Hierarchical Church Government Defended:  A Brief Reply to Dave Havir


Eric V. Snow


                Since Dave Havir has recently launched (May 31, 2000) a broadside against hierarchical church government, some brief reply is necessary by someone who cares to defend the so-called “class system” he decries.  Since the political model the New Testament upholds is altruistic paternalism, not egalitarian democracy, all attempts to defend congregationalism are inevitably unscriptural. 


                Under the model of self-sacrificing paternalism, the leaders are to rule/manage those underneath for the latter’s benefit, not their own.  True, it’s easy to be cynical about paternalism, and say those in charge will be abusive, selfish, etc.  But the New Testament uses this model for family relationships.  For example, the husband has authority over his wife, but who in return is supposed to have agape (self-sacrificing) love for his wife (Col. 3:18-19): “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.  Husbands, love your wives, and do not be embittered against them.”  A similar unequal relationship is supposed to exist between parents and children, in which parents sacrifice and provide for their children but their children are to obey them in return (Col. 3:20-21): “Children, be obedient to your parents in all things, for this is well-pleasing to the Lord.  Fathers, do not exasperate your children, that they may not lose heart.”  And  I Tim. 5:8 adds to husbandly/parental responsibilities: “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever.”


                Many will object, saying that because various elders/pastors have been abusive in the past in the WCG, therefore, the whole hierarchical/”class” system has to be scrapped to prevent future abuses.  But there have also been many abusive and neglectful parents and husbands.  Does that mean the hierarchical structure of family relationships that God has commanded should be similarly discarded?  The concept of “servant leadership” is admirable suited to teaching pastors and elders to be self-sacrificing shepherds, but doesn’t fit so well congregationalism, under which the pastor has to conform to the wishes of most of his congregation, or he will be removed from his position.  His leadership role is inevitably stunted should anything especially controversial but ultimately good (“tough love”) needs to be done (such as giving strong, corrective sermons when necessary).


                Although Mr. Havir objects to “coercive hierarchy,” any congregationalist government has similar “coercive” power since a majority vote binds all in such a group.  Any who can’t live with the results have to leave.  Since Scripture has no case of a group of laymembers voting to remove or discipline an elder or pastor, but leaves that to other elders (such as Timothy was authorized by Paul to do in I Tim. 5:19-20), the practice is inherently unscriptural.  Although Acts 14:23 is often cited as an example of laymembers voting to ordain elders, in fact the “they” who “appointed elders for them” were Paul and Barnabas, as the preceding verses demonstrate.  An “election” by two individuals is hardly an “election”!


                Although full proof of this has to be left to my essay “Is an Ordained Ministry a New Testament Doctrine?,” (look for it at ), there are a number of texts that authorize a spiritual division of labor under which elders/pastors manage/rule the laity since they have the ability to teach more due to professional specialization and God’s spiritual gifts to them (cf. Rom. 10:14-15; Acts 8:30-31, 34-35; Eph. 4:11-16).  Only by highly dubious manipulations of the Greek can Hebrews 13:17 be evaded: “Obey your leaders, and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account.”  The Baur-Arndt-Gingrich Greek-English Lexicon plainly indicates that the NASB has correctly translated the most controversial word in this verse: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” 


                Hebrews 13:24 even authorizes a “class system” since it distinguishes the laity and leaders: “Greet all of your leaders and all of the saints.”  After all, as Paul notes about spiritual gifts, not all have the same function in the Body of Christ (I Cor. 12:28-30).  (Incidently, if the Corinthians had been independents, would they have rebelled against Paul for ordering them (I Cor. 14:9, 16-17, 23-33) to use their spiritual gifts in a particular manner, or even to suppress them, for the greater good of the church?)


                Note that Paul’s reasoning against women being made ministers is because spiritual teachers intrinsically have authority over others in the faith (I Tim. 2:11-12): “Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness.  But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.” Titus was told he had authority as well (Titus 2:15): “These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority.  Let no one disregard you.”  The Pharisaical party had no choice but to accept the decrees of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 16:4): “Now while they were passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees, which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe.” 

Don’t these texts alone show a “class system” (i.e., a distinction in position) exists within the church?


                Although Mr. Havir cites I Sam. 8:6-22 as a point showing God will accept and work through a less-than-perfect form of government among men that they want, it’s actually much better used against congregationalism.  How so?  Notice that Israel wanted to be like all the other nations in having a king to lead them (vs. 19-2).  What is congregationalism other than the church adopting the form of human government that’s the most popular and respectable in the world around us today, especially in this country, which waged two world wars to further the cause of democracy?  The fundamental error of the congregationalists/independents is to read the world’s reigning political philosophy into Scripture, despite it  finds precious little support there.  Scripture has far more to say about obedience, self-sacrifice, and ruling than it does about voting, “doing your own thing,” or individual rights.  For proof, analyze these texts concerning citizens obeying their government (Rom. 13:1-7; Titus 3:1; I Pet. 2:13-15), slaves obeying their masters (Eph. 6:5-6; Col 3:22-23; I Pet 2:18-19), wives obeying their husbands (Eph. 5:22-24; I Pet. 3:1, 5-6), or children obeying their parents (Eph. 6:1).  There’s even hierarchy, or a “class system,” within the Godhead, since Jesus has to obey the Father (I Cor. 11:3; 15:27-28; Heb. 5:8) despite both are Perfect Beings.  If there’s hierarchy and ruling in the World Tomorrow, why should we assume it’s any different today (Luke 19:11-27; Matt. 25:14-30; Rev. 5:10; 2:26-27)?  True, we are authorized to disobey human authorities over us when they tell us to violate God’s law (Acts 4:19; 5:29), but just because we’re all equal in God’s sight spiritually (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11), doesn’t mean God has no human and societal relationships in which one set of people can order others what to do.  Such a texts as Matt. 20:25-28 or II Cor. 1:24 merely condemn or deny an ABUSIVE use of authority, or otherwise they would contradict other Scriptures,  since  human governments (Rom. 13:1-7 again) and pastors (I Cor. 5:3-5, 12-13) certainly have the God-given authority to command others to do things they don’t want to do.


                Given the reality that the New and Old Testaments teach a self-sacrificing paternalism as their model of government for human and societal relationships time and time again, only by the worst kind of manipulation of the meaning of the Greek can congregationalism be read into Scripture.  Mr.  Havir is quite right to point out many of Mr. Armstrong’s errors on church government, such as one-man rule and equating the church as a single corporate organization with the spiritual organism.  Nevertheless,  I submit (a fine word choice here) that much of the basis of Mr. Havir’s article on government has far more to do with the spirit of 1776 and 1789, or even Das Kapital (“class system”?),  than it has anything to do with what Scripture actually teaches about church government.