The church confuses many people. Viewed as a worldwide reality, she seems too complex and diverse. Compared to Christ, who is often portrayed as a simple preacher from Galilee, the church is too many things all at once. Liturgically, she is high, low and no. She has members who seem to live in the atmosphere of the miraculous, and other members who can apparently get along without the supernatural. She has members who reflect their socio-economic and political background almost identically to their non-Christian neighbors, and members who rebel against their culture at every point.
Granted, there are some individuals who consider themselves part of the church of Christ who are not. Some extremists are either deluded or hypocritical. Some “churches” are missing vital elements that put them outside the parameters as well. But given that, there is still a staggering amount of difference within the churches who claim allegiance to Christ.
This complexity within the church and churches of Christ is sometimes explained by reference to various traditions that have emerged through her long history. A denomination, for example, can be traced back to a movement where some believers adopted a fellowship among themselves based on shared beliefs, standards and experiences. In most cases, the denomination formed does not seek to deny the validity of other traditions and other churches. Instead, the urgency of the perceived mandate from the Lord encourages the believers to form into a distinct unity amid the diversity.
In the case of the Advent Christian denomination, that mandate was to preach the imminent return — the second advent of Christ. We were products of several diverse traditions who came together as Adventists because we believed that Jesus was going to literally return to this planet, and soon. In the mid-19th century, many of the mainline churches considered the Adventists fanatics and would disassociate from them. This resulted in more denominations forming: Adventist denominations. This, of course, added to the complexity of Christendom as well.
Some see a parallel between the changes taking place in the churches and those that evolutionary theory suggests happens in biology. Over time, minute differences become more prominent and eventually result in the creation of new species. At any given time, there are strains of DNA that are in the process of mutating and hold promise for the emergence of some new variety or species. In evolutionary biology, there are two major factors at work in these mutations: the coding within the DNA itself and the environment with its various promptings acting on it. One does not have to be an atheist or secularist to see that something similar to that happens to churches.
Another way that people try to explain why churches emerge and change, thrive or die, unite or divide, is pragmatism. Things change because the way things are does not seem to work well. When the dissatisfaction over perceived uselessness reaches critical mass, churches split, people relocate, new organizations form. When the present structure is no longer serving its intended function, the usual solution is to form new structures, or stay the same and eventually cease to exist.
Neither of these comparisons explain fully all of the dynamics of ecclesiastical diversity, but each is a component to the explanation. There is within each individual believer an impulse to rebel and a separate impulse to preserve. There is a fierce drive to preserve the code, and an urge to mutate. There is comfort amid similarity, and a desire to try something different—something that might work better.
In the church cosmos, we use different terms for these realities. We talk about orthodoxy and heresy, traditional and conservative, radical and old-school, and use a host of other labels. Whatever terminology we avail ourselves of, it is clear that we are describing a complex and diverse corpus, which is undergoing a constant process of change.
Here, then, is the puzzle. How can we reconcile this picture of what the church is with all of the other descriptions of the church revealed in the Scriptures? The church is one body, chosen from among the nations, saved from among the lost, transformed into a new unity by one Holy Spirit, gathered into a unified fellowship and purpose, calling out to the world with one voice, proclaiming the one gospel. With all of these emphases of unity, how do we explain biblically the constant splitting, forming and reforming that has characterized our history?
For some, the only explanation is that we (at present) are right and they (in the past) are wrong. The current rediscovered tradition is biblical, while all that came before are unbiblical, and all current challenges to change are of the Devil. They spend their lives defending the code against mutations. They know what works and will not listen to evidence to the contrary. Others are equally convinced that the old traditions are what is killing the church. They see a fresh start as the only way to preserve the species. They see themselves in a congregation of Pharisees, and seek rescue in change. The conflict among these two polar opposites within the church often repels people.
The competing methods used for church government has long been an example of how this polarization has affected us. Some of the major movements that have produced large and long-lasting denominational entities have focused on a particular method of church government. The Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches emphasize a structure where each local assembly is under the guidance and control of leaders in a military-like chain of command. The Presbyterian denominations have championed a leadership of delegated elders who lead by consensus and cooperation. Congregationalist churches have stressed the need for democracy and the protection of the rights of individuals against their potential abuse by those in power.
The tendency has been for these major ecclesiastical movements to attack the others and defend themselves on the grounds that only one method of church government can be the biblical method. Behind that argument is the assumption that the early church had only one method of governance. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Evidence from the New Testament suggests that there were many methods of governance used simultaneously among local fellowships and in the body as a whole.
Already, at the very genesis of the New Testament church, there was an overlapping combination of governance systems in place for believers. The eleven apostles who had been appointed by Christ himself added to their number in order to replace the betrayer. These appointed missionaries continued to serve as leaders throughout the early church, and other apostles appear to have been appointed by the Holy Spirit in that role as well.
But, the Pentecost saints were Jewish believers who were used to being represented by elders within their communities and in the synagogues. It is clear from the book of Acts that elder rule continued to play an important role throughout the early church. So, already there are at least two systems, with no clear chain of command among them. The elders of the Jewish/Christian communities were not forced to denounce their role, nor were they gathered together and burned at the stake. The more complicated dual method of governance was allowed to exist, with no need for correction implied.
Within a matter of days, the rapidly growing church, reaching out to the Hellenist communities, felt the need to further expand its leader structure.
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
The leadership dynamics revealed in this incident are very telling. The apostles were seen as spokesmen for the body as a whole, but there was already a group of godly, Spirit-filled men who were serving as heads of the bodies within the body. Although not mentioned by name here, it seems clear that these were the elders. But, the influx of an entirely different group of believers from a different cultural context has led to a need for a different kind of leadership, or at least a modification of the existing system.
It appears that the people are suggesting that the apostles take over the role of overseeing the distribution of funds/food. They were not willing to do this, since it would involve less time preaching and teaching — work within the original parameters of their call. The better response to the people’s appeal was to establish a new leadership structure.
Now, the apostles could have responded to this appeal for reform by rejecting it. They could have told the complainers that they have elders and that is all they are going to get. Instead, they saw the current crisis as an opportunity to improve on the system by making it more complex, thereby more flexible. They appear to have been more motivated to meet the needs of their people rather than to preserve their standard operating procedures.
These new leaders are not given titles in the text. While some see this as the beginning of the office of “deacon,” the new leaders are not specifically titled as such. More likely, they were called elders. Yet, it is obvious that the role of deacons, which would become more prominent later in the New Testament, has its beginning here. These early deacons were elders, but had a specific administrative role. At least one New Testament text indicates that this became the case for other churches in the New Testament period: Paul addresses his letter to the Philippians, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.” There is no mention of elders, presumably because, by that time, the position had divided into two roles: overseers (with spiritual authority) and deacons (with practical administrative authority).
Acts chapter six shows a kind of evolutionary process occurring in church government. As the needs develop, the church is allowed to adjust itself to meet those needs. There is an interplay between several different types of authority structure here. There are appointed apostles, delegate elders, appointed administrative elders/deacons and the congregation as a whole, or “the whole gathering” which is allowed to have its say as well.
A few chapters later, another example of this multi-faceted leadership displays itself. A council convenes in Jerusalem to decide how Jewish one has to be to qualify as a Christian. When the decision is made, it is announced as the result of a collaborative effort from three groups of leaders: “the apostles and the elders, with the whole church.” So, although the apostles are appealed to, the leadership roles of the community elders are not side-stepped, nor is the will of the entire body. Throughout history, there will be many councils convened. Sadly, some of them will not seek the kind of consensus that was evidenced at the one recorded in Acts 15.
Complexity breeds confusion
The evolution toward more complex leadership structures has resulted in some negatives. The original meaning and purpose behind some of the early titles has been lost or replaced. Elders (πρεσβύτεροι) were not merely lay leaders whose responsibility was to keep the clergy honest. Bishops (i.e., overseers: ἐπίσκοποι) were not originally one level above local church leadership, but had oversight of local congregations. Deacons (διάκονοι) were not one rank below elders, but elders with a different function from that of overseers (ἐπίσκοποι). Both deacons and bishops were elders. Apostles (in the generic sense, roughly equivalent to the modern term “missionary”) were not limited to the twelve. Yet, in each of these cases, the meaning of the term has become obscured or changed as new leadership structures emerged, and roles changed for those who took on the titles.
The “biblical” pattern
As a result of this evolution and the confusion that exists about the meaning of leadership titles, it is a very dangerous thing to argue for only one kind of leadership structure on the grounds that it is the biblical pattern. Vast amounts of time and effort have been wasted attempting to do just that. The assumption that the Lord wants us to return to some original design for leadership as depicted in the New Testament churches is flawed for two reasons: 1) there is no monolithic leadership structure ever revealed in the New Testament as a whole and 2) the New Testament reflects a pattern of change within its leadership to respond to the needs of the churches’ members, and to reach the world with the gospel.
The best explanation of this reality is found in a metaphor the New Testament uses to describe the church. She is “the body of Christ.” A body has one head, but it is also a combination of inter-related systems, with different purposes and functions. The church government puzzle cannot best be solved by means of tradition, evolutionary theory or pragmatism. The best answers to the puzzle come when believers take the body of Christ metaphor seriously and see themselves as a combination of interrelated systems designed not to have dominion over each other, but to equally submit to the head. When we ask the question of who among the members is in charge, we risk belittling someone’s role and function.
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
The multi-systemic approach, allowing for multiple different types of church government (operating simultaneously) best preserves the body analogy. It also allows for all-important checks and balances against tyranny and spiritual abuse. It also allows different church organizations, missions and conferences to emerge which function within their cultural norms, instead of being forced to operate the way their parent church or mission did.
There will be dangers in such an approach. A church which is constantly redefining herself can be distracted from her primary mission. A multi-systemic approach can lead to fighting for prominence among the various types of leaders. Confusion can occur as to who is responsible to whom. Yet, all of these problems existed in the early church, and still she was remarkably successful at her mission. The genius of a multi-systemic approach is that it is flexible enough to adjust to the needs of the present, instead of being trapped in outdated structures inherited from the past.
A body changes over time. At certain phases in a body’s development, certain functions become more important, more protected. When those phases are over, other functions take the lead. This fluidity and flexibility is what makes growth possible. It preserves the organism and prevents stagnation and decay. It allows the body to continue to be what it is. A flexible approach to governing the church will ensure that she continues to be the Lord’s chosen, saved, transformed, gathered body, speaking with his voice.
By Rev. Jefferson Vann
(Rev. Jefferson Vann is a graduate of Berkshire Christian College, Columbia International University and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He and his wife Penny have been involved in Advent Christian ministry since 1984, serving as missionaries in the Philippines and New Zealand. Jeff is the author of “An Advent Christian Systematic Theology” and “Another Bible Commentary” and is a contributing editor to “Henceforth …”)
 Acts 4:5, 8, 23; 6:12; 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22f; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; 22:5; 23:14; 24:1; 25:15.
 Acts 6:1-6.
 Philippians 1:1.
 Acts 15:22.
 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 4:12.
 1 Corinthians 12:14-20.