As the US election approaches, I am reminded of a single week in November 2012 when 126 million Americans voted for their President, 1.3 billion Chinese were informed about their new politburo leaders and 60 million Coptic Orthodox believers had the identity of their new Pope revealed when a blindfolded boy picked his name from the three laid on an altar.
It was a quirk of timing that highlighted, in that one week, the different ways that nations and indeed churches are governed. With this in mind, it’s fair to say that different governance structures divide the worldwide church now more than ever.
Biblical Decision Making?
The Coptic Church just mentioned appoints leaders by copying how the 12th apostle was chosen after Judas’ death in Acts 1 – drawing lots. That is, you could argue, a Biblical way of deciding church leadership (!).
Most churches we would be familiar with rely either on voting by members to varying degrees, like US or UK elections or on the decision of existing leaders, like the Chinese Communist Party. Or, some combination of the two.
Where you put that dividing line is one of the factors that has created different denominations, from top-down Anglicanism or even New Frontiers to bottom-up congregational churches, or even Baptists. It is evident that either system can produce heroic or disastrous leaders.
Character Not Structure
Now, why the huge variety of church governance models? Simply because exact blueprints with watertight definitions are not found in the New Testament (NT).
Since church structure was still developing in the 1st century as the Bible was written, we get instead in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 (and to a lesser extent Acts 6, Acts 20 and 1 Peter 5) qualifications for elders (Greek: presbuteros or presbyter) otherwise known as overseers (Greek: episkopē or bishops), and qualifications for deacons (Greek: diakonos or servers/waiters), rather than details of how they fit into a structure.
So the NT concerns itself with church leadership character rather than organisation.
Quite frustrating you make think, if you’re wanting to know exactly how a church should be organised. However it does mean that God, in his infinite wisdom, tells us the sort of people who should be elders and deacons but largely leaves it up to us to decide the exact structure, how they relate to each other and the rest of the church, in line with the flexible and evolving structure of leadership in the NT.
So we are at liberty to choose whatever system works best, whilst anchoring roles and titles to the snapshots of the church-in-action we have in our Bibles.
The current Cambray model, of deacons but no titled elders (with said deacons carrying out some elder-like duties, ‘el-cons’ if you will) has worked well for the way Cambray has been structured in recent history, and loosely fits into a NT pattern.
Yet equally, there is a growing awareness that a different system – equally biblically permissible – may be the best way to organise the increasingly complicated, multi-faceted structure of Cambray if we want to be effective disciples in the 21st century: that of elders and deacons as separate.
1 Timothy 5:17 is as near as the NT comes to defining the work of an elder/overseer: ‘overseers who direct the affairs of the church…especially [‘that is’] those whose work is preaching and teaching’.
In this sense, any church that has a ‘pastor’ (yet another Greek word: poimēn or shepherd) who teaches the Bible already has an elder/overseer.
Therefore a discussion about ‘having elders’ at Cambray is not one of ‘do we or don’t we?’, but of the extent to which the eldership should be a plurality (i.e. more elders than just the pastor).
My personal opinion is that the eldership should be extended to other character-qualified men whose work is teaching the Bible.
This would allow sufficient focus to be given to teaching, prayer and the vision of the church, whilst other key people – deacons or otherwise – could lead teams that focus on specific areas (e.g. finance, catering, welcoming, small groups, publicity).
Yet however we choose to organise ourselves, we must do it with the aim of creating a system to best encourage and equip one another to follow Jesus. That is our church strapline, and that is why we exist!
Please pray with and for the deacons, staff team and church membership as we all face the challenges of organising ourselves for gospel effectiveness in the 21st century.
With every blessing,