The Apostolic Church Model
I want to examine biblically the form of church government that was enacted and practiced by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. To do so we will look at the Jerusalem council that decided an important matter regarding Gentiles and the Jewish law.
Under the New Testament the word of God came to the apostles. They brought the word to the people. They planted local churches and moved on to other areas to plant additional local churches. However, they did not exercise authority over day to day matters in the churches. The elders that were ordained to oversee the local churches did that. The apostles warned, they advised, they taught, they equipped and they rebuked local churches.
I want to look at a verse that some use to demonstrate there was a Jerusalem council that governed the church as a whole and that the church had to obey its orders.
Act 15:22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers,
Let’s look closely at the situation that the early church found itself in. But first I want to examine the details surrounding it. The apostles Paul and Barnabas had travelled throughout the Greek world and established churches. When they established churches they ordained elders in each locality. These were men that were to work together for the local ministry of the church. The apostle Paul set several qualifications for local elders. (1 Timothy 3:2-7) The church was also to vote on deacons who were to serve the needs of the elders and the local church members.
These local churches soon began to have some divisions because they were made up of Jews and Gentiles. The Jews had certain legal demands that they felt they needed to follow and the Gentiles did not feel the need to follow them. The Jews began to assert authority and demand the Gentiles follow the law of Moses.
The local church leaders, because of the dispute, decided they should send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to consult with the apostles. “Act 15:2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.”
[Definition: local church is not to be thought of as a church in a particular nation or state. A local church is just that. A group of people that gather for worship in a particular location. A city or if it is a very large city a particular area in a city.]
So the local elders of Antioch made this decision. The local elders made this decision without compulsion by the apostles Paul and Barnabas. The elders of Antioch made the decision to send the apostles. The apostles didn’t make the decision and force the local church. Even though Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles, to whom of the word of the New Testament came, he had to obey the order of the local Antioch church to go up to Jerusalem.
Why did the church at Antioch ask the apostles and elders in Jerusalem to decide the matter? Jerusalem was where the Gospel originally came forth from and these apostles were men who had been with Jesus Christ and were first sent by him to bring the Gospel to the whole world. The New Testament had not been completed and brought together at that time. At the time the only authority they could refer to was the original apostles that were with Jesus. They did not have the New Testament.
First, let’s see how they resolved this dispute; Peter stood up and told of his testimony of how God dealt with him to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles for the first time. Then James replied and further bolstered what Peter had to say and added several stipulations in order to keep peace in the churches between Jews and Gentiles.
“The Whole Church”
Notice, closely the words that are written, “it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church…” Peter spoke, James agreed and made a recommendation then the apostles, elders and the whole church in Jerusalem agreed. So there was a vote from the whole Jerusalem church. It was not merely a decree made by one person, but the request was made and then it was voted on by the whole church.
So, remember, first of all the elders of the local churches carry the authority over each of those local churches. When an important matter is brought up it should not be enacted by one person or by only the elders. The entire church must vote and agree on disputes. Now, secondly, this was a doctrinal matter that was voted on and an answer was provided on what to do on the disputes that were taking place in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia.
The apostles in Jerusalem were not deciding on who would and would not be a minister in the local churches. These elders had already been appointed and confirmed by the local church.
This situation does not sanction an external governing body over the entire global church. Each local church has independent leadership that should decide matters. One person or a group of men should not decide doctrinal matters for the church.
Unfortunately, the Nicene Council and other councils used this format under a perverted episcopal form of church government to decide on the doctrine of God and the doctrine of Christ. The episcopal form of church government is one where there are bishops over many local churches which are governed by local elders. The area bishops were sent to Nicea, Constantinople, etc. in order to decide doctrinal disputes. They did not follow the Scriptural example.
In truth there is not a situation where we can recognize a certain church with specific leadership (Jerusalem with its apostles who were chosen by Jesus) as the proper place to decide doctrinal disputes. Now, each local church must be governed independently by the elders that have been appointed and voted on by the local church members. In Jerusalem, the meeting was led by the apostles Peter and James, but the whole church gathered and decided together.
The pattern we find in Scripture is that God sends chosen men, prophets or in the church age he sent Reformers to bring doctrinal correction to the church around the world.
Paul asked Titus to ordain elders. But what does it mean to ordain elders?
Tit 1:5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—
It is not to be thought that Titus alone chose the elders. Rather, he assisted the local churches and took oversight over the process. The local church voted on whether or not to accept certain people as elders.
Act 14:23 And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.
The word ordained here in the Greek means to be a hand reacher or voter. So to follow the example of Paul they found particularly gifted men and they presided over a vote from the local church members. The stretching out of the hand was the final say for the matter. Paul and Barnabas did not have the final say in the matter, the local members did.
Biblical Apostolic Authority
Nowhere does the New Testament support an apostle excommunicating a believer from a local church or removing a pastor or local elder from his ministry.
3Jn 1:9 I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority.
3Jn 1:10 So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church.
John purposed to publicly rebuke Diotrephes. However, I want you to notice that he does not say that he will take him out of the ministry. He simply stated that he will bring up what he is doing publicly. It is up to the local church to decide what it will do with Diotrephes.
Yet, the nature of Diotrephes was to excommunicate people from the church who were disobeying his “orders.” Diotrephes did not come in to the church as an illegitimate leader. It appears he was an ordained elder of that particular local church. John does not say he will remove him, but that he will publicly rebuke him.
1Ti 1:20 Of whom is Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme.
Paul does not excommunicate them from the church. He delivers them to Satan for their chastisement so that they receive God’s correction. Delivering them to Satan for the destruction of the flesh was a particular authority that the apostle Paul took in this case, but the local church had to decide whether they would excommunicate the person that was spoken of.
Act 20:17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him.
Act 20:28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
Act 20:29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock;
Act 20:30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.
These were men who rose up from among the rightfully elected leadership of the local churches. Paul did not seek to find out who they were. No more than Jesus cast Judas out even though he knew he was a devil. Paul simply advised and warned the men so that they would have the wisdom to know how to handle the situation properly.
Excommunication: The Action of a Local Church
Mat 18:17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
Excommunication is an action of the entire church and not of one person or of a council. Tell it unto the church and let him be as an heathen man and a publican. In other words everyone in the church should avoid that person until they repent.
Rom 16:17 Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.
The brethren of the church are to mark certain people who teach false doctrine and avoid them. Again, another form of excommunication from the church. Paul does not seek out those nor does he speak to one person. Rather, it is the action of the church as a whole.
I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. I hope therefore to send him just as soon as I see how it will go with me, and I trust in the Lord that shortly I myself will come also. I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me. (Philippians 2:19-30 ESV)
Therefore, we conclude that a pastor cannot be removed from a church by the “order” of an apostle. The local church as a whole must vote to remove that person. Not even the apostle John stated he would remove Diotrephes from local leadership.
The apostles authority is to warn, to point out error, to build up in faith, to rebuke, to confront and to equip the believers and therefore the local churches are to test “…those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.” Revelation 2:2. It is up to the individual believers in local churches along with their elders to follow the word of God as it is delivered.
The word of God came to the apostles and was delivered to the church. It was simply a matter of receiving the word of salvation that came through the apostles. But decisions in the local church were to be made by the elders and significant matters should voted on by the entire local church.