Two Reasons Why Many Churches Are Dying…or…Killing Themselves. Part 1: Unbiblical Structure
This is likely to be a short blog post. But one I hope to build upon and expand into a cohesive doctrinal teaching regarding the church.
Recently I was in a discussion with a group of people about the church. We were talking about being hurt by the church; something I’m afraid too many people have in common. In fact, when I asked who had ever been hurt by the church I am fairly certain every hand went up. I jokingly quipped that those hands not going up represent some “really good liars.”
Call me a skeptic, but anyone that claims to have never been hurt by the church strikes me as dishonest. After years in ministry I’m just not sure there is anyone left that has not been hurt by the church.
As I reflect back on my life growing up as a pastor’s kid, ministry education, and time spent in various ministry roles, I have concluded that two things lead to much of the hurt that takes place in the church: unbiblical church structure, and unbiblical expectations placed on pastors.
Unbiblical structures are harming our churches
It’s the same story in many churches across the country: everyone dreads the business meeting and annual elections. Arguments over budget allocations and whether or not to keep a certain ministry bring out the worst in people. And the power struggle of elections create an undercurrent of deceit and political gamesmanship. Sadly, these things exist because churches do not employ a biblical structure.
Many churches are set up as democracies where the congregation votes on everything. You can’t get new carpet, paint a room, change classrooms around, or replace a light bulb without getting approval from the congregation. This form of church governance is largely due to our political structure as a country. Churches employed the same structure used by the government because it seemed “fair.” The result is a church in as much, if not more turmoil than our country.
I was in a business meeting not long ago where a man stood up, pointed at another man and said, “I love everyone here and would do anything to help anyone else. But I will not help that man.” From the stunned group came the question “Is that what Jesus would do?” To which the man replied, “Yes!” and sat down.
We might be tempted to say that such a person is acting wrongly from anger (sinning), or perhaps isn’t even saved. Those thoughts might be correct. But what enabled his angry outburst was an improper church structure. There is an expectation in churches that “if I’m doing to give my money, I’m going to have a say in what goes on.” This is improper simply because it removes the biblical qualifications for tithing – cheerfully, as an act of worship – and makes it a business transaction. It’s from this point of view that people can seek to intimidate a pastor with the (quite sinful) words “these people pay your salary.”
Also within this problematic form of church structure is the election of people to various offices. There is a (false) belief that the proper way to elect deacons and elders is to have people nominate and vote. My question has always been, “where in the Bible does that occur?” Once again we see an American political structure governing the church to the detriment of the church.
By allowing such a structure we create power struggles, coups, and political gamesmanship in our churches that surely grieves the heart of God. How many times has an unqualified man been elected as deacon simply because he got enough votes? How often has a man been installed as an elder not based on his faithfulness and Christian testimony but based on his ability to convince others to vote for him?
What is a biblical church structure?
The democratic form of church structure that says everyone has a vote, everyone gets to participate in the decisions of the church is killing the church. More to the point, there is no support for this unbiblical structure in the Bible. A cursory studying of the Scriptures in places like Acts 6 and Titus 1 reveals a structure for the church that looks nothing like what has governed the church for decades.
Furthermore, a simple understanding of the words used to describe the church makes it clear that our current structures are wrong. The church is often referred to as sheep, needing a shepherd. How many times have you seen sheep telling a shepherd what to do? How often do sheep tell the shepherd what is best? Despite a clear image of the church in the Bible, many churches have simply ignored biblical teaching in favor of a structure that promotes self-centeredness and greed.
From Acts 6 we see that the church did NOT vote on who should be deacon. Instead, the church nominated men that were approved and appointed as deacons by the Apostles. The decision of who would and would not be installed as deacons was placed in the hands of the leaders (shepherds) of the church, not the people (sheep). This is clearly done in order to protect the church from mistakenly (though sincerely) electing a man that is not qualified to be a deacon.
In fact, I would challenge you to find one “church vote” anywhere in Scripture. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
The truth is, there’s not one. The church doesn’t vote on anything because God never intended to leave the leadership of his bride in the hands of the sheep. Why have elders/pastors/overseers/shepherds if the congregation is going to assume leadership for the church?
When we employ this unbiblical structure we reduce pastors to little more than Sunday teachers and babysitters. We are confessing that we don’t want to be led by a shepherd, we just want to be entertained by a teaching babysitter. Sadly, far too many pastors have acquiesced to this structure and reduced themselves to impotent orators afraid to lead.
The effect of this unbiblical structure is clearly seen in our churches today. When one takes a moment to contrast the vibrant, growing church plants with the dying established churches the difference is obvious. Most – if not all – church plants employ a proper biblical structure that places the lead elder (pastor) directly under Jesus as the head 9or perhaps neck) of the church. This leadership is often carried out by a group of elders that have equal authority within the church; though the lead pastor is referred to as “the first among equals.” By following this far more biblical structure in which the elders affirm and appoint deacons after the congregation has nominated them, many of the inherent temptations, shortfalls, and traps of an unbiblical structure are avoided.
Having this proper structure also eliminates, from the start, the idea that church members should be allowed to vote on everything. Most of these churches (many of them plants younger than 10 years) don’t have any church votes. The leadership (elders and deacons) are charged with overseeing the affairs of the church as it is described in Scripture. A biblical structure in which the leaders don’t have to be concerned with putting out fires every other day allows them to see to their God-given duties. This allows the church to be more effective in all that it does.
Okay, so this wasn’t as short as I thought it would be. And I apologize if it comes across as rambling. This is the first draft in what I hope will eventually be developed into a solid teaching resource concerning the church, and having a biblical structure. But first I will comment on how unbiblical expectations on pastors is also contributing to the death of the church. Stay tuned…