In an age when chaos rages in society, churches should be houses of refuge with biblically-based governing structures. When the Church is unstable, it is reflecting the upheaval of its culture and cannot minister to people whose lives have been turned upside down.
How can people discover the peace of the Kingdom of Heaven when churches — the agencies of the Kingdom — are themselves shattered by the instabilities of the cultures in which they exist?
These issues were brought to my mind as I read a Christian Post report by Barry Bowen, “The Dangerous Legal Structures of Hillsong Church.”
There Bowen discussed a practice in Hillsong and other megachurches and ministries that include a “no members” clause in their founding documents. Bowen showed in his report how such foundational documents were like building “on a foundation of sand.”
In 1986 I was called as senior pastor of a small church in Houston. The pulpit committee chairman told me I could install any kind of church governance style that I desired.
I had just completed two terms as president of The Alabama Baptist Convention, consisting of 3,000 congregations, two universities, a college, and other institutions.
However, during my tenure from 1983-1985, I had become very concerned because of the number of church splits and pastor firings. I began to study causes and interviewed many church leaders in my travels around the state.
Almost invariably the problem was in the governance structures in the local congregations.
Southern Baptists, along with other evangelical groups, had embraced a “deacon-led” concept for which I could find no support in Scripture. In that model, the pastor was largely regarded as a hireling who worked under the favor and wishes of the diaconate.
In one of the churches I served, we experienced a period of rapid growth that was troubling to the deacon chairman. He told me that years before the deacons had determined that the church would limit itself to 800 members.
Needless to say, tension and discord stirred the stormy climate in almost every deacon meeting.
In 1983, as president of the state Southern Baptist body, I began to probe the reason so many pastors were fired. Non-biblical church governance was almost always a major cause.
So, in 1986, I turned down the call of a much larger church to move to Houston, where I could shape a biblically-based governance structure.
As I studied non-biblical church governance patterns, I could see there were three major styles: majority, oligarchy, and monarchy.
The “majority” approach prevailed in many evangelical churches, including those under the deacon-led model. Essentially it operated through politics, with meetings conducted in smoke-filled rooms without the smoke. There were secret interactions, deal-making, and all kinds of behaviors I had observed through my years in secular politics and on the White House staff.
I also noted that the “deacons” in the early New Testament church were servants (the Greek word even can mean, a “table waiter”). A deacon-led church, therefore, had placed the servants in the role of masters.
The “majority model” of church governance also seemed at variance with the Bible. It is an authoritarian style that has brought disaster to many churches and ministries
The “oligarchy” model of church governance put the power in the hands of a few dominant people. They were usually part of the church’s founding group, wealthy, or leaders in the community organizations.
I could find no biblical support for such a governing structure. In fact, the Apostle James had been starkly clear about how possible oligarchs should be treated,
The third type of church governance, the “monarchy” style is the approach that would put “no members” in the incorporation papers of a church or ministry. In this style, the senior pastor or ministry leader is authoritarian, and there is little or no sharing of authority. This mode is indeed “dangerous” as Bowen described problems in Hillsong and other highly visible churches.
So, in 1986 in Houston, I wanted to avoid designing our church governance type around any of those non-biblical, failed models.
The abuse of power I had observed as a young aide in the Nixon White House can extend to every level of human structure and organization. Churches are not immune to “Watergates” (the scandal that caused Nixon to be the first president to resign). Thus, I wanted the governing structure of our church to be solidly built on the strong foundation of Scripture.
That led me to set in place (in consultation with leaders in our church whom I had come to know as biblically informed, living model lives in Christ, and trustworthy by all the church) to develop the biblical eldership model.
Relationship is vital in the lifestyle to which Christ calls us. I began to pray and spend time with men who might be considered as elders. Since I was the pastor, I was “apostolic” –Greek: “sent one”) in that the congregation had called me to come as “one sent” with a broad vision). But to balance this I wanted leaders around me who manifested other ministry giftings as listed in Ephesians 4 — prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, as well as challenge me if I drifted from scriptural authority.
The process took an entire year. In the end, I asked the congregation, after watching these candidates, to bear witness with me that these were the leaders who should be our elders.
That church grew rapidly, and many years later, is still ministering dynamically in Houston — though I have been gone more than 20 years.
The Church in contemporary society should be a stabilizing force, not “tossed about.” (Ephesians 4:4) Such a church must be stable not only in doctrine but also in structure.
Wallace Henley is a former White House and Congressional aide. He is now a teaching pastor at Grace Church, The Woodlands, Texas. Wallace is author of more than 20 books, including God and Churchill, and his newest, Who Will Rule the Coming 'gods: The Looming Spiritual Crisis of Artificial Intelligence.