Biblical Model - Local Church Governance Today
In the New Testament as well as in early Adventist history, the elders who were elected by the churches functioned the same way that pastors of churches function today. In addition to the Bible, this is documented in the writings of Ellen White, as well as the writings of many prominent Adventist leaders, ministers, and writers. This has been covered in previous chapters of this book. Other church officers are also mentioned in the New Testament such as deacons, etc.
Persons elected to these various church offices were chosen by the vote of the members of each congregation. Leaders for local churches—the elders and deacons, were not appointed by either the apostles or the leadership in Jerusalem. The apostles simply ordained elders and deacons who had been elected by the various churches. The same practice should be followed today if we are going to have a genuinely Biblical model for local church governance.
In Manuscript Releases, volume 12, page 284, Ellen White gives counsel regarding the selection of leaders in newly organized congregations. “’Lay hands,’ said the inspired apostle, ‘suddenly on no man.’ [1 Timothy. 5:22]. Do not be in such haste to manufacture leaders, ordaining men that have never been tested or proved. Let the church be conducted in this manner: alternating with several, one leading one week and choosing another for the next week or two, thus keeping individuals at work in the church; and after a suitable trial select by the voice of the church someone to be the acknowledged leader, for never more than a year at a time; then elect again a new one, or the same one if he has been a blessing to the church.”1
The relationship between conference presidents and local church elders should be like the relationship between conference presidents and lay pastors, in areas where lay pastors are being used. In New Testament churches and in the early Adventist churches, local elders were equivalent to lay pastors today. As mentioned in a previous chapter, some of the duties of local elders included dealing with church discipline, as well as tithes and offerings.
In the writings of Ellen White and early Adventist church leaders, the ministers were not serving as settled pastors. Instead, they were involved in evangelizing new territory, leaving the governance of the existing churches to locally elected elders and deacons. In world divisions of the Adventist church where this method is most closely followed, the number of baptisms and the number of new churches planted each year is much higher than in other world divisions not using this method. The next chapter has statistical data to prove this.
If a church is blessed with more than one elder, all the elders share the authority and the responsibilities of leading and caring for the church. Like everything else, two or more elders are better than one. Different elders will have different talents, abilities, knowledge and life experiences. When one elder is weak in one area of ministry, another elder will have strength in that area. Even in small churches with only one elder, the wise use of deacons can provide much assistance in the care of the congregation and in the outreach of the church. The Biblical method can provide a rich, more complete and balanced leadership for a church than simply having one pastor in charge of everything. For a more expanded view of the Biblical role of elders, see the research from P. Damsteegt.2
In the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, elders are permitted (with conference president permission) to do much of what ordained ministers can do. Some exceptions to this include ordaining elders or other officers, perform weddings, and organize new churches. Local church elders cannot function at large but are limited to operating only in the local church where their membership is held. Additionally, they serve only during a year when they have been elected to serve. In some situations, with conference president approval, an elder may serve in more than one church at a time. See the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual for details.3 Ordained ministers, however, can perform all functions of ministry and can function at large without having to be elected by the local churches.
The list of qualifications for an elder found in 1Timothy 3 are the same qualifications one would want to see in a pastor or minister.
1 Timothy 3:1–7
1 This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.
2 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach;
3 Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous;
4 One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity;
5 (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)
6 Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil.
7 Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.
To remind us that having professional pastors is not Biblical, it would be good to look at another portion of the letter (the same letter mentioned in the previous chapter) which D. A. Delafield wrote to Pastor Jere Webb. “The genius of our work is that we are convert conscious. A woe is upon us if we preach not the gospel. Onward, ever onward, is the overpowering Adventist pre-possession. We cannot settle down, we cannot think in terms of appointing full-time ministers to care for little flocks. Their job is to provide an outreach to lead the people themselves into a witnessing program. They are not to settle down like mother hens over little chicks and warm the people with their presence. They are to teach the people how they can warm their own hearts through experiences in soul-winning work. Nevertheless, elders are to be appointed in every church. Laymen are to be the ones in charge . . .”4
While churches vary in size, the Biblical principles of leadership remain the same. Regardless of the size of the church or the number of elders, God’s plan is always best. Let’s look at an example to show the benefit of following the Biblical model of church governance.
For our example, let’s consider a church with 200 members and 6 elders. These elders are not youth, but persons of mature age and life experience. They have made their mistakes in life and have learned from them. They demonstrate temperance in their personal lives. They have raised their children well and have had stable marriages. They are known and respected in the community as being good, law-abiding citizens. They are hospitable. They are not novices and are members in good standing. They know the people, the demographics, and the politics of the local community. They know the members, the demographics, and the politics of the local church as well. Each elder has different strengths and talents; and together, their individual abilities contribute to better church governance.
Here is a question you need to answer.
Is it better to let these 6 elders collectively pastor the church, or would it be better to allow a new seminary graduate or even an experienced minister of the gospel, come and pastor the church and rule over the elders? Which is better?
God has a divinely appointed work to do for new seminary graduates, as well as experienced ministers, but there is no scriptural support for a minister of the gospel come and take on the job of the six elders, pastor the church, and “build upon another man’s foundation” (Romans 15:20). No support exists for this in either the Bible or the writings of Ellen White. There is a lot of counsel against it, but none to support it.
Besides, it is not wise to even consider asking a minister of the gospel to do the job that God, through the Holy Spirit, has specifically assigned to the elders of churches (Acts 20:28). It would be working against the specific instructions of the Holy Spirit.
- Ellen White, Manuscript 1-1880, (February 18, 1880), paragraph 42.
- Damsteegt, P. Gerard, Have Adventists Abandoned the Biblical Model of Leadership of the Local Church?, 2005, Faculty Publications. 60.
- The Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual can be downloaded for free at www.adventist.org
- Delafield, D. A., Letter to Pastor Jere Webb, May 15, 1980, Ellen G. White Estate, Washington, DC.