A Biblical Basis for Church Governance and Authority

[This article appeared in the online version of Adventist World yesterday.  We thought it was good enough to reproduce.  link.]


Occasionally I invite individuals to write for World Vista on important topics affecting the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This month Elias Brasil de Souza, director of the Biblical Research Institute, writes about church governance and authority. I am sure you’ll find this article to be a blessing. —Ted N. C. Wilson.

Church governance and authority have become hot topics as the values of individual freedom and authenticity drive some contemporary ideological agendas. As we reflect on this, we should let Scripture inform our understanding and perception of the church.

A close look at the Creation account shows how meticulously God brought the world into existence. By naming, organizing, and structuring the world He enabled it to function according to His purpose. As the climax of His Creation work, God created humanity to care for Creation. Created in God’s image, the Edenic couple were to model God’s own leadership in their dealings with the created spheres placed under their responsibility. Looking at Creation, we see structure, organization, and leadership.

Organization and Structure in the Old Testament

In the covenant with Israel established at Sinai, detailed attention is given to the organization of the people around God’s presence in the sanctuary. A sizable portion of the Pentateuch deals with the building of the sanctuary along with laws intended to nurture the relationship between God and His people. An institutional priesthood was put in place to administer the ritual services and instruct the people. Even the order and position of the tribes around the tabernacle were prescribed in detail.

While Aaron and his sons were established as the priesthood, the tribe of Levi was entrusted with specific functions related to the care, operation, and transportation of the tabernacle. Such detailed instructions conveyed a strong sense of God’s holiness and the importance of organization for Israel’s journey to the Promised Land.

Such organization caught the attention of the surrounding nations. As they beheld that former band of slaves camping, marching, and battling through the wilderness, they could not help recognizing the work of a powerful God.

Admittedly, no one would advocate such an earthly priesthood or military mission for God’s people living this side of the cross. However, we must recognize the validity of the principle that lies behind the Old Testament account of God’s dealings with Israel. So in the New Testament God’s people also operate within a kind of structure or order.

Organization and Structure in the New Testament

Jesus entrusted 12 apostles with authority to lead His people in preaching the good news (Matt. 10:1-6). The number 12 suggests continuity with the Old Testament. On another occasion, Jesus commissioned 70 disciples to go in pairs to certain places (Luke 10:1-16). In choosing the 70 the Lord was establishing a plan for carrying on the gospel mission in an organized way. Interestingly, Moses had a similar number of elders to rely on as he led God’s people to the Promised Land (Num. 11:16-17, 25; see also Ex. 24:1, 9-14).

Jesus’ selection of the 12 and the 70 indicates that organized leadership was necessary to conduct the mission. Some people claim that Jesus never intended to form an institutional organization (i.e., the church). But a careful look at the Gospel narratives shows that Jesus organized a group of apostles and disciples to carry out missionary work.

After Christ ascended to heaven, with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and rapid growth of the church, the apostles were led toward further organization (see Acts 6). When controversy arose between Jewish and Gentile Christians, a council was convened in Jerusalem (Acts 15). A consensus was reached, a decision was made, the congregations accepted the decision, and the early church continued to focus on the mission of proclaiming Jesus to the world.

Thanks to that organized procedure of gathering, discussing, deciding, and abiding by the decision they had made, the apostolic church could move forward. As the church spread to different regions of the Greco-Roman world, a more formal kind of church governance was established, with some offices and functions more clearly delineated in order to foster doctrinal and mission-based unity.

A few aspects become clear as we examine the New Testament. Each congregation had an established leadership composed of elders who were assisted by deacons (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Phil. 1:1). The elders administered the Lord’s supper, exercised discipline, resolved disputes, and gave instruction in sound doctrine (Titus 1:9). Church officers were elected by the members of the congregation (e.g., Acts 6:5, 6) and examined and confirmed by the elders (Acts 6:6; 13:1-3; 1 Tim. 4:14). So the apostolic church soon understood that to remain a cohesive and effective body of believers they needed some kind of governance. In choosing a system consisting of elders and deacons, they were guided by the Spirit to apply principles already contained in the Old Testament and exemplified by Jesus.

Church Authority: A Relic?

At this point, the question emerges whether church structure and governance is still something to be taken seriously. Some might argue that church authority is a relic of a medieval past that needs to be discarded. The current Zeitgeist frowns upon notions of authority and power since they may be regarded as driven by oppressive ideologies.

The Bible does not portray organization and systems of authority as bad in themselves. Although the Scriptures often show that systems of power and authority have been distorted by sin, it also demonstrates that when properly exercised power and authority can be a blessing.

Authority Derived from Jesus

Before ascending to heaven, Jesus said: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18). It was on the basis of this authority that Jesus granted the church the authority to carry out the mission. Therefore, the authority of the church is derived from Jesus (Matt. 16:19; 18:18; John 20:21, 22) and is to be exercised in harmony with God’s Word.

Based on this conviction, the apostolic church established a system of church governance—including that of ordaining leaders as Christ had ordained His 12 disciples—in order to advance the mission entrusted to them by the risen Lord. The Seventh-day Adventist Church, as a result of an in-depth study of biblical principles, approved at the 2014 Annual Council a “Consensus Statement on a Seventh-day Adventist Theology of Ordination.” *

A system of church authority and governance is required in order to maintain doctrinal unity and to implement the mission of the church. Thus, compliance with decisions made by the legitimate representatives of the church organization is not optional. Although the Holy Spirit may be invoked to justify divergent practices by some individual segments of the church, the Spirit works in and through the body of believers as a whole and the leadership established by them. That the decision made by the Jerusalem Council became normative for the church at large becomes clear from the statement that as the apostles “went through the cities, they delivered to them the decrees to keep, which were determined by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4).

Ultimate Source of Authority and Power

When pondering these issues, we should always bear in mind that authority and power ultimately derive from and originate in God because He is the Creator and Savior.  Therefore, human authority is always limited and relative and is to be exercised according to the model established by Christ.  Whether we exercise authority as church officers or members, we should always remember the overriding principle that the greatest is the one who serves (Luke 22:26, 27) and the most powerful is the one who takes the towel and washes the other’s feet (John 13:13-15).

No power or authority within the church can claim independent or unilateral legitimacy in view of this model of interdependence established by the Chief Shepherd.  Church officers at all levels, in order to be “examples to the flock,” will be ready to carry forward the mission of the church and also to submit to the collective wisdom of the body on matters about which some may not fully agree in order to move forward together.  Then, “when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away” (1 Peter 5:4).



Elias Brasil de Souza, Ph.D., is director of the Biblical Research Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.