What comes to mind when you hear the phrase the head of the church? Some may think of the pope in Rome. Others may think of an influential pastor or a board of elders. Still others may think of denominational headquarters in a distant city. The New Testament writers, however, are of one mind in affirming Jesus Christ as the head of the church. How do they make this claim? Furthermore, what does this claim mean, and why is it important for the life of the church today?
The New Testament writers teach that Jesus Christ is the only head of His church. They tie that claim to the fact of Jesus' exaltation in His resurrection, ascension, and sitting at the right hand of the Father. Having raised Jesus from the dead, the Father seated His Son at His right hand and "put all things under [Jesus'] feet and gave [Jesus] as head over all things to the church" (Eph. 1:20, 22; see also Col. 1:18). Before the risen Jesus commissioned His disciples, He told them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matt. 28:18). Jesus was "given" this authority at His exaltation.
What does it mean that Jesus is the only head of the church? It means that He rules over His church by His Word and by the Spirit. He has placed the Bible in the hands of the church through His Apostles. The Bible tells us what Christ would have us believe and how Christ would have us live. Jesus has also sent His Spirit to indwell believers. It is the Spirit's delight and commitment to equip believers to walk in the paths that Christ has set for them in His Word (see Isa. 59:21).
A particular provision of King Jesus to the church in His Word is the church's government. Paul tells us that the ascended Jesus has supplied the church with "pastors and teachers" so that the church might grow to maturity (Eph. 4:11– 16). Christ has also supplied the church with other elders who, with and alongside the ministers, shepherd the church (1 Tim. 5:17; 1 Peter 5:1–4). Both Acts and the letters of the New Testament help us to see how Jesus would have His elders govern the church. Christ, moreover, has provided the church with a system of discipline that is uniquely hers. As King, He pledges to oversee the exercise of discipline in His church (Matt. 18:15–20). One of the purposes of church discipline is to help Christians order their lives according to the Word. In each of these ways, Jesus puts on vivid display His saving reign in His church.
Why is the headship of Jesus Christ over His church important for the life of the church? As Christians, it is both our duty and delight to live under the lordship of Jesus Christ (Rom. 10:9). Since the church is the place where Christ's lordship is on unique display in this world, how could a believer refuse to be part of the church of Jesus Christ? Our commitment to Christ requires us to commit to His church. This commitment means that we join a local church where the Word is purely proclaimed. It also means that we honor our vows of membership. For most churches, including my own (the Presbyterian Church in America), these vows include a commitment to live godly lives, to participate in and support the "worship and work" of the church, and to "submit . . . to the church's government and discipline."
Resolving to submit to the church's government and discipline is difficult and countercultural. But it is also necessary. How can we live under Christ's lordship in this way? Those who are called to be elders in the church should remember that they serve under the authority of Christ. They are servants, not lords. They are ultimately accountable to Christ for all that they teach and do in the church. But theirs is an important office. Through their labors, Christ is visibly governing His church.
Christians obey their leaders in the church because Christ has commanded them to do so. But Christian obedience is never blind. Like the Bereans, we measure everything our leaders say against the standard of God's Word. God alone is Lord of the conscience. For government to work properly in the church, Christians must know their Bibles well and develop the capacity to discern biblically all that they hear and see in the church. It is in this way that Christ is glorified in His church's government.
King Jesus often does extraordinary things through ordinary means. The church's life and government are no exception. How does your involvement in the church put on display the reign of Jesus Christ?