Church Government: The Negative Space in God’s Word

Tuesday Re-mix –

In the world of visual art, the use of “negative space” is important.  In any sculpture or painting, the artwork sometimes says as much by areas is doesn’t cover as it does by actually covering.

You and I would call it the “blank space” on the canvass, i.e., the area where the artist chose not to paint.  That space becomes an integral part of the art itself.  In fact, some might claim that the negative space the artist creates in a particular work is what makes the work perfect.

I have come to believe that part of the perfection of scripture, i.e., the Word of God, is the “negative space” it creates within its pages…parts of the story intentionally not told or clarified, left out for reasons only God knows.

For example, wouldn’t you like more details from Jonah about exactly what happened inside that fish for three days?  If you were telling that story, wouldn’t you include that?  Or what about Paul’s fight with Barnabas, or his confrontation of Peter?  Don’t you think the details of those conflicts would be worth knowing?  Or what about a single instance of Matthew 18:15 (Jesus’ model for how to conduct church discipline) actually modeled for us somewhere?  Wouldn’t that be helpful?

For reasons only God understands, these and countless other “details” were omitted from the telling of His story.  But rest assured, He does have his reasons.  This “negative space” in scripture is a part of its perfection, it is critical in creating exactly the Word which God has preserved so perfectly throughout the centuries.  In any of these instances, a little more detail might seem harmless enough at first blush, but would ultimately take away from the Word God intended.

A perfect example is the New Testament’s lack of any definitive form of church government.  Jesus started a revolution in the form of the church, one which would change the world forever (indeed, one which would last forever).  But when the opportunity came, perhaps in Paul’s writings or from pastor James, scripture is remarkably vague on any particular governmental infrastructure.  It talks about elders and shepherds and deacons, it talks about Spiritual gifts such as evangelist, teacher, or preacher, but it never comes right out and says exactly how a church government should look.  Doesn’t that seem odd to you?  If you were going to start a revolution, wouldn’t you put some time and thought into how to structure your cells?  But again, for reasons only God knows, the minimal directions scripture gives us in this area are perfect.  They give plenty of room for a people’s culture to “breathe” into their church’s process for discerning the mind of God.

I suppose this is why I do not get too caught up in the debates over church governing structures.  Elder systems, deacon bodies, committee structures, pastor-led governments, presbyteries, Papal systems, synods…there seems to be plenty of room in scripture for a variety of different “structures” for a people to (together) discern the will of God.  And that’s what church governance is for…to discern the will of God, together.

So if there is a spiritual problem in your local church and you are having a hard time rightly discerning the will of God as a church body, don’t start addressing that spiritual problem with a man-made solution, like institutional governing structure.  Believe me, that is not likely to be the solution.  Rather, spiritual problems need spiritual solutions.  I would check your church’s corporate prayer life, or your church’s appreciation for God’s Word, or your people’s willingness to seek and to find Christ in one another.  Don’t pull out your constitution and by-laws for solutions.  Pull out your Bible.  You’ll find the answers there…both in the words and in the negative space.

© Blake Coffee

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5 responses to “Church Government: The Negative Space in God’s Word”

  1. I have mixed feelings about this. You’re absolutely right that changing church government is usually not the solution to church problems. There may be better or worse ways of organizing your church, but prayer, Scripture study, and the practice of true Christian charity are infinitely more important.

    At the same time, I reject the idea that a doctrine has to be stated explicitly in a specific chapter and verse in order for it to be Bible doctrine. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, is a foundational Christian doctrine, but it is never stated in a complete form in any one passage of Scripture. I wonder if a similar case could be made for church government.

  2. Jacob- Of course, I agree that doctrine comes not only from the letter of the Word but also from the “spirit” of it, or “reading between the lines”, as it were. But my answer to your last quandary would be “no”, i.e., that no specific form of church government emanates from scripture. Offices (such as pastor, elder, deacon, etc.), yes…processes (such as building consensus in Acts 15), yes…but not specific infrastructures. In fact, it would not surprise me at all to find that, even within the original New Testament churches, there was some variation.

    I’m so glad for your comment! Thank you for continuing the conversation!

  3. How would you define “specific infastructure”? Let me lay my cards down. I’m Anglican. Our church is governed by bishops- we think that it’s those who are in the spiritual/ordained line that goes back to the apostles are the legitimate leaders of the Church. We don’t see it as necessary for salvation, and we don’t look down o nchurches that govern differently, but we do think that that is the way Scripture teaches that the Church should be governed.

    Beyond that, though, we’re pretty vague. Some bishops are very powerful and autocratic; some are just one part of a fundamentally democratic, congregational governing system. Some churches only allow ordained people (bishops or priests, maybe deacons) to lead churches; some make an active effort to equip and send out lay people to plant and pastor churches.

    Obviously this isn’t the place to debate episcopal government. But the distinction you made between “office” and “infrastructure” raises a really itneresting question. The New Testament *does* lay down specific offices that should be present in a church. At what point, though, do we move beyond offices recorded in Scripture to infrastructure that is optional or even perhaps unbiblical (as a Protestant, eg, I would say that Papal government is not only absent in Scripture, but actually opposed to Scripture)? I can’t say I have a complete answer to that myself, but like you, I’d prefer to err more on the side of flexibility.

  4. Jacob, I could not agree with you more. Nor could I say it as eloquently as you have said it here. Yes, churches and denominations and theologians have debated the exact meaning of the Greek words used in scripture for elders, shepherds, pastors, deacons, etc. for hundreds of years. The church governing systems we have today are our very best attempts to rightly interpret those words (i.e., those “offices”). Looking back at the amazingly Godly men and women on all sides of those debates, I can only conclude that reasonable and Godly minds can obviously differ. And if men like John Piper and N.T. Wright cannot agree on some of these issues, then I am pretty comfortable lining up in either camp and taking up my assignment in Christendom. Thank God for grace!