The Churches
of Christ

Norman L. Parks

The urbanization, industrialization, and technological transformation of the Sunbelt, the homeland of the Churches of Christ, have wrought profound changes in this religious body in keeping with the standards and mores of our modern business culture.

What are these changes? First and foremost, in terms of governance, the church has ceased to be a people and has become an institution and often a legal corporation with an authoritarian board of directors modeled after the business corporation. From a social organism, in which each member counts all others more worthy than himself, it has been remolded into an organization with a hierarchy of authority.

Once rural, poor, and liberal, with concerns for the oppressed, its leadership is now suburban, prosperous, and right-wing in ideology. The church's elders have become a non-biblical "eldership" - a collective body modeled after the corporate board of directors. In its collegiate capacity, like the Catholic College of Cardinals, it acts ex cathedra. In increasing numbers churches are being incorporated, and the incorporation charter, as is the case with the large and prosperous Central Church of Christ of Lubbock, Texas, may go so far as to arm the elders with absolute legal authority over the property and administration of the church and explicitly deny the members any voice in the affairs of the congregation.

In no way does the modern "eldership" reflect the model of leadership found in the New Testament. For example, the Apostles freely gave up an administrative responsibility to the seven elected by the Jerusalem church in order to devote full time to the more important role of teaching. The modern "eldership" has surrendered teaching in order to devote full time to administration and exercise of power. It is self-perpetuating, in spite of the wording in Acts that elders are to be elected "by show of hands" by the members. It appoints and fires deacons. It has absolute control of the church money and expends it without anybody’s permission. It determines who can and cannot participate in the activities of the church. The church building is its own property.

The extent to which the religious language is couched in the expressions of our business culture is reflected in an article by President William J. Teague of Abilene Christian University in Cornerstone , an ACU publication announcing the establishment of the College of Biblical Studies. Dr. Teague came to the university after a successful career as a corporate executive. Under the title "Leadership: The Elders," the article describes the role of the elders as one would describe the role of the corporate board. He begins by declaring, "A decision is made to appoint elders." Now appointing is a function of the executive, either singular or plural. The large body never appoints; it elects. The Greek language of the New Testament tells us that the members chose elders "by show of hands," that is, by voting. For all practical purposes today elders appoint elders.

What are the functions of elders? Dr. Teague tells us that the elder "directs, arranges, administers, and finalizes." One may search in vain for such words in the New Testament. Missing from Dr. Teague’s list are "teaches," "visits" "counsels," that is, "shepherds," which are biblical functions. It is not surprising to find "teaches" missing from a religion molded by our business culture, which puts emphasis on power, authority, management, and control.

The New Testament story of the great Jerusalem conference, which dealt with the question if Gentiles must follow the Law of Moses in order to be Christians, tells us that the entire church finalized that matter, for it reads "together with the whole church." Sadly today the members can finalize nothing. Jesus advised that as a last resort a brother should take his dispute with another brother "to the church." That has been interpreted today to mean "take it to the elders." Paul instructed the members to withhold their fellowship from a troublesome member. Today the "withdrawal of fellowship" is held to be the exclusive responsibility of the "eldership."

In no letter to a church did Paul repose responsibility for discipline on the elders. He rarely or never mentioned elders in dealing with church problems. In every case he places ultimate responsibility for creating the good church life on all the members. Today members are attendants rather than participants.

An example of the extremity to which the institutionalization of the church has taken us is found in the appellate brief of the elders of the Sixth and Izard church of Little Rock before the Arkansas Supreme Court. That church is incorporated. Three members sued to compel the elders to hold an election for the board of directors and to reveal the finances of the church to the members, as the Arkansas law requires. In their brief the elders claimed that God had placed all finances of the church in their hands and doctrine forbade them to release to the members such financial data as amount of income, salaries paid, or a public audit. A second claim was equally astounding. They declared that anybody who served in the church were servants of the elders, not servants of the church. Therefore they sought to bar the deacon who originally brought the suit from appearing in court on the grounds that as a servant of the elders he would be guilty of conflict of interest. In the same way his lawyer was to be barred for conflict of interest because when he had served as legal adviser to the church he was actually a servant of the elders.

The modern church as an organization or institution is a power structure, with power centered at the apex in the hands of the elders. As such it is wholly in conflict with the personal example of Jesus and the community he came to create. It is said that in coming Jesus "emptied himself." He emptied himself of what? The answer is all power and authority and made himself a servant, even unto death on a cross. The powerless Jesus set the example for his followers. His people are a purely voluntary community. He delegated authority to no man. The leaders in his community led by servant example and not by command. There is no place for power or authority in his church.

The modern hierarchical corporate power structure, which the church has taken for its model, is proving both inefficient and conflict-oriented. The pagan Japanese are proving that their business system which takes decision-making down to the bottom promotes both unity and efficiency. It is too bad that American business must learn from the pagan Japanese rather than the church. Clearly if we want a dynamic church we must return to the New Testament for our model.