Who Runs This Church?

Larry Wilson

People join Orthodox Presbyterian congregations from all sorts of backgrounds. Accordingly, we often find ourselves both having to learn new things from God's Word and having to unlearn unbiblical things we were previously taught. Many come to our churches from Roman Catholic or independent backgrounds. They show clear evidence of faith in Christ. They can eagerly affirm the first three membership vows.[1]

The Fourth Membership Vow

But the fourth vow sometimes piques alarm: "Do you agree to submit in the Lord to the government of this church and, in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine or life, to heed its discipline?"

What does that mean? Some churches are governed by bishops. Others make all their decisions by congregational vote. Who runs this church? How does the Presbyterian form of church government differ from what these prospective members have experienced before?

Certainly the form of church government isn't necessary to salvation, but that doesn't make it unimportant. In his Word, God himself frequently discusses the "polity" or authority structure of the church, so we should by no means neglect it. In fact, at bottom, we are really talking about how the living God shows his ongoing care to his redeemed people during this life. Since this is true, we need answers that are based on God's Word.

Jesus, the Only King and Head of the Church

The bottom-line answer to the question, "Who runs this church?" is Jesus Christ. Ultimately, Jesus runs this church. He said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matt. 28:18). "Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior" (Eph. 5:23). "And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent" (Col. 1:18).

Christ alone is the Head of the church. In the final analysis, church members are subject to him. There's only one Mediator between God and man, and he alone is King. Jesus—King Jesus—runs his church. He is the source of all true spiritual authority.

How Christ Rules His Church

But how does Christ run the church?

Reformed believers often say that King Jesus rules his church "by his Word and Spirit."[2] In other words, he rules his church through the agency of his Holy Spirit, working by and with his Word. Ephesians 4:7-13 reveals that Christ has chosen ordinarily to use human officers to administer his Word in order to build his church.[3] He calls these men his gifts to the church. This doesn't mean that they have a right to be haughty or bossy; it does mean that he calls them to serve the church with his own authority. King Jesus delegates authority to them for the good of his church. "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 kjv). Furthermore, as they do their work together in Christ's name, our Lord Jesus himself is present with them (Matt. 18:18-20).[4]

The General Office of Believer

At this point, some—especially those from independent backgrounds—wonder, "What about 'the priesthood of all believers'?" Doesn't every believer have authority?

Indeed, Christ does give his Holy Spirit and a measure of his authority to each of his redeemed children. "For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, 'Abba! Father!' The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Rom. 8:15-16). Every believer is an heir of God and a fellow heir with Christ (Rom. 8:17).

Accordingly, we believe not only in the priesthood of all believers, but also in the prophethood and kingship of all believers (cf. 1 Pet. 1:9; Rev. 1:5-6; Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:1-4). God's Word tells us that he has given his Spirit to every believer. Every believer is at the same time a prophet (knowing the living and true God, confessing his name to others), a priest (offering himself and all that he has as a living sacrifice to the Lord, praying for others), and a king (learning self-control, fighting against sin and the devil, acting on God's Word). This is the office of Christian, the general office of believer.[5]

Special Offices

Every member has this general office, but that does not make every member a minister or elder in the specialized, technical sense of those terms. In fact, most church members do not hold these special offices. For example, they do not exercise oversight like the elders do. Our Form of Government describes it this way:

Our Lord continues to build his church through the ministry of men whom he calls and endues with special gifts for teaching, ruling, and serving. Some of these special gifts can be most profitably exercised only when those who possess them have been publicly recognized as called of Christ to minister with authority. It is proper to speak of such a publicly recognized function as an office, and to designate men by such scriptural titles of office and calling as evangelist, pastor, teacher, bishop, elder, or deacon.[6]

This is not a man-made structure. God's Word teaches these special offices. Ephesians 4:11 (quoted above) speaks of apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers. On their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas "appointed elders for them in every church" (Acts 14:23). The apostle Paul exhorted, "Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching" (1 Tim. 5:17). Paul also pleaded with the elders at Ephesus, "Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood" (Acts 20:28).

The point of these Scriptures is clear. By the gracious working of his Holy Spirit, God makes fallible humans to be overseers of his church. Yet at the same time, by the gracious working of his Holy Spirit, he enables the people in the congregation to recognize the gifts and qualifications that he gives to certain men. As in the apostolic church, office bearers today are recognized and chosen by the people.

The Bible teaches the assembly of God's people to examine the external qualifications of men according to their godliness, gifts, and ability to lead, as Paul discusses in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. We see an example of the people's involvement in choosing their leaders in Acts 6—seven men were chosen by the congregation to serve as officers.


First the congregation selects their office bearers. Then, according to the Bible's example and instruction, the church solemnly inaugurates each one into his office. That means that the church gives its formal, public confirmation that Christ himself has called and gifted and qualified him for the office. He's set apart by prayer and the laying on of hands. We call this "ordination."[7] You can find an example of this in Numbers 27:15-23, the ordination of Joshua:

Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, "Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep that have no shepherd." So the Lord said to Moses, "Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him. Make him stand before Eleazar the priest and all the congregation and you shall commission him in their sight. You shall invest him with some of your authority, that all the congregation of the people of Israel may obey. And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the Lord. At his word they shall go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he and all the people of Israel with him, the whole congregation." And Moses did as the Lord commanded him. He took Joshua and made him stand before Eleazar the priest and the whole congregation, and he laid his hands on him and commissioned him as the Lord directed through Moses.

Ordination confers authority.[8] It commissions and authorizes a person to do a specific task. Ordination has its roots in the Old Testament, and it carries over into the New Testament. 1 Timothy 4:14 refers to the ordination of Timothy: "Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you." The Greek word translated "council of elders" is presbyterion. Here we see that the presbytery (that is, an assembly of elders acting collectively) has the power to solemnly set others apart for church office in the name of King Jesus.

The Nature of Church Authority

But do these church officers have real authority? God insists that pastors and elders do have authority—authority that is very real. He makes this clear in Hebrews 13:17, "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account."

Still, that by no means puts church officers on a par with Christ himself. For all practical purposes, the Roman Catholic Church does do that. It ascribes to the church and the Pope the infallibility that really belongs to Christ alone. The truth of the matter is this: the officers of the church represent Jesus Christ. He delegates authority to them. Therefore, their authority is under his authority. More precisely, they are stewards of Christ's authority.[9] To understand this, we need to see several things.

Church authority is delegated, not original

First, Christ's authority is original, but the authority of church officers is delegated. A church officer is like an ambassador to whom the king delegates authority. The ambassador had better never pretend to be the king, or to be on a par with the king. On the other hand, the king's subjects had better not ignore what he says, because he does speak for the king.

Church authority is ministerial, not magisterial

Second, Christ's authority is sovereign; his rule is magisterial. But the authority of church officers is only ministerial. This means that leaders in the church are to serve Christ and his church, not themselves. "Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock" (1 Pet. 5:2-3). They are to be ministers, that is, servants. "For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake" (2 Cor. 4:5). Our Lord Jesus himself described leadership in terms of servanthood in Mark 10:42-45: "You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.... But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be 'slave' of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Pastors and elders should have a heart to serve.

Church authority is declarative, not legislative

Third, King Jesus is the lawgiver of his church. The officers aren't. This means that rather than making up and imposing laws on the church, the elders must apply Christ's law, his teaching that is revealed in the Bible. Their authority is declarative, not legislative. They are to declare and apply God's standards, not make up new ones. God's Word is perfect, and nothing should be added to it. The Bible is our only infallible rule of faith and practice. R. B. Kuiper rightly warned:

May we ever be on guard against those who in the name of religion would add to God's law. To be stricter than God is no evidence of piety but, on the contrary, of abominable presumption. To add to God's law is just as heinous a sin as to subtract from it. He who does either puts himself in God's place. Therefore it is not at all strange that he who today forbids what God allows will tomorrow allow what God forbids. That is precisely what one may expect of him who sets himself up as lawgiver in God's stead.[10]

To be sure, so that things may be done decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40), the leaders of the church may make certain regulations (e.g., times for public worship, rules for congregational meetings, procedures for determining church budgets, etc.).[11] But such regulations must never compete with the law of Christ. The point is that officers in the church do have real authority, and yet at every point they are subordinate to Christ.[12] But such regulations must never compete with the law of Christ. The point is that officers in the church do have real authority, and yet at every point they are subordinate to Christ.[13]


[1] These vows are:

  1. Do you believe the Bible, consisting of the Old and New Testaments, to be the Word of God, and its doctrine of salvation to be the perfect and only true doctrine of salvation?
  2. Do you confess that because of your sinfulness you abhor and humble yourself before God, and that you trust for salvation not in yourself but in Jesus Christ alone?
  3. Do you acknowledge Jesus Christ as your sovereign Lord and do you promise, in reliance on the grace of God, to serve him with all that is in you, to forsake the world, to mortify your old nature, and to lead a godly life?

[2] The Form of Government, 1.2, states: "There is therefore but one King and Head of the church, the only Mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ, who rules in his church by his Word and Spirit."

[3] Form of Government, 1.1.

[4] TheConfession of Faith, 25.3, states: "Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto."

[5] The Form of Government, 3.1, describes it this way: "The power which Christ has committed to his church is not vested in the special officers alone, but in the whole body. All believers are endued with the Spirit and called of Christ to join in the worship, edification, and witness of the church which grows as the body of Christ fitly framed and knit together through that which every joint supplies, according to the working in due measure of each part. The power of believers in their general office includes the right to acknowledge and desire the exercise of the gifts and calling of the special offices. The regular exercise of oversight in a particular congregation is discharged by those who have been called to such work by vote of the people."

Compare Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 31-32:

Q. Why is he called Christ, that is, Anointed?
A. Because he is ordained of God the Father, and anointed with the Holy Ghost, to be our chief Prophet and Teacher, who fully reveals to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption; and our only High Priest, who by the one sacrifice of his body has redeemed us, and ever liveth to make intercession for us with the Father; and our eternal King, who governs us by his Word and Spirit, and defends and preserves us in the redemption obtained for us.

Q. But why art thou called a Christian?
A. Because by faith I am a member of Christ, and thus a partaker of his anointing; in order that I also may confess his name, may present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to him, and may with free conscience fight against sin and the devil in this life, and hereafter, in eternity, reign with him over all creatures.

[6] Form of Government, 5.2.

[7] The Form of Government, 10.1, states: "Christ who has instituted government in his church has furnished some men, beside the ministers of the Word, with gifts for government, and with commission to execute the same when called thereto. Such officers, chosen by the people from among their number, are to join with the ministers in the government of the church, and are properly called ruling elders."

[8] Form of Government, 20.1-2.

[9] See Gordon H. Clark, "The Presbyterian Doctrine of Ordination," in The Pastoral Epistles (Jefferson, Md.: Trinity Foundation, 1983), pp. 270-94.

[10] R. B. Kuiper, The Glorious Body of Christ (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), p. 20.

[11] R. B. Kuiper, "Pitfalls in Finding God's Will for Your Life," New Horizons, January 2004, p. 7.

[12] See Confession of Faith, 1.6.

[13] Kuiper, The Glorious Body of Christ, pp. 123-24.

The author is the pastor of Christ Covenant OPC in Indianapolis, Ind. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 2004.

New Horizons: May 2004

Obey Your Leaders and Submit to Them

Also in this issue

Submission to the Government of the Church: Is It Biblical?

Books on Presbyterian Polity

Warren's Purpose Driven Life

Machen Memoir: Fifty Years Later

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