Friday, February 08, 2013

Who's the Boss at Your Church?

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.


Anonymous said...

I agree whole heartedly Wade. In order for a church to have spiritual unity, there can not be anyone exerting influence that God himself has not ordained, or the spirit will not flourish. And spritual abuse is as bad or worse than physical abuse, both leave scars, but spiritual abuse leaves doubts and unanswered questions. But I will take it one step further, if there is spritual abuse or a church is allowing it to continue, it should be addressed and the situation corrected even by the "putting out" of the person or people I agree, but if not, we should not as a Christian keep ourselves in that situation and should pray for them and walk away from the situation entirely if God leads us. God's word has plenty to say about times when even God turned them over to thier sinful desires and let people destroy themselves after refusing his correction. Great post! Jeff Adams

Wade Burleson said...

Thanks, Jeff.

I should have added "the walking away part," or possibly used the words "shake the dust off your feet." :)

I recently saw that the granddaughters of the pastor of the bizarre Westboro Baptist Church did exactly that - they walked away.

Pege' said...

Wade, I have lived in many places in the world due to my husbands service in the Air Force. We have visited and have become members of many churches over the last 30 years. I do have to say that as we consider joining a church body,some of the first things we evaluated is the pastor, his commitment to the truth of the word of God, the doctrinal statement and we watched closely how the pastor interacted with the congregants, young and old. Then we tried to meet the elders/deacons. Spoke with Sunday school teachers and just simply observed the church over a period of time. In some churches you quickly discern strong authoritative control. In others it is very subtle and you don't see it for a long time. The way churches are set up , for the most part is to make it prone for spiritual control from the leadership. What we have done is not become a "official " member of the church.We do not vote, we just come and worship and serve. Even this causes some difficulties for us. What can people do when the majority of churches are set up with the Pastor, elders and deacons in authority over the people? And how does the church handle discipline when needed? There are not very many churches like EBC. who have this perspective. What suggestions do you have for those of us who cannot find some thing like this type of church?

Wade Burleson said...


As usual, you ask sharp, penetrating questions that have no easy answers. Frankly, I believe that the two of you should continue serving, ministering, teaching and most importantly, being the people God has called you to be. In time, people are refreshed by your openness, transparency and giftings (as we were), and the subtle attempt to lord over others is seen for what it is by those who set themselves over you. I know that is not a specific answer to your questions (I think ever situtation is different), but this principle will apply in every scenario you find yourself in as the ekklesia of God.

Bob Cleveland said...

What sort of Spiritual responsibility, I wonder, goes with that authority given the the church member? Is there an obligation to actually be a disciple of Christ? Is there an obligation to actually follow Him?

Looking around the church, I think those in responsibility .. see Hebrews 13:17 .. have an obligation to see that both discipleship and discipline actually occur. To fail in that responsibility is to massively neglect their position, to the detriment of the entire ekklesia.

Wade Burleson said...


Interestingly, I am coming up on Hebrews 13:17 during our Sunday morning series. I will be showing how the interpretation of this passage has historically been butchered to say something it does not! :)

Steven Stark said...

Good thoughts!

Anonymous said...

I chose to become SBC in part because of the congregational church governance.

And I chose to walk away when that was no longer the case.

I must admit--if the church slaves have enough courage to walk away, the church masters would find themselves with an empty church, which might be the quickest way to cure this malady.


Glenn Plum said...

Wade, I truly appreciate your sincere efforts to help steer churches and leaders away from oppressive and abusive forms of leadership. In reading this recent post the thought occurred to me that the New Testament seems to reveal sort of a blended polity. In Acts 6 where strife has arisen in the church the leaders instruct the church to "select from among you..." That sounds very congregational. But they conclude with "...whom we may appoint." That sounds more elder led.
Unquestionably there is no place in the church for leaders to lord over anyone and yet throughout the epistles leaders are charged with the responsibility to require members to adhere to sound doctrine. I think that there are different kinds of authority. There is assumed authority which I think we would both agree is not what the church should have. There is appointed authority such as Timothy being instructed to appoint elders. And there is acknowledged authority which one grants to another in recognition of there qualifications. I see that as willing deference to someone who has earned our respect. I think Paul appealed to churches baed on this kind of history with them.
I'm not trying to split hairs but rather reconcile in my own mind how the churches functioned in the New Testament.
Thanks for helping me to think about this.

Steve said...

Thanks Wade,

Once again, a very timely and appropriate blog to cause to think about. I have had the privilege to serve as the moderator for our church during business meetings and one of the first things I always did was remind our congregation that this business meeting was a worship service not just a gathering of a few to discuss the so called business of the church. It always set a tone of why we were there, how we should conduct ourselves and to Whom would get the glory. I believe due to being honest, open and transparent, the congregation and our leadership have not witnessed a major infight if you will for the over 25 years I have been apart of this church. Sometimes we forget worship is not just that magical hour on Sunday morning but anytime we gather corporately or individually to respond with all that we are to all that He is. Thanks for the opportunity to comment and I apologize for the length.

Steve Miller

Wade Burleson said...


You make an excellent point. We have committees, trustees, and others have elders. I probably should have been clearer in pointing out that if elders function like a committee--appointed by the church--to do the work of business between assembly gatherings, that's a totally different matter than "lording over" others spiritually or morally. Good point.

Wade Burleson said...


Great comment and wise counsel to your church!

Christiane said...


from Saint Matthew's Gospel 20

"25. But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them.
26. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister;
27. And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant."

The Govteach said...

Anonymous at 3:31PM on Feb.8th, it is why I was Baptist, but no more.
Sadly, I am among the growing "unchurched."

When I was in a SBC seminary in the 1980s I saw this move away from the people's control to an authoritarian control. Several of the professors even were teaching it as " What was good for the church."

I shutter to discover what is being taught at the seminary now....and I thank Jesus everyday for sending me into another profession.

Rex Ray said...

Being a deacon,I carry this in my billfold:

The role of a deacon is to lead the congregation to depend on the Holy Spirit in leading them to use their individual priesthood given at Calvary.

Kevin said...

Another excellent post, Wade! I've never really thought about the historical context of the ekklesia that way.

Pege' said...

Wade, gracious as ever. I love the .."IN TIME"...comment :) we are not the easiest church members are we?
You are correct that every situation is unique. Unfortunately we have been labeled, "ANTINOMIAN", as we live in the freedom of Christ. Looking forward to next Sundays message on Hebrews 13:17.

Linda, I enjoyed your post. It was very direct and quite true. I do see this happen but the church does not remain empty, it fills with people who subjugate themselves to the pastors and elders authority.It does not appear the church dies but becomes more controlling and legalistic.

I we walk away from the can we have any influence? But if the people won't listen of discuss this...why stay?

Pat said...

Brother Wade
Thank you for your article “Who's the Boss?”. Might I add that a contributing factor to this problem in the church is that we ignore the direct instruction of our Lord—Matthew 23:8—to our detriment.
“But you, do not be called 'Rabbi'; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers for One is your Teacher, the Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.”
There is often an unearned respect that goes along with Reverend, Pastor, Dr. Etc. Pastors are put on a pedestal they were never meant to be on. Yes, I see a list of positions—1 Cor. 12:28 and Eph. 4:11. Are these not job descriptions rather than titles?

Wade Burleson said...


I agree with you (P.S. - I much prefer Wade to "Brother Wade" :) No offense, I just don't like Mormonesque labels).

I tell our staff ALL the time - PASTOR is a VERB, not a noun.


Anonymous said...

Pege--can only speak for my town.

Yes, when we walk away the church building may fill with others who like being bossed and tortured.

BUT--then again sometimes it closes its doors.

And new church plants can start fresh and some are doing really quite well.


Anonymous said...

Hi Wade,

Thank you for this. I am a congregationalist at heart, in exile in an elder led church and fairly miserable.

Do you know anything about the philosophies/mindsets that underwrite the different views (elder vs. congregational)? I do not understand why the elder ruled proponents find congregational rule so offensive.

Also, do you know of any books or other materials written in defense of congregational rule? I did download the paper you and Paul wrote.

Beyond that resources seem scarce, or else I'm looking in the wrong place. Google mostly turns up material by the elder rule proponents on how awful congregational rule is supposed to be.

I appreciate any help you can give me.


Robert Kellner said...


Excellent post.

And for this reason, I am almost convinced that the main line denominations - or many of them - will flourish in the future.

I have been a member of a number of churches that have a unitary and strong pastor because of my relocations. What I am seeing and reading now, believe even more so of the truth of what you write. These issues are not found in the Presbyterians or Methodist or others, generally. You will find the usual list of suspects any sunday morning on the cable channels. Those preachers are unitary and always right (sic).

I will not worship at those type of institutions any more.

Wade Burleson said...


Resources are fairly scarce. I will have to think about your request and see if I can come up with some recommendations.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Wade!


Off The Cuff said...

Bro. Wade,
Whereas, I totally agree with the premise of your post I must ask one question.
You said: "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."

I always beleived that it was Jesus who chose the word since he was the first to use it in Matt.16:18. The biblical writers, i.e. Matthew, Luke & Paul are simply quoting the word that Jesus chose to identify his special people.Is this not true?

Wade Burleson said...

Off the Cuff,

Good point.

Makes the case even stronger! :)

Rex Ray said...

Wade you said maybe another book should be written on ‘The Subtle Problem of Not Confronting Spiritual Abuse’.

I’d suggest a third book that I think I know more about would be ‘The Problem of Confronting Spiritual Abuse’.

I believe Pege was on this subject when she wrote: “If we walk away from the can we have any influence? But if the people won't listen or discuss this...why stay?”

Pege, a shallow answer would be the old old cigarette commercial that shows a guy with a big black eye saying, “I’d rather fight than switch!”

A better answer would be Ephesians 6:13-14 “…and having done all, to stand…stand…”

Anonymous said...

Why not stay?

Kind of like telling an abuse victim to just stay and love the guy who beats on her.

These "rulers" are not usually benevolent. Once they take over, it may be necessary to leave for your own spiritual safety or that of your family.


Julie Anne said...

Wade - This article is so good. I referred to it on my blog today. I hope it will encourage readers of what to look for in a healthy church. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Great article, thanks Wade.

Steve, I love the attitude that a governance meeting is considered a worship service. We have tried to take the same attitude in our churches' governance meetings. Sometimes it can be a little hard to think outside the box though!

Re leaving a church just a couple of things to think about before anyone considers leaving a church group:

What does Paul (or any other NT epistle writer) say to the troubled churches he writes to about leaving? What reasons does he give to leave an ekklessia? What alternatives does he present?


Sharon Letchford

Anonymous said...

Always said if you were not invited to the meeting prior to the meeting, it is probably best to stay home.

Dan said...


I attend Chuck Swindoll's church in Frisco, Tx. This past sunday he indicated that the Biblical way to choose Elders is for them to be hand selected by the existing elder board (slowly, carefully, with much investigation and with God's leading). He specifically called out Southern Baptists indicating that the Bible does not sanction congregational voting for elders/deacons and specifically that women cannot be elders. What are your thoughts?