James MacDonald’s Lost Vision For the Body of Christ?

One should be careful in criticizing another pastor, especially one in the neighborhood (we both serve in the Northwest suburbs). So I am engaging James MacDonald – not criticizing him – because he invites engagement in his post provocatively titled Congregational Form of Government is From Satan. This post caused a good bloga-stir last week. Like a grenade thrown into the room, it cleared the debris and asked the core questions “Wherein lies authority in the church? How is that authority exercised?” Pastor James answered by arguing that the authority of Christ in His church is best carried out in a hierarchy composed of a senior pastor surrounded by a group of elders, the form of church government otherwise known as “elder rule.”

I’m not much interested in the argument for “elder rule” over congregational forms of church government. Instead, I think pastor James’ post reveals much about his attitudes and understandings of what it means to be body of Christ in N America, and serve that body as a pastor. “Elder rule” is certainly one valid form of church government that has its roots in the Majesterial Reformation. It has made sense in many cultural contexts related to Christendom over the past 500 years. What I am more concerned about however in this post is the apparent loss of a very important part of the NT vision of the local body of Christ. My big question is – are we seeing a loss of vision for the active living organic body of Christ in the world. I offer 3 questions/observations.

1.) Is there Submission of the Leader(s) to the Body (in this post)? Jesus said “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be the slave of all. Because the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45. The NT church built its understanding of church leadership upon these words. This is why the NT uses the term diakonia (servant, slave) far more than any other term to describe leadership in the church. I take these words of Jesus to be an overthrow of all authoritarian leadership in the church. Instead we pastors are to be yielding, serving the local Body in submission to each other out of mutual submission to Jesus as our Lord and reigning King. We are to trust together that God the Holy Spirit is working in the arena of His people where Jesus is Lord (1 Cor 12). The pastor, prophet, teacher, even apostle or elder always serves in this pattern. I could go on how this pattern is evident everywhere in the NT but instead I refer you to chapter 3 of my 2005 book The Great Giveaway.

What I hear in pastor James’ post is an account of church government that puts one man (or woman?) in charge in a top-down authority alongside a set of elders as support. This form of church government, he says, “frees the pastor from the tyranny of the untrained and the untrainable.” Huh? Where then is the submission of the pastors to the body as servants one to another? To me, the servant nature of leadership, driven by the mutual submission one to another in reverence to Christ is the very foundation of church life (Eph 5:20). How does the pastor lead in submission to the body with a statement like this? How are the elders chosen from among several thousand people church except as they are handpicked by the pastoral authority? How does this form of government not become a single personality driven church where the body has little or no voice?

When we give up the submission of the pastor to the body, I suggest we have lost Christ’s vision of the body of Christ. Has pastor James lost this vision of the body of Christ?

2.) Is There a Body of Christ Active Here in Discerning the Future? In Matt 18:15-20 Christ gives us an account of discernment (“binding and loosing” is a Rabbinic term for discerning disagreements and conflicts). Here the community of Christ, from ground up, discerns disagreements and sin among themselves by going to each other and speaking truth and confessing in love.  From these on the ground conflicts we see key issues in the church rising up to communal wide discernment. Together we gather and a council forms, and we discern together (1 Cor 2:16) the mind of Christ. We engage new territory for the gospel together. Pastor James seems to think all division is bad.  It is “good people being held hostage to bad people.” On the contrary, I suggest, conflict is ground zero for moving the church into mission (see this link here).

This way of being a people is admittedly untidy, often inefficient (although I don’t think it needs to be). But frankly, this is (one of the places) where Christ inhabits the church (“there am I with you”)and the future is discerned. But under “the elder rule,”as pastor James describes, it seems as if one man should dictate which way to go. The one senior pastor goes up to Mt Sinai, gets a word from the Lord, comes down and delivers from God the way we are to go. You as a parishioner can then decide to stay or go. I don’t think we should trust one man or a group of men (notice it’s mostly men) because I think any one man or woman is too narrowly constrained to see where God might take us. We need the body to discern, and as we engage new and different cultural challenges that we’ve never seen before, we need the body fully activated to discern. Admittedly this is impossible when you get over 200 people.

A top heavy organization run by “elder rule” naturally moves its people in and upward. The people are always looking to the one man and his elder rule for rulings on matters of “should we do this?” or “how do we reach these people, needs in our community?”  The community becomes inward focused and centered on a single voice who unilaterally drives the vision of the church. I believe a church loses its dynamism and its flexibility under these conditions. It is driven by one man’s vision for a single time and place. The body of Christ created in Christ by the Spirit for mission (John 20:23) becomes static. When this happens, churches run this way via “elder rule” have lost the vision for the active living body of Christ?

3.) Is There an Alive Body Engaging Fully in the Ministry of the Kingdom? 1 Cor 12, 14 give us a vision of the body of Christ functioning in all its gifts. Eph 4 shows how 5 gifts are prominent. This fully alive body is discussed in Rom 12 and elsewhere. It is called by the apostle Paul “the fullness of Christ” Eph 4:13. This is where the body comes to life to bring forth the fullness of life in Christ.

Where does this full participation in the body of Christ take place in a church governed by “the elder rule” polity he proposes. For pastor James, the “priesthood of all believers” refers to the protestant denial of any mediator between the individual and God. He grieves the “eldership of all believers” where each person, regardless of training,” considers their thoughts about the future to be of equivalent value” (to those with training?) Huh? Again?

The true pneumatocracy of the church relies on the plurality of the gifts all recognized within the body. Is there a place for this in James McDonald’s “elder rule”? Too often, in an “elder rule” church, I fear “gifts” and “gift inventories” turn into another organizing matrix to train volunteers to sustain a top heavy organization. The gifts become internally focused. They are not mutual participants in what God is doing in the church and the church in the world. This to me is the real tragedy of the lost vision of the body of Christ this kind of church polity represents. You tell me, have I missed something?

Conclusion

In summary my three concerns can put in the following three statements for discussion.

A. The Elder Rule form of church government (as outlined above) is prone to work for Christians who want minimal involvement in church life and want to be spoon-fed Scriptural teaching/spiritual upliftment as a regular product on Sunday morning Yes? No?

B. The Elder Rule form of church government (as outlined above) is prone to encourage pastors to function as dictators versus participants in the flowing life of God’s Kingdom at work in the living Body of Christ. Yes? No?

C. The Elder Rule form of church government does not work to develop a dynamic flexible externally focused social body that can engage new cultural challenges easily (without first getting approval from the hierarchy) Yes? No?

To those who see these things regularly occur in this form of church, who seriously wonder if there is any other way to be church, I encourage you to read this link, and then look for a missional community being birthed in a neighborhood near you.

OK, thanks to pastor James MacDonald for spurring on the conversation. That’s it for now … just putting all these questions out there … over and out …

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David Fitch
David Fitch is a bi-vocational pastor at Life on the Vine and the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary.