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Who’s In Charge, Anyway?

Pastor Tim Bixby prepared the following in brochure format for his church, Cleveland Park Bible Church, in Spartanberg, SC. Tim has the dubious distinction of being my brother and, in my brotherly opinion, his preaching is one of the best kept secrets in the greater Greenville area.

Who’s In Charge, Anyway?
Authority in the Local Church
Pastor Tim Bixby

Cleveland Park Bible Church operates under the firm conviction the Christ is the Head of the Church, which is His body (Eph 1:22; 4:4, 12, 16; 5:30). But what do we mean when we call Him our “Head”?

Though the image of Christ as the Head of the Church is used to teach several important lessons, the primary one is that Christ has absolute authority.

Colossians 1:18 states clearly that besides being the image of God, the Firstborn over all creation, and the Creator and Lord of the universe, “He (Christ) is the head of the body, the church.” The context emphasizes, not some organic relationship between the Head and the body (though this exists) but His supremacy. Christ is the Sovereign Leader of the Church.

John Calvin, a careful expositor of Scripture, says of Colossians 1:18:

“Some consider that many things are included under the word “head.” And certainly [the Holy Spirit] later uses the same metaphor in [other senses]…. Here, however, in my opinion, he speaks chiefly of government. He shows, therefore, that it is Christ who alone has authority to govern the Church, that it is He to whom alone believers should look and on whom alone the unity of the body depends…. As Christ claims for Himself this title, so He truly exercises the office.”

That last sentence is important. This Headship is not just a title Christ assumes, but a role that He actively fulfills even today.

Christ’s active authority over the Church is also taught in Ephesians 5:21-24 where Christ’s Headship is pictured in the human institution of marriage. “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore (because of this headship) as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.”

Here, as in Colossians, headship equals authority. However, while the husband’s headship is delegated, Christ’s is sovereign.

Just as Christ is the Head of the body universal, so He is Head of the body local. This is one reason that we as a local church can be independent of any denominational authority. Christ is the Head of Cleveland Park Bible Church. This Headship is not only His official title, but, as mentioned above, His active role. Christ actively exercises authority over this local assembly!

Having answered the question, “Who’s in charge?”, the question remains, “How do we submit to the One who’s in charge?”

    How Do We Actively Practice the Headship of Christ over the Church?

We believe that Christ actively exercises His Headship of the local church:

* through inerrant revelation given in His Word,
* through guidance given in answer to prayer,
* through the leadership of Godly men, and
* through the endorsement of a Spirit-filled congregation.

With that in mind, we may actively practice the Headship of Christ over His church in the following ways.

By obeying His Word

If the Headship of Christ means anything, it certainly means that when His Word (the Bible) addresses an issue, we obey the command!

If our Head tells us how to run our church, we had better obey Him! If He tells us who qualifies for leadership and who does not, we cannot not dismiss His Word. If He tells us what doctrinal truths to hold, we must hold them. We don’t vote on doctrine. We submit to God’s doctrine.

When a question or issue comes up in our church, we need to have our minds preformatted to ask, “Does the Bible say anything about this?” And if it does, that’s the final word!

By Praying

We must always resort to prayer—real, serious, humble prayer, praying that the Spirit of God will guide us. This necessity is consistently illustrated in the life of the early church (Acts 1:14, 24; 2:42; 4:31; 6:6; 12:5;13:3; 14:23, etc.). Prayer is an admission of our need of guidance, and of our willingness to follow the guidance given.

By Submitting to Godly Leadership

The Scripture is clear on this point as well: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17).

Just as God has delegated authority to husbands over their wives and to parents over their children, so He has delegated authority to certain men over the local church. The limits and functions of the authority is different in each case, but the principle remains the same. The church is not a democracy. Because the identity and function of the men in leadership over the local church is so important, this topic is discussed separately in another pamphlet.

By Depending on Congregational Endorsement

Congregational endorsement is mentioned last, because it is the least emphasized in Scripture (being illustrated rather than explicitly taught) and thus the least significant of the four steps to practicing the Headship of Christ. It is nonetheless important.

Congregational endorsement is illustrated in several places in Scripture. One example is found in Acts 15 where the great Jerusalem council was called to discuss the issue of Gentiles and circumcision. The Scripture records that at the end of the council, a letter was sent to the churches to inform them of the council’s conclusion. “It seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch … And they sent this letter by them, ‘The apostles and the brethren who are elders … ’” (NASB). Notice that it was the apostles and ruling elders who actually sent the letter, because the authority of the conclusion rested with them (v.23). However, the Scripture is careful to point out that the letter, and thus its content, was endorsed by the whole congregation (v.22). Following this model, we can say that in issues the Scripture does not directly address, we ought first to pray, then to submit to the leadership of Godly men, all the while depending on the endorsement of a Spirit-filled congregation.

If God is capable of leading a group of elders, is He not capable also of leading the entire congregation? Congregational participation and endorsement are essential to the direction of the church in general and to matters of great importance in particular. If the leadership of this local church makes a recommendation and then brings it before the congregation for a vote, it is not to ask the congregation what it wants. It is because the leadership believes that the Spirit of Christ (who is our Head) can lead and direct our assembly through the congregation! In other words, we believe that the Spirit of Christ can confirm His leading through the endorsement of the whole congregation.


Back to the central issue: Christ is the Head of this church. We must acknowledge that fact in every situation. And He actively exercises His Headship over Cleveland Park Bible Church through His Holy Word, through the guidance He gives us in answer to prayer, through the leadership of Godly men, and through the endorsement of a Spirit-filled congregation.

We want it to be obvious to all who’s in charge at Cleveland Park Bible Church. It is not the pastor, not the board of elders, not the congregation, but Christ! Christ is in charge!

4 Responses

  1. Good article. I’m curious as to what “the guidance given” means under the prayer heading. Does God mystically speak to us when we pray, or are we referring to guidance from His Word, His leaders, or what?

    Also, it seems that the issue of congregational endorsement is fuzzy at best in Scripture. It could be endorsement, or simply a response of pleasure to godly leadership. It seems that God didn’t/couldn’t lead in the nation Israel (I know, I know, Israel is not the church). Regardless, the congregational endorsement for Israel was often opposite of the leadership (“Let’s head back to Egypt” or “Let’s not go into the Promised Land”). The picture of a shepherd also appears to be a purposeful metaphor that emphasizes the wayward tendencies of sheep.

    Also, under congregational endorsement, the Bible doesn’t seem to tell us just how this endorsement (yet to be proven as a formal affirmation) took place. Saying that an action or solution pleased any group is not the same as an endorsement.

    Good stimulation. Thanks.

  2. Kevin, thanks for the comments.

    I have already decided to change some of the wording. First, while I myself don’t understand the relationship between human prayer and Sovereign Providence (“He shall direct your steps”), I don’t want my people staying up at night listening for voices. An additional comment is in order there. Thank you. Also, I understand the confusion of saying that God “leads” through “endorsement.” I’m going to change that to “God confirms His leading” through “endorsement.” Thanks again.

    Following are some additional comments in response to what you said.

    First, let me address your comments on Israel. You seemed to minimize the importance of “congregational endorsement” in the nation of Israel because of the fact that it was so often opposed to the Sovereign leading of God (“Let’s head back to Egypt” or “Let’s not go into the Promised Land”). Opposition to divine authority does not as such constitute an argument against the importance of “congregational endorsement.” Even the leadership was often opposed to the Sovereign leading of God (“Let’s build a golden calf … Behold your god!”). The failure of the leaders in OT Israel only serves to prove the importance of leadership. We may say the same of “congregational endorsement.” Was it the choice of the “leadership” or the “congregation” to turn back at Kadesh-barnea? And were the 40 years of wilderness wonderings solely a question of “failed leadership” or God’s punishment on a lack of “congregational endorsement”? It seems that “congregational endorsement” was not only significant but determinative in that event (i.e. the next 40 years of Israeli history was determined, not by the direction of the leadership, but by the reaction of the congregation). Granted, this example is a negative one directed at one specific argument you brought up and does not prove that Christ can confirm His leading through the endorsement of a Spirit-filled NT congregation. It does, however, prove that the congregation, just like the leadership, was held responsible for the direction of the nation when it failed to respond in faith.

    You said, “The picture of a shepherd also appears to be a purposeful metaphor that emphasizes the wayward tendencies of sheep.” Every “undershepherd” is also himself a “sheep” and thus has an inner proclivity toward “the wayward tendencies of sheep.” I do not believe that the picture of a shepherd (when applied to a human leader) describes any “tendencies” at all, but rather function. While as a leader I may function as a shepherd, I have the nature of a sheep. The many “one another’s” of Scripture testify to the necessity of mutual ministry (loving, encouraging, rebuking, etc.) practiced without regard to the question of leadership. I am opposed to any distinction between me and my people (whether rank, importance, inclinations, etc.) except for that of function.

    You said, “It could be endorsement, or simply a response of pleasure to godly leadership..” Acts 15:22 uses the same verb of affirmation for all three groups present: the apostles, the elders and “the whole church.” If it was “simply a response of pleasure to godly leadership” on the part of the whole church, than it was “simply a response of pleasure to godly leadership” on the part of the apostles and elders. In my opinion, the verse is clearly saying that the congregation’s pleasure was not in the leadership, but that the congregation, along with the apostles and elders, found pleasure in the decision to “choose men from among them to send to Antioch.”

    I believe one of the strongest arguments for the necessity of “congregation endorsement” is the practice of church discipline. The authority for church discipline lies, not with the leadership, but with “the church.” Matthew 18:17-18 says, “And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile… Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” “You” cannot be the elders since there is no discussion of leadership in this passage.

    It is significant that Paul in his letter to the Corinthians urges the church in general, not the elders in specific, “when you are assembled” to “clean out the old leaven” (1 Cor. 5:4, 7). Paul says to the church, “Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority” (2 Cor. 2:6). The church is not a group of elders/pastors/overseers, plus a bunch of members along for the ride. The church is a body, and so must move and act as a body. True, God has given to the body human leadership but for “the body” to be effective, there must be congregational endorsement.

  3. I think the Scriptures teach a Spirit-filled followship that is sometimes lost in all the emphasis today on leadership. Mark Dever made the point in one of his lectures on ninemarks.org that while we need to strive for good leadership, we must also remember that one sad problem these days is an inability to follow. This too is sinful.

    The Spirit of God does lead/compel people to follow.

    That the leaders took the lead in Israel, that the people offered themselves willingly, bless the Lord (Judges 5:2 ESV)!

    Then the Spirit clothed Amasai,chief of the thirty, and he said, “We are yours, O David, and with you, O son of Jesse! Peace, peace to you, and peace to your helpers! For your God helps you.” Then David received them and made them officers of his troops (1 Chronicles 12:18 ESV)


  4. Tim/Bob,

    Very good, stimulating comments.

    Tim –

    I concur with much of your response. I’m not sure that I can buy into the idea that God confirms anything through circumstances, as any circumstance can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. How do you go about evaluating whether a congregation is obeying or disobeying God by endorsing leadership that may or may not be correct? There’s no standard when you place endorsement as part of the approval process. Either the Word is or isn’t “it”, in my opinion (and it’s really where you started). Everything else is subjective evaluation, and is open to faulty interpretation.

    Regarding congregational endorsement, to me, even your example shows the weakness of the whole idea. Endorsement is wholly dependent upon whom the congregation decides to endorse (good or bad leaders), and thus isn’t really an endorsement that verifies or qualifies, but simply a choice of obedience (more along the lines of Bob’s “followership”). Endorsement proves nothing – it simply indicates the direction the congregation has decided to go – whom they have decided to follow, whether good or bad.

    I’ve not nailed everything down in this area – I’ve simply seen where too much emphasis has been placed on what the congregation thinks (or even on what the shepherd[s] think), rather than on what the Bible says. The Bible does not teach majority rule, as you indicate, but the rulership of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is not endorsed, but obeyed, really.

    Congregations are responsible to God, as are their shepherds. It is not the shepherd’s responsibility to create direction, but to lead the people to follow what God has directed.

    It does appear in Scripture that much is dependent upon the shepherds, as sheep having no shepherd is presented as tragic. The sheep need shepherds, but good ones. That doesn’t make shepherds infinite, all-knowing, etc. (and they are of the sheep, not above the sheep, as you have indicated). They are given to the congregation to fill that role (Eph 4) – appointed by God (probably out of God’s good sense of humor for many, including myself, I’m guessing).

    I agree wholly with the concept that the church is a body, and it functions as a unit, as the Bible teaches. It does, however, function with leadership, not without. You cannot separate the two or diminish the role of leadership (anymore than you can overemphasize the role of leadership, for that matter).

    Leaders lead from the Scriptures. It is not their position but their responsibility that is the essence of their existence. They are given to the church to lead in light of the Scriptures.

    I believe that congregational input and cooperation would be involved, but not necessarily “endorsement” (maybe I’m just hung up on the word).

    Time limits my responses. You have given good thoughts to consider. I will evaluate further and respond as time permits.

    Thank you for the stimulation!

    — Kevin

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