Ask a conservative Presbyterian what Jesus taught about church government and you’ll likely be directed to Matthew 18. That’s where Jesus talks about going to an offending brother in private, then bringing someone with you, and finally, if necessary, telling his offense “to the church.”

I won’t deny that we can derive some principles of church government from Matthew 18, but it seems an odd place to start. We start there, I think, because we’ve predefined “church government” as primarily a matter of structure and procedure. And if we think in these terms, Matthew 18 is about the only place where Jesus addresses the issue. But if we allow Jesus to define the term, he was constantly talking about church government.

In his earthly ministry, Christ offered two major directives for the government of the church, and he offered them over and over: 1) Don’t be like the Pharisees. 2) Be a servant, like me. He elaborated on these directives at considerable length to be sure we wouldn’t miss the point. These two directives are the heart of church government, the sine qua non. But of course we miss the point anyway.

Even when things get so bad that a congregation thinks about leaving the denomination (OPC, PCA, whatever), they ask the wrong question. They don’t say, “Where can we go where the shepherds serve the sheep humbly and don’t lord it over them, just as Jesus commanded?” They say, “What other Presbyterian options do we have?”

We’ve made the form of government our first priority. It’s non-negotiable. Whatever Jesus recommended will have to come in a Presbyterian form or we’ll just do without. It’d be funny if it weren’t so sad.

We reap what we sow. Our obsession with the structure of church government leaves us with lengthy books of church order that spell out the minutiae of every procedure. It surrounds us with lawyer-like men who know how to use that book to stifle debate or railraod motions.

Many true ministers of the Gospel are demoralized like this. (I remember the case of a minister friend who was travelling to General Assembly and reviewing all the upcoming proposals and cases. The person next to him on the plane asked if he was an attorney. The question haunted him all week.) They begin to attend Presbytery only sporadically. They avoid going to General Assembly. This just means that the lawyers, who love those meetings, consolidate their power.

So what should we do? Fight back? Make sure we attend all those meetings filled with caffeine and testosterone so we can argue well into the night? Then the terrorists will have won. (Whoops. Wrong rant, but you get the idea.) Believe me, the lawyer types have far more stamina for such wranglings. The lengthy disputes that demoralize us fill them with energy. We’ll never beat them at their own game. We’ll starve our sheep and wreck our marriages if we try.

Instead, we need to seek the kind of government that Jesus commends. And I am speaking not only to ministers but everyone in the church (especially in a Presbyterian or Reformed denomination) now. I don’t mean we need to leave our denominations to find Biblical government, though that may be the conclusion for some. I mean we need to beware the leaven of the Pharisees and we need to seek out rulers who look like Christ, washing the feet of his disciples, bearing the cross.

What does it mean to beware the leaven of the Pharisees? It means beware those who like to rule and who seek to do so by giving orders rather than providing an example. Beware the man who loves airing his ideas about how the church ought to run and who pays more attention to those who are influential and prominent in the church. Beware the man who elevates human tradition above the Word of God, who knows his Confession and his Book of Church Order better than he knows his Bible.

If you can peaceably prevent it, don’t allow such people to become deacons or elders in your church. Don’t extend a pastoral call to such a man. Don’t waste too many words on people like this who are already in authority. You won’t out-argue them. Rather, take their presence and their behavior as a symptom of sickness in the church and as a warning to seek a more excellent way.

What does it mean to be a servant and bear the cross? It means to consider the needs of others as more important than your own. It means to seek out especially the weakest, least visible sheep and care for them.

Don’t make deacons out of people simple because they have organizational ability and the sort of sympathy that’s common even to many unbelievers. Go ahead and use their organization talent, but don’t confuse that with spirituality. Make them deacons when they love the sheep sacrificially, without drawing attention to themselves, because they have a deep understanding of the mystery of the Gospel.

Ordain as elders only those who love the sheep sacrificially as well. Don’t let the congregation vote them in with a shrug, or with reservations, or out of a desire not to hurt anyone’s feelings. The congregation must be able to say, “Here is a man who would give his life for me. He will always be gentle toward me. He will rule me by example. And that example will not be a matter of outward piety and ‘good works’ for me to attain to if somehow I may. Rather, that example will be a matter of walking alongside me and teaching me not so much how to behave as how to believe–how to know Christ and rely on him.”

Finally, call as pastors only those of utmost gentleness and humility toward the weak. Remember what Isaiah prophesied concerning the Christ: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3). Do not accept a pastor who motivates the sheep through guilt or fear, who troubles the assurance of the weaker sheep while giving the self-righteous reason to pat themselves on the back. Rather, find pastors who are utterly gentle with the weak and bold with those who think they are strong.

For those reading this who hold such office, seek always to be conformed to these words of our Savior: “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45). If that doesn’t sound like you, don’t be afraid to turn in your resignation. There will be enough time to take up the office again after you have learned more perfectly to bear the cross.

Who knows? Maybe by pursuing these things we’ll change our congregation or denomination for the better. Or maybe we’ll get kicked out or at least feel forced to leave. If that happens, let’s not make the Presbyterian mistake. Governmental structure should not be our first priority. Let us seek instead an affiliation where those who govern the sheep will be allowed and even encouraged to do so by bearing the cross. If that lands us in another Presbyterian denomination, fine and dandy. If not, at least we chose the one thing necessary. It will not be taken from us.