Who runs the church?

by K.W. Leslie, 26 January

How’s the leadership of your church structured? ’Cause it matters.

Short answer: Jesus.

Way longer answer: When Christians are asked who runs our individual churches, sometimes we describe the leadership structure of their church or denomination. But everybody can potentially give the answer “Jesus.” It is his church after all. He is the king over God’s kingdom.

But since his kingdom isn’t yet of this world, Jn 18.36 the day-to-day duties of running Jesus’s churches on earth fall to vicars. Vicar is the Christianese word for “deputy,” and means the very same thing: Lieutenants who answer to the guy who’s really in charge, and that’d be Jesus. Hopefully we truly are working on his behalf, and not for ourselves… though I leave it to you as to how well we’re doing.

Now, if you were to ask your average pagan who’s in charge, most of ’em assume the pastor is. (Or the minister, priest, father, sister, bishop, apostle, prophet—whatever you call the top dog.) Pastor says “Jump” and everyone responds, “How high?” Depending on how cynical this pagan is about organized religion, pastors range from benevolent dictators, to selfish cult leaders. To their minds, every church is some form of top-down tyranny.

And to be fair, a lot of churches do practice a top-down model. It’s the most common church leadership structure there is. Arguably it’s the first structure: Jesus in charge, and his students not. And once Jesus ascended to his Father, it was followed by the apostles in charge, and everyone else below them.

Of course I say “arguably” because some Christians argue this top-down structure isn’t Jesus’s intent. They’ll advocate for their own favorite structure—namely the structure we find in their churches. Yes, they have proof texts. If you think church oughta be a democracy, you’ve likely got verses which prove God thinks so too. Top-down, bottom-up, middle-out, nobody-in-charge-but-the-Holy-Spirit, or even benevolent anarchy, people will point to verses which they’re pretty sure back their view. Regardless of those views, I’m gonna point out the top-down model is all over Christendom because it’s consistently found all over the scriptures, all over antiquity, and all over church history. Valid or not, it’s everywhere because top-down is humanity’s default setting: Left to their own devices, humans create kingdoms, not democracies. Even in democracies we fight to be on top.

Regardless, everybody pays lip service to the idea Jesus runs our churches. Hopefully he does.

The original setup.

When the LORD spelled out in the Law how he wanted to be worshiped, he took an entire tribe of Israel, Levi, and designated them his priests and worship leaders. The head of the Levite tribe (specifically, Aaron ben Amram and his descendants) was made head priest, and his kids were usually put in charge of all the other working priests. Generally the head priest’s job was passed from father to one of his sons. Although there are exceptions, like when Solomon overthrew Abiathar, 1Ki 2.27 or when Pontius Pilate kept passing the head priest job around between members of Annas’s family.

This priesthood structure was top-down. As was any other worship supervised by Israel’s kings. The only other leadership model we might’ve seen in ancient Israel was the synagogue system: There, the Pharisees would build a school in any community containing 10 Pharisee men. One of the men functioned as the synagogue’s president; he maintained the building, selected the teachers, and supervised the services. Many Christians believe the church structure Paul later described in his letters, is simply a Christian version of the synagogue system—the epískopos/“supervisor” functioning as its president, and the elders as its teachers.

Anyway, in the gospels, this was the environment where we see Jesus at work: He was a synagogue rabbí/“(my) master,” a teacher of talmidím/“students” or “disciples.” He taught Pharisees. It’s why he kept debating them: Questioning the teacher was how Pharisees taught.

When Jesus founded his church, he began with 120 or so of these students. Ac 1.15 He designated the Twelve, his apostles, as their leaders. (After Judas Iscariot's suicide, the remaining apostles replaced him with Matthias. Ac 1.26) So the Twelve were the church's original rulers. Over time they realized they needed to delegate certain duties to deacons. Ac 6.1-6

Initially persecution didn’t scatter the apostles, Ac 8.1 but it did the rest of the church, and the apostles found themselves traveling all over Palestine and the Roman Empire to minister to their spread-out students. Ultimately this meant James bar Joseph, Jesus’s brother, was left behind to supervise the Jerusalem church. Ac 21.18 The other apostles gradually took on the duties, like Barnabas and Paul, of traveling the Roman Empire and beyond, planting and training churches.

Eventually Paul penned his letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. In them he indicated he expected their churches to be run by an epískopos, with the assistance of presbýteroi/“elders,” and diákonoi/“deacons” or “ministers.”

What Paul described in his letters, evolved into the structure we find in older denominations. Supervisors became “bishops” (a word that’s sort of a corruption of ’pískopos). Elders became priests. Deacons became all the other helpers we find in the church. Plus these churches invented a few other ranks in the hierarchy: Patriarchs, popes, cardinals, archbishops, abbots and abbesses, monsignors, monks and friars and brothers and sisters, novices, and laypeople. But they still follow the basic structure in Paul’s letters: Supervisors over the churches, with mature Christians as help.

And most churches and denominations do likewise. But they have slightly different definitions of what a supervisor (whether “pastor” or “bishop”) does. Or how much authority is given to an elder, deacon, or church member. Or whether the leaders of that church answer to anyone else, and how much authority those leaders wield—or not.

The pastor in charge. (“Episcopal.”)

Episcopal /i'pɪs.koʊ.pəl/ adj. Top-down church leadership structure, where everyone answers to one epískopos/“supervisor.”
2. Having to do with the Episcopal Church (properly Episcopalian).
[Episcopate /i'pɪs.kə.peɪt/ n., episcopacy /i'pɪs.kə.pə.si/ n.]

Many people assume episcopal means the church has bishops. Like the older liturgical churches—like the Roman Catholics or the Church of England.

Well, those churches are episcopal. But it’s not because the church has bishops; it’s because the bishops are in charge of the church. The bishop is the boss. Not the priests, not the congregation: The top guy is the boss.

And contrary to popular belief, every church where the top guy is the boss, counts as episcopal. Even churches which don’t have bishops. If your nondenominational church is run by the head pastor—not the board, not the elders, not the staff, not the voting members, not the congregation—it’s episcopal. Top-down churches are episcopal.

Certain churches claim they’re not episcopal, ’cause when their pastors all get together for denomination meetings, their president doesn’t boss them around; in fact they vote on stuff. This makes them a middle-out type of church (which I’ll get to next), not top-down. And okay, when it comes to the way the denomination runs, it’s not top-down. But I’m not talking about the denomination. I’m talking about the church. If the individual church, regardless of how its denomination handles its business, is a top-down pastor’s-the-boss organization, by definition it’s episcopal.

Yep, regardless of its own constitution and bylaws. I used to attend a church where the guy in charge wasn’t the head pastor, but the chairman of the church board. The church constitution said it was a democracy, but the chairman was decidedly in charge. Top-down is top-down.

Yep, regardless of whether it’s formal and liturgical. Many episcopal churches aren’t formal at all. It’s not about how they worship. It’s how they’re led.

This being the case, most episcopal churches have no complicated church hierarchy, like the Catholics. They’re independent, or nondenominational, or their denomination doesn’t have all that much authority over the pastors. Baptist churches, fr’instance, will send their pastors to handle denominational business, and the pastors will vote on stuff. But when they come home to their individual churches, the pastors are entirely in charge of their flocks. The buck stops with them. They’re episcopal.

Episcopal churches are dictatorships. Hopefully benevolent. As Christians, all leaders are expected to submit our ideas to one another, and not just try to force everyone into directions they may not go. A pastor who’s trying to get everyone to follow Jesus is gonna try to lead, not push.

But let’s be honest: Some of ’em really aren’t all that benevolent. This is why many Christians balk at the idea of one person supervising a church: They’ve visited churches which were run by a despotic pastor. Rather than realize the problem is the person, not the system, they figure one of the other leadership models has gotta be more in line with God’s will.

The elders in charge. (“Presbyterian.”)

Presbyterian /prɛz.bə'tɪ.ri.ən/ adj. Middle-out church leadership structure, where everyone answers to a leadership team of mature Christians.
2. Having to do with the Presbyterian Church.
[Presbytery /'prɛs.bə.tri/ n., presbytrate /'prɛs.bɪt.rət/ n.]

Elders are mature Christians. Not necessarily old Christians, but people who’ve been following Jesus long enough to be fruitful and kinda know how he thinks. After all, you don’t want just any numbnut running a church. (Although… well, I’ll get to democratic churches next.)

So in a presbyterian church, the presbýteroi/“elders” run the church. Usually as a formal board of directors, pastors, elders, or deacons. One of ’em may be the head pastor, and the others have various other duties in the church. But for all major decisions, these leaders get together and come to a consensus, or vote.

Yeah, some churches call themselves presbyterian, ’cause their pastors vote on stuff on a denominational level. Like I said, if their individual churches are wholly run by the pastor, they’re not presbyterian; they’re episcopal. But if individual churches are run by the board of directors, a fivefold ministry team, or any other small group of leaders, that’s presbyterian.

Presbyterianism is an invention of the Protestant Reformation. Rather than duplicate the top-down model of Roman Catholics, certain Protestant churches chose to run things as a group. But not just any group; not just anyone can be in leadership. Leaders identify mature Christians, and invite them to lead with them. ’Cause God forbid if a crowd of newbies or pagans join a church, outvote everyone else, take over, and bend it to follow cultural trends instead of Christ.

The main objection to presbyterianism is… well, it’s not how Paul described church leadership to Timothy and Titus. But it is kinda what we see in the Jerusalem Council, where Peter, Paul, and James tried to convince all the other apostles and elders to think their way about circumcision. Ac 15.1-29 Now yeah, some Christians argue this was still a top-down organization, and that James’s advice at the end is actually his ruling as head of the church. Ac 15.19 But the letter the council sent out didn’t say, “James decreed,” but “we decided.” Ac 15.25 And the other ancient church councils functioned much the same way: The group decided. All the bishops together; not the emperor, not the pope.

Running a church this way does have its pros and cons. Rather than have a church run by one despot, you could wind up with a team of despots. Elders should be an accountability structure, but in a church gone wrong, they’ll just cover up one another’s sins. If it’s an unhealthy leadership team, pastors—in order to keep their job—might concentrate more on appeasing the elders than Jesus.

The system can work—but like I said, people will be the problem. No leadership structure is foolproof.

The members in charge. (“Congregational.”)

Congregational /kɑŋ.grə'geɪʃ.(ə)n(.)əl/ adj. Bottom-up church leadership structure, where the church is run by the popular vote of its members.
2. Having to do with the Congregational Church.

In the United States, we believe in democracy: The will of the people, or the will of the majority (mitigated by human rights, or for fairness… or not), oughta rule the day. Some Americans believe this because they imagine God gets into the gears of the democratic process, and the end result is actually his sovereign will: Vox populi, vox Dei. (As for me—and go ahead and call me cynical—I figure it’s just total depravity writ large.)

Anyway, this faith in the wisdom of the counsel of many Pr 15.22 was largely the thinking behind the Congregationalist movement. It developed in 15th century England among the Puritans, who brought it with ’em to New England: The members of the church gathered together on a regular basis, listened to the church board’s recommendations and nominations, and voted on things. It became the basis for New England direct democracy—and American democracy.

See, the Puritans rightly believed every Christian oughta be trained to the level of an elder. Well, if every Christian’s an elder, every Christian oughta have a voice in how their church does things. Thus every church oughta be able to run its business through its members—without any outside supervision. Congregational churches tend to be very independent. (And usually non-denominational. Even anti-denominational.)

Shouldn’t God’s kingdom function like this?—where every single Christian is mature, able to contribute to the running and leading of their church? Absolutely.

Now, are we that way yet? Good Lord, no.

Remember that scenario I mentioned before, where a bunch of newbies overrun the church and lead it astray? This happens time and again in congregational churches. You may not be aware that an astounding number of New England churches voted to stop believing in the trinity, and created Unitarianism. You may not be aware a bothersome number of Fundamentalist churches have swung to the other extreme, and have voted in so many mandatory beliefs and practices for themselves and their members, they’ve become cults.

I grew up in a congregationalist church. Their membership meetings are still the least Christian, most carnal things I’ve ever experienced (and that includes politics). A whole lot of people, myself included, who were in no way qualified nor mature enough to make decisions for a church, did. And fought tooth and nail to have their way—more like the scrabble of devils than the kingdom of God.

Which system does Jesus prefer?

Since the majority of Christians have gone with the episcopal system, plenty of us will argue in its favor. Same as presbyterians and congregationalists who’ll argue for their systems. So… which is the most biblical? Which leadership system does Jesus want us to practice?

Well, I’d say whichever system helps us best love one another. Jn 13.34-35 If it gets us to do that, if it encourages us to follow Jesus, our Lord’s okay with it.

Yeah, you were likely expecting me to pick my favorite and fight for it. I admit I lean most towards the presbyterian system… even though I attend an episcopal church. Obviously you know my qualms about the congregationalist system. But like I also said, no system is foolproof. Any one of them can be corrupted by selfish Christians. I’ve seen it happen in every form of church. Fallible humans monkeywrench every best intention.

Even the Twelve, handpicked by Jesus, included fools and traitors, and couldn’t run something as basic as a food program. Ac 6.1-6 We see this throughout Christian history. The episcopal system falls apart every time an evil person takes the top spot. The presbyterian system shatters when elders stop obeying the Holy Spirit and do their own thing. The congregationalist system corrodes when even a minority of its members go astray.

But when we do follow the Spirit, regardless of how our churches are governed, we’re unstoppable. Because Jesus’s system works independently of all of them. His is the kingdom model: He’s the King, and each Christian is meant to follow him directly. When we come together as a church, because we’re all following him directly, it shouldn’t matter how our leadership is structured: We’re following Jesus. That’s the important thing. The only important thing.

So don’t fret over which leadership structure your church uses, and whether it’s biblical enough. You be biblical enough. Every single one of you: Concentrate on Jesus, no matter what else your church does. Pursue the kingdom first, and God takes care of everything else. Mt 6.33