I may seem naïve and overly simplistic when I say that Christ is the Head of the church and that this one fact, properly understood, will do more to clear up confusion over decision-making in the church than any other consideration.
From this truth we are able to deduce that elders and members have one goal in decision-making—to find out what the Head of the church wills for His church. I don’t think most church leaders think this way. Starting from themselves they attempt to arrive at what would be the most pragmatic course of action, disregarding a conscious pursuit of Christ’s will in the decision process.
When Christ is recognized as the Head of His church, decision-making begins with a prayerful and serious attempt to find out what Christ has already said on the matter. He has said plenty in most cases. When elders learn this, their mission for the church changes. They now see themselves as “under-shepherds,” with their authority derived from the true Shepherd, not inherent within them as qualified people. Elders’ meetings will be concerted efforts to interpret Scripture for the sake of the church and the glory of Christ. In our elders’ meetings, for instance, a long portion of our weekly three hours together is commonly spent with our Bibles in hand, seeking to uncover God’s will for our church. Once, our labors ended up in a book on the subject of divorce and remarriage. All we were doing was what every elder team should do. We wanted to find out what Christ wanted us to do about divorce. You may not agree with our conclusions, but we have done our best to be faithful to Christ in our study. We have also written other documents that were efforts at understanding what Christ has already said to the churches about certain church matters.
In cases where the Lord has not revealed His will directly in the Bible, elders should still turn to the words of Scripture to find the related principles that will help them know the ways of Christ with His church. By prayerfully seeking wisdom (James 1:2-3), a biblical and Christ-sent answer will be found. This is the pattern, for instance, when the leaders of the early church met in Jerusalem to discuss intra-church issues related to the inclusion of Gentiles. The questions were answered through Scripture, as well as through prayer-saturated, biblically-based wisdom about how to address that difficulty in the experience of the universal church life and mission (see Acts 15).
Note that when Christ’s headship is first in the mind of leaders and members, the question of where the initial understanding of Christ’s will for the church originates is of little concern. It is true that leaders are there to lead, and sheep need shepherds, but if a member is able to correctly discover Christ’s plan for the church, leaders who put Christ’s headship over their own will find little difficulty in embracing what the member says. The church should be a body of believers all looking to Him and wanting desperately to do His will alone. So who really cares who first discovers His will?
It should be understood that I have something definite in mind when I say, “Christ’s words.” This can mean three things to us. On the surface, we take this to mean His actual verbal expressions found in the New Testament gospel accounts. Next, we mean the New Testament itself, which is about Christ and is based on His life and teaching. Christ speaks to us through His writing apostles and prophets (such as Paul, John, Peter and James) as well as in His exact quoted expressions. Above all this, we can say that the entire Bible, understood in the light of Christ’s coming, comprises His words to the church as He worked within the Bible writers concerning Himself and His then future incarnation, suffering and kingdom. This is seen, for instance, in the words of Peter when he writes this:
As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. . . (1 Peter 1:10-11)
The result of starting and ending with Christ as the Head is that the church can relax about its attempt to be clever. There is more uniqueness than you will likely be able to appreciate in just following the written word of God. And each unique move toward being the church Christ wants us to be has the backing of Scripture and Word-directed wisdom. That is a strength that many churches are sorely lacking.
I must add that careful submission to Christ’s will does not minimize the liberty which produces other distinguishing characteristics in our churches. We are to blend form and freedom, both prescribed by Christ. Where this freedom is applied, again, is a matter to be discovered from the Bible. For instance, nothing is really said about what style of music may be sung. But there are other biblical guidelines about worship and interactivity and reverence that safely channel our music, regardless of style.
Beyond all this, the elders concern themselves with maturing the church so that the people will receive Christ’s headship in all things. That may take some work. Rooting out man-made traditions, especially the kind that were yesterday’s pragmatic attempt at being relevant, are often hard to give up. Bringing the church to that desirable place where the words of Christ are more important than preconceived ideas and worn traditions that have had their day (or were never that carefully thought out in the first place) can be the elders’ most difficult task. Authority comes from Christ’s word to us, and those who are truly His will understand…eventually.
Here are some issues that your church and its leaders may need to think through. This is only suggestive of the variety of issues that demand study of the Bible to find Christ’s instructions:
Meeting patterns Does the Lord have requirements for the exact time a church should meet? What should the meetings look like?
Lord’s Supper Who may eat the Lord’s Supper—only believers, children who are unconverted, only church members, people of “like faith and order?” What is the purpose of the Lord’s Supper? Is it a meal?
Leadership Is there to be one pastor or several in a church? Is there such a thing as a “lead pastor”? What do pastors do? Should they be paid?
Church discipline Is the church required to practice church discipline? On whom? What are the various ways church discipline is applied?
Money Should we expect every member to give? How much? Should money be given every week? Is there a right or wrong way to collect money? Who should determine how to spend the money of the church?
Women in ministry May women speak or must they be silent in church meetings? May women teach men?
Evangelism How should evangelism be practiced through the church? Is there such a thing as an evangelist? If so, what does he do?