Church Governance-a Viewpoint

Description: This is an extract, published in Berita NECF Sept/Oct 2006 Issue. An updated full version of the article can be found in "Forum V: A Spiritual Healthcheck of the Church in Malaysia."
        Author: Datuk Paul Low


By Datuk Paul Low


Is there a need to talk about church governance? After all, churches have been in existence for almost 2,000 years and an ideal church methodology of governance should have already been in place.


In view of the increasing number of church splits, church scandals arising from poor accountability, and churches being stifled by legalism, traditions and bureaucratic governance, it is perhaps appropriate and timely to re-look some of the underlying biblical principles and their application in reforming and transforming the local church.


The local church must be effective in carrying out its mission not just as a local church, but as an integral part of God’s kingdom. Meanwhile, we are mindful that the church operates in an earthly environment that is dynamic and constantly changing, being impacted by social, political and economic variables that influence the hearts, mind and physical well being of its members.


Jesus says, "I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it" (Matt 16:18). A strong church is one that is built by Christ and not by man. It is built upon the Rock with a strong foundation. While churches are diverse with individual uniqueness, there are nevertheless fundamental non-negotiable truths on what the church ought to be and its goal. One basic non-negotiable truth is God’s creation order in which the delineation of authority is rooted.


Nonetheless, Jesus speaks very little about how a church can be organised, and it would be foolhardy to assume one size fits all. The first century churches were not dependent on one model but on the authority and anointing of the leaders who held the positions. The leaders exercised their God-given authority in both a hierarchical and democratic manner. Any form of governance will be good if the right people hold the leadership positions. Therefore, it would be erroneousness to stipulate that there is one best form of church government or governance.


Often, we see the conflict of interests between the administrative and ministerial functions in churches. A rigid or overpowering administrative structure could become a major hindrance to a ministry, reducing its effectiveness and retarding its ability to carry out the mission of the church. On the other hand, an ineffective administrative structure would allow very little accountability and poor stewardship in ministries. Therefore, one can say that a good church governance structure requires flexibility and ability to adapt to changes in circumstances, with sound administrative and supervisory structure to ensure adequate accountability.


One may observe that when leadership is made up of those appointed or elected based on gifts, status or financial contribution, church governance becomes tightly regulated with bureaucracies, spending a great deal of time in preparing budgets or fundraising projects. Ministries become performance- or project-oriented, driven by competitiveness. The first group of casualties includes the burnt-out pastors and team leaders and of course, the stifled Holy Spirit.


A founding pastor who has had a bad experience with the overpowering administrative structure will find it hard to trust a church governance structure with shared leadership and accountability to a board of elders. Insecure, fearful of failure or driven by performance, he may then opt for a structure with low level of delegation and a high propensity of competitiveness. This would lead towards a one-man-up-ship and members’ blind submission. Christ as the church’s spiritual Head would eventually be replaced by a personality cult.


The human body 

It is important to recognise that the basic foundation of the church is based on relationship -first with God, then with one another. As vividly described by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 using the analogy of human body, the church is closely akin to an organism with every member of the body, having individual functions, assuming his part to discharge his gifts accordingly. Each member works in unison with the other, giving support, cooperating and collaborating to ensure that all functions are carried out diligently and effectively.


Therefore, good church governance will promote unity rather than division or church split.


The administrative function of the church can be called a ministry of help. It assumes a supporting role to the church ministries to ensure proper stewardship and accountability. It is like the bones of a human body, giving framework to hold the body in its proper shape. Taking away the bones, the body will become one big lump of flesh and useless.


Every part of the body is an integrative part of a whole system. Likewise, all ministries including the administration are not independent of each other but mutually interdependent and function as one in unity. Cooperation and collaboration become inherently natural.


When legalism and traditions become the over-arching foundation, the church becomes an institution and is lifeless. Godly attributes are the internal fuel of a church. Faith in God, obedience to the Word, humility, love, servanthood, unity, joy, compassion, forgiveness, contentment, thankfulness and so on are essence that forms the fabric of godly governance.


Obstacles to electing leaders

The rights to elect or appoint church leaders - pastors, elders and deacons - can be an issue in church governance. In the Malaysian context, a church is required by law to have its members at large to elect an office bearer if it is established under the Societies or Companies Act. While this seems most democratic, it causes some key problems.


First, an elected leader, like it or not, would have to govern the church to meet the demands of its members - ‘the voters’. This could involve some kind of self-interests, and the leader could succumb to the fear of man. Secondly, it could encourage politicking in the church and factionalism. It is not uncommon to witness instances of rowdy annual general meetings where members are unhappy with the leadership or where there are conflicts.


In general, election and appointment of leaders is best done by the overseers of the church consisting of the pastor, elders and deacons who seek God’s wisdom. As the church is not the same as a secular organisation but a body of Christ established for divine purposes, its leadership must be established based on biblical principles and based on God’s gracious calling.


Regardless of the structures, good governance comes from having an anointed and upright leader (pastor or elder in charge) who: is the “first among equals,”; undertakes the responsibility of appropriating God-given authority; has humility to seek godly counsel among his peers of leadership; and is willing to be held accountable.


Good governance begins from selecting the right person in accordance with biblical principles and hearing from God. 1 Timothy 3 lays down clearly what is expected of a leader. Good governance also requires the leader to carefully heed God’s warning in shepherding “the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:38).


In the end, good governance equals good leaders, who like the Good Shepherd, are willing to lay down their lives for their flocks.

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