The Problems with Elder-Rule Church Government

Throughout its history, the Protestant Church has organized itself through three major forms of church government: episcopal, presbyterian, and congregational. These forms seek to establish healthy authority structures which serve two important purposes: to oversee the appointment of people to positions of authority and to provide independent accountability for these people while in their positions. Recently, a another form of church government, Elder-Rule, has gained in popularity due to its promotion by organizations like John MacArthur’s Grace To You. In contrast to the three major forms of Protestant church government, Elder-Rule undermines the legitimate appointment of church leaders as well as the authority structures which could provide these leaders with independent accountability.

In order to understand how Elder-Rule opposes healthy church government, we must first understand two important principles which govern healthy authority structures. The first is that any position of authority must be given to a person by an independent higher authority. The second is that in order to retain a position of authority, one must be held accountable by an independent higher authority through an ongoing process of evaluation.

But what does “independent” mean? Quite simply, it describes the fact that one’s position of higher authority is not affected by a person in a position of lower authority. For example, the President of the United States has the authority to appoint the Attorney General. The President also has the authority to retain or terminate this person. In the event any of these actions are taken (appointment, retention, or termination), the President’s position as head of the Executive Branch is neither strengthened nor threatened. If the President fires the AG, she does not have to worry about the AG firing her since the AG does not have this authority. The President’s position is independent of the people under her authority.

These two principles are demonstrated in the three major forms of Protestant church government. In an episcopal denomination such as the Anglican Church, higher authorities within the denomination, a vestry and bishop, appoint people to lower positions of authority, pastors and deacons. The vestry and bishop then act as an independent higher authority over these people in order to evaluate them and hold them accountable. Similarly, in congregational churches, the congregation itself is the higher authority which appoints pastors and deacons. The congregation also evaluates and holds these people accountable.

Looking through the Bible, we find numerous examples of these principles in practice. In one example, God appointed Saul as King. God, acting as an independent higher authority, appointed Saul to a position of lower authority to rule over Israel. God also removed Saul after he deemed him no longer worthy to hold that position. For God to both appoint and remove Saul did not affect God’s position of authority; it did not strengthen his position and it did not threaten it.

In the same way, first Potiphar and then Pharaoh appointed Joseph to positions of authority in their respective administrations. When Potiphar was mistakenly led to believe Joseph committed a crime unbecoming of his position, he put him in prison. Potiphar’s position was not affected by punishing Joseph. After his miraculous promotion, Joseph retained his position in Pharaoh’s kingdom by consistently demonstrating his administrative wisdom. Had Pharoah been displeased with Joseph he could have removed him from his position without fearing that Joseph would threaten his position as king.

In the most striking example of these principles, God the Father appoints Jesus to be King over all heaven and earth. God gives him “all authority in heaven and earth” (Matt. 28:18). Does Christ remain accountable to God the Father throughout his reign? Not in the way in which we usually think of accountability — an ongoing assessment and evaluation of a person’s qualifications and abilities. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection establish his worthiness once and for all.

At the beginning of the Church, Christ appointed his Eleven disciples to be his authoritative witnesses and church leaders. He later appointed Matthias, through the casting of lots, and Paul, through the miraculous events on the Damascus road and later at Ananias’ house. These apostles retained their positions by their consistent, faithful service to Christ. Were they perfect? No. Peter had to be corrected by God not to call unclean what God calls clean, thus paving the way for the full inclusion of the Gentiles into Christ’s kingdom. Later in Peter’s life, he was corrected by Paul for once again excluding Gentiles in a way inconsistent with the gospel. Was God’s position of authority threatened by correcting Peter? Of course not. Was Paul’s position as an apostle in jeopardy by correcting Peter? No. Paul’s position of authority was given to him by Christ, and Paul retained that position by a life of consistent faithfulness. Peter and the other apostles recognized Paul as an apostle appointed by Christ, but Paul’s position was not dependent upon that recognition. Paul corrected Peter as a peer, but Peter wasn’t accountable to Paul directly. Fortunately, Peter seems to have received Paul’s rebuke as being from the one in a position of authority over them both, Christ, and he repented accordingly.

Paul later appointed Titus and Timothy to serve him and instructed both to appoint elders in the towns in which they ministered. Both Titus and Timothy, appointed by Paul and accountable to him, appointed elders accountable to them. Had Titus and Timothy needed to correct and remove elders would their positions of authority be in jeopardy? No — their positions were dependent on Paul’s evaluation of them, not on the evaluation of the elders they had appointed.

These principles raise an interesting question: in the absence of the direct revelation of God and living apostles, who or what acts as the highest authority in the Church today? The Protestant Church has recognized this authority to be the Bible, God’s word delivered through his prophets and apostles. Through his word, Christ rules over his Church.

Recognizing the Bible as the Church’s authority, the Church first seeks to submit itself to the Bible’s teaching regarding the essentials of the gospel. These “first-rank” doctrines (I am using the idea of rank from Gavin Ortlund’s excellent book, “Finding the Right Hills to Die On”) are exemplified in the ancient Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds as well as modern documents such as the National Association of Evangelicals “Statement of Faith”. Secondly, the Church seeks to submit to the Bible’s teaching regarding doctrines urgent for its health and practice. These “second-rank” doctrines seek to clarify issues such as baptism, the role of women in the church, and church government. Though these doctrines do not determine who is or who is not a Christian, they are of such importance that they cause Christians to separate at the level of the local church.

Despite its importance as a “second-rank” doctrine, the exact form of church government the Church should adopt is not specified by the Bible. However, I believe the Bible makes clear that whatever form of government is adopted by a church, that government should put into practice the two principles which govern the proper giving and retaining of authority. Indeed, as we have seen, this is exactly what the vast majority of the Protestant Church throughout history has sought to do.

However, Elder-Rule church government, by its very nature, does not and cannot adhere to these two principles.

First, the initial elders in an Elder-Rule church government appoint themselves to be elders; they are not appointed by a higher authority. Any additional elders appointed by these initial elders are appointed by what I consider to be an illegitimate process, since at no point was there a higher authority which appointed the initial elders. The initial elders were not appointed by a higher authority and had no authority given to them by which they could appoint additional elders.

This poses a problem which some elders in Elder-Rule churches seek to address by claiming they were given their authority by God himself and are accountable to God directly. In my opinion, claims like these are the exclusive right of the apostles. One might ask, of both the apostles and Elder-Rule elders, “When did God give you this authority?” The apostles might answer, in the Eleven’s case, by pointing to the Great Commission. In Paul’s case, he can point to his meeting with Christ on the Damascus road and his recognition by the other apostles. Elders today who claim to have been given their authority by God will never have as convincing a story of when they were given this authority.

Second, in Elder-Rule church governments, elders appoint additional elders not to positions of lower authority than themselves but to positions of equal authority. Then, these elders give themselves the authority (working as a group) to remove their fellow elders from their positions. This creates a dynamic in which elders are dependent of each other, not independent of each other, for their positions. Should one elder seek to correct an elder that is sinning, the initial elder would be jeopardizing his own position, since his position is retained by remaining in good standing with the other elders, even the one he is seeking to correct. In this example, if the sinning elder does not agree with his fellow elder’s correction of him, the sinning elder can threaten to remove the correcting elder from his position. In contrast, in a church in which a position of authority is retained by the evaluation of one in a place of higher authority, the one in a position of higher authority does not jeopardize his own position by disciplining or removing the one in a position of lower authority.

This dynamic of elder interdependence creates an environment in which any attempts at accountability among the elders are dysfunctional. Each elder, at an equal level of authority as his fellow elders, lacks the authority to discipline another elder. If the need arises to remove a sinning elder, the other elders must work together to force the sinning elder out. And what if the “sinning” elder is not actually sinning at all? To whom can he appeal? Additionally, in a church in which there is only one or perhaps two elders, there is no mechanism at all by which to correct, discipline, or remove an elder.

These problems are evident in the case of an elder who disqualifies himself through continual sin. But what about an elder who, though not sinning, is not fulfilling his ministry responsibilities to a high standard? Once again, any elder who seeks to correct a fellow elder immediately creates a dysfunctional dynamic since the two are peers and dependent upon each other for their positions. To add to this problem, in some churches, elders’ ministerial responsibilities are so poorly defined (or undefined) that there is no standard by which to evaluate their work. Despite the obvious problems this may create for the congregation, imagine being a sincere elder trying to do his best within this system. There is no capacity within Elder-Rule government to address the normal human limitations of even the best of elders. Thus, elders may find themselves in positions or with responsibilities that do not suit them or their strengths and nobody to recognize this and act to train these elders or find and develop other leaders to fill ministry needs. Or, perhaps, good elders assign themselves more responsibilities than can possibly be fulfilled in the time alloted to them.

These two factors in Elder-rule church government, self-appointed or elder-appointed elders and lack of independent accountability, create many obstacles to health, both for the elders and the members of such churches. Elders are put in difficult positions when it comes to disciplining or holding accountable one of their fellow elders. This lack of accountability also puts elders in positions in which they are not required to listen to those in places of higher authority — simply because there is no such person or group or people. I will leave the reader to imagine what effect being in a position of unaccountable authority may have on someone. For members, they have to live under the absolute authority of their elders. Should the members notice sin in an elder, confront him, and he remains unrepentant, to whom do they take their concerns? The other elders? This starts the dysfunctional cycle of peers trying to discipline and remove a peer. More commonly, should a member notice an area of ministry in the church that may need some attention and bring this concern to the elders, the elders are under no obligation to the member to address this concern. Should the elders ignore the concern, the member has no one to whom to appeal. Both elders and members may begin to believe that it is best not to “rock the boat” and significant areas of concern may be left unaddressed.

For all these reasons, I think it is best for churches to adopt a form of government that establishes the two principles of healthy authority structures: 1) any position of authority must be given to a person by an independent higher authority, and 2) in order to retain a position of authority, one must be held accountable by an independent higher authority through an ongoing process of evaluation. Without these two principles in place, elders and members are placed in unnecessarily difficult, if not dangerous and impossible, situations.