Though human government is ordained by God to uphold law and order for the welfare of societies (Romans 13:1-4), God has obviously not always been pleased with what men have done (see Dan. 5; Acts 12:23). It’s the same with church government. Just because God has ordained it doesn’t mean He’s always pleased with what men do in it (or to it).
Because the same errors in thinking which led to God’s displeasure in secular governments are being employed in the churches, it will be helpful to examine the following points regarding government in general.
1. The Intended Purpose of Government
2. Man’s Failure in Government
3. God’s Future Earthly Government
4. God’s Present Church Government
Purpose of Government
It was after the great flood that God gave the first instruction to mankind to form a government. He said, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made He man” (Genesis 9:6).
A man could kill animals, but he could not kill another man. Because God created man in His own image, when a man committed murder, man himself was given the authority to execute capital punishment. This was to protect the image of God on earth. And this was the extent of what God had instructed for human government up to that point in time.
It is Genesis 10-11 which records the first attempt of man to organize his own government. Rather than scatter into smaller groups, each dependent on God, man organized a big independent unity. In the establishment of the “kingdom of Babel,” several of man’s enduring purposes of government are revealed or implied.
a. To facilitate man’s ability. “Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly” (Gen. 11:3). They discovered the ability to build on a grand scale and so used it. This would give men a sense of purpose in being a part of something so much greater than any individual.
b. To build and maintain an infrastructure. “Go to, let us build us a city…” (Gen.11:4). Big cities like Babel pool man’s talents and resources together. With their bridges, roads, and buildings, they allow for easy trade which makes an economy grow. Together, people would specialize in different areas of work and depend on one another.
c. To establish and maintain a name. “Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4). A high tower would be a rallying point and a symbol of man’s great strength and ability. A “name” is associated with glory and authority. This “name” would keep the people of the kingdom of Babel unified and patriotic.
Far from what God instructed, Babel’s
government became what men would
depend on for survival, sustenance
A Babel mindset in government provides citizens “security” and purpose through the government’s provisions. It organizes big trade where men are apt to depend on each other rather than God. And it instills a “national pride” (patriotism) through the government’s name so that when asked, men willingly die to build and defend the name of their government.
Scripture records no instruction after the flood for government to give purpose, to build infrastructure, to unify, or to organize. Man was to replenish the earth in dependence upon God (Gen. 9:1-3). Government was strictly to uphold righteousness among sinful men. God would then in time establish their national borders (Acts 17:26). But at Babel, man defiantly unified to form one government.
At Babel, man acted without instruction from God, stepping far beyond the instruction for government God did give. And God was not pleased. Their oneness (unity) was wrong because it was a unity under man, not a unity under God. God said, “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language …” (Gen. 11:7). And they were judged. Their godless unity was broken and they were scattered.
Babel’s government stood opposed to God, even denying Him. God Himself is to be the “purpose” of a man’s life, not his trade. Man is to depend on God alone to meet his every need, not other men and certainly not governments’ securities and entitlements (Mat. 6:31-32). And man is to glory in his Creator, never himself, his abilities, or his accomplishments (I Cor. 1:31).
The weakness of man’s governments (beginning with Babel) is clearly seen. From human monarchy to democratic republic; from communism to fascism; all have come short of God’s simple purpose for government: to uphold righteousness. This is because at their head (whether a king, a dictator, or representatives) will be found a man or men, of whom God says “all have sinned and come short of His glory” (paraphrase of Romans 3:23).
When sinful man assumes governmental authority beyond God’s instruction and massive resources are at his disposal, is it surprising that he will engage in pointless wars where men created in God’s image are destroyed?
And why? Almost never for the scriptural reason of bearing the sword against them that “doeth evil” (Romans 13:1-4). Other reasons will liberally be given: freedom, rights, land for citizens, resources for the economy, etc. But in truth isn’t war almost always the result of man’s hunger to expand his borders, to take what others have, to assume even greater power for himself? With divine direction forsaken is it any surprise that history bears out such brutal folly?
God’s Future Government
From the time of Babel onward God has allowed men to form nations: to grope about blindly, as it were, without any divine instruction for what type of government to form (Israel excepted). In every one of them, there was failure because men’s confidence and hope was in man. Even Israel eventually rejected God as their Head and turned to man (I Samuel 11:3; 12:12). And with every failure men devised something new. Now, after millennia with so many failures, isn’t the data in?
Man can’t govern himself, because a man can’t
govern himself. As long as the head is sinful man, a
government will fail. Sadly, the only question is when.
So then, what hope is there? Abraham Lincoln referred to the American style of government as the “last best hope of Earth.” He was probably right. It’s the best men have ever devised because it limits government’s power over its citizens. But sadly, it too suffers from the same deficiency as all the others. Men, all of whom are sinners, are its head. One day, I’m afraid to say, even our great country will probably fail. But not to worry. The day is coming when there will finally be a sinless leader of the world: a man – the Lord Jesus Christ. “…With righteousness shall He judge the world, and the people with equity” (Psalm 98:9).
The King of kings and Lord of lords is unlike any ruler who has ever been. He alone is a man without sin. But that’s not all. Being God, He is omniscient, knowing every individual personally.
Modern day politicians (even the well-intentioned ones) would never dream of such a thing. They study demographics, political science, and economics which model nations as collective units, not as a mass of individuals. They must deal with “the whole” because they could not possibly deal with “all.” And since they can’t know all the people, they could never hope to serve all the people well.
What a glorious day it will be for the nations in the new heavens and the new earth to have a leader who is not only sinless and selfless, but one who will meet every individual’s needs. All “the people” will be secure, unified, and dependent on a righteous leader. And He will be their purpose. And they will glory in His name alone! In that day, God will be all in all (I Cor. 15:28). God’s purpose of the ages will be fulfilled (Eph. 1:10). It will not be, “of the people, by the people, for the people” as Abraham Lincoln referred to America’s government, rather, it will be “of Him, and through Him, and to Him” (Rom.11:36).
God’s Present Government
Let us now consider the New Testament church and how the errors of Babel are affecting its government.
1. The Purpose of the Church
2. The Head of the Church
3. The “Leaders” of the Church
4. The People of the Church
The Purpose of the Church
When the first civil government was formed at Babel man went far beyond God’s instruction and purpose. This Babel-like urge to go beyond God’s instruction must be resisted in the church today.
• Is our hope in the church to give purpose in life through its many programs and ministries or is our hope in the Lord? “But our sufficiency is of God” (II Cor. 3:5).
• Was the church instructed to be strong with political authority or maintain assets (infrastructure) in order to ensure security in meeting peoples’ needs? “But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19, Mat. 6:19-34,).
Some Christian ministries are building great assets with the goal of meeting needs. Could they by their example and ecumenical compromises be naïvely and inadvertently fostering dependence on man and independence from God?
God gives no instructions to organize beyond the single autonomous church and there is not even any scriptural precedent for churches to own property or assets. We have examples in the Scriptures for individuals owning assets (Acts 5:4), but not the church. The organizations, “official ministries,” and infrastructures being built do not come from a scriptural pattern or principle. A simple look at man’s marketing and fund-raising strategies necessary to maintain such things should confirm their error (see The Illness in the Churches).
• Is the church to build up a name (Baptist, Methodist, Brethren, etc.) which will instill a unifying patriotism among those who belong? This will cause many to defend their church’s organization and style of internal government and glory in its history and accomplishments and how many missionaries they send out. Colossians 3:17 says, “Whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.” And,“ If any man glory, let him glory in the Lord” (I Cor. 1:31).
Many well-intentioned saints are stepping far beyond the simple instructions of God’s Word for the church and right into the same errors made at Babel.
Churches advertise to attract and keep people (as though it were a business trying to win market-share). There is boasting of the entitlements some churches offer like counseling, “user friendly” church buildings, large size, famous ministries or men, great music, poignant drama, and “seeker” programs (youth, singles, etc.) that produce “results” – as though “church membership” and satisfied people were the goal.
God’s way to save is by the “foolishness of preaching” (I Cor. 1:21). The church, in dependence upon Him alone, simply proclaims His Word through continuing in the “apostles’ doctrine, and fellowship, and in breaking of bread and in prayers.” When God adds to the church by saving someone, they are to be baptized, then brought into the local church fellowship (Acts 2:41-47). That’s the pattern God has laid out for us.
The purpose of the churches is being changed today from a place for God, where He is given His desires, into a place where God is talked about, but not obeyed or depended upon at all.
The Head of the Church
There is only one Head of the true church: the Lord Jesus Christ. The government of a family unit can work well because there is a head who is closely familiar with and genuinely, sacrificially loves every individual under his authority. So it is with the Lord Jesus and His churches (I Pet. 5:7).
He knows every individual and all needs. He is able to meet them through the spiritual gifts which He dispenses to whom He will (Eph. 4:8). Too often it is the church leaders, not able to know every need, who take control of matters and arrange and orchestrate so much that the saints have little or no freedom at all to exercise their God-given gifts to edify one another (I Cor. 14:12;26).
Israel once won a great victory over the Philistines despite the king’s foolishness in witholding from the army the spoils of a smaller victory. Jonathan said, “How much more, if haply the people had eaten freely today of the spoils of their enemies which they found? For had there not been a much greater slaughter among the Philistines?” (I Sam. 14:30). Jonathon understood that had the people been permitted to eat of the spoils which were rightfully theirs, the victory would have been much greater.
Today, in God’s mercy, needs are still met, but how much better could they be? How much stronger spiritually might the churches be if the saints were permitted to minister as directed by the Holy Spirit in weekly open meetings – as the Head has clearly instructed (I Cor. 14)?
The “Leaders” of the Church
The Bible uses the term shepherd, but men use the word “leader.” This causes a gross misinterpretation. The “leaders” of a church are not to independently lead. There is one Head of the church, the Lord Jesus Christ. The elders are to follow that Head and oversee the assembly, not dictate their own preferences. Elders are to be discerners of God’s Word, not decision makers. (See Acts 15 where the Word of God ends the argument, see Joshua 14:15; Judges 7; contrast I Sam. 14-15). Elders are to simply relay God’s Word as they stand upon it so in following the “leader” or elder one is really following the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:26-32).
A general needs instant communication with his men and he needs accurate intelligence of the enemy’s activity in order to direct his army. No elder in any church has either of these things. But the Head does. The Lord Jesus can redirect any preacher a moment before he opens his mouth. He can change an evangelist’s focus in an instant toward some out-of-the-way part of a city no one ever considered before. He can move in the heart of a giver to give money where it is needed rather than to some man’s pet project. The Lord Jesus can do what no Christian “leader” ever could.
Elders are simply to oversee “the sheep” in the church meeting, seeing that it functions in proper scriptural order under the Lord’s commands (I Cor. 14:37). Elders are to be teachers by word and deed of what the purpose in life is, how to depend on God, and most importantly, they must keep the Lord Jesus Christ preeminent. “And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence” (Col. 1:18).
The elders (plural) of a church are to be overseers, hospitable, teachers, caretakers of the church of God, exhorters and convincers of the contradictors according to sound doctrine, and watchers for our souls (I Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:7-9; Heb. 13:17). These are their only instructions. Assuming more authority or responsibility than this is bringing Babel into the church.
The People of the Church
Finally, the largest part of any government is the people. The saints are to be obedient to the elders. The reason for this is that we are under the Head who commands it so (Heb. 13:17). But personal obedience to the Lord Jesus must always take precedence over our submission to any man (Acts 5:29). A common example: the Head says, “Let your women keep silence in the churches…” (I Cor. 14:34). It may go against our culture, our upbringing, even our own understanding. But who or what should we obey?
When we do see wrong government in the church, we must resist the urge to cause divisions and get our own following (see I Sam. 12:20-25). The Lord Jesus is the Head of His church and He knows how to deal with disobedience – even among those we call leaders (Rev. 2 & 3). Remember David’s example? The Lord allowed Saul to reign as king over Israel (I Sam. 8-31) and David, though he was the rightful king, refused to rebel. Even when David had the clearest opportunity to take the throne, what he knew was his, he refused to do it because of the means that would have been necessary (I Sam. 24 & 26). The ends never justify the means. May we regard David’s example of patience and his understanding that there is a Lord who is in full control (See I Sam. 2:6-10).
The conclusion is very simple.
New Testament church
government is one of utter
dependence on an all-sufficient
God – for everything.
The New Testament church lacks hierarchy, but has great order (I Cor. 14). It lacks a constitution (apart from God’s written Word), but handles the severest of problems (e.g. I Cor. 5). It lacks earthly heads, but nurtures loyalty to the Lord Jesus (Acts 20:32). It lacks man’s infrastructure, yet it sees every need met (Acts 11:27-30).
It pays taxes, prays for leaders and obeys the law of the land, but is not dependent on man’s government. It is “pilgrim” in nature, but has a permanent city in heaven. It is passive toward cultural change, yet resists worldly influence. It plans for little, and thereby builds faith in an all-sufficient God. It is persecuted by men, but perfectly secure in God’s salvation through the accomplishment of the King of kings.
New Testament church government is designed by God to be but a small reflection of what will one day be when the Lord Jesus Christ reigns as King over all creation and the Father’s will is finally done “on earth as it is in heaven.” It will be the day when “Babylon [Babel] the great is fallen, is fallen,” never to intoxicate the nations again (Rev. 18:2-3). May today’s church “come out of her” and reflect His rule on earth now (Rev. 18:4).