Who Rules the Local Church?
Every church is different. There are different ministries, styles, and of course different people. There also different leadership structures in seemingly every church. Some churches are ruled by the pastors. Some are ruled by the deacon board. And some are ruled by a board of congregants. So which way is best? Is there a Biblical standard that we can know what God wants in the leadership structure of the local church?
God’s Word is certainly vocal on this area of doctrine. Paul constantly teaches his disciples about Biblical eldership. He also gives us our clearest description of the diaconate. Yet, he does not specifically state how all of this is to work in harmony with the congregation. The clearest display of how elders, deacons, and congregants are to function within the leadership of the local church is found in the narrative of Acts 6.
The first big problem that we see within the local church is racism. The Greek widows were being neglected by the Jewish believers in getting their daily necessities. This along with the growing numbers of people made for a very problematic situation. How could the elders possibly minister to all of them? How could they make sure all the widows received what they needed? The answer is of course that they couldn’t, at least they couldn’t do it alone. The solution to this problem is where we can see the clearest example of Biblical leadership functioning within the local church. (Please read Acts 6:1-7)
The Elders (Pastors/Shepherds/Overseers) react to this problem with first understanding what would happen if they were to resolve this issue themselves. Acts 6:2, “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.” They saw their ministry of the Word and prayer as paramount to serving tables. This understanding of their priorities led them to making a decision as we read in verse 3, ”Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you…”
Notice that the elders make this decision. They do not answer to a committee or any other type of board, they hold the authority within their role to make a crucial decision that will have a ministry-wide impact. They do not have to run it by anyone else. Nor do they use this authority for their own benefit, but for the benefit of these Greek widows -their needy congregants. The elders also are the ones who appoint the deacons to their ministry and pray over them. The elders lead.
Here we can also see that the diaconate is not above the elders, in fact they are, as their name suggests, servants of the church. Yet, they do hold a certain level of spiritual authority as they serve. This is why they are to have good reputations and be full of the Spirit and of wisdom as stated in verse 3. This humble position of being a deacon within the local church is vital to spiritual growth and maturity of that church. It is only after the diaconate is instituted that we have verse 7. Nowhere in this narrative do we see the deacons making any type of decision in governing the local church. They simply do as their elders direct. The deacons serve.
While the elders lead and obviously make some crucial decisions within the local church, this passage shows us that the congregation is also involved in decision making. The elders ask the congregation to pick out those who would be deacons. This is a huge decision. We also see that the initial idea brought to them by the elders “pleased the whole gathering.” This would seem to imply that they approved of the decision. This passage gives us a clear picture of how the congregation is to act as an accountability to the elders who are leading. The congregation rules.
There are many other passages that should be discussed in this conversation, but this picture clearly shows us how a Biblical structure of leadership within the local church operates. The local church is to be elder-led, deacon-served, and congregationally-ruled. All of this is to be done so that the same would be true of our local churches as the church of Jerusalem - “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.”