[by Rev. Hugh M. Cartwright]
When we turn to the Bible can we find materials which provide us with an understanding of how the Lord wishes His Church to be governed and disciplined?
Order and office characterised the Old Testament Church. God has ordained that there should be officebearers and order in His Church in New Testament times also. “And God hath set some in the Church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues” (1 Cor. 12:28). “And He gave some, apostles, and some, prophets, and some evangelists, and some, pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11, 12).
Some offices and gifts were temporary, but even the terms of the commission given to the Apostles suggest that while the specific office of Apostle would obviously cease there would be men who would continue the work of preaching and baptising and teaching and ruling until the end of the world. The Apostles provided for the election and ordination of men who would secure the continuation of Gospel ordinances and church government. “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2;2). “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee … able by sound doctrine both to exhort and convince the gainsayers” (Tit. 1:5, 9). Provision was made for the appointment of deacons.
The duties and qualifications of pastors and teachers, of elders and deacons, are specified. Names are applied to men performing certain functions in the church which show that they had an office and were not simply exercising gifts: “labourers” (Matt. 9:38); “ministers “ (1 Cor. 3:5); “ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1); “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20); “elders” (Tit. 1:5); “a bishop… the steward of God” (Tit. 1:7).
Epistles addressed to churches recognise the presence in them of “the bishops and deacons” (Philip. 1:1). “The elders which are among you I also exhort, who am also an elder” (1 Pet. 5:1). The responsibilities of congregations towards their officebearers are spelled out. “Let him that is taught in the word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things” (Gal. 6:6). “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine” (1 Tim. 5:17). “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves; for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account” (Heb. 13:17). These officebearers were to be elected by the church and were to be set apart for their work by those in office before them.
References to the power of the keys (Matt.16 and 18 and John 20) indicate an authoritative exercise of ministry and government and discipline on the part of those appointed to administer the affairs of the Church. They are not only to preach and teach and exhort but rebuke. “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear” (1 Tim. 5:20). An example of the exercise of discipline is found in 1 Cor. 5:3-5, 13: “… to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh…. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person”.
The reality of this power is clear from the exhortations given in Scripture to the members of the Church to be subject to those who rule over them and speak unto them the word of God. This power of government and discipline is spiritual. It is ministerial and is regulated and limited by the Word of God. Its aim is the glory of God in the good of the Church.
There are also indications that a plurality of officebearers are to work together in the government of the Church at a local and wider level. The presbyters as a body ordained men to office by the laying on of hands. The Council at Jerusalem, reported in Acts 15, had to ascertain the will of God for the Church in a practical matter “using the ordinary means of ascertaining the divine will, and enjoying only the ordinary guidance and influences of His Spirit” [Cunningham, Historical Theology, Vol I].
If we search the scriptures we find that Christ has given His Church sufficient guidance as to His will for government and discipline. From all the material available it is obvious that general principles and outlines of church government are provided as a divinely ordained model for the church in all ages. Since the Bible presents us with so much information regarding the officers and government and discipline of the Church, the Church is not at liberty to devise offices and forms of government or principles and practices of discipline not in keeping with the principles and precepts and examples set out in the Word.