It happens often, probably more than you might think, or maybe less that you think it should happen, but it does happen. The question is asked: “Who’s in charge here?” You’ve seen it in Sci-Fi movies, when the alien lands and first encounters human beings and says, “Take me to your leader.” This is that question in statement form. Maybe at school in class, your teacher steps out of the room and things get rambunctious for a bit and another adult steps in and asks the question. Or it could be children in a home watching mom and dad bicker and challenge one another and in their hearts, or possibly verbally as kids often do, ask, “Who’s in charge here?” It is a good question to ask, particularly in times of chaos, rambunctiousness, and challenge, but it is even a better question to have rightly answered and for those “in charge” to act as though they are.
Concerning the local representations of God’s church, the question is of particular importance for it is His church and He has told us in His Word who is in charge. When it comes to understanding who’s in charge in the church, rather than focusing upon levels of authority, though definitely an important aspect, two words are helpful and will be used to direct this discussion: responsibility and accountability. You see, all authority is delegated by and flows from Christ, who is Lord over all, but the way in which the Bible reveals who has authority and what kind of authority they bear is described by means of what each person or group is accountable for and is therefore responsible to do. You may ask, “How do I know if I have authority to do something in the church?” to which I would respond with, “Are you accountable before God for that which you are wanting to do?” If the answer is yes then He has delegated that authority to you to do such by His Word and in His name. If you are not accountable to God for what you are seeking to do, then you do not have the authority to do such. God, in His wisdom in creating and sustaining the church, has provided all we need to be faithful, if we will but listen to Him.
To clarify, let me illustrate. In a family there are different levels of authority revealed in differing levels of accountability and responsibility. Simplistically, God created the husband to be and holds him accountable as the shepherd of the family, to physically and spiritually provide and protect, loving his wife as Christ does the church and training his children in the fear of the Lord. With this the husband/father bears a delegated authority from God in which to carry out those things for which he will give account before God. This accountability means that he is responsible for those roles in the family and no one else. The wife/mother has been created by God and is held accountable before Him as the complementary helper, nurturing, submitting, and respecting her husband as unto the Lord, and caring for her children physically and spiritually. With this, the wife/mother bears a delegated authority from God in which to carry out those things she will give an account before God. This accountability means that she is responsible for those roles in the family and no one else. Even children are accountable to God as they have been created to and therefore responsible to honor and obeying their parents, but also loving the other siblings. To this, kids will give account. Though the authority needed to fulfill this responsibility is low, it still exists for no one should interfere with a child seeking to honor and obey his or her parents. While, not a one to one comparison, this family structure of accountability and responsibility is like that of the church.
When it comes to the church, according to the Word of God, there are 4 levels of responsibility and accountability within: Jesus, pastors, deacons, and the congregation* (see end). Each will be reflected upon, listing what each group is responsible for and therefore accountable unto God.
1. Jesus: The Good Shepherd
It may seem unnecessary to include Jesus in a discussion of who’s in charge of a local church, but it is absolutely the contrary. The church is His church (Eph. 5:25-27), bought with His blood (Acts 20:28), He is the head of it (Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:18), He declared that He would build it (Matt. 16:18), He cares for and nourishes it (Eph. 5:29), and He has told us who we are as His church and how we ought to function as His church. Jesus holds all authority over His church and bears faithful responsibility over it as the One who has given account for it with His life, for He is the Good Shepherd who has laid His life down for His sheep (John 10:1-18). There is nothing lacking in His work for the church from the past, in the present, and through to eternity. He is the promised Shepherd that perpetually and graciously shepherds His sheep. Apart from giving us the Spirit and His Word to feed us and guide us, Christ shepherds His people by calling and equipping undershepherds (pastors) to shepherd His flock wherever they serve.
2. Pastors: The Undershepherds
The next level of responsibility and accountability below Christ is that of pastors (synonymous with overseers, elders, bishops, and leaders in Heb. 13). They are called undershepherds because under Christ, the Good Shepherd, they bear the greatest amount of responsibility and are therefore the most accountable to God in the church for how they use their delegated authority and fulfill their responsibilities. Broadly summarizing, pastors (note the plurality nearly always used in Scripture concerning them) are responsible for caring for and protecting themselves and the flock (Acts 20:28-32; John 21:15-17), exercising oversight leading the flock (1 Peter 5:1-4; Heb. 13:7, 17), believing, handling, defending, preaching and teaching the Word of God rightly (2 Tim. 1:13-14, 2:15-17, 4:2-5; 1 Tim. 6:2-4; 1 Peter 3:14-17; Jude 3-4), reproving, rebuking, exhorting with all authority those in error (2 Tim. 4:2-5; Titus 2:15), being an example to the flock (1 Tim 3:1-7, 4:11-16, 6:11-16; Titus 1:5-9), equipping the saints for the work of ministry, for maturity in Christ, unity in the gospel (Eph. 4:11-14), and pastors are responsible for obeying God and not men (1 Thess. 2:2-8, 11-12).
Another area in which pastors bear responsibility is for the calling out, training, and appointing other pastors in the body in which they serve (2 Tim. 2:1-2; Titus 1:5-9). These men, called out and equipped by God to shepherd His flock, are accountable to Him for all of these things (Heb. 13:17; James 3:1; Acts 20:26-27) as well as accountable to the flock. Pastors bear the authority needed to do these things faithfully by delegation from Christ and by the authority of the Word. Pastors care for, protect, preach, equip, and rebuke/correct not by their own authority but by the authority of the Word of God. All this applies to every and any man who claims to be called of God into pastoral ministry of any sort. In Scripture and therefore before God there are not mere staff ministers and then a pastor but a plurality of pastors that each bear this responsibility and accountability before God and His church. If any don’t want the responsibility or to be held accountable for this then they are not called by God to shepherd His flock, but are imposters, wolves in sheep’s clothing, seeking their own kingdom and good. Even if one holds the office but ignores or is ignorant of these responsibilities, they are still accountable to God for them. Pastors are called to die for they are called to follow in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd who laid His life down for the good of the sheep.
3. Deacons: The Servants
The next level of responsibility and accountability falling under Christ and pastors is deacons. It may be offensive to some that the label “servants” are given to deacons but it ought not be offensive for it what the very word “deacon” means and as well as it defines their role in the church. Deacons are not mentioned very much in the Bible (3 passages and one inference), which makes sense when you think about the non-public nature of their work. While sharing in nearly identical characteristics/qualifications as pastors, deacons do not have the responsibility and therefore not the authority to teach or lead the church spiritually (1 Tim. 3:1-13). They are called and responsible to serve, meet physical needs, and seek to maintain the unity of faith. They must be of exemplary character and are to be selected because they are already doing the work of a deacon (serving) not so that they can have an official title or acknowledgment before the church. Though the designation of deacon is not specifically mentioned in the text, the role of deacons is illustrated in Acts 6:1-4, where the apostles (spiritual leaders of the church) were being pulled away from the responsibilities God had called them to, so they called faithful men to serve those in need.
The needs of a church are endless so the opportunities of service and ministry for deacons are endless as well. The work of deacons is crucial to the health of a church as they assist the pastors of the church by meeting necessary needs of the flock that would hinder pastors in their responsibilities and as they serve the church. This responsibility bears accountability before God and to the pastors and the congregation. With this comes the authority to take up the task before them and serve. No one needs to tell a deacon to serve for that is what they have been called to do, and when they see a need they are to seek to serve and do so by the authority of and in unity with the Word. All Christians are called to be servants/ slaves of Christ in service to Him and to His church. Deacons are those who are recognized in the church as servants of God, the pastors, and of the congregation, meeting everyday needs not leading spiritually. Rightly understood, there are those not known as deacons who are truly deacons before God and His people because of their dedicated service to the church and those with the name deacon who are not truly deacons due to their lack in service and the pursuit of their own good and way.
4. Congregation: The Body
The last level of responsibility and accountability falls on the congregation. God has the most to say to this group concerning their responsibilities. Apart from the expectations of every believer (being filled with the Spirit, bearing the fruit of the Spirit, praying, reading the Word, etc) the New Testament, particularly the epistles, shows that the congregation is responsible and therefore accountable for much, as individuals and corporately. The largest portion of responsibility is easily found in the “one another’s” of the New Testament. Every Christian and, therefore, every church body are responsible for carrying out each and every one another as they have the occasion. This includes, though not exhaustively: loving, comforting, bearing with, being kind and compassionate to, forgiving, encouraging, edifying, praying for, being at peace with, serving, living in harmony with, instructing, correcting, admonishing, counseling, speaking graciously to, submitting to, exhorting, gathering with, and giving to one another. Each member of the body is responsible for these and therefore accountable to God and to one another for fulfilling them.
Another area in which the congregation is responsible is dealing with sin in the church. Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 6 make clear that while the pastors have a role in church discipline, it is further in the process and the congregation bears the greater responsibility for pursuing the sinning brother or sister’s repentance and restoration or removal. Jesus in Matthew gives the instructions to every Christian, giving them authority to deal with sin in the church, whereas Paul rebukes the church at Corinth for not dealing with those in sin showing the responsibility and accountability they bore before God and one another for such things.
The next area for which the congregation is responsible is in the work of ministry (Eph. 4:11-16). We have already seen that pastors are responsible for equipping the church, but they do so for the purpose that the church, the congregation, would be able and would do the work of ministry. Pastors are the spiritual leaders of the church and are responsible for much before God and the church but they are not expected to do it all, for they are not able to do it all and they were never meant to do it all. The congregation is taught, trained, and counseled by the ministry of pastors according to the Word, not to merely be served but that they may teach, train (disciple), and counsel others according to the Word.
Another area of responsibility is the congregation’s command to submit to their pastors (Heb. 13:17). This makes sense when you understand that they are bearers of Christ’s delegated authority to care for and serve you, so you submit to your pastors as unto the Lord, not because they are lords. They are mere men who God has given a weighty responsibility and are fallible, which leads to the next thing for which congregation is responsible: pastoral accountability. The pastoral submission mentioned above is not calling for blind or negligent submission but with it comes pastoral accountability, meaning that the congregation has the responsibility to hold their pastors accountable for fulfilling their responsibilities faithfully and honoring those who do so or rebuking those who persist in sinning by not being faithful (1 Tim. 5:17-20). Again, with these responsibilities for each group comes the authority from God by His Word to do these things. The previous two groups (pastors and deacons) bear the responsibilities of this category as well but are given more responsibilities and are therefore accountable for more before God and the church, but each will have to give an account before God for what they were responsible for in this life in the church (Rom. 14:12).
These things are the key to a healthy church – everybody doing what God has called them to do according to the Word: pastors leading with the Word as Christ would have them, deacons serving the daily needs of the church, and the congregation doing the work of ministry unto one another. This is a high calling. It is a calling to die to ourselves, our traditions, and our wisdom and a call to follow Christ, and it is there that we will find life, grace, and joy forevermore. That is church.
So when you ask the question, “Who’s in charge here?” the right answer is Christ. It is His church and we would do well to listen to how He would have us carry things out. Anything more would be a questioning of His wisdom and grace and anything less would be mockery.
* Note: this has been an attempt to discuss what God’s Word says concerning the structure of His church and how He, in His wisdom, would have it function. It is recognized that there are groups not mentioned above (e.g. committees or councils) as those who have taken on responsibility and authority in a church that may exist in the church or denomination in which you are a member. This is due to the fact that they are not recognized as such in Scripture and are therefore only legitimate if they do not take on or exercise the responsibilities or authority of one of the God-ordained groups mentioned above and if they do not hinder those groups from fulfilling those responsibilities for which they are accountable. This is not a matter of interpretation for it is a product of clear revelation, nor is this a matter of tradition, for those even vary in the same circles over generations, but biblical faithfulness unto God. If the church cannot pick up the Word of God to find its identity and instruction, it has little reason to bear the name “church” or of the One who purchased it.