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Calvary Chapel Distinctives: Church Government

by randy on June 21st, 2010

This is my summary and response to the “Church Government” chapter in Chuck Smith’s book, “Calvary Chapel Distinctives.”


Chuck Smith begins this chapter by stating, “the New Testament doesn’t give a clear definitive statement of God’s preference for church government (pg. 17).” He claims that we find three basic forms of church government in scripture. These three forms are the bishop run (episkopos), the elder run (presbyteros) and the congregational rule.

It is the bishop run and elder run church that Smith claims can be found in the New Testament. He believes that the presence of both forms of government in the NT pose a problem. In his own words, “These two forms of government, by their very nature, seem to clash. Is the church to be led by the bishop, or by the board of elders? Is it the episkopos or the presbyteros? These divisions are so pronounced that today we have two denominations representing both sides of the issue…The fact that they both exist shows that there isn’t a clear definitive teaching about the correct form of church government. Both sides can present a valid case for their point of view (pg. 18).”

A fourth option is then presented. Smith uses the prophet Moses as an example of this type of rule. God spoke directly to Moses concerning the direction of the nation and Moses relayed that to the people. Here Chuck Smith begins to define his understanding of the “Moses model” of church government.

In the Moses model there were elders, however the elders were there to support Moses, not rule on the same level with him. Smith uses the example from Exodus 18:13-27 where when an issue too difficult for the elders was brought to them, “Moses would then go to God [directly] to get clarification on the issue (pg. 20).” It is this form of government that Chuck Smith believes should be implemented in the church today. He explains, “Also, like Moses, within the church we have a Board of Elders who are there to pray with us and support us in seeking the Lord’s leading for the church (pg. 20).”

Elders are viewed as a sort of advisory board whereby they recognize the Pastor’s position of authority and support him through prayer and by providing biblical advice. He says, “It’s necessary to have godly men who recognize that God has called and ordained you as the pastor of the church. Men who will work with you and support those things that God is directing you, as the pastor, to implement within the church (pg. 21).” While he insists the elders should not be, “yes” men, they should recognize the authority God has given the senior pastor. While the senior pastor may delegate certain decisions to the board, the senior pastor maintains the right to override those decisions as he and the Lord sees fit.

Smith explains that this allows the senior pastor to really care for the sheep as opposed to the presbyterian (elder) or congregational model of church government where a pastor is only one of many decision makers. He says that the presbyterian and congregational pastor is a sort of hireling who must do things to appease the will of others in fear of loosing his job. A hireling is less concerned with caring for the flock and doing what is right than he is with giving the multitudes what they want so that he may keep his position (pg. 23).

Concerning the qualifications of an elder and those in church leadership, Smith does not believe that there is anyone who is blameless apart from Christ. Smith says, “So the key qualification for a pastor or leader in the church is to be “in Christ Jesus” and, in this state, blameless (pg. 24).” He does not believe in taking the word blameless from the pastoral epistles in any literal sense (pg. 25).

In conclusion Smith states that the form of church government he created was “more of an episkopos [bishop] form (pg. 26).” He states earlier that it is a modified form of the Moses model (pg. 20).


Part I: Concerning the “clash” between the word ‘bishop’ and ‘elder’

This is a wonderful example of how an external supposition imposed on scripture effects its interpretation. Smith not only starts with the stated presupposition that scripture is not clear, but he also makes the assumption that scripture contradicts itself in this regard. He claims that the mere presence of both words ‘presbyteros’ (elder) and ‘episkopos’ (bishop) in scripture present a problem. Because he believes that scripture is allowed to contradict in this area he denies his responsibility of doing the hard work to properly exegete the text.

Lets adopt Jesus’ supposition that, “the scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35)” and try to make sense of this in a few short paragraphs.

It is true that both words ‘elder’ and ‘bishop’ occur in scripture, but if we are to do justice to the text we must allow the context of scripture to define its own terms. Smith does the very thing he warns against in the prior chapter (pg. 10) by looking to the so-called “failed church of history” in obtaining the definition of the word ‘bishop.’ Lets attempt to use scripture to define our terms.

The word ‘elder’ and ‘bishop’ both occur in the book of Acts. In fact, the words occur together. In Acts 20:17 Paul addresses the Ephesian elders. Later while addressing these elders he exhorts them in verse 28 by saying, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” The word overseer is the same word for ‘bishop.’ Paul in his address to the elders calls these same people ‘overseers’ or ‘bishops.’ The two words are used interchangeably to refer to the same group of people (the elders). There are other places in scripture we can refer to for help on the issue as well.

Titus 1:5-7 makes the same association between elders and bishops:

For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre;”

Thomas Witherow in his classic work, “The Apostolic Church: Which is it?” says concerning this text, “This passage strongly confirms the truth of the supposition already made, that the two offices were identical. It appears that Paul left Titus behind him in Crete to ordain elders in every city. To guide him in the discharge of this duty, the Apostle proceeds to state the qualifications of an elder. No private member of the Church was eligible to that office except he was a man of blameless life, the husband of one wife, and had obedient children; ‘for,’ says he, ‘ a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God.'” He goes on to say, “that the term elder, used at the commencement, is exchanged for the term bishop in the conclusion, while the same office-bearer is spoken of.”

There are several other passages of scripture that reveal the same. I have attached this portion of Witherow’s work in the event one is interested in the full exposition. It is clear that the terms ‘elder’ and ‘bishop’ are used interchangeably, they do not clash nor do they contradict. In fact, the term ‘bishop’ is often translated ‘overseer.’ This translation is likely a more appropriate definition of the term considering the context. If they were in opposition to each other then we would do well to declare Paul a schizophrenic and excuse the rest of his writing since he often makes mention of the two words when referring to the same office. An elder is held to a higher standard because he is an overseer or ‘bishop.’ I can use the two words in the same sentence to refer to the same office without contradiction. A bishop is not to be defined as an ecclesiastical pope of some sort, instead it is the specific term for his joint responsibility as an elder, to oversee.

Part II: Concerning the qualifications of an elder or church leader

Perhaps Smith does believe Paul to be a schizophrenic or at least confused since he explains away the qualifications of the elder from the Pauline epistles as well. Rather than citing the biblical qualifications of an elder, Smith explains that Paul’s use of the word “blameless” can’t possibly mean anything significant. Smith declares that there is no man who is blameless. His assertion is that a man can only be blameless in Christ, and so the qualification of an elder is one who is in Christ, or in other words a Christian.

It is clear by the context of Titus 1 that Paul is not simply trying to make the point that an elder must merely be a Christian, only to be found blameless in Christ Jesus. In his use of the word “blameless” Paul is declaring that the office of an Elder, especially those who teach, is a position worthy of double honor (1Tim 5:17) and as such requires a lifestyle that reflects this higher standard. Smith must teach this watered down view of blamelessness in order that he might justify his actions in ordaining and overlooking the sexual sins of pastors in the Calvary Chapel movement. See the Christianity Today article, “Day of Reckoning.

If blamelessness is defined as, “anyone in Christ” then it qualifies a repentant Christian who has committed adultery for the pastorate. The objection is, “who can prove that he has not genuinely repented or that he is not a Christian forgiven by God (and thus blameless)?”

While we do rejoice any time a fallen saint has been restored to full fellowship, that fact alone does not qualify a man for office. Ultimately, this objection does not properly distinguish between forgiveness and the consequences of sin. Children may repent after disobedience, but that does not relieve their parents of the duty to discipline them appropriately. A murderer may truly repent, but he nevertheless must be punished for his crime. A man can get drunk on a bottle of wine or overdose on drugs and then repent, but the physical consequences of the latter will be far more devastating and lasting than the former. Just as this objection fails to distinguish forgiveness from the consequences of sin, so it also fails to see that repentance is a necessary requirement for office, but is not in itself sufficient for office. 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 require far more of a man than mere repentance (Hagopian, “Covenant Succession and Church Leadership”).


The New Testament clearly lays out a model for church government. There is no biblical warrant for Smith’s definition of the word bishop whereby a prophet like Moses alone hears from God (Heb 1:1). It is abundantly clear that scripture calls for a plurality of elders. The council of Jerusalem of Acts 15  demonstrates the role of elders and even the need for an Apostle to be accountable to others in matters pertaining to doctrine and church function. While I believe to have sufficiently refuted Smiths suppositions, I admit I have not laid out the entire case for church government. I would recommend Thomas Witherows book “The Apostolic Church: Which is it?” for further study. Chuck Smith makes no attempt to appeal to scripture in this chapter, nor does he present any valid argumentation. He quickly discredits the authority of scripture by declaring it to be broken, or to “clash” and makes room for his own pragmatic advice. This is a pattern throughout his book.

He was quick to raise pragmatic arguments against the Presbyterian model of government by calling the Presbyterian pastor a hireling. It is remarkable that he does not even accurately represent the Presbyterian position and fails to mention the practical pitfalls of the so-called “Moses model” that breeds an authoritarian, cult like rule that results in the disastrous fruit of what Christianity Today documented in its article called, “Unaccountable at Calvary Chapel.” Even if this was indeed the model represented in the book of Exodus, it is clear that Chuck Smith is no modern day prophet like Moses. It would be better stated that Moses is Christ’s archetype and the elders of the church are to collectively appeal to his (Christ’s) leading, especially as revealed in scripture, as the only head of the Church.

As the founder of the Calvary Chapel movement, this chapter serves as an embarrassment to all Calvary Chapels everywhere. While he clearly demonstrates his ignorance of scripture, his low view of its unbroken nature will continue to prevent him from doing the due diligence required to dig deeper and study to show himself approved unto God, a workmen who needeth not be ashamed. Based on his performance in this chapter and the assumptions revealed, I would not trust this man in any explanation of scripture or fair treatment in any matter of faith.

  1. Kevin Walding permalink

    On Qualifications for offices of spiritual leadership being restored after repentance. I have only one comment. KING DAVID. As far As your accusations of an elder Chuck Smith. on matters of faith. The fruit his life has born speaks far greater than your assumptions do. I would disagree. He is a man of God. God has used him to bless many people and he is bearing good fruit. The Lord has used him to speak to me personally many times so I can’t hold with your view of writing Chuck off. The fruit of the spirit I have seen from Chuck is Love. I have not always agreed with him either on everthing he has taught and said. However he does correct things when they are brought to his attention and he beleives it to be from the Lord. He listens to those God has placed around him and heeds wise council. I think you need to be careful on your assumptions. Even if you disagree with some of his positions. We can rebuke someone if we are spiritual but only in a spirit of meekness. Chuck is an annointed teacher who God has placed in position and has used and is still using flaws and all. Does this not hold true for all of us. Have you ever commited adultry in your heart if so then according to your view your disqualified for leadership yourself. While I admire your zeal for doctrinal purity. I think you should be careful that when you make a point about something you feel needs to be corrected that you don’t go beyond that. Lest you be found as Jobs friends who were rebuked by the Lord for not speaking what was correct about him or Peter who commented on how all the other disiples might forsake you Lord but not me. He had the problem of looking at man quite often rather than the Lord. Peter seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what [shall] this man [do]? Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what [is that] to thee? follow thou me. John 21:21-22 If you want to be effective in building Gods kingdom (rather than your own) just Follow Jesus and don’t worry about Chuck. The Lord will perfect that which concerns him as well as us all.

  2. randy permalink


    I am Glad you brought up King David as I had much written and stripped it out for brevity. It is a common argument.

    So What about King David?
    Those who argue that forgiveness necessarily entails restoration to office object that even though King David sinned miserably, he was used mightily of God thereafter. Indeed, God did use him mightily. But the life of King David is not a pattern for those aspiring to the office of elder. David principally was a statesman–a civil ruler. He was not a pastor or elder. Thus, we cannot assume that what was true of David is normative for pastors or elders today. In addition, while King David was a picture of the Eternal King, at this particular point in his life he was a warped, distorted picture. Moreover, those who make this objection often appeal selectively to the life of David and paint an unbiblically rosy picture of the aftermath of his sin. Even though David is forgiven, God told him that the sword would never depart from his house. His baby died; his daughter, Tamar, was raped by her half-brother Amnon, who, in turn, was murdered by Tamar’s full brother, Absalom; Absalom died rebelling against his father; another undisciplined son, Adonijah, attempted to usurp David’s throne and eventually was executed by Solomon. David was a failed father who raised a rapist and two treasonous rebels, both of whom died attempting to usurp their father’s throne.

    Those things above are disqualifications for an elder. Yet David was a KING not a Pastor. What gross immorality and unimaginable wickedness! What dissipation and rebellion! What unbelief! Even limiting 1 Timothy 3:4-5 and Titus 1:6 to civil righteousness, at least three of David’s children were civilly, if not criminally, corrupt to the core. Put bluntly, David was not qualified for the office of elder in Christ’s church.

    Those who would look to him for support of the opposite position must look elsewhere. Unless of course you would like to take a black magic marker to the qualifications of an elder.

  3. randy permalink

    So what are the qualifications of an Elder in the bible for anyway? Seeing that you don’t seem to believe they are relevant to Church officers.

  4. Kevin Walding permalink


  5. randy permalink

    So the qualifications of elders are to humble the elder into feeling unqualified? That way he knows he is an elder by grace?


  6. BonelessChuck permalink

    One could argue that Smith was in the flesh when he left his former church and stared up CCCM,because he was tired of being told what he could and could not do. Pride. So he started his own church and instituted the “Moses Model”. Thus the result of a lack of accountability in CC senior pastors. This is a not only a disservice to the body they “serve” but to the pastors themselves as it is creates a hotbed for pride and arrogance to fester. Throw in the fact that many CC pastors are very young when “raised up” to be pastors and you have trouble. My way or the byway, if you don’t like the way we do things here-there is the door. And don’t question them either or ask to see the financial books. If you do you will be branded divisive and set by the enemy to dissrupt the work of the Lord. One could argue that a system that was started on pride-has led to PRIDE and a house built on pride eventually crumbles.

  7. Eric Holmes permalink

    When I asked to meet with the elders of the Machias, Maine CC Outreach group, I was met with a roadblock(I never did get my meeting). I did get to meet with Pastor Aaron Dudley and was told that if I left the church I would be causing division. My reason for requesting the meeting was to start paying the pastor a weekly salary. After I spoke with Brian Campbell the assistant pastor/treasurer(who was one of my closest friends) about my concerns, he(assistant pastor/treasurer/former friend) has never responded to my questions. Also since my questioning of finances, Brian has been relieved of his treasure’s role. I was told that I was constantly complaining, when I really thought I had some legitimate questions. Since the middle of August(2010) I have not attended there organization(I can’t call it a church) and have not attended any church on a regular basis.

  8. jason permalink

    I know this is over a year old now. I just wanted to say how much this ministered to me. I’ve been part of CC for 24 years. I was raised up young (ordained) and all was good until I started questioning things. Then I had to leave a CC church I helped start after being there for 19 years. I’m now part of another CC church and at first things seemed okay, but then I saw similarities to the one I had to leave. I’ve been studying more rigorously; forcing myself to not just believe what was handed to me but to dig deep and understand scripture. I’ve hit many conclusions and over a year ago I came to see the so called “moses model” is a root to many problems within CC’s. It really lends itself to producing an authoritarian type of mentallity and a board of “yes” men. I don’t know what I’m going to do now. I’m undergoing a change, this is for sure. Where it will lead, I can only leave to God. Regardless, thanks for your blog.

  9. Melissa K permalink

    Beginning to see the light in Missouri. I’ve been saying for a long time our elders are just “yes” men and worse yet they see it and don’t do anything except maybe leave or step down from their role as an elder and maybe that is the only course of action they can do. I asked for a financial statement and was met with at first a question why, and I answered to be a good steward with my tithe. Then it took finding out from their tax preparer (which is mine also) that they were by law required to provide one. Then they asked if they had to reveal all details and the preparer said if asked for them the answer would be yes. They of course started with the general and played the wait and see game. I have not asked for a more detailed statement yet because the preparer informed me that everything seemed to be well handled. I will say the attitude I have been given since then has bordered on hostile at times. Pray for my husband please. He sees the unbiblical designs of this type of government but at the same time he has been given what would normally be called the role of deacon and doesn’t want to upset the waters. I wonder if this is not a part of keeping Calvary Calvary. Take a person who is seeing the light and then “promote” them to keep them from speaking out by working on their pride which is so rampant in the Calvary “Movement”. I have come to believe in the doctrine of election inspite of Calvary’s stance as arminians, I think that the core of Calvary’s Movement revolves around the thought that there is a tiny something in us that is “good” enough or “intellectual” enough to choose God and His salvation. There lies the “seed” of pride that has grown into a forest of “Me’s”.

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