Posts tagged ‘Church Structure’

November 26, 2012

The Church of England, Baggage and Women Bishops

Last week the Church of England got itself in a mess over the issue of allowing women to become bishops.  Even though a majority of bishops, a majority of clergy and a majority of the laity voted in favour of having women bishops the latter majority was not great enough for the motion to pass.  It’s all quite strange because they do permit women priests, and have for over 20 years.

I look at all this and shake my head.  Not at the outcome of the vote, but at the baggage that the Church of England has to carry.

Let me get some things clear at the start – God loves the Church of England, God is using the Church of England, and plenty of good things are going on in the Church of England.  The Church of England is a part of the bride of Christ so far be it from me to say that the bride of Christ looks ugly.

What the Church of England does have is that it is the official church of the “nation” of England.  And that is a role that I do not envy.  Part of the accidents of history that have put the Church of England where it is today have resulted in 28 of the Church’s bishops having seats in the House of Lords.  Amazing!  To my Australian mind that’s stunning – that being a church leader might get you an automatic seat in Parliament.

The Church of England also has an extraordinarily complex organisational structure, where decisions are made slowly and have to clear many hurdles.  If those things were not enough it then has the care of literally thousands of very old buildings which are of great value for heritage reasons but are completely unsuited to housing modern congregations.  Those buildings cost vast sums to maintain, and that’s money that can’t be spent doing things of more use in spreading the gospel.

Then there is, for me, some of the most amazing baggage of all – ecclesiastical dress.  In other words the odd collection of dog collars, robes, strange hats, crooks and other bits and pieces that leaders within the Church of England wear.

Maybe in centuries past there was good reason to build the sorts of church buildings that the Church of England did.  Maybe in centuries past there was good reason to have a structure where synods debate legislation and need to pass motions with two thirds majorities in the house of bishops, the house of clergy and the house of laity.  Maybe in centuries past there was a good reason for church leaders to start wearing dog collars and ornate, flowing robes.  And maybe in centuries past there was good reason to take up seats in the House of Lords.

But in 2012 those things seem to me to be baggage – unhelpful baggage that makes the Church of England less effective for the gospel.  Of course all churches have some sort of baggage – the Church of England is hardly alone in this regard.  I would not be so bold as to say that there is a single baggage free church anywhere on earth.  And clearly such baggage does not mean that they cannot be effective in making disciples.  Indeed one of the world’s great churches is Holy Trinity Brompton, the home of Nicky Gumbel and the Alpha course.

The Church of England won’t be revisiting the issue of women bishops until 2015 at the earliest.  Granted this, perhaps they might want to address if the 21st century might mean that their leader does not have to dress like the recently retired Archbishop of Canterbury is in this photo.  The Church of England has a genuine theological difference of opinion about women in leadership.  They need to work that through, as they did the issue of women priests.  But there is no reason that they cannot jettison some of the other baggage that would make it easier to be effective for Jesus in the meantime.

As for the issue of women bishops, that is a complex question for someone who has a high view of scripture, and one that I will tackle another day.


November 21, 2012

Why are there No Senior Pastors in the Bible?

In my experience of church, across 3 denominations, the senior pastor has been the leader of every church I have ever attended.  And yet in the bible there are no senior pastors.  The term does not exist.  Not because the church is left to its own devices – there is substantial leadership structure in the New Testament church and that  structure involves apostles, prophets, elders, and deacons.

It seems that the pattern of church leadership was that elders would be appointed to govern a church once the church expanded beyond Jerusalem, such as is described in Titus 1.  It seems that this involved a plurality of elders overseeing the life of a single congregation.  All the time there was apostles based in Jerusalem and perhaps in Antioch as well, who had authority over the various elderships within a certain locality.  In that scenario there is no senior pastor.

So then time passes.  Pause for a moment here and have a think about what happens in groups.  If a group of people have a task that they stick at year after year, what happens?  The person with the strongest leadership trait rises to the top.  All groups have dominant people, people who hold the most sway, and people on the fringe, or who don’t care about the struggle to hold the most influence.  A church eldership is a bunch of people no different in this regard.  Just because they are meant to have a degree of Christian character (see Titus 1 and 1 Tim 3) does not mean that they are somehow immune from these factors.

As the early decades of the Christian church rolled on the office of the bishop became more and more prominent.  Now when I use the word bishop here don’t think of Catholic bishop or Anglican bishop.  The bishop today is usually in charge of a diocese that usually has hundreds of churches within it.  But when the position of bishop first emerged it was essentially a senior pastor role.

And so what we find is that some of the very first Christian writings after the New Testament are letters urging Christians to submit to the authority of their bishops, that is their senior pastors.  Ignatius of Antioch (pictured) writes about 100AD saying, “Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles…”

So what we have is that the early church started with a group of elders in charge of a congregation, but within a generation or two something akin to the modern senior pastor had emerged.

For Protestants who take the bible as authoritative this begs the question, should we simply have a group of elders and get rid of the position of senior pastor?  After all it seems that the position emerged after the New Testament had finished being written.  It is not included in the pattern of church leadership the bible gives us.

My answer is no.  Having served on a church eldership I think that asking that group to not have a senior pastor is simply unrealistic.  That just not how people work.  Brian Houston uses the slogan, “anything with more than one head is a monster.”  He has a point.  I think that for long-term vision and direction you do need a senior pastor.  You can have an eldership which is over the senior pastor, and therefore has the power to remove the senior pastor from their position.  That would be in contrast to what Ignatius was describing in the quote above.  But to have no senior pastor at all…my hunch is that would simply not work.  Even if that was how it was on paper over time someone would emerge as a de facto senior pastor anyway.

If the Lord wanted to give us firmer direction as to how the church should be structured he would have.  Yes, there are no senior pastors in the bible.  But I have no problem with having them now.  The bible has given us a structure.  It has evolved from group leadership to senior pastor leadership.  I think that any attempt to go backwards is doomed to fail.  The strongest individual in that eldership group would natuarlly act as a senior pastor anyway. Senior pastors are here to stay, and that’s OK.


August 15, 2012

Love Wins!

Recently I started reading a book called “Reveal: Where are You?” which is a collection of results from a survey that the good folk at Willow Creek Community Church did of their congregation.  Willow Creek, in Chicago, is one of the great churches of the USA.  Under the leadership of Bill Hybels has had a big impact not just on its own city but across the Western world as well.

They found that a lot of their programs were well run, well attended, and operating smoothly.  But were producing no fruit.  They actually were not helping people grow closer to God at all.  The book goes on to describe what they did to address this, and how they got back into the main game of making disciples.

The book describes how they realised that they had what they call the “Church Activity Model of Spiritual Growth”.  That sounds dry and technical, and you were possibly more bored at the end of that sentence than you were at the start.  But this is the concept – they thought that the more people attended church programs, the more would become like Jesus.  And when I read that I instinctively recognised that that is what I have believed all my life.

When I think back to my first involvement in leadership in my early 20’s that is completely what I was committed to.  The only thing that mattered was getting people to attend church programs.  If they did that I assumed that spiritual growth would follow as certain as night follows day.

It has taken years for the realisation to dawn that it’s not like that.  And I owe a great deal to Catherine in this regard.  Catherine loves people – really loves people.  And I have seen her over the years meet with people, pray with people, catch up with people, and speak into people’s lives.  The result is that they have been transformed.  And all of it has happened without anyone participating in a formal church program.

Relationships of love, truth and commitment are what changes people.  There is no doubt that church programs can help, and that plenty of good things result from them.  But the bottom line is that they are overrated.  Certainly I have overrated them.  They are not the solution that we often think they are.

Fruit requires love.  When there is no love there is no fruit, regardless of how smooth the program is.  Love is what a church needs, not more resources for slick programs.

Programs are of course a neutral thing – they are not a problem that needs to be removed from church life.  It just has to be understood that for them to have any positive impact at all there has to be love oozing from those running them.  Love is what is paramount.


June 20, 2012

It’s Not the Structure, It’s the People

In 2011 my church was going through serious, high level, internal conflict.  We had government by eldership, and underneath the eldership there was a board of management.  I was on both groups.

Our problems became so great that our senior pastor called on the State Executive of the Assemblies of God to make some recommendations and help us sort out our mess.  The State Executive sent along Ps Ian Kruithoff, who is in charge of church health and church planting in Victoria.  This means that Ian spends half of his entire working life travelling around the state putting out fires like ours and the other half of his time goes to church planting.

After church one Sunday Ian took the Board out for lunch.  As soon as we had him in the car he was peppered with questions about what the best structure for church government is.  Where do the eldership, the Board, the senior pastor, the congregation and everyone else fit in?  Who should be accountable to whom?  If anyone was going to have an opinion on this subject it would be Ian.  His answer stunned me.  He said, “It doesn’t matter.  It’s not the structure, it’s the people.”

He went on to say that he has seen all sorts of systems used and every variation of them – and his conclusion is that they can all work well, and they can all blow up.  The thing that makes the difference is the people.  Where there is holiness, humility and submission then the structure will work.  Where those are absent the structure will fail.  And that is true for every single structure that exists.

I was stunned.  I was sure that in his role Ian would have seen so many different systems that he would have an opinion on what works best and what does not.  I mean even if it is ultimately the people, surely some systems work better to facilitate people being at their best, and others would be unhelpful?  I actually didn’t believe him, so I pressed further.  “But Ian, after all that you have seen around the state surely you would have a preference for one particular model?”  No.  All I got was, “It’s not the structure it’s the people.”

I am someone who finds church government very interesting.  If you have been following this blog for the past 17 weeks you have probably picked that up.  I could not believe that someone with so much experience of church government could have such a view about the different ways it is done.

It’s not the structure, it’s the people.  It’s so blunt, it leaves no room to move.  I keep thinking that there must be an exception to the rule, some sort of scenario in which yes, the structure is finally to blame.  But not according to someone who has seen a lot more church conflict than me, or anyone else that I know of.

So what your church needs is not the right system.  You don’t need to re-work your constitution, or re-jig the organisational flow chart.  If you do those things, don’t expect the changes to transform the place.  What your church needs is people who love God, love each other and are filled with holiness and humility.  That, and that alone, is what will safeguard you from conflict.

Do you agree?


June 13, 2012

Who runs the church?

As soon as you decide that Christians should meet together then you are faced with decisions about how the meeting should be organised and who should be in charge (if anyone).  The most obvious thing that can be said about church government is that if God wanted it done a particular way then he could have told us.  The fact that the bible verses on this subject have been interpreted differently over the years means that with whatever version you prefer it would be best to hold your opinion with respect for those who do it differently.

In the textbooks there are 3 main kinds of way of running a church.  Rather than use their technical names I will describe them by saying who is in charge.

  1.  The bishop is in charge.  Catholic and Anglican churches have a hierarchical structure where each local church is overseen by a bishop who has authority over a number of different churches.  The bishop answers to the archbishop, and so on.
  2.  The elders are in charge.  Presbyterian and most Assemblies of God churches are run by a group of elders.
  3.  The congregation is in charge.  Most Baptist churches and Churches of Christ have government by the whole congregation.  There are regular votes on everything from trivial matters to the tenure of the pastor.

Whilst these are the 3 main systems there are numerous variations within the 3 main streams.  For example Anglican dioceses (that is the area that one bishop has authority over) have some autonomy, whereas Catholic bishops and archbishops are accountable all the way up the hierarchy to the pope.  Some churches that have an eldership have a ‘pure’ model where the elders add to their number from time to time, but others have the elders elected by the congregation.

So which is best?

In my view the most biblical support exists for government by eldership.  That seems to be how the early church was structured when churches were planted beyond Jerusalem.  Titus 1 gives an example of how elders were appointed to provide government after new churches had been birthed.  If you want to see more about what the various scriptures say a useful article can be found here.

I once had the chance to discuss this issue with one of the most experienced Pentecostal leaders in Victoria, and I was shaken by what he said about the best form of church government.  What he said will be the subject of my next post.

What about you?  Have you seen one kind of government work well?  Not work at all?  Something in between?


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