I am asked occasionally whether there are biblical/theological principles that justify the existence of church boards and the role of the chair. This is an important question. Usually it arises because someone is concerned that all of this talk about church boards is based upon ideas brought into the church from outside. In other words, the very existence of church boards smacks of business influence, i.e. something alien to the essence of a New Testament church. The suggestion that a church board chair has a significant role to play in the health and leadership of a local church, similarly may be disturbing because the New Testament does not specifically mention such a church leadership function.
Further, different models of board governance are now proposed in the non-profit society world and churches have to think carefully about which model will cohere most adequately with their theological and other values.
Many people study “ecclesiology”, i.e. the theology of the church, as it is expressed in Scripture and contextualized in many diverse cultures around the world. However, few stop to think about the theological principles that have led some kinds of churches (primarily evangelical churches in North America) to adopt a governance structure that includes a board and board chair.
In responding to these kinds of questions, I think we must realize that the New Testament has very little to say about the way a local church organizes itself to accomplish its mission. Certainly a recognized leadership group is present, comprised of people termed “overseers” and “deacons”. The word “elder” also seems to describe some or all of the leaders in a local church. Within this group some will function more specfically as “pastors”. This spiritual leadership cares for, teaches, protects and encourages the congregation. Contexts such as 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15; 1 Timothy 3; Titus 1; 1 Peter 5:1-7; and selected portions in Acts provide us with this data. Occasionally Paul will talk generally about the nature of the church and its collaborative, interdependent activities (e.g. Ephesians 4, Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 11-14).
Some of the house churches in the early days of Christianity seem to have a plurality among their leadership (e.g. consider the church at Antioch in Acts 13:1-3). What decisions this leadership group made and on what basis the congregation was brought into decision-making remains unclear. Paul urges the Corinthian church collectively to exercise discipline (1 Corinthians 5-6). The Jerusalem church together with its elders and representatives from the Antioch church discuss and come to decision about the matter of Gentile Christians (Acts 15). Similarly in Acts 6 the apostles, together with the Jerusalem church discern a solution to the dispute about fair care for all widows in the church. Galatians 2:1-10 may also suggest that in some cases specific leadership groups met to discern God’s direction.
When you study these texts and examples of church leadership, you will discern some principles, but also that considerable flexibility existed. Qualifications for people to participate as spiritual leaders in the church are provided. Some stories suggest that the leadership group took care to include the congregation in the final decision, when major issues were under consideration. Beyond these elements, the Holy Spirit seems to have let the good sense and wisdom of the leadership develop effective means to advance the church’s mission, with some attention paid to the cultural patterns in their context, providing the essence of the church was not harmed.
For example, it is probable that in some cases Jewish Christians adapted some aspects of synagogue life and leadership as a pattern to guide the development of messianic assemblies. In the Greco-Roman world “societies” were common, regulated by specific laws, but organized for many different reasons, some of which were religious in nature. In other words so long as the theological principles defining the nature of the Messiah’s new people and its leadership were sustained, different organizational arrangements were possible.
I would suggest that the situation is similar today. In Canada, most evangelical churches have a leadership group defined as pastor/elders, or deacons, or a mixture of these offices. In recent decades as well most of these churches are defined as non-profit charitable agencies, organized in accordance with government regulations for such entities. Maintaining the theological principles expressed in the New Testament concerning the nature of the church, church leadership and congregational relations, while operating within these government regulations does pose some challenges. For example, there is some tension between the church as faith-community and the church as organization. However, this form of contextualized church governance does enable the church to appoint and enjoy the benefit of spiritual leadership described in the New Testament, while at the same time taking full advantage of the benefits offered by being a non-profit charitable ministry agency. So long as the leadership understands the essence of the church and is aware of the primacy of the spiritual care and mission essential to the church, then the kind of governance pattern required for a non-profit charity can fit within the institutional life of a local church.
Now, there is no necessity for a church to organize itself as a non-profit, charitable society in Canada. However, it has advantages related to taxation, legal liability, and other matters. Providing a local church is able to accomplish its spiritual work by adopting and using such a structure, then theologically it may be appropriate. Should a local church decide to constitute itself differently, then it still has to sort out issues of leadership, authority and governance. Additionally, as a church grows in size, the governance patterns will have to be defined more carefully.
If a local church does decide to function as a non-profit, charitable society, then the role of the board and its chair needs to be acknowledged. Personally, I do not believe that this awareness detracts from congregational authority, the ability of pastoral leadership to fulfill its spiritual ministry, nor the opportunity for the church board to consider all of its work as spiritual work necessary for sustaining and deepening the spiritual health of a local church. Again I would emphasize, the spiritual leaders have to ensure in all of this that the nature of the church as the body of Christ is not compromised, but rather enabled to flourish.
Given that a local church board forms an essential spiritual leadership body in a local church, then the role of the chair in guiding such a body takes on certain significance. The chair usually will be one of the elders or deacons appointed by the congregation as board members and thus recognized as gifted, mature, and spiritually wise. The chair, in facilitating this group of spiritual leaders in a local church, has a responsibility to serve as elder or deacon in an exemplary way. Further, a board chair must demonstrate certain kinds of giftedness, if the spiritual work of the board is to be done well. And finally, because this person chairs the ministry team in the church entrusted with the responsibility to advance the church’s mission, the chair possesses considerable spiritual influence in the life of the church.
If you serve in the leadership of a church in a region of the world other than Canada, then you will need to contextualize the principles of church leadership and governance in ways appropriate to your culture.