Part 6 of the Series:
Questioning Church Authority
by Don Enevoldsen
“I think I would enjoy church if it weren’t for the human element,” a friend said to me one day.
I understand the sentiment. During half a century of church life, I’ve seen politics as often as I’ve seen ministry. I’ve dreamed of a church where the ministry really was the highest priority. Of course it’s obvious that some structure is necessary for a church to function, but does it always have to lead to the abuses of human depravity?
From a time long before moving to Los Angeles, I have searched Scripture for instruction concerning how to organize a church. What offices should be appointed? How can selfish ambition be kept in check? How can greed be restrained?
A couple of difficulties have consistently kept my search from reaching a final conclusion. The first is from observation of other church operations. At one extreme is the structure where the senior pastor exercises absolute control. The obvious problem is that he is then not accountable to anyone, and I’ve never seen that work out well.
At the other extreme is the church that is run by a board made up of several elders who all share equal authority. However, as Jesus observed in his illustration of a narrow road that leads to righteousness and a broad way that leads to destruction, having the most votes on a board does not guarantee anything. I’ve seen plenty of examples of tyrannical and ungodly boards.
I’ve seen a wide variety of examples of how a church operates during my life. Too little structure and nothing much happens. Too much restriction and nothing much happens. Usually the churches I have known started with good intentions, but in a desire to keep all the bad aspects of human corruption out, leaders tend to resort to the kind of control methods that inevitably end up in their own corruption, and they drift away from the original calling.
During my years on a large church staff, I saw this in the way home Bible studies were handled. The church had several thousand regular attendees, and many people wanted to have smaller, more intimate study and fellowship groups during the week. The leadership saw a problem in the early attempts to form these groups. On their own initiative, without sanction from the leadership, someone in the congregation invited a few friends over one evening each week and they read and discussed biblical passages.
One problem with small groups is that a person with a strong personality and a personal agenda finds it easy to dominate the discussion. Often those kinds of people can use small groups to gain followers, and eventually lead people away from the church to do their own thing. Innocent members of the congregation can easily be hurt in the process.
After seeing this happen, the leadership decided to take a hand in protecting the people in the church. They banned all home groups. If you wanted to fellowship or study the Bible, you should come to the regular services.
Not everyone liked that idea, however. No matter how much the leaders argued the point, the intimacy of fellowship just wasn’t the same. After enough pressure mounted, it was decided that groups could meet as long as they were led by one of the church’s pastors or elders. This method worked for a while, until an elder started teaching things that the pastor didn’t like. Once again, groups were banned.
Then home groups became the church growth fad of the day. Every church was organizing them under a variety of names—cell groups, church community groups, home groups. So, again bowing to pressure, the pastor decided to organize the groups with a tight control. I was actually put in charge of the project for a time. We appointed pastors and elders to lead groups, announced that people could sign up for groups and we would tell them where they should go, depending mostly on their location. Then we started developing curriculum for the leaders to use so that we would always know exactly what they were teaching.
I didn’t last very long as leader of that project. From the beginning, I found such a level of control completely antagonistic to organic life within a group. At a loss to know how to protect sheep from the ravages of heretical wolves within groups, I struggled with organizing the program until it was completely suspended. Anything outside the leadership’s immediate and complete control was doomed anyway. My foot dragging merely accelerated the process.
Oddly, as I look back on it, I realize that there were two things completely ignored that should have been obvious requirements. First was the recognition that hierarchical control said, more than anything else, that we did not trust the Holy Spirit to build the church. We felt that we had to have our hands in everything instead of allowing life to grow on its own.
Second, the best way to protect people from doctrinal error is to teach truth, live truth, and demonstrate truth in all that we do. Note how many times Paul told Timothy and Titus to set a good example. There was a place for rebuke and correction of those who needed it, but the main emphasis was on leaders living what they preached. The best preparation of congregation members is letting them see how it’s done.
In 1 Timothy 4:1, Paul refers to those who “will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.” The way to counter this, he told Timothy, was first “point these things out to the brothers” (verses 6 and 11). Second, “train yourself to be godly” (verse 7). Third, “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (verse 13), something more important then than now since the majority of the congregation could not read and would not hear the scripture any other way. All of these things were placed on the foundation of setting a good example:
“Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:15-16)
Titus received similar instructions. The emphasis was on the impartation of life through teaching and through example. It was not on controlling every part of the life of members of the congregation. A healthy church, as described in the New Testament, is built primarily on trusting God to work in people’s lives and in setting a good example. The actual organization of the church is not so much a matter of setting up leadership offices and appointing people to them as it is in organizing an atmosphere in which life develops through fellowship and the flow of the gifts of the Spirit.
I think I’ve finally gotten closer to answering my original question from decades ago. What is the biblical structure appropriate for a church organization? The one that works in the community and under the circumstances within which the church functions. There is not a specified template that has to be followed, but if life doesn’t grow, the structure isn’t really working.
This has gotten much easier to understand as I’ve let go of preconceived notions of what the appointed offices of the church should look like. In fact, as I’ve traced the history of church organization from the earliest times, the desire for a hierarchy has proven to be the very thing that has most often restricted the genuine life of the church. This was true for the first several centuries of the church’s existence and as I look around me, nothing seems to have changed. Over the next few weeks, I propose to take a look at the first few centuries of church history to see just how we got to where we are. You might be surprised by what we find.
Next, Part 7: Sitting at the Right Hand
Go to the beginning of the series, Questioning Church Authority: Part 1: False Prophets
Do you have an additional thought on this subject that will assist our search for truth? Please join the discussion and share your insights.