1. The Delicate Dance of Congregational Governance

Congregational forms of church governance can be quite dysfunctional when it comes to discerning the will of God. The solution for some is to change from a congregational governance structure to a much more centralized and efficient decision-making system. However, if that strategy is adopted, I contend that we begin to violate essential principles that should shape the nature of the kingdom community. A possible solution to these challenges is presented in the shared governance process used in many educational and health systems environments. It allows the appropriate stakeholders to be involved in the appropriate decisions. Bylaws and policies define what these decisions might be and who needs to be involved in making them. The board and pastoral leadership have the responsibility to ensure to manage the system.

Can we within the Canadian faith community today collectively as local churches discern the will of God in ways that respect and promote New Testament Kingdom values and cohere with the best sense of human dignity in our culture? Baptists have claimed to base their church practice on what the New Testament teaches. However, new paradigms of church leadership, government regulations for charitable non-profit entities (legal obligations that most churches assume), diverse models for church development, and the expectations that people have within Canadian society, have created significant confusion and tension about the way a local assembly1 discerns God’s will.

Opinions about ways to discern God’s will within the local assembly or church and the values that guide it vary according to the role a person plays – congregant, deacon or elder, pastor, volunteer or paid ministry leader. As well diverse opinions emerge based upon how we understand God and His interactions with humans today and what we conceive the church to be.

Understanding who has the authority to make which specific decisions within the faith community often lacks clarity, consistency, and consensus. People struggle to identify the spiritual values that guide the process or even to perceive such processes as an expression of their corporate spirituality. Decisions usually occur in formal business meetings or board meetings, guided by Robert’s Rules of Order. Frequently the spiritual dynamics of the body get overlaid and perhaps forgotten. Assemblies expend immense amounts of energy struggling to sort this out, frequently with little success, often with significant rancour, and occasionally with considerable hurt. In such situations the relationship between the church and the Kingdom Jesus came to initiate seems remote.

Is there a way for local assemblies to discern together God’s will, that incorporates Kingdom values? In this short essay I attempt to isolate the key principles that guided the assemblies in the New Testament in discerning God’s will. Then, I suggest a model for understanding how the delicate dance of church governance, i.e. discerning God’s will collectively, can proceed today in a spiritually healthy way and consistent with Kingdom values. The goal is to enable the local church that embraces Baptist principles to discern God’s will using New Testament guidelines. As well, I want to emphasize that embracing such guidelines can contribute in important ways to the spiritual vitality and formation of everyone within the assembly.

The Nature of Assemblies (‘churches’) as Defined in the New Testament

Assemblies in the New Testament operated with simple structures. They tended to be small, due to the limited size of the houses in which they met.2 Estimates suggest fifty to seventy-five people would be an upper limit to their size. In some larger urban centres (i.e. Rome) multiple groups met in various houses or perhaps on occasion in rented halls. At some point in the second century archeological evidence indicates that some private houses were donated and renovated for use as assembly places. The term Paul used most frequently to describe groups of Christians (ἐκκλησία) referred within antiquity to gatherings of people for a specific purpose (i.e. citizens of a city gathered to conduct the business of the city; Israel in the wilderness constituted as the gathered people of God). The term “assembly” focuses attention on the people rather than on the institutional or architectural elements that the word ‘church’ frequently connotes. The word never refers in antiquity to a building.

Paul’s description in his letters leaves some room for debate whether several ‘assemblies’ meeting in different households formed several distinct assemblies in a single city and so one city might have several assemblies, or whether in one city multiple groups meeting in various houses constituted a single assembly. For example, the phrase “the assembly in (someone’s) house” occurs once in Colossians 4:15 (cf. Philemon 2) in reference to the “brothers in Laodicea and Nymphas and the assembly in her/his3 house.” Immediately following, however, Paul speaks about “the assembly of the Laodiceans” (4:16), suggesting one assembly for the entire city of Laodicea. Maybe there was only one house church in Laodicea or perhaps the group meeting in the house of Nymphas might have been one of several in that city forming the entire assembly in that city.

In Romans 16:1 we discover that Phoebe is a “διάκονον of the assembly in Cenchrea.” Prisca and Aquila have an “assembly in their house” (Romans 16:5), but this surely was not the only house-church in Rome. Gaius, Paul’s host in Corinth, along with “the whole assembly” (Romans 16:23), send greetings to the believers in Rome. In 1 Thessalonians 2:14 “the assemblies of God in Judaea in Christ Jesus” are plural and seem to refer to various assemblies scattered throughout the region of Judaea. However, there is one assembly in Thessalonika (1 Thessalonians 1:1; II Thessalonians 1:1). Paul boasts “among the assemblies of God” (II Thessalonians 1:4) about the Thessalonian believers’ endurance. He assures the Roman Christians that “all the assemblies of the Messiah” send their greetings (Romans 16: 16).

On occasion Paul used the phrase “the assembly of God” (Galatians 1:13; Ephesians 3:10; 5:23-25; Colossians 1:24; 1 Timothy 3:15) more generically, defining the people of God within the world. The general sense of “assembly” still remains, but it is not localized. In this sense it is like the term “Israel” which refers to the entire covenant people of God wherever they may be resident – in Palestine or the Diaspora.

Luke’s usage in Acts is quite consistent, applying the term ‘assembly’ to the Christians gathered in one city (i.e. the assembly in Antioch). Acts 20:28 is somewhat ambiguous. Paul in his address to the elders from Ephesus urges them to shepherd “the assembly of God which he purchased with his own blood.” Because he is speaking to a specific group of elders and reminding them of their responsibility to care for God’s assembly, it is possible that he is referring specifically to the assembly at Ephesus. However, his description of the “assembly of God” as being purchased by “His own blood” suggests perhaps reference to the entire people of God, part of which is being cared for by the Ephesian elders. Within Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin he refers to Israel as “the assembly in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38), using the language of the Septuagint to describe the people of God in the Old Testament.

Leadership Structures in New Testament Assemblies

The evidence from the New Testament then suggests that the new Christian assemblies were small, localized in specific households. The data seems to suggest one assembly per city, but meeting in various houses. Each localized assembly entrusted their spiritual care to selected ministry leader(s). As well, we find evidence that all believers, wherever they lived and worshiped, are linked together as part of God’s great assembly, i.e. the people of God. There is no expressed ministry leadership structure for the entire people of God.

How these assemblies came into existence is only known in a few instances. Apostles were responsible for some; other disciples as they dispersed voluntarily or by persecution to other areas shared their faith and additional assemblies emerged. From various New Testament writings we discern within these assemblies some form of leadership team. Various terms describe these ministry care-givers. A generic term seems to be “elder” (πρεσβύτερος) and the activities they perform are “forms of assisting” (διακονία). Sometimes the functions are compared to those who manage households or estates (ἐπίσκοπος, οἰκονόμος) or those who assist in some way (διάκονος). This ministry group, however, it was defined and constituted, had responsibility for the spiritual care and protection of the assembly, i.e. enabling it to be God’s people in that place. Teaching the word, caring for those in need, admonishing believers susceptible to false ideas, overseeing worship, and encouraging the sharing of the Gospel seem to comprise their primary responsibilities (cf. I Thessalonians 5:12-15). Paul describes the work of these spiritual directors as primarily restorative (Ephesians 4:12-16), enabling the people to assist (διακονία) in building up the body.

So we discern within these assemblies some form of leadership team (elders (πρεσβύτερος)/deacons (διακονοί)/managers (ἐπίσκοποι/οἰκονόμοι)) amidst the other members. We cannot be much more specific than that. From time to time assemblies appeal to various apostles for answers to ethical and ministry questions (i.e. the Corinthian assembly). As well, apostles who were involved in the establishment of respective assemblies felt some responsibility to share advice and seemed to have authority to require certain actions. For their part the people are urged to listen carefully to the spiritual care-givers and accept their wisdom; conversely the spiritual care-givers are expected to involve the people in discerning God’s direction, providing spiritual direction but not controlling.

The Jerusalem church also seemed to exercise some influence over other assemblies, primarily because it was the originating assembly. From the New Testament writings it is also clear that assemblies considered themselves to be somewhat interdependent. The Antioch church sent financial relief to the Judaean church in time of famine. The financial collection Paul encourages the non-Jewish assemblies to give for assisting the poor believers in the Jerusalem assembly demonstrates this desire to work together and express their fundamental unity.

It should be made clear that we have no sense that the emerging Christian assemblies felt any disjunction between the way they were being formed and led and the Kingdom values and mission that Jesus had charged them to express.

Examples of How Decisions Were Made in New Testament Assemblies

This brief survey indicates that the Christians in the first decades of the Jesus movement created assemblies with very basic operational structures. As new problems or questions arose, however, they had to discern God’s will in each case and they used various means. For example, in Acts 6 the assembly in Jerusalem experienced conflict because one group perceived their widows were not being cared for properly. Apparently this was the responsibility of “the twelve”, i.e. the apostles (vs.2). The twelve suggested a solution to this ministry problem that involved the assembly in discerning seven men within their number who would have responsibility for this ministry. The assembly agreed with this proposal, the assembly chose the seven, and the assembly presented them to “the apostles” (vs.6). The apostles publicly signaled the appointment of the seven by laying hands on them. So the twelve continued in the διακονίa related to the word (vs.4) and the seven appointed engaged in the διακονίa of caring for the widows (vs.2). The collaboration between the ministry leadership and the general assembly is clear as they resolve this practical ministry issue. Two things seem to be key to resolution. One is that the twelve examined the issue, perceived the problem and proposed a good solution. Secondly, the proposal made by the twelve “seemed good before the entire multitude” (vs.5). Their evaluation and endorsement were critical parts of the process.4 Participation in the discernment process by the assembly was significant.

A second example occurs in Acts 13-14. This example does not concern a problem, but rather the obedience of the Antioch assembly to the direction of God’s Spirit. Luke tells us that there were “prophets and teachers” in that assembly, including Barnabas and Saul. During a period of worship and fasting the Spirit by some unspecified means tells the five men named in 13:1 (perhaps by implication the entire assembly is involved) to support Barnabas and Saul “to the work to which I have called them” (vs.2). This group of five is not described as elders. When Barnabas and Saul returned from their tour of ministry, Luke says they “gathered the assembly and told what God had done…” (14:27). This suggests, although we cannot be certain, that some ministry leadership group (prophets and teachers) in the assembly discerned that God’s Spirit wanted Barnabas and Paul to take a particular action. Presumably this discernment was shared with the assembly who agreed, because Barnabas and Paul reported to the entire assembly at Antioch how God had worked.

The third example in Acts concerns the question of how non-Jewish Christians are to be included in the Messiah’s assembly. Acts 10-14 recounts how the Gospel spread to Gentiles within Judea, at Antioch and then Cyprus, Pamphylia and south Galatia. Perhaps Galatians 2:10-14 illustrates the serious tensions that this problem created, even among the key leaders such as Peter, James, Barnabas and Paul. Luke sets the problem clearly:

When some came down from Judaea, they were teaching the brothers, “Unless you have been circumcised in accordance with the custom of Moses, you are not able to be saved.” (Acts 15:1)

Of course, this created considerable stir in the Antioch assembly and so they sent Paul, Barnabas and others “to the apostles and elders at Jerusalem concerning this question” (15:2). When they arrived in Jerusalem and shared what God was doing among non-Jewish people, some Christians whose roots were in Pharisaism objected and claimed that “it is necessary for them to be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses” (15:5). So the issue is clear, one that created a serious challenge to the early Christians. How did they discern God’s will in this matter?

Those responsible for the care of the Jerusalem assembly – apostles and elders (15:6) convened a meeting with Barnabas and Saul. Verses 12 and 22 indicate that the Jerusalem assembly was gathered together as well and heard the proceedings. Peter reported how the Holy Spirit had come upon the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius (15:8-11). Barnabas and Paul reported how the Holy Spirit did signs and wonders among the Gentiles during their initial missionary journey (15:12). Finally James arose and with reference to Amos 9:11-12 argued that God was fulfilling this prophecy by including Gentiles in “the tent of David” (Amos 9:11)5 as He reconstitutes His people (Acts 15:14-21). In other words, he helped the Jerusalem assembly make sense of what was happening and set it within the context of God’s revealed will and purpose. He then suggested several principles that the Jewish Christian community would ask their Gentile brothers to respect, but they should not require them to be circumcised or keep the Law of Moses. Luke tells us that this solution “seemed good to the apostles and elders together with the whole assembly” (15:22). Judas and Silas were appointed as messengers to take the letter drafted by the Jerusalem Christians to the Gentile brothers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia (15:22-23).

Discerning God’s direction in this case involved assemblies located in various cities. Resolution occurred as the various assemblies through their representatives came together and talked through the issue, rehearsing how they have understood the way God’s Spirit has directed and what guidance the Scriptures might give. Because the apostles were still connected with the Jerusalem assembly, the wisdom of this assembly had particular value, at least in regard to this issue.6

While Luke’s accounts do not give us many details, we discern some similarities among these cases. Those who have been given responsibility for the spiritual care of the assembly deliberate and seek a good solution. When a direction is discerned, this is shared with the assembly who in some way process it and indicate their agreement. With consensus established, they move forward.7

Apostolic Direction in Assembly Decisions

Within Paul’s letters he often is responding to questions that the assemblies he established have directed to him. For example, in I Corinthians 7:1 he says “now for the matters you wrote about” and then proceeds to discuss issues related to marriage and eating meat offered to idols. However, he also feels responsible to provide instruction about actions or practices that he regards as inconsistent with Christian values. In the case of an assembly member in Corinth who has engaged in sexual immorality, Paul advises:

When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan (5:4-5).

Paul involved the entire Corinthian assembly to resolve this matter. Precisely how the assembly participated is not explained. We should remember that these assemblies had only been in existence for perhaps three or four years. Christian experience was minimal. So every problem or challenge represented a new situation for them. They often needed the guidance of an apostle to help them know how to apply their new Christian values to these difficult issues and what process should be followed8. The apostle needed to help them learn how to deal with these issues and in this way equip them to discern God’s direction on their own, while maintaining their unity as the body of Christ.

In an extended passage (I Corinthians 10-14) Paul gave instructions to guide the assembly as to how they should express Kingdom values. He speaks of them “coming together in assembly” (11:18) to remember the Lord’s Supper. Similar language occurred in 14:26 where Paul gave instruction about the employment of various gifts in the assembly when they came together. Paul’s incorporation of the Corinthian believers within the discernment process was based upon his belief that the Holy Spirit has taken up residence within each one and provided them with access to “the mind of Christ”.

It may also be that in some sense apostles or elders functioned like external consultants. For example, Paul writes to the church at Colosse, but he had never visited it. Perhaps Epaphras had appraised Paul of the emerging situation in Colosse and requested his help in responding to heretical tendencies. At times, then, external agents provided assistance to local assemblies. As the Colossian letter suggests, the consultant probably had prior connections with some in that assembly. 3 John may fit this situation as well.

This brief survey indicates that discerning God’s will in the first decades of Christianity required spiritual leaders to take note of and provide solutions to problems, as well as the agreement by the assembly that the proposed solutions were indeed wise and appropriate. Issues seemed to arise from various quarters. The spiritual leaders appointed by the assembly carried the responsibility to propose good, biblically consistent solutions; the gathered assembly seems to have some responsibility to discern whether the proposed solution indeed represented the best way forward. Of course, if either party neglected its responsibility, then the entire assembly suffered.9

“Shared Governance” Model

It was not a question of the spiritual leaders discerning a solution to an issue and imposing it on the assembly. Rather, there was trust exhibited by the assembly in the wisdom expressed by the spiritual leaders and there was respect by the spiritual leaders for the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the whole assembly. These entities (as much as they were defined in those first few years) within the assembly had a role to play in discerning God’s will. We might describe this as a primitive form of shared governance.

The situation in Baptist churches in Canada is somewhat more complex today. Most Baptist churches have paid pastoral staff, a defined ‘board’, and the congregation.10 As well, through voluntary, interdependent linkages with other Baptist churches, these associated churches in their collective wisdom may also have direction to give on specific issues. The concept of shared governance offers a model for decision-making that fits the dynamic, systems approach to decision-making characteristic of the Baptist, congregational milieu and does not violate biblical principles in the process.

The shared governance model11 affirms that various stakeholders within an organization have legitimate, specific ways to speak into various decisions. The legitimacy is based upon specific expertise, or specific responsibilities, as well as a vision of the while enterprise as a community that functions with a deep sense of respect for the wisdom that each entity potentially contributes. Within an academic organization, for example, the faculty have voice, sometimes students as well, along with the administration and the governance board, in respective decisions. Understanding what decisions each entity should speak to and how the decision-making process works is the responsibility of the leadership and becomes critical for maintaining good harmony and advancing the mission of the institution. Jim Collins argues that

…social sector leaders face a complex and diffuse power map…In legislative leadership…no individual leader – not even the nominal chief executive – has enough structural power to make the most important decisions by himself or herself. Legislative leadership relies more upon persuasion, political currency, and shared interests to create the conditions for the right decisions to happen.12

He goes on to observe that

A level five leader is responsible to ensure that the right decisions happen – even if the level five leader does not have the sole power to make those decisions,…The whole point of Level 5 is to make sure the right decisions happen – no matter how difficult or painful – for the long-term greatness of the institution and the achievement of its mission, independent of consensus or popularity.13

I disagree that consensus can entirely be ignored within the faith community, but do agree that the primary responsibility of the key leader in a shared governance model is to ensure that the right decisions are made with the involvement of the right groups in the organization.

When shared governance is operating optimally, it empowers participants, develops responsibility for decisions, improves morale, increases understanding, enhances communication, introduces divergent points of view, and generally helps that community form effective responses to critical issues. Conversely, it does make decision-making slower, requires a different kind of management style, can cater to self-serving agendas, may create some role confusion, and may hamper the ability of the organization to respond efficiently to an emerging issue. The currency of shared governance is a high degree of trust and deep respect for the contribution of people.

“Shared Governance” as Expressive of Baptist Congregationalism

I am suggesting that within Baptist churches shared governance also exists, based upon the basic New Testament principles that I have sought to articulate earlier in this article. The spiritual leadership of the assembly is responsible to “keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3) and to enable the whole body to “produce the increase of the body” (Ephesians 4:16). Assisting the assembly to discern God’s will with respect to critical issues is part of this spiritual responsibility and as it is done well it contributes to the spiritual formation and vitality of the assembly.

In a Baptist assembly the primary struggle in discerning God’s will arises because there is debate as to the entity in an assembly that has the final say about specific decisions. For example, much of the literature that speaks about pastoral leadership argues that the senior pastor casts the vision for the church. His vision becomes the church’s vision.14 His primary work is to get everyone onside with this vision. However, such a perspective seems to violate the principle of shared discernment that the New Testament articulates. The spiritual leaders of the assembly certainly have the responsibility to propose a vision for that assembly (undoubtedly based upon significant formal and informal consultation with segments of the assembly), but the assembly still has the responsibility to reflect upon, pray about and discuss the vision, discerning together whether this is God’s will. In this sense the discernment process is like a dance, with the lead changing periodically. Sometimes the spiritual leadership is setting the pace; sometimes it is the assembly as a whole. Again I emphasize that this works well when there is a significant trust operating between the spiritual leadership and the assembly. When trust evaporates, then the process loses its lubrication.

The Application of Shared Governance Principles to Congregational Decision-making

The precise means that a local assembly should use to discern God’s will about a particular issue may vary. 15 Consensus is the goal. Unanimity may occur, but is not essential.16 Vote-taking is usually helpful because it preserves the voice of each person – none gets lost. But it is only a means of discerning and documenting consensus. We must communicate well with one another, listen carefully and respectfully to the wisdom each presents, and pray our way to consensus. The process often is time-consuming, but absolutely essential to the spiritual formation of the assembly. The faith community is a priesthood of believers – the community of the saints. It is empowered and taught by the Holy Spirit to carry forward God’s Kingdom work. When believers respect the divine abilities and assigned Kingdom responsibilities within the body, this encourages them to embrace their calling in Christ, exercise the wisdom given by the Spirit, and own the ministry vision the assembly is pursuing.

The assembly invests in the contemporary Church board17 the significant responsibility to help the assembly define carefully, but clearly which groups or individuals in the assembly have authority to make certain decisions.18 Normally the assembly delegates authority to the church board (requiring accountability) and the church board delegates responsibility to the pastoral staff (requiring accountability). The church board becomes the middle term, ensuring that the assembly has voice in decisions that are appropriate to its role (as defined in the bylaws), i.e. selecting key pastoral leadership, annual budget, mission, values, vision, major initiatives (i.e. building program), and changes to bylaws.19 The church board oversees the processes that develop good proposals for the assembly to consider. The lead pastor is part of the church board and becomes the primary means through which the ministry leadership has voice in these major issues.

Often an assembly has a plurality of elders within the spiritual leadership. If the elders are all part of the church board or form the church board, then the assembly must consider carefully how the elders also function as part of the ministry team in the church. Presumably the ministry team will include the Lead Pastor and all others appointed to significant ministry leadership (sometimes called ‘deacons or deaconesses’) in the assembly, including the elders. The New Testament knows nothing about elders who have no ministry leadership responsibility in the assembly. All elders have pastoral responsibilities. So in most situations elders will be part of the ministry leadership team and also part of the church board. In such cases the elders will have to learn how to function as part of the church board, while concurrently being accountable to the Lead Pastor for specific ministry assignments. In other words, they wear different hats in different contexts and need to make sure they have the right hat on at all times.

In cases where the ministry team includes both paid and volunteer ministry leaders, the Lead Pastor will need to exercise considerable skill to create unity and mutual respect. Regardless of their status as employees or volunteers, all senior ministry leaders should be directly accountable to the Lead Pastor for their assigned responsibilities, not to the Church Board. It may be that some elders who have responsibility of oversight for a particular ministry may have opportunity to report to the Church Board about that ministry. However, if there are multiple people reporting in an accountability relationship to the Board about diverse ministries, there is considerable risk that at some point conflict and tension will arise between the ministry plan being pursued by the Lead Pastor and the operation of these other ministries that are not accountable to him.

The church board delegates to the Lead Pastor and the senior ministry leadership team the responsibility to implement the mission and vision for spiritual care and transformation approved by the assembly, within the limitations of agreed values, ethics and resources (or any other restraint the church board may define). Such a structure is necessary if an assembly agrees to be registered as a non-profit charity with the government. However, it is also good spiritual practice. Accountability based upon agreed bylaws and policies enhances the spiritual role and function of each entity participating in the shared governance of the assembly. The ministry leadership team is responsible to guide the day-to-day operations of the assembly. If in this process they encounter a ‘grey’ area, i.e. some decision that does not seem to be covered by policy, then the Lead Pastor would be advised to consult with the Board Chair about how to proceed. Perhaps a new policy should be developed or a current policy revised. Perhaps the issue is not grey, but does fit a current policy and those involved did not perceive it. What is needed is wisdom to discern such situations and good working relationships among various leaders to deal with them well.

A Contemporary Example

Let’s take an example of how shared governance works. The ministry leadership senses that current and potential growth in the number of 12-18 year olds in the assembly will require the appointment of a paid youth ministry director in the next twelve months. It is the responsibility of the ministry leadership team to develop a proposal demonstrating the rationale and detailing the various implications (i.e. fulfillment of vision, providing spiritual care, adjustment to budget, implications for the ministry leadership team, perhaps facility changes, etc.). The Lead Pastor presents the proposal and recommendation to the Church Board (because the proposal requires changes that go beyond the authority given to the ministry leadership team). After careful deliberation (perhaps over an extended period of time) the Church Board discerns that what is proposed fits the vision, will enhance the spiritual health of the assembly, includes a good selection process and is within the ability of the assembly to fund. So they formally decide to recommend the proposal to the assembly.

At this point the Church Board needs to consider how to process this recommendation. Communication of the vision, how it fits the assembly’s mission, and the strategic need to add such a ministry leader, will need to be carefully planned and implemented. The proposal should be circulated among the membership inviting them to pray about this proposed direction and enabling them to share their questions, give their advice, and enable them to sense God’s direction. At the next official gathering of the partners/members the Church Board presents the proposal with a recommendation to proceed. After significant discussion and time for prayer the assembly, by show of hands, agrees to support the recommendation. At this point the Lead Pastor has the mandate to implement the plan expressed in the proposal. The proposal will contain steps that involve some means of keeping the membership appraised about its implementation. The membership may need to be involved again when an actual candidate is discerned to affirm that this person is indeed appropriate for the position. In other words the process or the ‘dance’ is as important as the actual decisions. Of course the size of church will require some adjustments in the “dance steps.”

If we overlay this process on that followed in Acts 6, we might compare the involvements of the ministry leadership and church board with that of the apostles. They discover a problem and develop a solution. They present the solution to the assembly and invite them to discern together whether the solution is good, i.e. honouring to God, effective in caring for people, able to deal with the problem. With the support of the assembly the solution is implemented. The share in governance that each entity within the assembly is responsible for is respected, engaged, and empowered.

Fig. 1  Key Entities in a Local Assembly Sharing Governance

It is critical to remember that the primary concern of spiritual leadership in the assembly will focus upon the spiritual health and vitality of the assembly. Enabling the assembly to discern God’s will is a key part of the spiritual formation of the congregation. However the process may be defined by bylaws or other guidelines, the spiritual values embraced by the assembly must be promoted and the assembly must be able to worship through such work.

Often contention occurs between the senior ministry team and a church board because the church bylaws do not clearly define the respective areas of authority. Or, sometimes the bylaws are clear, but the church board does not follow the bylaws. No one has decided who decides, or if they have, are ignoring it. Pride, status, hunger for power, frustration can all contribute. As a result conflicts occur.

The Fundamental Assumption

The fundamental assumption by which shared governance operates20 is that various entities within the organization have assigned, defined authority and processes are in place to ensure that their authority is exercised in an appropriate way, at the right time, on the right issue. It is the responsibility of the governing board in such situations to guide this conversation and make sure that the decision is made ‘according to the rules’. The board does not have the authority to tell the assembly what to decide on matters that fall under the assembly’s direction. The board does have the responsibility to make sure the assembly is well-informed, conducts its discussion Christianly, and once the decision is made, to implement the decision. This is its primary service. The leadership of the board is exercised as a trust given to it by the assembly. It leads by discerning issues that the assembly will need to decide and enabling the assembly to discern God’s will in harmony and with vision, worshiping God through the entire process.

Discerning God’s will within the local assembly is a delicate dance, but when done well, it is a thing of beauty, expressing the essence of agape.

Larry Perkins, Ph.D.  © December, 2006.





  • 1I use the term “assembly” rather than “church” throughout this essay because the word “church” has become too associated with a building and an organization and has lost to a great degree the emphasis upon a cluster of identifiable people assembled to accomplish a specific goal that the corresponding Greek term communicates. The early church owned no buildings. Perhaps when we use the combination “community church”, we reinforce this perception, because ‘community’ usually refers to people and so ‘church’ must then refer to a building, as in “community centre”.
  • 2“There is not evidence of purpose-built churches before C.E.313 (the Edict of Milan).” Peter Richardson, Building Jewish in the Roman East (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2004) 135.
  • 3The textual tradition is split as to whether Nymphas is male or female.
  • 4While the account Luke provides is quite straightforward, it is difficult to discern how complex this issue truly was in the Jerusalem assembly. That it concerned apparent discrimination between Palestinian and Diaspora Jewish Christian groups who constituted the Jerusalem assembly probably suggests that the γoγγυσμός  (murmur or complaint) generated considerable stress.
  • 5For James the “tent of David” in Amos 9:11 refers to the reconstituted people of God composed of Jews and Gentiles who have placed faith in Jesus Messiah. As he continues to quote from Amos 9:11-12, this ‘tent’ will include “the remnant of human beings and all the nations over whom my name has been called.”
  • 6Some suggest that the involvement of the Jerusalem assembly in these proceedings was quite minimal. However, Luke seems to indicate that direction proposed by James was accepted by the apostles, elders and the whole assembly and this entire group was involved in selecting Judas and Silas to report the results of their deliberations to the Antioch assembly.
  • 7Some suggest in the case of Acts 15 that Galatians 2:1-10 indicates a much more complex and rancorous process occurred. However, it is debated whether Paul in Galatians 2:1-10 is describing the conference in Acts 15 or discussions that occurred during the ‘famine visit’ (Acts 11:27-30). Regardless, the Gentile mission in which Paul and Barnabas engaged certainly stimulated serious contention and Acts 15 would seem to be the setting in which resolution was sought and essentially achieved.
  • 8This perhaps is similar to the way a denominational leader would be invited to offer counsel to an assembly on a particular issue or process. In such cases the consultant does not make the decision, but helps
  • 9We know of at least one case in the New Testament where a ministry leader abused his role to the detriment of the assembly. 3 John outlines for us the case of “Diotrephes, who loves to be first.” Diotrephes wanted no interference in his leadership from “the elder” and “refused to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.” We also should note that we find it difficult to parallel in the New Testament the “Robert’s Rules of Order” kind of democratic decision- making process that often guides our collective discussions. This does not mean that such principles are not helpful; it just means that we have to evaluate carefully whether Robert’s Rules are consistent with Kingdom values and truly enable us to discern God’s will appropriately.
  • 10It is probably anachronistic to link these various entities, i.e. elders/deacons/pastors, assembly members, apostles, that constituted the early assemblies, in a precise way with specific roles or groups that exist within Baptist churches today. We certainly have the congregation or assembly as a whole and we have spiritual leadership, expressed in diverse ways. Within the spiritual leadership Baptist churches normally have vocational spiritual leaders and volunteers.
  • 11Another expression found in the literature is ‘participatory governance’. This model has found use particularly within educational and health-related entities. It supposes that a healthy institution will be one where decision-making authority truly is shared appropriately among various components. It also presumes that those participating in the decision-making have specific expertise that makes their involvement important for the health of the institution and its services.
  • 12Jim Collins, Good to Great and the Social Sectors (2005) 10-11.
  • 13Ibid., 11.
  • 14For example. Bill Hybels, Courageous Leadership (Grand Rapids: Zondervans, 2002) indicates that “after a leader receives and owns a vision, the next challenge is to communicate it to others” (I have added bolding) (38). George Barna, The Power of Team Leadership (Colorado Springs, Col.: Waterbrook Press, 2001) states that “If you have been called to lead others for the purposes of His kingdom, the vision God gives you will become the centerpiece of your ministry… .Because that vision is the core of what you relate to as a leader or as a team, discerning God’s vision is one of the first tasks a leader or team should address” (44). I distinguish between ‘casting the vision’ (i.e. developing and approving it) and ‘championing a vision’ (i.e. taking the lead in promoting and implementing it). I agree that lead pastors must champion the vision. I would argue that the assembly must be involved in developing or casting the vision. It is not a solo effort.
  • 15The New Testament is silent on the ways in which the assembly expressed its decision. We might speculate given the various means used by city assemblies to reach decisions. However, all we can say is that the assembly was quite capable of expressing its voice and affirming or not affirming the direction proposed. We have flexibility today as to whether formal votes are the best process or some other method might be more helpful. However, other factors in the Canadian context probably indicate that formal votes become the preferred way for the assembly to indicate its mind on a particularly significant issue.
  • 16The degree of consensus required in regards to a specific issue will vary. If voting is the mechanism used, then bylaws will often stipulate that a certain quorum of members is required to be present. This ensures that the body is indeed present to engage in the discernment process. As well, the bylaws may specify that when a quorum is present, specific decisions must achieve 60% or 70% or 90% of those voting in order to be approved. There is no magic in a specific percentage. However, selecting a percentage provides the assembly with a sense of the degree of consensus that should be present if this decision really represents God’s will.
  • 17It is irrelevant for purposes of this discussion as to what the composition of the church board might be. Some Baptist churches require the church board to be composed of elders. Others have no elders, only deacons. Some have both. It is entirely possible for a church board to include various people, but then for the board (by means of bylaws or policies) to delegate to the elders specific roles and responsibilities.
  • 18I agree with John Kaiser, Winning on Purpose (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006) that the lead pastor needs to be a full member of the church board. As with any board member there will be times when a conflict of interest requires him to absent himself from discussions. This will occur primarily when the board is discussing his evaluation or employment issues. I am not quite as sure as Kaiser is (p. 95ff), however, that G. Getz, Elders and Leaders. God’s Plan for Leading the Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 2003), 217-226 makes his case exegetically that the lead pastor is the primary leader on the board. While Getz can point to the examples of Peter, James and Paul as primary leaders in the early church, I would argue that they fill these roles in an ‘apostolic’ sense. When it comes to local assemblies, we find no example where the model of the lead pastor as the primary leader among the elders is proposed or implemented. Arguments from silence are always precarious. That the authors of the Didache and I Clement do not articulate this kind of structure might introduce a note of caution in regards to such claims. Of course, given the education and experience that most lead pastors bring to their roles, other elders will desire to listen respectfully to the wisdom such individuals bring to the board. I would suggest that the board chair and the lead pastor together form the primary leadership team on the board and within the assembly.
  • 19Various factors such as the size of the assembly and the history of decision-making within the assembly will influence which decisions the assembly as a whole is asked to discern. If the historical pattern of decision-making is changed without the input of the assembly, then conflict will probably occur.
  • 20Properly understood and practiced, the shared governance model enables an assembly to grow to a considerable size and still involve the respective entities within it in appropriate and meaningful decision- making, each contributing to the discernment of God’s will.
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