While Scripture does not give us an exact model for the governance of the church, it does outline for us the qualifications and responsibilities of leaders, the proper use of spiritual gifts, the exercise of discipline, the judging of doctrinal issues, etc. The following is what we at Reality believe to be a biblically viable and faithful expression of church governance.
At Reality we recognize Jesus as the Senior Pastor of the church. He is the ultimate leader. He is the foundation of the church (1 Corinthians 3:11), builder of the church (Matthew 16:18), redeemer of the church (1 Peter 1:17–21), head of the church (Colossians 1:18), chief shepherd of the church (1 Peter 5:1–4; John 10:1–30), and the one who loves the church as His very own bride (Ephesians 5:25–32).
This is vital to the way we are to function as a local church and especially as church leaders. Correctly understanding Jesus as head of the church keeps us from taking an unhealthy ownership of the ministry and keeps us focused on obeying Christ and doing everything we do for Him. It’s not our church; it’s His church. They’re not our sheep; they’re His sheep.
We need to remember this fact in our prayers, our teaching, our worship, our decision-making, and our service as a church and as leaders. We are all under the headship of Christ. Sometimes Christ may lead our churches in a different direction than we anticipated, and at these junctures we must part ways with our own opinions and yield ourselves to His leading. As Jonathan Edwards said, “the task of every generation is to discover the direction in which the Sovereign Redeemer is moving, and then to move in that direction.” The early church experienced many of these times of unexpected direction: the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Gentiles; the Spirit sent out Paul and Barnabas from Antioch for future ministry; Paul wanted to go into Asia to minister but the Holy Spirit forbade him; and so on.1
This is one of the many reasons that all ministry as a collective church and as individuals must be bathed in prayer and faithful to Scripture. In prayer we are submitting ourselves, our opinions, and our ideas to the Chief Shepherd, and we are asking Him to show us the way we should go.
While Jesus is the Chief Shepherd over the church universal, He also appoints men to oversee and care for local expression of the church. The terminology used for this singular position/office is threefold: overseer/bishop, elder, and pastor.2 These three terms are used interchangeably and synonymously in the New Testament as they display different and plural aspects of the same position and responsibilities. For example, Peter uses elder (presbuteros), overseer (episkopos), and shepherd (poimen) in his exhortation to leaders in 1 Peter 5:1–2. Without here developing a well-reasoned exegetical and theological argument (which is beyond the scope of this work), it seems safe to say that the New Testament describes elders as pastors and overseers who are to shepherd the flock of God, protect the flock, watch for and guard against wolves, be examples to the flock, visit and pray for the sick, exercise oversight in the church, take care of the church, preach and teach in the church, exhort in sound doctrine, and refute those who contradict.
Scripture also gives us a clear list of qualifications for those who would be appointed to such positions (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1—2; 1 Peter 5:1–3). The qualifications include male eldership, family before ministry, and shared leadership (plurality of elders). We love our families, we are complementarians,3 and we share our leadership and ministries.
First of all, family comes before ministry to the local church. In many churches today, the idea that family comes before ministry may be a stated value but is not always an executed value. We believe God desires us to love our families and keep them as a priority over the demands of the ministry. There is no one else who can lead, serve, and love the family like the husband and father. In fact, Paul makes the proper managing of the home a prerequisite for being an elder in the church, for “if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?”4 It is clear from Scripture that Jesus loves His church as His bride and that men are to love their wives as Christ loves the church (Ephesians 5:25–32). Christ loves the church in the way husbands are to love their wives! Therefore if a man is giving more attention to the church than to his wife, this represents a reversal of God’s intended order and is a sin. If one is not succeeding in ministry in the home, one is not succeeding in ministry at all. Reality has a tremendous burden for marriages and the family unit, and we refuse to allow either to be destroyed in the lives of its ministers in the name of ministry.
Secondly, we are complementarians. While male eldership is one of the more controversial issues in the church today, this is not one of the essential tenets of the Christian faith; it is a secondary issue. However, it does affect the functioning of the local church. Our position at Reality is to be influenced not by personal or cultural biases but by a careful reading of Scripture.
God has made both men and women equally in His image, but there are distinctions in their roles in the church. This is clearly seen in the Creation account before the Fall (Genesis 1—2). Differentiation of roles implies neither superiority nor inferiority, but a divine order. Every mention of elders in the New Testament is male. 1 Timothy 3 describes elders as being “husband[s] of one wife” (whereas in the deacons’ qualifications, this is not mentioned).
The most telling passage on this point is Paul’s instruction to Timothy in 1 Timothy 2:12–13, “And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. . . . For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (NKJV). Therefore, ultimate authority (under Christ) and authoritative teaching in the church are reserved for male elders. No other position in the church is necessarily restricted to men other than the office of elder.5 In Scripture we see women leading, prophesying, praying, and occupying many other roles in church leadership.
And thirdly, we hold to the concept of shared leadership, or a plurality of elders in the local church. This concept is neither new nor unique but is seen throughout the Scripture. Shared leadership is found in the Old Testament priesthood and the elders of Israel, in Jesus’ founding of the apostolate, and in the Pauline protocol for establishing elders in the church.
Examples of the plurality of elders and shared leadership abound in the New Testament (Acts 13:1;14:23;15; 20:17–28, 1 Corinthians 15:15–16, Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 5:17; Titus 1:5; 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13; Hebrews 13:7,17,24; James 5:14–15; 1 Peter 5:1–2).6 While one of the elders may have a more prominent role or gifting, as Peter had in the early church, we must not overlook the obvious, that Peter was never referred to as a senior leader over the rest. In his letter, the apostle affirms this when he refers to himself as a “fellow elder” (1 Peter 5:1–2).
Shared leadership is not a hindrance but rather a great benefit, because it allows leaders to share responsibilities and burdens that would overwhelm a single leader and perhaps hinder him from caring for the whole body. Shared leadership also provides much-needed moral and administrative accountability, care, and support. No one is above the temptation to make wrong decisions for the wrong reasons. Therefore, it is imperative that a plurality of elders/pastors lead the church.
What, then, is a church “board of trustees”? There is a difference between the elders of the church and the board of trustees. The elders are the men who lead the church as prescribed by Scripture. The board of trustees is a body required by US law. Therefore, there are people on our board of trustees who may not be elders and so do not have direct governing authority in the church. The board of trustees is not primarily responsible for the spiritual well-being and direction of the church. That is the responsibility of the elders/pastors. The board of trustees exists for the purpose of financial and legal accountability and integrity. A primary qualification for a board position is a person’s spiritual integrity and love for Christ and His church. Trustees may also be gifted in fiscal, business, and administrative matters.
The second office or position mentioned in the pastoral epistles is that of the deacon, which is simply translated as “servant.” The qualifications listed in Scripture for deacons don’t include any particular gifting or ability, only a standard of character and spiritual integrity. The term deacon itself leads us to conclude that they are the ones who, under the elders/overseers/pastors, carry out practical ministerial and administrative duties in the church.
Although we are closed on the issue of male eldership, we are open to women serving as deacons and believe there is valid claim for this position in Scripture (1 Timothy 3:11–13; Romans 16:1–2).7 Though it is a disputed interpretation, we believe that women can and should serve as deacons.
The church belongs to and is ultimately run by Jesus. Its purpose is to exalt and enjoy God, to edify and equip the body, and to explain and expose Jesus to as many people as possible. It is led under Christ by qualified elders who shepherd, oversee, and teach the flock; with financial and legal accountability from the board of trustees; and by deacons who serve the needs of the flock—all so that the whole body may be equipped to do the work of the ministry as gifted and empowered by the Spirit.
1 While we must be open to the leading of the Spirit, we acknowledge that the Spirit is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14) and will never lead us to do something that is at odds with divine Scripture.
2 See Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership (Littleton, CO: Lewis and Roth, 1995), chapters 1 and 7.
3 We choose the term complementarian to denote the position espoused in this chapter, as opposed to hierarchical or traditional—terms that seem to be too loaded. Complementarian is the view that ministry roles are differentiated by gender; egalitarian is the view that there is equal ministerial opportunity for both genders. See James R. Beck, General Editor, Two Views on Women in Ministry (rev. ed.), (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 125.
4 1 Timothy 3:4–5, NKJV.
5 Some see the office of deacon as being limited to males, while others see deaconesses as being allowed. The dispute is based on the translation of the Greek word gune in 1 Timothy 3:11, which can be translated either “women” or “wives” in the passage with what appears to be equal validity for both translations. We generally believe that the passage allows for female deacons (deaconesses), but are not dogmatic on the point.
6 See Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership, chapter 2.
7 The main thrust of this position is substantiated by Paul’s instruction to “wives” (or simply “the women”) in the section on qualifications for deacons. The question is this: is Paul referring to the character of deacons’ wives or of female deacons? The latter seems more favorable, for why would Paul mention the character of the wives of deacons and not say a word about the wives of elders, who have a much more prominent role? In support of this view we note that in Romans 16, Phoebe is referred to as a deacon. Though this is not a watertight case, we believe it does have weight, and so we allow women to serve in this position at Reality. For further explanation, see Wayne Grudem, Countering the Claims of Evangelical Feminism (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2006), 153–157.