Church Government and Spiritual Community
Church Government and Spiritual Community
1 Corinthians 1:10–17 (ESV)
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
In today’s message, we are going to look at a conflict that was happening in Corinth. But, I want you to understand why this conflict happened, so I’ll set the scene for you.
The Corinthian church was one of the earliest Gentile churches. The Christian Church began in Jerusalem among Jewish people. But, the Apostle Paul was called to take the Gospel—the message about Jesus—outside of Jerusalem to all the other people. The Bible’s authors call all the other people the Gentiles.
In Jerusalem, the church was super-structured. They knew exactly who the leaders were and everyone knew who to go to with questions about doctrine or for counsel. When they had a dispute of some kind, they knew who was wise and able to judge the situation. Their worship services were perfectly ordered.
The structure of the Jerusalem church came directly from the Synagogue system of the Jewish culture. The Synagogue system gave them guidelines for practices of worship and education, and the system gave them a construct for leadership. It was used by the Jewish people for centuries, and all the kinks had long been worked out.
But, Paul knew that—however wise the system was for Jewish Christians—it was a manmade system. So, when Paul planted Gentile churches, he didn’t give them the same strict standards for worship. He didn’t tell them exactly how to set up their church government—the leadership. He didn’t give them standards for Christian education.
He wanted the Spirit of God to move freely through these communities. And he wanted each church to figure out what worked best for them. He knew that if the Spirit of God was among them, then they would have the ability to thrive as a church.
So, in the beginning, the Gentile churches—like the one in Corinth—operated according to the leading of the Holy Spirit. They didn’t have elders in the same way as the Jerusalem church and in a sense that we do today—which we call pastors. They didn’t appoint deacons. They didn’t have anyone scheduled to preach on Sunday. They didn’t have standards for how to teach or how to do the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
All that Paul did as far as leaders go is this. Luke recorded,
And when they had appointed elders [presbyters] for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:23, ESV)
I just said that Paul didn’t appoint elders or pastors and then here it says he did.
presbuteros: Honorary Elders
episcopos: Pastor/Elders, Overseers, Bishops
There are two words translated as ‘elder’ in the New Testament. The word used here is the word presbuteros, which is translated as ‘elder’ in nearly every Bible translation. That word always refers to someone of significant age and life-experience who has demonstrated wisdom to advise others and often, but not always, to teach.
The other word used for ‘elder’ is episcopos. This word is often translated as elder, but more often as overseer and occasionally bishop depending on what Bible translation you are looking at. In the Jerusalem church, the episcopal elders were more like what we call pastors. They were teachers who kept order in the church and provided care to the church. And the interesting thing about episcopal leaders is that they did not have to have significant age or life-experience to be appointed to the position. Usually, early episcopal leaders were educated men who demonstrated gifting for the position and their age didn’t matter at all.
But, the most important difference between the presbyters that Paul set up in all the churches and the episcopal leaders is that were present in Jerusalem was, authority. Paul was smart enough to identify wise men among the Gentiles churches, but he didn’t prescribe an authority structure to them like the church in Jerusalem…at least not at first.
So, in Corinth, we have different people from different places gathering together to discern the Spirits leading. And what we find when we study church history is that virtually every church operated completely different—not surprisingly. You know that every church you enter today is going to be different based on the people there. Every church was different then, too.
And that’s kind of funny to me because for eons Christian scholars have been reading the New Testament and arguing from various passages in various letters that church government should be done a certain way, that worship must be done a certain way, and that teaching must be done a certain way. We take passages of scripture from different letters written to different churches and try to piecemeal them together into one system. But, Paul never intended every church to be the same, so the pieces he gave to different churches don’t fit perfectly together.
Because Paul didn’t prescribe a particular system for any of the churches. Instead, what we see, especially among the Gentiles, is different churches operating as spiritual communities with almost no leadership.
So, you can imagine how that went. I’m sure for a time it was fine. But, then they would start to have problems and disagreements. And because they didn’t have official church leaders—no elders, pastors, deacons, etc.—they didn’t have the ability to settle the disputes among themselves.
When disputes happened, eventually the Apostle Paul would intervene. And inevitably, what he would do is prescribe a solution from the Jewish Synagogue system that had already been functioning flawlessly for hundreds of years. So, one of the first things that he did was to give them episcopal leaders, episcopos—he gave them pastors. He prescribed a solution from within his cultural background to bring structure to the Gentile churches.
We will see this happen all throughout both letters written to the Corinthians. Paul gives them structure to deal with the problems they are having. And it’s not just with leadership. Paul prescribed worship practices and instructions on the Lord’s supper and all sorts of things, most of which came from the already established structure of the Jewish Synagogue system.
So, where does that leave the churches? Were the churches supposed to be highly structured Christian synagogues or were they supposed to be spiritual communities operating according to the movement of the Holy Spirit?
I think we know intuitively that we should be spiritual communities and yet we need some amount of structure. And by the second generation of the church, what we end up with in every single Gentile church is a balance between the strict ordering of the synagogue system and the fluidity of the Spirit-led Gentile churches.
And that makes sense because it demonstrates the relationship between human effort and the working of the Spirit within the people of God. We know this that in the church God is at work. And yet, people are hard at work also. That’s the balance between our efforts as humans and God’s effort.
The structure of the Gentile churches looked a little like this. I want to show you a diagram to give you an idea of how balance worked in the early churches. As I said, they were all different, but they all had a skeleton system that looked something like this.
- There were members that made up the bulk of the community who had an influence on the way the church operates.
- There were Presbyters, which I labeled as ‘Honorary Elder’ who had no real authority but had perceived influence because of their age, wisdom, and experience. Often the Presbyters had overlap with the episcopal leaders and the deacons, but not always.
- The episcopal leaders were men who would lead and teach. These are what we might call the pastors. Most early churches only had one episcopal leader or one pastor even though they often had other men who were teaching in different settings.
- Finally, the early churches all had deacons. In most churches, deacons were male and female. Teaching was not a responsibility of deacons. Deacons were much like what we call directors in our church. They were men and women who directed or had oversight over various areas of ministry to relieve leadership burdens from the pastor.
At the time 1st Corinthians was written, the Corinthian church was trying to operate as a spiritual community alone and didn’t even have this raw structure. So, that was causing disagreements. They fought against having officials in the church to bring unity, resulting in division among them, because there was no one with authority to judge. So, they had disunity.
Look what happened. Paul wrote:
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. (1 Corinthians 1:10–11, ESV)
One of the prominent people in the church, Chloe, sent word to Paul because of the quarreling that was going on in the church. This is interesting to me. She appeals to Paul as an authority because of the disagreements of the people.
She does so because…
Spiritual Communities Need Agreement
Without a leader to judge, they could not come to an agreement on their disputes. So, Chloe called up the best person she could think of to come handle the situation, and who better than the Apostle who started the church in the first place.
Today all churches have some sort of authority structure, some sort of church government.
But, what church operates in full agreement? Does having a leader actually bring unity?
Well, Paul says ‘all.’ He pleads with the church,
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree…(1 Corinthians 1.10, ESV).
The words translated, ‘that all of you agree,’ literally mean, ‘that you all say the same things.’ Paul isn’t trying to take away the unique perspectives of the people. He is asking them to settle their disputes and come to an agreement that they can all profess as a community. That’s probably impossible. Notice, Paul is not saying that every person in the church needs to be convinced. He’s saying; everyone needs to say the same thing so that we can be on the same page and not be divided.
You know intuitively that this is how it works. You can’t help if you disagree with someone. Let’s illustrate it this way:
Has your spouse ever spent money in a way that you thought wasn’t probably a good idea?
And then you’re out in public, and someone says something about your wife’s fancy new dress, or your husband’s new car, or your kids new iPad, or whatever the purchase was. And all the sudden, when you’re out in public, you get on the same page. ‘Oh, yeah, we were really blessed to be able to make that purchase.’
You say the same thing sometimes even when you don’t agree because the decision was made and you aren’t going to slander your spouse in public. Those conversations stay behind closed doors.
It’s the same for the church. Maybe you think the churches budget should be spent differently. Maybe you think our music should be played differently. Maybe you think we should have different staff members. That’s okay. You’re going to think differently about things. And you’re allowed to talk about that with discretion, behind closed doors at our family business meetings—like you and your spouse settle your disputes behind closed doors. That’s why we have them every quarter, so we can interact with the spiritual community. In fact, we have a business meeting next Tuesday, June 13th.
So, if you have a question about what the church is doing or you have a question about the finances, or you have a question about pastors or staff members or deacons, or if you want to have an opportunity to present a different ministry focus—you think the church is going in the wrong direction—the family business meeting is the time to do that. You need to be there.
And I’ll say this quickly—the family business meeting is for members. If you have not placed membership with Sonrise, you can mark that box on your Next Step card, and we’ll try to get together with you to talk about membership before the meeting. We actually have a class right after church today. And, you are welcome to attend the business meeting if you aren’t a member, but to vote and make proposals you must be a member.
So, it’s good to have questions and contribute to the discussion. But, it’s not acceptable for you to sow seeds of division in the church.
What do I mean?
I mean that members of the church need to affirm the direction of the church even if they don’t agree with it. We come together four or more times a year to formulate our ministry strategy, and then we all take it as one unit, like husband and wife, and we work it out together. We don’t gossip about our brothers and sisters in the church, and we don’t slander our brothers and sisters in the church, just like we don’t gossip and slander our spouses. James says,
Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. (James 4:11, ESV)
When it comes to the decisions we have made together as a church, we affirm them together; we don’t publicly judge them; that’s slander, and James calls it sin.
We affirm the direction of the church even if we have a different preference or we would rather take a different direction.
Now, I don’t say all this to chastise anyone. I really don’t think we have division or slander happening here at Sonrise. So, it’s not that at all. This is just context for what I really want to say.
I mean, do you see how beautiful this is?
What group of people can come together to operate as one body, one organism and not be effected by the selfishness, brokenness, unfaithfulness of humanity at every turn? What group could pull it off?!
No group can. But, the church can. This kind of unity is something that only God can produce. And he does it all the time in His church. He takes people who think different, people who have different values, people who have different cultural backgrounds, and he brings us together under one roof and He unites us under one central purpose, to sing praises to God for the great gift He has bestowed on each of us through Jesus Christ.
The beauty of Jesus takes every disagreement and every angry thought and makes it seem petty and meaningless. The providence of God makes every anxiety and worry seem petty and meaningless. The power of the Spirit working through the body of Christs people as we humble ourselves to listen to each other and to discern together, ‘What is the will of God?’ makes every weakness, every shortcoming, every failure, seem so very small, so very petty, so very meaningless.
As Christians, we always want to see something supernatural; we always want to see God work in fantastic ways. Well, come to the next business meeting and participate and see God work beautiful unity here at Sonrise Church.
This is what Paul means when he says the church must…
…be united in the same mind and the same judgment. (1 Corinthians 1:10, ESV)
In other words, we don’t operate in conflict, but we accomplish something unimaginable by operating as if we have one mind.
Have you ever made a big decision? Job change or moving to another state? Something bigger?
Think about the last big decision you made. [Got it?] We bought a house last year. That was probably the most recent ‘big decision’ for us. We sort of bought at the height of the market. I don’t think property values are going to go up too much more. But, we decided to buy a house, and we intend to stick with that decision.
But, that doesn’t mean I never have a thought that we might have been able to do things differently. Sometimes, in my mind, I disagree with the decision we made. But, I still pay my mortgage every month.
And you’ve made big decisions in your lives. And sometimes you have doubts whether you made the right decision or not. I won’t fault you for your doubts; doubts are normal.
And that’s how the church operates. Sometimes we have doubts about the direction of the church or the model of ministry we are using or whatever it is that you have doubts about. But, since we have made those decisions together as a community, it’s our responsibility to affirm those decisions, to speak the same things that we agreed on, even when we have doubts. That’s why Paul pleads with us to ‘say the same things.’
And the best part is that when we all affirm a decision together as a spiritual, that is evidence that it is God’s decision. So, we can rest knowing that God moved among us; that God worked through us.
But, we aren’t just a spiritual community that makes decisions together. The Corinthian church had too many competing ideas to come together in agreement and I think that would be true in any church where many wonderfully diverse and creative people come together. They couldn’t do it on their own and I don’t think we could either.
So, let’s look at…
The need for church government
We’re really looking for the balance between the spiritual community and the church government.
Let’s look at the problem in Corinth a little more.
For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas [Peter],” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1.12-13, ESV)
Chloe went to Paul with this problem of division. But, notice Paul didn’t say exactly what the issue was.
Isn’t that interesting? How is he going to settle the dispute if he doesn’t even say what it is?
We don’t know if they were divided on what songs to sing when they got together—which, by the way, is an age-old discussion. The early church was singing the Old Testament Psalms as well as hymns that were intended to emphasize the doctrines about Jesus. So, they might have been divided over music. Or maybe the division was about their meeting space. Maybe the division had to do with doctrine. Maybe it had to do with how to do the Lord’s Supper since that comes up later in the letter.
Paul doesn’t say what the division was about. What he does say is that the division was tied to the men who the members of the church chose to follow as leaders.
Here’s what I’m observing: When people don’t have leaders, they will still follow someone as their leader.
Some of them followed Peter’s teaching, some Paul’s, some Apollos’.
Dad’s, what happens when you don’t lead your kids well? Do you know? Have you seen this happen?
Every after school special tells us that a kid whose father is absent is going to replace that father with someone else and it’s probably not going to be someone worth following. It’s probably an older kid at school who seems super cool but is going to lead your child into trouble. When we don’t lead our children, they will choose their own people to follow.
And we’re no different as adults.
When we don’t have leaders, we still follow someone as our leader.
So, the church needs leaders, because if someone isn’t appointed to lead a church, then the people will set up their own leaders. And that’s what the Corinthian church did. Some of them clung to the teaching and traditions of Paul, even though he wasn’t present with them. Others liked the teaching of Apollos, who has great doctrine but probably had some different ideas about how to do things than Paul did. And still, others wanted to look to what they knew about Jesus and didn’t want to worry about what Paul, Apollos, Peter, or anyone else had to say.
In other words, they didn’t know who to follow so they all picked someone.
Having leaders is an important part of the community life of the church because it allows the community to center on the teaching and practice of one leader. Having multiple leaders means having multiple teachings and multiple practices that often conflict. So, let’s talk about teaching and practices.
Is it okay for different leaders to have different teachings and different practices?
I’ll deal with practices first because it’s easier. If you have been to many churches you probably know that all churches do things a little different. And some churches do things very different!
Well, everything that the church does is not prescribed by scripture. So, for instance, the Bible doesn’t tell us what types of songs to sing. And it certainly doesn’t tell us what type of snacks to put out on the hospitality table. But, that doesn’t mean scripture doesn’t provide any wisdom in these areas.
For instance, we can deduct from Ephesians 5:19 that we should have songs that reflect the disposition of the heart, like the Psalms. And we can deduct that we should have songs that are doctrinal as well. But, Paul never says what style to use or specifically what songs to sing.
So, we have a belief that we need to sing doctrinal songs that reflect the disposition of our hearts, but there is a lot of free expression that takes place within those guide rails, so music is different in every church.
Some churches take their collection strictly online like we offer. And others pass a basket or plate around, which we also do. And others do their collection with a box in the back of the room. And others have the people come up to the front and put their gift in the collection basket there.
There’s quite a few places in the New Testament we can go to talk about the collection but suffice to say; it’s biblical for the members of a church to give to support the pastors and the work of the church. But, there is also a lot of freedom in how we carry out that belief.
We believe that the Lord’s Supper is a practice given to us by God to remember as a community the sacrifice of Jesus and the future consummation of God’s Kingdom when Jesus returns to spend eternity with his people. But, how we carry out that practice is not explicit in scripture, so we can be creative in how we do it.
Here’s the reality. If the church’s practices are a true expression of sound doctrine, then the practices are right and good even if they are different. And yet, nearly all division in local churches happens because of practices not because of doctrine. Most churches are trying very hard to make sure that their services reflect biblical values and yet, so most of the division in churches happens because of preferences on practices, not biblical doctrine.
That’s a huge disconnect.
And we’re a lot like the people of Corinth here at Sonrise if you think about it. They came from all over the Roman empire to live in Corinth. Many of us here in the Antelope Valley are not originally from here. And not only that but if you ask around, you’ll find people from all sorts of different religious traditions. You’ll find people who were raised in other denominations or cultures where the practices are drastically different than ours. You’ll find people who were Catholic or Mormon. You’ll find people who weren’t raised in any church at all.
So, when we come together, there can be a lot of competing ideas when it comes to how we practice ministry. I’m not just talking about Sunday morning, either. I’m talking about Christian education, which extends to life groups. I’m talking about ministering to our community. I’m talking about evangelism. Even when it comes to how we live out our day-to-day lives in reverence for Christ, there are competing ideas among us.
So, even though we are a member-led church—a spiritual community—we still have a need for leadership. Otherwise, we would always be caught up with arguments about how to do different things. We would never be able to carry out our mission. And frankly, divided churches die.
Do you know what an auto-immune disease is?
An auto-immune disease is a disease where the immune system begins to attack parts of the body that it was designed to protect. The immune system is supposed to protect all your bodies parts—your limbs, your organs, your different systems—so that they can function properly. But, when you get an auto-immune disease your immune system is literally killing you from the inside out.
Churches that aren’t united in who they follow as a leader have an auto-immune disorder—they are attacking themselves from the inside out—and it’s just a matter of time before the church falls apart and dies. And that’s crazy, because the battle isn’t in the church.
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12, ESV)
We live in a time where there are so many different churches that you can just go somewhere else if you don’t like something. We treat churches like cookies. You buy some cookies, and if you don’t like them, you throw them away and get some other cookies. So, churches either split or die all the time. And that’s frankly not God’s plan. Leaving a church because you disagree with the preference of the leadership is wrong; it’s immoral behavior.
But, I’m not saying a church must do everything the lead pastor wants either. I believe Paul teaches that…
Every Church Needs Balance
…between spiritual community and church government.
Here’s where that plays out. The last part of our passage for today, Paul writes,
I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel… (1 Corinthians 1.14-17, ESV)
Paul makes this connection. There is an intrinsic relationship between the person who baptizes you and the person you see in authority. So, here he is grateful that he only baptized a few people in Corinth because he knows that there would be more ‘Paul followers’ if he had baptized more people. And Paul doesn’t want to be a bigger part of the division in the church than he already is. So, he says, ‘Thank God I didn’t baptize more of you.’
Well, if Paul didn’t baptize them, then who did?
It’s safe to assume that Apollos and Peter baptized some of them. But, it was part of the teaching of the early church that followers of Jesus acted as guides and mentors to new believers and likewise were the ones to baptize these new believers. In other words, everyone in the spiritual community was expected to mentor new believers and baptize them.
Paul clearly points to the reality of the spiritual community where every person has a responsibility to the community. Every person is valuable to the community. Everyone shares their faith. Everyone baptizes.
And then almost in the same breath, he points to the uniqueness of his own calling when he says, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel.” In identifying himself as an evangelist—someone who proclaims the story of Jesus to the people—Paul identifies himself as a leader in the church since teaching and preaching were the responsibility of the pastors. So, there’s balance. Paul wants them to work together and own their own responsibilities and yet be united under solid leadership.
So, I’ll remind you the slide I showed in the beginning.
In the church, there are leaders, those who have authority and responsibility for the church. But, the church is likewise a spiritual community that is called to unity and agreement. That’s why I put the leaders in the midst of the members in the diagram, not over them. We are called to work together to a common goal.
And like I said in the beginning, no two churches are alike. No two churches in the early days were alike. They all operated differently. And that’s okay. There’s no single way to make it work. All churches are called to have a balance between spiritual community and church government.
The way we work it out here at Sonrise is that the church members are highly involved in the big decisions we make. Calling and ordaining pastors, yearly budgets, other major financial decisions—all that sort of stuff. But, the day-to-day decisions of the church are handled by the lead pastor, the pastors, the directors, and the administrators. And yet, all our members can talk to the staff if they have questions or disagreements. And members can stand up at business meetings to make recommendations. The members work together with the pastors; it’s balance.
And I think that’s a good balance that reflects the principles Paul laid out for us to have unity.
I’ll close with a word of application. I think we work really well together here at Sonrise. But, if there were something we could do to have greater unity here at Sonrise to make sure that there are no divisions among us, I would say two things.
First, I would say we should have more of our regular attenders place membership with the church. If you’ve been coming for some time and you consider Sonrise, ‘Your Church,’ then take the plunge and become a member. Like I mentioned earlier, we are actually having a membership class today, right after church in my office in the back.
And second, we could have greater involvement by our church in family business meetings. For some of you, that means coming out in the first place. And for others, that might mean asking questions and making recommendations during the business meeting. Tell us what you’re thinking. That’s where the spiritual community is really able to come together.
So, I’ll close with a word of praise for the unity God has given us here, and a word of prayer that God would move us to greater involvement in the mission of God, together, as one body of believers.
I want you to notice your Next Step cards. If you’re a guest, please let us know you’re here by filling out as much information as you’re comfortable with. And for everyone, What’s Your Next Step?
As you’ve heard the truth of scripture proclaimed today, what will you do this week? Will you consider membership? Will you commit to coming to the business meeting for the first time? Will you commit to ask a question for the first time at the meeting?
Or, is there something else?
Let us know so we can be praying for you this week as you take your next step in your journey with God. Let’s pray.
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