnabas returned and, verse 23 reads: “So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” These elders are also called bishops, pastors, or shepherds. There is no distinction between elders, pastors or bishops. And that is the only body of men who have oversight of anything in the church today, by Christ’s authority. Men who were called “deacons,” or “ministers” were also chosen to serve with and under the elders of each local church (Phil. 1:1).
Each of these local groups were organized autonomously and independently of each other. Peter wrote to elders, “Shepherd (or pastor) the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by constraint but willingly, not for dishonest gain, but eagerly” (1 Pet. 5:2). The oversight of a single group of elders was (and always should be) limited to the flock of God that is among them. It may interest you to know that the first step away from the Christ’s authority in the government of His church occurred when a group of elders assumed the oversight of several other local churches. This gradually led to what historians call “a monarchial form of church government.”
The government of Christ’s church may be summarized as follows. (1) Christ is the supreme governor of His church. (2) His government is administered through the apostolic office of making disciples through preaching His gospel. (3) The apostles, under Christ’s authority, organized the church into local fellowships and appointed certain men to function as elders or overseers. (4) These elders were limited in their oversight to the congregation where they served. (5) And that is it -- there is no more government to Christ’s church. That is why the convention, the synod, the monarchial, or even the democratic forms of church government must be rejected. The only church that duplicates the kind of government Christ gave His church in the first century, is the one that has elders in every church, and which operates completely under apostolic teaching, and limits their oversight to their own congregation. Next, we will look at how these men were selected.
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