Who is in Charge of the Church?

“Who is in charge here?” This is a question that people do not like to hear, but love to ask. It usually means that someone is unhappy and they want to complain to the person that they feel is responsible for their unhappiness. Supervisors and managers do not like to hear this question because, usually, it is the start to a very difficult conversation. But to people who have been mistreated or do not like how something is run or are unhappy with a decision, the question “Who is in charge?” is indeed a valid one. If a toy sold at Walmart is unsafe for children, a parent will want to know, “Who is in charge?” “Who is responsible for this?” If a company makes a decision to stop paying overtime, the employees need to know, “Who is in charge?” If a newspaper prints an article that falsely accuses a politician, they need to know “who is in charge?” It is important to know who is in charge so one can know who to hold responsible if things go wrong and who to give credit when things go right. It is important to know who makes the decisions of a company or an organization. So, who is in charge of the church? The pastor? Deacons? Trustees? The one’s with the longest membership? The finance committee? The congregation? The biggest givers? The local association? The leaders in the denomination? God? “Who is in charge of the church?” Or another way to ask the question, “How is the church set up” or “What is the church’s government or polity?”

We have to ground this discussion in the Bible. We believe that the Bible is God’s Word. It is infallible, inerrant, and without any mixture of error. We can learn from our experiences and our traditions in how systems and practices should be arranged in the local church, but our experiences and our traditions must submit to God’s Word. We always want to be firm where the Bible is firm and charitable where there Bible allows room for disagreements. There are many disagreements in how the church should be arranged from godly, scholarly, conservative Christians. Church polity, or church government, is a place where we should make room for a charitable discussion, but we still must ground that discussion in the Bible. God cares about the organization and behavior in the church. God writes through Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, 1 Tim 3:14-15,

I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth.

Paul wrote to Timothy so that he would know how one ought to behave in the household of God. There is a specific way that the church should function. And God cares about how the church is organized because it is the church of the living God. The church is a reflection of the one true and living God. The church is a pillar and buttress of truth. This means that the church holds up and supports truth. The church is entrusted with the mystery of godliness (1 Cor. 4:1). Listen as Paul explains it in 1 Tim 3:16,

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

Jesus Christ was manifested in the flesh. He was God incarnate. He lived the perfect human life, free from sin and corruption. He was innocent, but made to be guilty for the sake of sinners. After his death, he was vindicated by the Spirit, in his resurrection from the dead conquering the grave for all who trust in Him. And this is what the church proclaims among the nations. We proclaim the mystery of godliness, a mystery once hidden, but now disclosed, that Christ has come, the righteous for the unrighteous to bring us to God. We proclaim this great news to the world, and people believe. And when people believe in Jesus Christ, they are saved. Romans 10:9-10,

Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.

This is the glorious news that the church has been entrusted to protect and proclaim. The church is the steward of this mystery to help people cross over from death to life, from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of the Beloved Son. We are the church of the living God, therefore it is important that we know how we ought to behave as God’s representatives on Earth.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Jesus Christ established the church. Matthew 16:18, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (emphasis added).” As Jesus has established the church, he is the head of the church. Ephesians 5:23 says, “Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.” Colossians 1:18, “He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” All authority given in the church stems from Jesus Christ. The church must hold fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God (Col 2:19). Jesus is ultimately the one who is in charge of the church, and he has given his authority to others to govern, to lead and to serve His Bride, the church.

I was not raised a Baptist, but became a Baptist by conviction. I studied the Bible and I came to believe from the Bible in the Baptist’s historic view of the church. I say historic, because not every Baptist church looks like a historic Baptist Church. Who is in charge of the church? Let us look at the Scriptures together and see how the Bible answers this question.

The Church is Governed by the Congregation

The final earthly authority in the church is the church itself. As we have established earlier, it is important to know who is in charge of the church in order to know who will be ultimately held responsible when things go wrong. Jesus addresses sin in the church and a plan on how to deal with it, Matthew 18:15-20,

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.

Jesus shows the proper progression to deal with sin. The first step is to address the individual. If they don’t listen, the next step is to bring two or three with you. If they do not listen to two or three believers, Jesus says tell it to the church. And if they do not listen to the church, they are to be treated as a non-believer. Jesus gives the final authority to the congregation, not a board of elders or a board of deacons, or trustees, but to the church.

In Acts 6 there arose a complaint that certain widows were being overlooked in the distribution of food. Acts 6:2-3, “And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers (referring to the full number of disciples), pick out from among you seven men.” And verse 5, “And what they said pleased the whole gathering, they chose…” The final authority in choosing their leaders was the congregation.

Paul assumes the congregation is in charge when he holds them accountable for allowing sin in the church. 1 Corinthians 5:1-2,

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you (emphasis added)

Who is the you here? Who is the letter written to? To the church of God that is in Corinth. Paul ultimately does not blame the pastor, but holds the congregation responsible for the sin within the church.

Again Paul writes to the church about a matter of church discipline, in 2 Corinthians 2:6-8,

For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him (emphasis added).

Paul says that the punishment of the majority of the church was sufficient and now the church should bring the expelled member back into the fellowship. Paul did not address the pastor or the leaders, but rather the church. In addition, one pastor notes, “In Galatians, Paul called on the congregations to judge the teaching they had been hearing. In 2 Timothy 4, Paul reproved not just the false teachers, but also those who paid them to teach what their itching ears wanted to hear.[1]” Are you seeing a pattern? When there is sin in the household of faith, God holds the church responsible. Why? Because they are the final authority!!

The fact that God holds the church responsible for sin should show us how important God values involvement of his people as members in the local church. He vests His authority in the body of Christ and holds them accountable to steward the gospel. Although God ultimately holds the church responsible, He calls some men to lead the church, not to rule, but rather to lead.

The Church is Led by the Elders

The last week I mentioned that a healthy church member should submit faithfully to their church’s leadership. [2] There are three things I want you to notice about the office of elder. First, an elder/pastor must be a man of godly character. Paul lays out the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1-7,
I am sure that this sounded self-aggrandizing, but let me explain in more depth why God has set up a system for particular men to lead his church rather than one man. There are two offices in the church laid out in Scripture: pastors and deacons. God gives very specific qualifications for both these offices. The Bible uses many words to describe the pastoral office: pastor/shepherd, elder, bishop, or overseer. They are used interchangeably in the New Testament (as seen in second half of Acts 20).

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

The qualifications are cleared marked out. Notice that these elders do not have the potential of these traits, but actually have proven themselves to already have these traits. Paul says “an overseer must be,” not “an overseer must be striving to be.” Elders are not perfect, but they should exemplify a godly character. God is asking the church to submit to men with a godly character.

Secondly, God is asking men to lead who have the ability to teach God’s Word. Paul says here in 1 Timothy that elders must be able to teach. They must know the Word of God. He says something similarly when describing elders in Titus 1:9 that, “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Elders are responsible to guard the doctrinal purity of the church through their teaching. They are called to both give instruction in sound doctrine and rebuke those that contradict it.

These first two general characteristics of godly character and godly wisdom are nothing new, but there is a third thing I want you to notice about elders in the New Testament and that is their number. The Bible teaches that the church should have a plurality of elders. It teaches that multiple men, not one man, should lead the church in character and wisdom. Listen to these verses,

Acts 14:23, “And when they had appointed elders (plural) for them in every church (singular), with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”

Acts 20:17, “Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders (plural) of the church (singular) to come to him.”

Philippians 1:1, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers (plural) and the deacons: (One church, a plurality of pastors)”

Titus 1:5, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders (plural) in every town (singular) as I directed you.”

James 5:14, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders (plural) of the church (singular),”

The plurality of elders or pastors is clearly taught in the Bible. This does not mean the Bible teaches that there is no distinctive role for one lead teaching elder/pastor.

Paul told Timothy to, “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and to teaching.” He also told them in I Timothy 5:17 “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” Among a group of leaders there would be one (possibly more) that were devoted to the study and preaching of God’s Word. Their responsibility to teach does not mean they are the only elders.

Is it healthy to have a plurality of pastors? Yes. Let me provide several reasons briefly why it beneficial for a church to have a plurality of elders, both staff and lay elders.

Improves the Congregational Care – Multiple qualified men, with godly character and godly wisdom, will be better able to care for the spiritual needs of the congregation. There are limits to the spiritual care that can be done by one man. 1 Peter 5:2 says to elders to, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you.” It is both wise and biblical to have multiple men give themselves to this shepherding task. One of the dangers that I have seen develop with the one pastor model is that men who are qualified to serve as elders, but do not feel called to the full-time vocational preaching ministry, feel that they are not called to be a pastor. The “preacher” is only one of the shepherds. A plurality of elders gives a platform to godly men to use their shepherding gifts to care for the spiritual needs of the body.

Protects the Church from the Pastor – Although pastors should be godly men, they are not infallible men. Pastors need to be held accountable in their teaching and their character. I Tim 4:16 “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” A plurality of pastors helps guard the church from sin in a pastor’s life by surrounding him with men to help watch his life and his teaching. It also helps to provide wisdom in decision making. Mark Dever says, “Sharing leadership with a group of godly, able non-staff elders will almost invariably keep pastors (especially young ones) from saying or doing dumb things, or from saying or doing the right things in unhelpful ways.”[3] Unfortunately, pastors can be domineering and totalitarian in their leadership and this often hurts the church. A plurality of elders protects the church from the misuse of authority because it shares authority. It also protects the church from taking on the personality of the senior pastor. The church should be shaped around the Word of God and not the personality and vision of one man.

Protects the Pastor from the Church – All leaders are criticized and pastors are no exception. The dropout rate of pastors is very high. One of the reasons is that most pastors are called to share the weight of the criticism on their own. Multiple elders protect the church from developing an “Us vs. Him” mentality that can be very common when disagreements arise.[4] The plurality of pastors shares the emotional load of the criticism within a church and the spiritual load of shepherding the people. Pastors also are part of a team of men who have demonstrated a lifetime of godliness and faithfulness to the church. A plurality of elders surround the pastor with men from the community which can help the pastor learn how to care for the specific group of people the Holy Spirit has put in his care. Lay elders help the pastor learn how to love the people, because they are one of the people.

The plurality of elders is both wise and biblical. They do not rule, but provide godly direction and leadership for the congregation. The final authority is always invested in the church. Therefore, if the elder falls to false teaching or false living, then it is the congregation’s responsibility to remove him.

The Church is Served by the Deacons

The second office the Bible gives for the church is the office of deacon. 1 Timothy 3:8-13,

Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. 9 They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.10 And let them also be
tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

Deacons, like elders, should also be men who possess a godly character and knowledge of the Scripture. The only significant difference in the qualifications of a deacon and elder/pastor is the ability to teach. Then what are deacons called to do?

The best place to see the main purpose of deacons is to go to the start of the deacon ministry in Acts 6. There was disunity in the church as certain widows were being overlooked. Acts 6:2-4,

And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve (to diakonien) tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry (diakonian) of the word.

The seven men where set apart to serve (or to deacon) the tables while the pastors were to devote themselves to minister (or to deacon) the word. The pastors and elders serve in tandem. Again Mark Dever is helpful here when he says,

Deacons, then, serve to care for the physical and financial needs of the church, and they do so in a way that heals divisions, brings unity under the Word, and supports the leadership of the elders. Without this practical service of the deacons, the elders will not be freed to devote themselves to praying and serving the Word to the people. Elders need deacons to serve practically, and deacons need elders to lead spiritually.[5]


God has provided a recipe for the structure of the church. He has given his Word so that we should know how we ought to behave in the household of faith, the church of the living God. We could change the recipe, but if we do, the church may lose its heavenly flavor. Beloved, God has given us his recipe for the church, will we follow it?

[1] Dever, Mark. 9 Marks of a Healthy (booklet). 9Marks. Washington, D.C. 2005 p.56-57.
[2] Dever, Mark. 9 Marks of a Healthy (booklet). 9Marks. Washington, D.C. 2005 p.55
[3] Dever, Mark. The Deliberate Church. Wheaton. Crossway Book. 133-134. 2005
[4] Dever, Mark. The Deliberate Church. Wheaton. Crossway Book. 133-134. 2005
[5] Dever, Mark. The Deliberate Church. Wheaton. Crossway Book. 132. 2005