Is the Church an Autocracy?

There are relatively few church members who push the “benevolent dictatorship” as a God-given model for the church. There are, however, quite a few pastors who seem to have a strong preference for that model. There are also more than a few church members who are willing to defend it if the particular pastor involved has been able to fill the building with people or generate other exciting “results.” Like other forms of church structure, this one needs to be examined in the light of Scripture.

Autocratic leadership is often the default position of churches that reject majority rule after having had it for a significant period of time. Those who have suffered under the tyranny of the majority are often ready to give the “right” leader all the responsibility and power just to end the strife. They have seen the negative consequences of giving control to people who are not spiritually qualified to lead; and now they are looking for another option. A good and proven leader is at the helm, and the church just gives him more and more authority until he has it all.

In other instances, men of less regal character maneuver themselves into the position of full individual authority because they want that kind of power. Churches have various reasons for allowing or even desiring such an arrangement. Those reasons often center on perceived results or simple convenience.

From an earthly perspective, autocratic churches sometimes seem to work well. However, the arrangement is not healthy for the church or for the leader involved. This approach is fraught with danger and should be avoided for the sake of everyone involved.

The Apostle John references one potential result of autocratic leadership in 3 John 9-10. He states, “I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say. For this reason, if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does, unjustly accusing us with wicked words; and not satisfied with this, neither does he himself receive the brethren, and he forbids those who desire to do so, and puts them out of the church.” Here was an autocratic leader who was out of control, refusing to be taught, isolating himself from believers and even excommunicating some of the faithful believers. One may well ask what can be done when a man who has been given all the power takes such a turn. Even with apostolic authority to rebuke this leader, this was clearly a difficult situation for John. It was even worse for the church. The problem might easily have been avoided if the church had refused to allow this man to put himself (or to be put) in a position of such unbalanced power.

The autocratic system of church polity is based on the idea that God has given to each church a single elder at a time. The lead pastor is said to be that exclusive elder. He is given sole elder authority to oversee the entire function of the church.

Elder authority is clearly taught in Scripture. Elders are to have actual power to lead, make decisions and control the general functioning of the church. What is not established as a standard of Scripture is for this authority to rest on one man only when it is possible to have multiple elders in a single church. Churches should pray and work toward having multiple elders who share the responsibility of oversight.

Rule by two or more elders working together in a single church is clearly established as the objective for New Testament churches. James 5:14 says, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” James use of the plural for elders and the singular for church. These words put together this way can only mean that there were two or more elders in the single church mentioned.

In Philippians 1:1, Paul writes, “Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons.” “Overseers” is a title used interchangeably in Scripture with the term “elder.” The church at Philippi had more than one overseer (a body of leaders distinct from the deacons).

In 1 Timothy 5:7, Timothy is instructed, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” Since Timothy was the lead pastor of a church, we may conclude that he was receiving instruction on how the elders (plural) were to be treated within the single congregation where he served. (The same situation applies in 1 Timothy 5:19-20). More than one elder per congregation is clearly the expected norm in Scripture.

What if you don’t have any elders?

If a church declines and looses elders in job transfers or death, is it no longer a biblical church when it gets down to one elder? Is it unbiblical to begin a new church with less than two elders? Is it possible for a church to embrace elder rule, but having no biblically qualified elders yet, to be a biblical church in spite of this lack?

The book of Acts provides definitive answers to all of these questions. In Acts 13 and 14, Paul preached in the cities of Lystra, Iconium and Antioch. Many people were saved in those places as God blessed the preaching of the gospel. Since no new convert is ever to be made an elder (1 Timothy 3:6), those new congregations had no elders for a time, Paul had moved on to new places of service without appointing elders, since no one was qualified. In Acts 14:21-23, we are told that Paul returned to those same cities and appointed elders for them in every one of their churches. Sufficient time had passed to observe who was gifted and qualified, and elders were appointed. But for a time, there were biblical churches which had no elders at all.

In new churches or struggling churches where no man, or only one man, is qualified to be an elder, the church need not disband or consider itself unbiblical over its lack of two or more elders. Special care must be taken until the leadership can rest on more than one man. This is a challenging time that carries specific dangers for a church. However, this temporary condition is not necessarily sinful. Men in the position of being the single elder of a small church must be careful to remain accountable to others. Seeking input from other biblical churches is a great help. By God’s grace, he carries his people through such times. Churches must trust God as they diligently pray for and seek to have biblically qualified elders to share the leadership load.

There is a significant distinction between a church that temporarily has fewer than two elders and a church that chooses an autocratic system of church government as an intentional objective. A period of development for raising up an elder body is a normal part of growth for a new church and may be a necessary part of strengthening an existing church. An intentionally autocratic system is not a normal or healthy condition for any church and will be rejected by wise leaders and wise church-members alike.