The Government and Power of the Church


Christ is the Head of the Church and the source of all its authority, Matt. 23:10; John 13:13; 1 Cor. 12:5; Eph. 1:20–23; 4:11, 12; 5:23, 24. He rules the Church, not by force, but by His Word and Spirit. All human officers in the Church are clothed with the authority of Christ and must submit to the control of His Word.

1. The Officers of the Church. The officers of the Church mentioned in the New Testament are of two kinds:

a. Extraordinary officers. The most important of these were the apostles. In the strictest sense this name applies only to the Twelve chosen by Jesus and Paul, but it is also given to some apostolic men, Acts 14:4, 14; 1 Cor. 9:5, 6; 2 Cor. 8:23; Gal. 1:19. The apostles had certain special qualifications. They were directly called by Christ, Gal. 1:1, saw Christ after the resurrection, 1 Cor. 9:1, were conscious of being inspired, 1 Cor. 2:13, performed miracles, 2 Cor. 12:12, and were richly blessed in their labors, 1 Cor. 9:1. The New Testament also speaks of prophets, men specially gifted to speak for the edification of the Church and occasionally predicting future things, Acts 11:28; 13:1, 2; 15:32; Eph. 4:11. And, finally, it also mentions evangelists, who assisted the apostles in their work, Acts 21:8; Eph. 4:11; 2 Tim. 4:5.

b. Ordinary officers. Frequent mention is made of elders, especially in the Acts of the Apostles, Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 6, 22; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18. Alongside of it the name 'bishop' was used to designate the same kind of officers, Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Tim. 3:1; 5:17, 19; Tit. 1:5, 7; 1 Pet. 5:1, 2. While both names were applied to the same class of officers, the name 'elder' stressed their age, and the name 'bishop' their work as overseers. The elders were not originally teachers, but gradually the teaching function was connected with their office, Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 5:17; 2 Tim. 2:2. From 1 Tim. 5:17 it appears that some elders simply ruled, while others also taught. In addition to these the New Testament also speaks of deacons, Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 10, 12. The prevailing opinion is that the institution of this office is recorded in Acts 6:1–6.

2. The Ecclesiastical Assemblies. The Reformed Churches have a number of governing bodies. Their relation to each other is marked by a careful gradation. They are known as consistory, classis, and synod. The consistory consists of the minister and the elders of the local church; the classis, of one minister and one elder of each local church within a certain district; and the synod, of an equal number of ministers and elders from each classis.

a. The government of the local church. The government of the local church is of a representative character. The minister and the elders, chosen by the people, form a council or consistory for the government of the church, Acts 14:23; 20:17; Tit. 1:5. While the elders are chosen by the people, they do not receive their authority from the people, but directly from Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Church. Every local church is a complete church, fully equipped to rule its own affairs. But since it affiliates with other churches on the basis of a common agreement, it is not entirely independent. The Church Order serves to guard the rights and interests of the local church, but also the collective rights and interests of the affiliated churches.

b. The major assemblies. When local churches affiliate to give greater expression to the unity of the Church, major assemblies, such as classes and synods become necessary. The council of Jerusalem, described in Acts 15, partook of the nature of a major assembly. The immediate representatives of the people, who form the consistories, are themselves represented by a limited number in classes, and these in turn are represented in synods. Ecclesiastical assemblies should naturally deal only with church matters, matters of doctrine and morals, of church government and discipline. But even so major assemblies must limit themselves to matters which as to their nature belong to the province of a minor assembly, but for some reason cannot be settled there; and matters which as to their nature belong to the province of a major assembly, because they pertain to the churches in general. The decisions om major assemblies are not merely advisory, but authoritative, unless they are explicitly declared to be only advisory.

3. The Power of the Church. The power of the Church is spiritual, because it is given by the Holy Spirit, Acts 20:28, is a manifestation of the power of the Spirit, John 20:22, 23, pertains exclusively to believers, I Cor. 5:12, 13, and can be exercised only in a spiritual way, 2 Cor. 10:4. It is also a purely ministerial power, which is derived from Christ and is exercised in His name. The power of the Church is threefold:

a. A dogmatic or teaching power. The Church is commissioned to guard the truth, to hand it on faithfully from generation to generation, and to defend it against all forces of unbelief, 1 Tim. 1:3, 4; 2 Tim. 1:13; Tit 1:9–11. It must preach the Word unceasingly among all the nations of the world, Isa. 3:10, 11; 2 Cor. 5:20; 1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 2:15; 4:2; Tit. 2:1–10, must draw up creeds and confessions, and must provide for the training of its future ministers, 2 Tim. 2:2.

b. A governing power. God is a God of order, who desires that all things in the Church be done decently and in order, 1 Cor. 14:33, 40. For that reason He made provision for the proper regulation of the affairs of the Church, and gave the Church power to carry the laws of Christ into effect, John 21:15–17; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2. This also includes the power of discipline, Matt. 16:19; 18:18; John 20:23; 1 Cor. 5:2, 7, 13; 2 Thess. 3:14, 15; 1 Tim. 1:20; Tit. 3:10. The purpose of discipline in the Church is twofold, namely, to carry into effect the law of Christ concerning the admission and exclusion of members, and to promote the spiritual edification of the members of the Church by securing their obedience to the laws of Christ. If there are diseased members, the Church will first seek to effect a cure, but if this fails will put away the diseased members. It deals with public sins even when there is no formal accusation, but in the case of private sins insists on the application of the rule laid down in Matt. 18:15–18.

c. A power or ministry of mercy. Christ sent out His disciples, not only to preach, but also to heal all manner of diseases, Matt. 10:1, 8; Luke 9:1, 2; 10:9, 17. And among the early Christians there were some who had the gift of healing, 1 Cor. 12:9, 10, 28, 30. This special gift came to an end with the passing of the apostolic age. From that time on the ministry of mercy was largely limited to the Church's care for the poor. The Lord hinted at this task in Matt. 26:11; Mark 14:7. The early Church practiced a sort of communion of goods, so that no one wanted the necessaries of life, Acts 4:34. Later on seven men were appointed to "serve the tables," that is, to provide for a more equal distribution of what was brought for the poor, Acts 6:1–6. After that deacons are repeatedly mentioned, Rom. 16:1; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8–12. Great emphasis is placed on giving or collecting for the poor, Acts 11:29; 20:36; 1 Cor. 16:1, 2; 2 Cor. 8:13–15; 9:1, 6, 7; Gal. 2:10; 6:10; Eph. 4:28; 1 Tim. 5:10, 16; Jas. 1:27; 2:15, 16; 1 John 3:17.

To memorize. Passages proving:

a. That Christ is the Head of the Church:

Eph. 1:22b, 23. "And He gave Him to be Head over all things to the Church, which is His body, and the fulness of Him that filleth all in all."

Col. 1:18. "And He is the head of the body, the Church; who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead: that in all things He might have the pre-eminence."

b. The special marks of an apostle:

1 Cor. 9:1, 2. "Am I not free? am I not an apostle? have I not seen Jesus our Lord? are ye not my work in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, yet at least I am to you: for the seal of mine apostleship are ye in the Lord."

2 Cor. 12:12. "Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, by signs and wonders and mighty works."

c. The office of elder or bishop:

Acts 14:23. "And when they had appointed for them elders in every church and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they had believed."

1 Tim. 3:1. "Faithful is the saying, If a man seeketh the office of a bishop he desireth a good work."

Tit. 1:5. "For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that were wanting, and appoint elders in every city, as I gave thee charge."

d. The teaching function of some elders:

1 Tim. 5:17. "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and in teaching."

2 Tim. 2:2. "And the things which thou hast heard from me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also."

e. The office of deacon:

1 Tim. 3:10. "And let these also first be proved; then let them serve as deacons, if they be blameless."

f. The spiritual nature of the elders' work:

Acts 20:28. "Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you bishops, to feed the Church of the Lord which He purchased with His own blood."

1 Pet. 5:2, 3. "Tend the flock of God which is among you, exercising the oversight, not of constraint, but willingly, according to the will of God; nor yet for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as lording it over the charge allotted to you, but making yourselves ensamples to the flock."

g. The power of discipline:

Matt. 18:18. "Verily I say unto you, what things soever ye bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and what things soever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

John 20:23. "Whose soever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven unto them; whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained."

For Further Study:

a. What men besides the Twelve and Paul are called apostles? Acts 14:4, 14; 1 Cor. 9:5, 6; 2 Cor. 8:23; Gal. 1:19.

b. Who are called evangelists in the Bible? Acts 21:8; 2 Tim. 4:5.

c. What is the course of discipline in connection with private sins indicated in Matt. 18:15–17?

Questions for Review

1. Who is the Head of the Church and by what standard does He rule?

2. What extraordinary officers were there in the Church?

3. What were the characteristics of the apostles?

4. What did the prophets and the evangelists do?

5. Which were the ordinary officers?

6. What other name was used for elders? Did they all teach?

7. When was the office of deacon instituted?

8. What ecclesiastical assemblies do we distinguish?

9. In how far is the local church independent?

10. Is there any Scripture warrant for major assemblies? Where?

11. How are they constituted, and with what matters can they deal?

12. Are their decisions merely advisory?

13. What different kinds of power has the Church? What does each include?

14. What is the purpose of Church discipline?

15. What do we understand by the ministry of mercy in the Church?

Berkhof, L. (1938). Summary of Christian doctrine (pp. 157–163). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co.

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