Larry Kirkpatrick

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The Most Dangerous Form of Church Governance

Jesus Builds His Church

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus said He would build His Church. He has built His Church on the twofold foundation of the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:19-22; Luke 11:49; Ephesians 3:5; 2 Peter 3:2; Revelation 18:20). A Church has members, and today most of us are members. When there are members, there is a need to see that things are done in an orderly way.

God always planned for a holy kingdom, and today, you and I have the privilege of being its citizens. Exodus 19:5, 6 tells us that this is God's purpose. His purpose has never changed. His purpose for the church is that we will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. But who ever heard of a nation without order, or a priesthood without a plan? So, just as all the way through the Bible God wanted His people to be guided by Him and to work together toward the goals that He has set for His people, the same is true for you and I today. We are to press together and to move in order. But how?

Forms of Church Governance

There are various forms of church governance.

Episcopal governance vests most authority in clergy; church members have very little say. Congregational or Presbyterian governance places most authority in congregations, with less for individuals or groupings of congregations. It is a congregationalist model. In these models, if many clergy or many congregations can be turned in the wrong direction, control over the whole body is easily achieved; the enemy of truth wins.

I want to describe to you today our form, your form, of church governance. It is the Adventist form. It is called representational. We will conclude by determining which of these forms is the most dangerous, how it is dangerous, and to whom it is most dangerous.


Some might consider this kind of message not to be relevant. Who cares about the minutia of denominational religious organization? Preach Jesus. Jesus is the main thing. Let's make the main thing the main thing. But the only way we can make Jesus the main thing, is to begin by taking those steps which will enable us to make Jesus the main thing.

A denomination has churches, schools, clergy, teachers, and administrators. It has some plan for determining what it sees to be as truth and what is taught in its churches. What is authoritative in a Church? Is it tradition? Is it current mainstream religious thought? Is it the opinion of the current group which has control? Or, is it truly the Bible which is authoritative? Whichever basis for authority is chosen, that is what determines which Jesus is preached (2 Corinthians 11:2-4).

Everything has an attack surface. Very few burglars break through a roof or tunnel under a building to gain entrance. They almost always enter through windows or doors. A building with 18 doors and windows has an attack surface of 18 doors and windows. An attack surface or vector is a means of gaining entrance into a valuable or strategic or protected area. In the case of the Church, Satan wants to get his agents into authoritative positions where they can influence others so that a false picture of Jesus and of Christianity is presented.

The ultimate case of a centralized, narrow attack vector is the papacy, which centers most church authority in one person, the pope. How is that church doing on issues of truth?

And since how a Church is governed determines the message it preaches, the fact that the Church is one of only a very few remaining countercultural forces opposing secularism, we must be especially careful to preserve its witness (James 4:4). The world needs a Church that thinks right about what Christianity is. Take away sound doctrine and the Church will become merely a tool, just another agent for reshaping societal values in the wrong direction.

All of which is to say that it is critically important that the Church gets God's plan for itself right.

A Represenative Church

To the Bible now! 1 Timothy 3:15:

"I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."

We've looked at this text before. The Church is the survey marker; it marks the edges, the boundaries, the corners, of truth. The world does not mark the boundaries; the Church marks them. God's Church is also the ground, the basis, the foundation of, the source-place for truth. It is the fountain.

The Church is special:

"From age to age, through successive generations, the pure doctrines of heaven have been unfolding within its borders" (Acts of the Apostles, p. 12).

That is special. Pure doctrines. Where? In the Church!

"It" sounds antiseptic, impersonal. The Church is not "it"; you and I are the Church. "We" are "it." Now hear these helpful lines to understand how your church works:

The Seventh-day Adventist form of governance is representative, which recognizes that authority rests in the membership and is expressed through duly elected representatives at each level of organization, with executive responsibility delegated to representative bodies and officers for the governing of the Church at each separate level. . . .every conference, every institution, every church, and every individual, either directly or through representatives, has a voice in the election of the men who bear the chief responsibilities in the General Conference. . . . In Seventh-day Adventist Church structure, no organization determines its own status, nor does it function as if it had no obligations to the Church family beyond its boundaries (Church Manual, pp. 26-27).

That's not the Bible or Ellen White. It's the Church Manual, but it states the facts well. In the Seventh-day Adventist Church, "authority rests in the membership." Pastors and church officers have a degree of authority, but authority "rests" in the Church quite specifically, that is, in you, the members. So when the Bible says the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth, realize that that does not mean just the pastors, not just the evangelists, not just the conference presidents. Much more, it means that the Church looks to you, its members, to be serious Christians, to follow the Bible, and to see to it that the whole Church follows the Bible. The Church distributes authority as widely as possible, vesting it in every single individual member of the body. Ultimately, it all traces back to you and through you to God.

Local Church

Each of you who is a member of this local church has a vote. You exercise your authority when you elect church officers. And so, all of the members of the church board (except the pastor) are elected by you. They represent you. The church board can act only because of the authority you delegate to it when you elect its members. In the church business meeting you express your authority by direct vote.

Before we enter into the main worship service we have a brief time for announcements, and sometimes during that period we ask you to vote on membership transfers, or, to elect officers between the normal election times. Those votes are basically miniature business meetings.

Local Conference

So as a local church, you have these three kinds of things: members, the church board, and the church business meeting. Each of these has an echo in the way the conference is arranged. Your local church has the member, the board, and the business meeting. Your conference is like a church in which local churches are the members. Delegates elected by those local churches elect the committee that nominates persons to serve on the conference executive committee. The conference executive committee is like a church board, but for the whole conference.

The conference nominating committee also nominates persons to serve as conference officers, such as the conference president. He is the chairman of the board for the conference executive committee. Every four years, the churches elect delegates who meet for a conference-wide business meeting that is called a constituency meeting.

The conference executive committee functions between constituency sessions. It is like a church board, which functions between the election of officers. The actions of the conference executive committee are undertaken on the basis of authority which rests ultimately in you, which you have delegated to the representatives who elect them.

Our conference is made up of 112 churches. Our conference and five others make up the Union. The union is a lot like a conference but it also manages the university, in our case, Walla Walla University.

members = local church = conference
board = executive committee = executive committee
business meeting = constituency meeting = constituency meeting

There are more committees and more details, but these are the basics. All of it is rooted in the individual member in the local church: you and me. The authority rests in the membership. You and I have the authority, and we act directly and we delegate authority to others who act for us.

The farther away the authority moves from you and your local church, the less it seems like people are acting in your authority. Sometimes things in the church begin to function wrong. We need to realize that all of our leaders serve ultimately only by authority vested in them by you, the members. If things go wrong, ultimately, the authority is yours, and there are legitimate ways you can take corrective action. We should not throw up our hands in frustration. We should realize that in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the members are the authority. The Church trusts the members to be God-led and the members never give up or give away that ultimate authority. In the end the power to support current leaders or to change them is in your hands. This Church is different. Each of us has an experience, and we should care enough to have a right experience in Jesus and to help our conference have a right experience also so that it can advance God's mission for His people in this special time.

So you should take your church membership very seriously. You should take the officer positions entrusted to you very seriously. You should take the election of church officers and of delegates, and of conference officers, very seriously. You are making these people your representatives and you are vesting them with the authority which God has vested in you.

The Pastor

Then there is the pastor. The pastor is appointed by the conference. You cannot fire me. The conference can fire me. You cannot force me to move. The conference can force me to move. The pastor is to work with his local church. The pastor has much to say about how things are in a church, but if a congregation complains loudly enough, the conference will move the pastor. A conference leadership team which is unresponsive to its churches will face the authority of their members in the constituency meeting.

The pastor is a bridge between the conference and the local church. He has one vote in the board meeting just like everyone else. The pastor chairs the board meeting. He sets the agenda but he cannot make motions; only the other members can make motions, moving the board to action. The pastor is bound by the vote of the church board. The board is bound by the actions of the church in constituency meeting. The authority of the pastor is limited. There should be teamwork. "We must move discretely, sensibly, in harmony with the judgment of God-fearing counselors; for in this course alone lies our safety and strength. . . . in this work there is no such thing as every man's being independent" (Testimonies to Ministers, p. 489).

We should remember, especially with reference to workers in conference leadership, that they are under enormous pressures. We need to find mercy and gentleness when we might disagree with them. Listen: "Let us all remember that we are not dealing with ideal men, but with real men of God's appointment, men precisely like ourselves, men who fall into the same errors that we do, men of like ambitions and infirmities" (Testimonies to Ministers, p. 495). No president or committee has license to move in opposition to God's Church. But we should pray for even errant leaders.

No Part of the Church Determines its Own Status

The other key point we quoted was that "no organization determines its own status" and that every part has "obligations to the church family." We are not a collection of independent atoms; we work together. None put things clearer than Ellen White:

The Lord in His wisdom has arranged that by means of the close relationship that should be maintained by all believers, Christian shall be united to Christian and church to church. Thus the human instrumentality will be enabled to co-operate with the divine. Every agency will be subordinate to the Holy Spirit, and all the believers will be united in an organized and well-directed effort to give to the world the glad tidings of the grace of God (Acts of the Apostles, p. 164).

Church is connected to church. How? Most especially through the delegates elected. This is how the early Church solved its problems:

"The companies of believers, though scattered over a large territory, were all members of one body; all moved in concert and in harmony with one another. When dissension arose in a local church, as later it did arise in Antioch and elsewhere, and the believers were unable to come to an agreement among themselves, such matters were not permitted to create a division in the church, but were referred to a general council of the entire body of believers, made up of appointed delegates from the various local churches, with the apostles and elders in positions of leading responsibility. Thus the efforts of Satan to attack the church in isolated places were met by concerted action on the part of all, and the plans of the enemy to disrupt and destroy were thwarted" (Acts of the Apostles, pp. 164, 165).

Summary and Conclusion

God has placed in trust to us His remarkable institution, the Church. Ultimately, the Church, capital C, is made up of the churches, small c, the local churches, churches just like Deer Park church.

Sometimes it seems like we have no say, like strange things happen in the Church and we can;t do anything about that. This brings us back to the questions at the beginning:

  1. Which form of church governance is the most dangerous?
  2. How is it dangerous?
  3. To whom it is most dangerous?

Answers: The most dangerous form of church governance is the Adventist form, the representative form. It is most dangerous in the sense that it is the most difficult kind for Satan to successfully corrupt. It calls church members to have the highest spiritual tone, to care about the local congregation where they hold membership, and to hold accountable conference, union, and division officers who represent them.

There are dangers. Members may fail to fulfill their responsibilities. They may not see the importance of faithful service. Another danger is that pastors and conference officers may abuse their privileges or exceed their authority. We are warned: "The church is God's fortress, His city of refuge, which He holds in a revolted world. Any betrayal of the church is treachery to Him who has bought mankind with the blood of His only-begotten Son" (Acts of the Apostles, p. 11).

Can "the pure doctrines of heaven" unfold in the Church? If we take our privileges and responsibilities seriously, they can and will, and God will set His house in order. But in His wisdom He has chosen to call each of us to be part of a remarkable form of church governance, and yes, the most dangerous form. The authority is distributed by heaven to each of you as members, and to you is entrusted the work of appointing faithful leaders.

Jesus is building His Church. Let's be faithful workers with Him in this mighty task Heaven has entrusted to us. Let's pray for our leaders and treat them fairly. Let's hold ourselves accountable and hold them accountable. Then God can and will bless His people.


Deer Park WA SDA 2016-12-17