Why Hope Chapel has an Elder Rule Form of Government
by Reb Bradley
Just as all churches establish a statement of faith which embodies their understanding of Scripture, they also formulate a theology of church government and operate according to that understanding. When Hope Chapel was founded it was established with an “elder rule” style of government, because I believed it best reflected what the Bible teaches. Since all who join churches need to understand the governmental framework of that church, we have posted our position on the church website, we’ve published it in the Newcomers’ Handout, and I reinforce it from time to time in sermons.
Many modern churches employ what is known as a “congregational rule” form of government. It is one of three common positions taken by Evangelicals today. Although I do not believe that the congregational rule style of government has its roots in Scripture, I do understand the rationale for it and respect those who hold it.
I am familiar with the arguments offered by those who believe that congregations should elect their elders, but thus far I am unconvinced of their position. Without engaging in a lengthy dissertation, let me state briefly why, historically, biblically, and rationally.
If congregational rule was a principle taught to the New Testament church we should expect to find it practiced by congregations in the first three centuries. However, mention of congregations electing their elders was completely absent in church history for the first 1500 years. All extra-biblical sources (particularly the Early Fathers) indicate that the early church saw their elders appointed by others in spiritual authority. Congregations picked their own deacons, but left the selection of elders to those already in spiritual authority. According to the historical record, congregational rule dates not to the first century, but to the sixteenth century. In fact, the historical accounts of church life are so clear that few, if any, dispute the record.
The first Christians to believe they had the authority to elect their spiritual leaders were the Anabaptists in England, in the middle 1500’s. They had witnessed the authoritarian rule of the Catholic church and had experienced firsthand the abuse of authority of the Church of England, so decided they would form fellowships which would limit opportunities for abuse of power. (Quite understandable!) Giving authority to the congregation to elect leaders was the way they solved this. As others broke with the Church of England they too, tried this new form of church government. Consequently, many of the early American colonists started churches which elected their leaders. The style of government employed by so many modern churches finds its roots in the practices of the Anabaptists.
Some would suggest that the Anabaptists must have been like other reformers, and were merely returning to what was properly biblical. But if that were so, it would mean that the entire early church forsook proper practice while the apostles were still alive. We see by Paul’s letter to the Galatian church that individual churches started to go doctrinally astray while the apostles were still around, but to suggest that every single one of the churches went off in the area of government before the end of the first century is too much to believe. Getting off base in this area of leadership in the last half of the first century would have been especially difficult, since the church was still overseen by the remaining apostles and their disciples.
If I had never heard of congregational rule and merely went to the Scriptures to discover how elders were selected, I would conclude that Paul and Barnabas drew upon their spiritual insights, and chose the elders upon which they laid hands and appointed to office (Acts 14:23); Titus was instructed by Paul to do the same (Tit 1:5). Based on the English as well as the Greek, I would conclude it meant that they personally selected them – not ratified the selection of the congregation. I understand the Baptist opinion that Paul and Barnabas must have appointed to office the church leaders already elected by the congregation, but it appears that they are reading into the text a modern view of church government. I am familiar with their arguments, but I could not draw their same conclusions were I merely reading the text without their frame of reference, especially in light of God’s established patterns of authority.
If God intended in the Church that followers elect the ones who would lead them, it would not have followed the pattern of authority that He previously established in Scripture. Moses selected the men who assisted him, the civil government of Israel did not consist of individuals elected by popular vote, and priests were not elected to the priesthood. In the hierarchy of the family, leadership was not a democratic effort – heads were solely responsible for their leadership, ie: Adam listened to Eve’s input, but he alone was responsible for his decision to eat the fruit, and he alone was the one who was said to have introduced sin to the world (Rom 5:12). The New Testament church itself was established by apostles who had been chosen for their office, not elected to the position. And when the apostles sought to replace Judas they did not have a vote involving all the other disciples, but they alone made the selection. So when we read that elders in the congregations were appointed by those in spiritual authority it would follow that they were personally selected by them.
The men mentioned in Acts 6:1-6, which were chosen by their fellow congregation members, were selected to administrate a meal ministry – not assume positions of spiritual oversight. In fact, the apostles specifically distinguished between the lesser practical duty of what they called “waiting on tables” and their own spiritual leadership duties.
Acts 6:2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word."
To suggest God intended that New Testament congregations have the custom of electing their spiritual leaders would be a convolution of authority, unmatched by any other authority structure in the Bible. It does not even follow logically that God would plan for followers to have authority over those who lead them. In that scenario, leaders would have no real authority to lead – the followers who put them into office would have it. The congregation effectively becomes the “boss” who dictates to their “employee” his duties and his limits. This theology, contrary to Hebrews 13:17, says that the leader must obey his followers or they will remove him from office. In fact, in that arrangement, since the followers are in charge, it becomes their duty to evaluate and discuss among themselves the job done by their leaders. What the Bible calls slander, gossip, and divisiveness, would merely be a “job review.” Such authority granted to members in the last few centuries has given way to the favorite Sunday lunch in congregational rule churches – “roast preacher.” Sadly, gossip, divisiveness, and splits are often synonymous with congregational rule churches.
To propose that congregations have authority over their leaders, would contradict Paul’s admonition to Pastor Timothy about leaders accused of sin. It is precisely because the congregation did not have authority over its leaders that Timothy, not the congregation, was instructed to handle the evaluation and discipline of his fellow leaders (1 Tim 5:19-20). Scripture makes it clear that elders rule over (hegeomai) the flock (Heb 13:7, 17, 24). Is it logical to suggest that those who are to be ruled over actually have authority over the ones who have authority to rule them?
Heb 13:7 Remember those who rule over you …
Heb 13:17 Obey those who rule over you …
Heb 13:24 Greet all those who rule over you …
Consider the account of Diotrephes. He was an overseer who apparently had divided himself from the apostles, and was using his pastoral authority to kick out of the church everyone who did not stand with him. If, in fact, congregations had authority over their leaders, then why didn’t the apostle John instruct the congregation to vote Diotrephes out of office when he became power hungry? Certainly, if the congregation had authority over their leaders, then they would have been told to take charge of him.
3 John 1:9 I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. 10 Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church.
This brief discussion is likely inadequate to answer all questions raised in the mind of every reader. However, my goal has not been to present an exhaustive, irrefutable justification for Hope Chapel’s style of government, but merely to help all potential family members understand the biblical basis for our governmental framework. Such an understanding will promote unity among the church family, as well as bring the blessings found by all who live by biblical guidelines.