After Jesus' ascension the leadership of the church rested in the hands of the apostles. Their first organizational act, in counsel with the other believers, was to elect another apostle to take Judas' place (Acts 1:15-26).
As the church grew, the apostles realized the impossibility of both preaching the gospel and caring for the church's temporal affairs. So they turned the church's practical business over to seven men whom the church appointed. Though the church distinguished between the ... ministry of the word ... and ... serving tables ... (Acts 6:1-4), it made no attempt to separate clergy from laity in discharging the mission of the church. In fact, two of the seven, Stephen and Philip, were noted for their effective preaching and evangelism (Acts 7 and 8).
The church's expansion into Asia and Europe called for additional steps in organization. With the establishment of numerous new churches, elders were ordained "in every church" to ensure stable leadership (Acts 14:23).
When a major crisis developed, the parties involved were allowed to state their respective positions to a general council comprised of apostles and elders representing the church at large. The decisions of this council were seen as binding upon all parties and were accepted as the voice of God (Acts 15:1-29). This incident illustrates the fact that when it is a matter of issues affecting the entire church, counsel and authority on a much broader level than that of the local church are necessary. In this case the decision of the council grew out of the agreement reached by the representatives of all parties involved (Acts 15:22, 25).
The New Testament makes it clear that as the need arose God guided the leadership of His work. With His direction, and in counsel with the church, they formed a church government that, if followed today, will help safeguard the church from apostasy and enable it to fulfill its great commission.
BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES OF CHURCH GOVERNMENT
1. Christ is the head of the church. Christ's headship over the church is based primarily on His mediatorial work. Since His victory over Satan on the cross, Christ has been given "all authority" in ... "heaven and on earth" ... (Matt. 28:18). God has put "all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church" (Eph. 1:22; cf. Phil. 2: 1 0, 1 1). He is therefore "Lord of lords and King of kings" (Rev. 17:14).
Christ also is the head of the church because the church is His body (Eph. 1:23; Col. 1: 18). Believers are "members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones" (Eph.5:30). They must have an intimate connection with Him because from Him the church is "nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments" (Col. 2:19).
2. Christ is the source of all its authority. Christ demonstrates His authority in (a) the establishment of the Christian church (Matt. 16:18), (b) the institution of ordinances the church must administer (Matt. 26:26-30; 28:19,20;! Cor. 11:23-29; John 13:1-17), (c) the endowment of the church with divine authority to act in His name (Matt. 16:19; 18:15-18; John 20:21-23), (d) the sending of the Holy Spirit to guide His church under His authority (John 15:26; 16:13-15), (e) the appointment within the church of special gifts so that individuals can function as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors (shepherds), and teachers to prepare its members for service and to build up "the body of Christ" till all experience unity in the faith and reflect "the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:7-13).
3. The Scriptures carry Christ's authority. Though Christ guides His church through the Holy Spirit, the Word of God is the sole standard by which the church operates. All its members are to obey that Word because it is law in the absolute sense. All human traditions, customs, and cultural practices are subject to the authority of the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:15-17).
4. Christ's authority and the offices of the church. Christ exercises His authority through His church and its specially appointed servants, but He never transfers His power. No one has any independent authority apart from Christ and His word. Seventh-day Adventist congregations elect their officers. But while these officers function as representatives of the people, their authority comes from Christ. Their election simply confirms the call they received from Christ. The primary duty of the elected officers is to see that the Biblical instructions for worship, doctrine, discipline, and gospel proclamation are followed. Since the church is the body of Christ, they are to seek its counsel regarding their decisions and actions.
P.G. Damsteeg writes from Berrien Springs, Michigan, where he teaches at the Adventist Theological Seminary of Andrews University.