How should churches be structured and governed? I am aware that is probably not the most immediate question anybody asks when they rise in the morning- but churches do have to make decisions. So I wanted to write a couple of pieces to explain why I believe Woody Road’s approach is biblical- and not simply the way we happen to do things. I should stress that in writing this I am not aiming to convince those from a different church tradition that they might be wrong- this really is written with Woody Road regulars in mind.
Woody Road is a member of Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches. I am convinced that is the right place for us to be- not just because I like the present day manifestation of FIEC but primarily because to have a fellowship of independent evangelical churches appears to me to be biblical. Let’s look at each of the key words in turn.
The easiest thing to observe is that churches should be evangelical- holding fast to the Scriptures as we follow our Master who does the same. In his final letter the apostle Paul instructs Timothy to hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that has come to him with the help of the Holy Spirit. This Gospel message (evangel) comes from God and is His power to change the world. So to fail to be evangelical is not simply to belong to a different church tradition but to deviate from the plan of God and the teaching of the Lord Jesus.
It is undoubtedly more controversial, though, to insist that each local church should be independent- that is to say that there is to be no external or higher authority beyond the local church other than the Lord Himself. I do have to admit that fairly early in church history you see the existence of bishops- those with some degree of authority over and pastoral responsibility for a number of different local churches. However, that does not appear to be the pattern in the New Testament. Just before Christmas I enjoyed preaching on Acts 20 at Long Crendon Baptist Church where Paul meets the Ephesian elders. What is striking about the passage is the terminology applied to these figures- they are elders (v.17), overseers (v.28) and shepherds/pastors (v.28). This is one group fulfilling different functions. The pastor is not a different person to the overseer. The Greek for overseers is episkopos- and has often been traditionally translated as bishop. In the New Testament the bishop is an elder is a pastor- he is not a figure who is above the local church in any way. Titus 1 points us in a similar direction. Titus is told to complete the work of setting up a church plant in Crete. His final responsibility is to appoint elders for they are to hold the responsibility of governing (1 Timothy 5:17) the local church. This is striking. Obviously in the era of the apostles they did have an authority that crossed local church boundaries for they had been specifically commissioned to this task by the Lord Jesus Himself. However, as you head towards the era when the apostles are dying out it is striking that they do not seek the appoint a new generation with similar authority. Rather the burden of the pastoral epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus) is that the authority now resides in the Scriptures, which are to be taught by elders/overseers/pastors in the local congregation. There is to be no authority in the post-apostolic era outside the local church.
Over the last few years I have become increasingly convinced that this matters. My Anglican friends are forced to spend a fair amount of time concerned about the latest pronouncement of bishops. In other church contexts I have been aware of decisions made by external trustees, who inevitably will have fairly limited understanding of situations. Personally there is no way that I would want to make a decision about another church. All of that leaves me relieved that we are an independent church- free to choose how we conduct ourselves in line with the Scriptures. Obviously we are part of the FIEC at the moment- but they have no actual authority over us. If the national FIEC movement took a path with which we disagreed then we would be entirely free to leave without consequence. That is perfectly appropriate. Indeed I happen to think independents need to be less ashamed of arguing that this is the New Testament position.
This commitment does have a present day impact on us at Woody Road. We planted Grace Church Kidlington about 18 months ago. At the moment GCK isn’t technically independent- it runs under the auspices of Woody Road. However, from the outset we have been clear that this can only be a temporary measure because we believe in the independence of the local church. The next couple of years will see GCK make moves in that direction.
One of the reasons that we have tended to be shy about arguing for independency is that people imagine that this is code for separatism. But it really isn’t. Just as vital as independency is a commitment to inter-church fellowship. Again, that seems to be the New Testament pattern- both in ethos and practice. The whole New Testament speaks of the one fellowship of the church. Practically speaking, you find Paul raising financial support from the believers in Corinth for instance for those in Jerusalem- that’s the background to 2 Corinthians 8-9. At one level that fellowship is necessary to militate against some of the potential challenges of independency. Those who query independency often ask me what would happen if Woody Road got in a mess or I was in personal difficulty without a bishop to call on. One answer to that would be the importance of a plurality of elders (more next week) but I am very thankful that in either of those cases we would have a choice of other pastors/churches in Oxford we could ask to help because we are in close fellowship with them. In addition fellowship for a church like Woody Road that is well resourced in many ways will make it vital that we play our part in helping other churches and partnerships because we have a concern for God’s Kingdom rather than simply our local church. About a fifth of my time is spent on this- speaking at other churches or events, trying to encourage (or be encouraged by) other pastors and seeking to have some input on the broader church’s approach to issues of same sex attraction. One further comment needs to be made. Of course it matters that this fellowship is amongst evangelical churches for true fellowship only exists when there is a shared agreement on the ultimate authority of the Scriptures. Indeed the New Testament will speak of avoiding false teachers and being disunited with them rather than seeking fellowship. How does this work out for us? In practical terms for us our commitment to fellowship will primarily be with other FIEC churches, which is why we do joint training days, Good Friday Services and an annual Sunday evening celebration, but will also extend via groups like South Central Gospel Partnership to evangelical Anglican and Baptist churches. Along similar lines it is why we actively encourage students to participate in their Christian Unions.
So as a church we are not simply part of the FIEC because it is a convenient group for us. It is because we believe that to participate in a fellowship of independent evangelical churches is the biblical way for a church to operate.