When one is asked "Who governs your church?" the typical response is "Jesus Christ." Granted, Jesus is the Lord of all believers, but next time you're at a church business meeting, try pointing your finger at Jesus and then tell your fellow church members that He needs to take over. They'd look at you like you were Charlie Sheen. Ideally, Jesus Christ controls the hearts, minds and tongues of all those conducting church business, but the question remains: "Who is it that governs your church?"
The subject of church polity is complex. Some churches have bishops who take their orders from higher authorities in the synod. Other churches have what they call 'ruling' elders. A few churches have one person that rules the church like King Xerxes ruled Persia. However, the biblical model for church governance is congregational. Many neo-reformed evangelicals have moved to 'ruling elders,' setting a group of men aside as the "spiritual and moral authority" for the church. In my opinion, this is a huge mistake. The scripture teaches every member of the church has equal moral and spiritual authority. The church is a democracy of equals, not an oligarchy of superiors. Congregationalism alone represents this sense of equality.
The word congregation means "the act of assembling." One can easily interchange the words assembly and congregation. For example, an assembly of God is a congregation of God, and both phrases refer to what we now call a church. Here is where it gets interesting. In the Bible, the English word church translates the Greek word ekklesia. What does the word ekklesia mean? Surprise! It means an assembly or congregation of people with equal authority. Let me state this important principle again: By the very definition of the word church (ekklessia), a church is a congregation or assembly of people with equal authority. Let me prove it.
In 510 B.C. the city-state of Athens was ruled by a tyrant named Hippias. The people of Athens revolted, and with the help of soldiers from Sparta, Athenians expelled the dictator Hippias from the city. Cleisthenes, who followed Hippias as chief ruler of Athens, instituted amazing reforms in the city and he became known as "The Father of Democracy." Cleisthenes established the Assembly (Ekklesia) of Athens. This ekklesia became the meeting place where ordinary citizens could speak their minds and try to influence one another in the affairs of Athens. The Ekklesia assembled at the pnyx, an open-air theatre with a retaining wall and orator's stand west of the Acropolis of Athens. Each and every member of the Assembly could speak, but those who were over fifty years in age were allowed to go first in honor of their wisdom and maturity. Elders in the Assembly did not mean those with more authority, it meant those with greater wisdom.The Assembly believed no one person should have more authority or power. If an individual gained too much power in the Ekklesia, he would be voted out and exiled from Athens for ten years. In a world filled with despots and tyrants, Athenian congregationalism was the marvel of the world!
It is no accident that when the biblical writers chose a word to represent believers of Jesus Christ who congregate or assemble together, they chose the word ekklesia. This word did not just drop from heaven. It was not used by Paul or Peter or James in a vacuum. They knew the word represented an assembly of people who shared in equal authority and equal privileges within the Kingdom. Paul even went further than the Athenian Assembly in his teaching that the assembly of Christ (the church) should be a place where there is no difference between Jews and Greeks, males or females, slave or free (Galatians 3:28).
It is completely contrary to Scripture to believe that some men have been given more moral and spiritual authority than other believers within the church. In the ekklesia of Jesus Christ, any person, male or female, recognized as being in Christ carries as much moral and spiritual authority as any other person--no more, no less--the same. The state may recognize trustees with greater legal authority, or pastors with greater state authority (the officiant in marriages, etc...) or signatures bearing corporate authority (deeds, title, etc...), but God established in his ekklesia a group of people with equal spiritual authority. Pay attention to those who are older and wiser in the ekklesia of Christ. Minister to those around you with a servant's heart and attitude. But if you ever begin to feel that somebody is beginning to exert spiritual authority and power over you and other individuals in an attempt to govern Christ's church, then it is time to confront the abuser of the ekklesia and call him out, and maybe even put him out. My friend wrote a bestselling book called The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, but maybe another one needs to be written entitled The Subtle Problem of Not Confronting Spiritual Abuse. A healthy ekklesia won't allow an abuse of power. It's not easy confronting abusers, but for the good of the ekklesia it must be done.