CHRIST IS THE HEAD OF THE CHURCH
cristou kejalh thV ekklhsiaV
In several ways the Bible makes it clear that Christ Himself is the administrative Head, the One responsible for the building, growth, program, governing, and evaluating of the Church. From Matt. 16:18, "I will build My church," through Paul's epistles, 1 Cor. 12 (the Church is His body), Eph.1:22, 4:15, Col. 1:18, 2:19 (Christ is the Head of that body), and climaxing in the dramatic picture of Rev. 1 (Christ standing in the midst of the lamp stands representing the churches, examining their works, issuing admonitions and orders along with praises and promises), this portrayal of His authority and control is beyond question. Christ is running His Church. He states He is in no need of leaders in Matt. 23:10, for in His estimation there is only One, only servants.
The question we want to discuss in this article is a related one: How does He do it? When He was here on earth with those who were to become the church, His leadership and administration were direct. He personally gave the orders and made the decisions. Now that He is no longer present in the flesh, by what means or mechanism does He run His church? The specific aspect of this question we want to explore in this article may be seen by stating the problem a bit differently. Does Christ accomplish His rule over the church by means of specially authorized human agents (i.e., by elders)? Or does He direct His church by means of a democratic congregational organization of all the members of the body – congregational rule?
Before proceeding to a consideration of the Scripture teaching, it will be helpful to sound a warning. The answer to this question must not, dare not, be sought by appeal to the judgment criteria of human intelligence and worldly practices. What makes good sense in the business world makes no sense at all in church affairs. Remember how strongly Christ warned about this in the matter of standards of greatness and success: "It shall not be so among you." That is from the Master teacher and Lord (John 13:13).
This warning means, in effect, that the only arguments which are valid in seeking the answer to our question must come from God, from Christ Himself. He is the One who is ruling, He is the One who decides how He wants to do it. And that means, in our day, that the only source of information regarding the question must come from the Bible alone. We have no other authoritative source of information from heaven -- no apostles, no prophets -and we believe that in God's wisdom that is all we need.
THE PERIOD OF TRANSITION
When the disciples began to realize that they were going to be left alone without the immediate presence of Christ to guide, their response was fear and uncertainty. Jesus knew their anxiety, and He spent much of the time in those last days encouraging and instructing them. He knew what they needed to know (much better than they did) and He taught them what they should know to face the changed conditions which were coming. So looking at what He taught them ought to help us to understand what He considered important about the changed situation. What did Jesus talk about with His disciples that last night in the upper room?
He said, "I am going away, but I am not abandoning you." John 14:1-3, 18-20, 23; 16:16-22. In many of these words He seems to be promising them the spiritual presence of Himself and of the Father during the interval when they do not see Him in physical presence.
Especially, He said, "When I go away I will send Another (One who will be your comforter, helper, advocate as I have been)" John 14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26; 16:7-11, 13-15. The indwelling Holy Spirit will be the presence of Christ in the believers. After His resurrection He renewed the promise (John 20:22), and instructed His followers (Luke 24:46-49) to wait in Jerusalem for its fulfillment at Pentecost. Then in the great commission He reassured them, "Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:20).
This promise that Christ would send Another to take His place while He was absent is most significant to the problem we are looking at. How will Christ run the church when He is not Himself physically present? He will do it through the agency of His Counterpart, the Holy Spirit. "He will take the things of Mine (including My running the church) and reveal them unto you." With His presence and ministry, it is if I were still here.
THE RELATION OF THE HOLY SPIRIT TO THE CHURCH
Many Scriptures emphasize the close relation between the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the church. Repeatedly we are told that Christ would baptize His followers with the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; Acts 1:5; 11:16). That promise was fulfilled on Pentecost (Acts 1:5, 8; 2:4, 16-17, 33, 38) and this marked the beginning, the birthday of the church. Paul tells us that "we all were baptized into one body with one Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:13, literal translation; en pneumati: in, with, by means of; not by, in the sense that the Spirit is the agent doing the baptizing; Christ always is the baptizer in Spirit baptism -- look at the subject when the verb is active). Spirit baptism, the act by which Christ introduces us into His body, the church, is the reception of the Holy Spirit, Who enters to indwell the believer and new life is introduced (Rom. 6:3-4). “….we also should walk in newness of life.”
The implication of this teaching for our present discussion is that now Christ rules and directs His church through the instrumentality of the Spirit who indwells us. But, how does the Spirit direct? Is it by elders, or some other officials, who especially are led by the Spirit? Or does He lead by directing the whole body of believers? Do the Scriptures give us any lead as to His method? I believe they do, quite clearly.
First, there is nothing said in the Scriptures about the elders which indicates that they have any special relationship with the Spirit. Of the 18 references to church elders in the NT, only one (Acts 20:17, cf. v. 28) even has a mention of the Spirit in the context, and that is a reference to how they became elders, not at all to a special provision for their functioning in that capacity.
Second, it is never said in the NT that an elder is "filled with the Spirit" for his work. The expression "filled with the Spirit" occurs at least 12 times in the NT, usually of some individual (John the Baptist, Zachariah, Elizabeth, Jesus, Peter, Paul), sometimes groups (the seven deacons, the believers in Acts 7:31 and 13:52), "all" (at Pentecost). The significance seems to be a special enabling for the spiritual task at hand. That is precisely the need of the elder if he is to rule or direct the church, but it is never found. (The expression in Eph. 5:18 is an entirely different one from all the rest of these, and are not dealt with in this discussion.)
Third, the aspect of the Spirit's work when it is related to the church is always His indwelling and therefore is the common experience of every believer, not a work in a special class. The primary passage is 1 Cor. 12. It begins with all believers being baptized into the body by receiving the Spirit, vs.12-13. It continues by showing that many members make up the body, and that the Spirit gives to each of them His own enabling gift. Then it shows that all of those members with their gifts are necessary to the body. There is not a hint that some gifts are of a higher rank, or that some members are more capable of knowing the Spirit's guidance than others.
Fourth, the Scriptures make it plain that all believers are taught of the Spirit and "know"
the truth (1 Cor. 2:9-10, 12, 13, 14-16; keep in mind that the "spiritual man" is not some super-spiritual leader; he is one who has the Spirit, every believer. cf. vs. 12.) Cf. also, 1 John 2:20, 27. These passages of course do not teach that the believer is omniscient, but they do mean that every believer is teachable by the Spirit. There is nothing in Scripture which suggests that there is a select group of spiritual persons who are alone capable of knowing the guidance of the Spirit. The clergy-laity distinction in the church is post Biblical. And 2 Pet. 1:20 does not mean that only priestly or professional people are qualified to interpret Scripture; that was one of the errors of Catholicism.
Fifth, the epistles of the NT are almost all addressed to churches, and never to a pastor or elder of a specific church. This would be strange if the elder were the administrative head of the church, responsible for making the decisions. It is true that some (Timothy, Titus, 2 and 3 John) are addressed to individuals, and conceivably some of these may have been in fact elders. But they are addressed as individuals, not as officials of local congregations.
Sixth, the seven letters in Rev. 2 and 3 were addressed to "the angels" of the churches.
Opinions disagree whether these angels were "messengers" or elders of the churches, or, more in keeping with the rest of the book, they are to be thought of as literal angels (perhaps guardian angels). The point to be noted, however, is that the messages contained in those letters were not addressed to the angels. The commendations and the criticisms were not about the elder's activities, but rather the characteristics of the whole church. Each of the seven ends with the words "... what the Spirit saith to the churches." Again, this seems strange if the elder is supposed to be the spiritual decision-maker of the church.
Seventh, an analogy may be seen in the way the Holy Spirit directs in the spiritual life and growth of the individual believer. Does the Spirit guide our individual decisions by telling us to go to some "spiritual leader" and follow His instruction? Or does He guide by leading our thoughts to the Word of God and showing us there what His will is? Of course, the pastor or elder has a part to play; he has the responsibility to teach and influence our decisions by spiritual guidance. But making decisions is our personal responsibility.
SOME OBJECTIONS CONSIDERED
1. The ordinary church member doesn't know enough about spiritual matters to be trusted with spiritual decisions. This is often tragically true. The answer is not to take the control away from him, but to teach him the spiritual lessons he needs in order to function as a member of the body.
2. The church congregation often is not able to agree on a decision or course of action. This also is often true, but again the answer is the same as to the first objection: teaching is needed, and if necessary a decision may need to be postponed until the members can come to an understanding of the Spirit's leading in the matter. Congregational government should not be merely "majority rule." It should become "rule by consensus." In Acts 15 the results of the Jerusalem Council were sent out when "it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church" vs. 22, and they could say, "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us" vs. 28.