A City Set On a Hill
Surviving the Seventieth Week by Reforming Fundamentalism and Establishing Cities of Refuge
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Strength Through Accountability
Copyright 2010 by Raul E. Lopez, MD, MDiv

The organizational structure of a church is of great importance, because this order is part of that which receives, responds to, and processes the word of God. This is similar to a living cell where enormously complex chemical structures interact in an equally complex way in order to transform the information which God deposited in the cell's DNA into a more useful form and then integrate it with energy in order to create life. The apostle Paul compared the church to a body containing complex parts which interact in order to create growth. "But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, [even] Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love." (Ephesians 4:15-16). This organizational and functional union is a prerequisite for such growth. The New Testament places such a great emphasis upon proper organization that it is justifiable to conclude that a church which is not properly organized cannot consider itself to be a true church.

The fundamental reason for which it is necessary to have an organizational structure in the church is that the church has many tasks and functions, and in order to properly carry these out it is necessary to integrate people with different gifts and abilities. An animal's body needs to pump blood, breath, purify blood, move itself, evaluate external situations, protect itself from difficult environments, and maintain its structural form, among many others. In order to accomplish this, God has given it a heart, lungs, a liver, muscles, a brain, skin, bones and many other complex organs. All of these must work in a coordinated fashion in order to maintain the animal's life. Paul emphasizes that the Trinity works through a variety of gifts, ministries and operations. In order for the church to function effectively all these are necessary, and they have to operate in a coordinated fashion. "Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all." (I Corinthians 12:4-6), and "For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also [is] Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether [we be] Jews or Gentiles, whether [we be] bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many." (I Corinthians 12:12-14).

Consistent with this idea that Christ is the head of the church, as we see in the verses above, there seems to be an equivalent emphasis that the leadership of the church ultimately rests upon a board or group, and not only upon a single individual. Many verses support the concept of a plurality of elders in the church even though many Baptist churches are functional dictatorships. This is a problem in independent churches with a congregational form of government such as the Baptist and Bible churches. Theoretically the pastor is accountable to the congregation, and each church is accountable directly to God. However, since the pastor is the sole spiritual officer it puts him in a unique position of authority. Even though, in theory, he is accountable to the congregation, in practice he is accountable to no one, because he has no peers. Not only is he accountable to no one within the local assembly, he is also accountable to no one outside of that assembly because each church is independent. This often leads to pride. Paul said "Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil." (I Timothy 3:6). Lack of accountability can lead to pride in the same way as does lack of experience. In addition to being accountable to the congregation, pastors must be accountable to other spiritual leaders, both within and outside of the local congregation. This allows ecclesiastical authority to be distributed.

The Biblical model for government within the congregation is for there to be several elders who are accountable to each other. Paul left Titus in Crete in order to correct what he considered to be a serious deficiency. This deficiency was a lack of an established leadership and organizational structure in the local churches. Note that Paul commanded that elders should be ordained in each city. Note that the word ‘elders' is in the plural. Crete is not a populous country, and it is unlikely that these towns, at the beginning of the process of evangelization would have more than one small congregation in every town. Nevertheless, Paul ordered that each of these small congregations should have various elders. "For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee:" (Titus 1:5).

The church in the city of Ephesus also had various elders. Paul once had a meeting with a group of them. Notice that these were various elders of one single church. The words elders and bishops is in the plural, but the words church and flock are in the singular. "And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church," (Acts 20:17). and "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood." (Acts 20:28).

Some might want to argue that the word church is used as a general term which can be used to refer to all the Christians in a given region even though they might be in different house churches. However, when Paul wrote to the Christians which were spread throughout the province of Galatia he addressed them as churches, using the word in the plural: "And all the brethren which are with me, unto the churches of Galatia:" (Galatians 1:2).

It was expected that the church should help to sustain the elders. There were elders with greater responsibilities and abilities, and these should receive a greater honorarium or wages. This means that there was a group of elders which labored in a full time manner, and others were part time. Either way, it implies that there was a multiplicity of elders. "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine. For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer [is] worthy of his reward. (I Timothy 5:17-18).

There are other passages which show that the authority of the church rested upon a group of elders. Elders were to pray over the sick, "Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord:" (James 5:14). At the church in Antioch there were five leaders who were either prophets or teachers (this, perhaps, represents the modern gifts of preaching and teaching). God moved them as a group to send Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journeys. Notice that God did not work through one individual but through a collective. "Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid [their] hands on them, they sent [them] away." (Acts 13:1-3).

The Presbyterian Church has been highly successful world wide in the areas of missions, evangelism, and in theology and they practice the type of representative government taught in the Bible. Their downfall has been caused by their error of practicing infant baptism. However, in many other areas they have much which other fundamentalists and evangelicals in general can imitate.

The teaching of the plurality of elders does not negate the need for a presiding leader, what we call a head pastor in modern terms. However, the Bible teaches that it is important for every properly constituted established church to have a board of elders who are properly ordained with equal voice and vote, who share the leadership of the church. This allows people with different gifts and talents to present their advise and recommendations. Solomon stressed that "For by wise counsel thou shalt make thy war: and in multitude of counsellors [there is] safety." (Proverbs 24:6). We are in a spiritual war, and the more wise counselors, the better. Each person, based on their different personalities, talents, and life experiences can emphasize different aspects of the Christian life. For example, an engineer may emphasize the importance of hard work, labor and sacrifice. Someone with a military background may gravitate toward discipline and authority. A scientist may emphasize the need for order and strict adherence to the laws of God and the pattern He has laid down for us to follow. These are all valid points of view and are all important for the Christian life. However, it is important to recognize that it is important to maintain a proper balance so that all those gifts, talents and ministerial abilities might all be manifested. Paul said that if the body were all ears, then there would be no room for vision. "For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body [were] an eye, where [were] the hearing? If the whole [were] hearing, where [were] the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where [were] the body? But now [are they] many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need" (I Corinthians 2:14-21). A board of elders allows people with all these different gifts to have input into the decisions of the church.

The Bible teaches a plurality of spiritual elders in order for there to be accountability. This is in addition to the deacons, who oversee the material and financial aspects of the church. As fundamentalist Baptists we tend to give visceral support to the concept of a dictatorial pastorate. This is a hangover from the Catholic priesthood where authority runs down through a hierarchy of individuals rather than groups. We need to submit to the Biblical pattern if we wish to be successful in spreading the kingdom of God.

A second, related problem is the fragmentation that we see in Baptist Fundamentalism. There is fragmentation based on personalities, based on colleges and mission boards, based on minor points of culture and styles of worship, and now, especially, based on support for different Bible translations. This is not what the Lord desires. The night before His crucifixion, one of the primary concerns on his mind was the unity of those who would believe on Him through the testimony of the apostles. He prayed in this fashion: "Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, [art] in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me." (John 17:20-23). Notice that the prize for unity is that the world may know that God loves the followers of Jesus. In other words, unity allows the church to be more effective in making converts.

The New Testament does not leave it up to us to make up the form which the relationship between the churches is supposed to take. It gives us a precedent to serve as a pattern. When the church at Antioch had a question about the role of gentiles in the church a council of various churches was called together. This council had representatives from at least two of the most prominent churches, the church at Jerusalem, an the church at Antioch. "Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and [from] fornication, and [from] things strangled, and [from] blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day. Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; [namely], Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren: And they wrote [letters] by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren [send] greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia:" (Acts 15:19-23)

Notice that this gathering was of the elders and apostles, not just the apostles. Even though the meeting was open to all members, the decision makers was the assembly of elders, which included the apostles. This assembly was probably similar to the Jewish Sanhedrine, which had the authority to answer questions of doctrine and practice. The conclusions of the council were binding on all churches, not just those in Jerusalem and Antioch, and the conclusions were written down and sent to the churches in the form of a letter. Now, some might argue that this council was protected from error by the special working of God through the presence of the apostles, and that all other councils are subject to human error. However, pastor are human as well and their decisions are just as subject to human error. However, a council is more apt to avoid error if one gives weight to the proverb quoted above which states that "in multitude of counsellors [there is] safety." (Proverbs 24:6). As fundamental Baptists we consider the doctrinal conclusions of all the early church councils to be essentially correct. These councils debated the dual nature of Christ as both God and man, and debated the nature of the Trinity. The creed developed by these council are given so much weight that in seminary we had to be often reminded that these creeds are not inspired, even though they are basically correct.

The Presbyterian church has used this pattern to develop a system of inter church government which makes the churches interdependent. They are neither independent, like the Baptists, nor dependent like the Methodists and Episcopalians. The Jews had regional Sanhedrines which oversaw local synagogues and a full time Great Sanhedrin which oversaw the regional Sanhedrines. The Great Sanhedrin consisted of 70 delegates and one presiding officer. Seventy were the number of elders of Israel which went with Moses to meet with God at mount Sinai (Exodus 24:9-10). Seventy elders also received a filling of the Holy Spirit at the dedication of the tabernacle (Numbers 11:24-25). Finally, Jesus sent seventy out seventy disciples as advance men to prepare the cities which Jesus was about to visit (Luke 10:1-2). One possible organizational structure based on these Biblical principle would be to have regional presbyteries which consist of two elders from each of the local churches in the region, and a higher presbytery or council consisting of seventy representatives from the regional presbyteries and a presiding officer. This is a matter of great importance, since a common and successful strategy of any enemy in a battle is to divide and conquer. Jesus reminded His enemies that a "Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand:" (Matthew 12:25b).

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