Practical Church Government

How does New Testament Church government function on a practical level?  What does this system look like and why is it important? Some people may argue the type of church government is not important as long as the structure is effective. Others will place their confidence in a certain system of governmental order as superior to the point of divisiveness.  Is church government important and how do we know by which order to use?

Governmental systems in today’s church that have developed over the centuries, though commonly embraced, are not necessarily scriptural.  That is not to say there were any wrong incentives behind these forms of church governments.  More than likely, these systems were formed to maintain purity in doctrine and effectiveness cooperatively.  Obviously, each form of structure obviously has its advantages and disadvantages.

The criterion for selecting church government does not lie in its popularity, but in its scriptural authority.  God has blessed churches that function with a variety of church governments, just because He loves people.  Nevertheless, that does not make the subject church government inconsequential.

Since the New Testament does not give us a manual on how to implement methods of church government, it falls into the category of other practices that must be reasoned from the Scripture.

Water baptism is such an example.  We are commanded to baptize but are not instructed to follow a certain form.  Nevertheless, that does not make the form less important to those who want to follow the Lord’s example.  One only needs to observe the practice in the Scriptures to see a pattern.

Why Does It Matter?

When it came time to build the tabernacle in the wilderness, there was an exact pattern for which to follow (Ex 25:9). When Solomon constructed the temple in Jerusalem, he went to great effort to do so with precision according to the Divine pattern.  Therefore, we should be careful to consider that Christ as head of His Church is building His holy temple according to divine representation. The truth is, structure does not produce life, but where the life of Christ in His Church, without doubt, there should be biblical patterns come forth.

Christ is committed to building His church, not an organization, network, or denomination. These may be tools, but the Church must be first and foremost.  We must consider two major indicators in evaluating church government. Number one, any structure that divides the church into two different classes and fails to release the many-membered-body into fully functioning followers of Christ must be re-evaluated. Number two, if the function of apostles and prophets are subdued or abandoned then serious consideration must be given to explore a more biblical alternative. I submit that the best approach is to reason from the Scriptures on matters that are clear even if it is contrary to more commonly accepted methods. Our call is to recognize what God has set in the Church, rather than reorganize what He has already established.

Apostolic government does not begin with the congregation or organization as the central focus, but rather the purpose of God for His Church.  The Church is Christ’s possession and He is its head. The principles governing the church are not a matter of human preference, but of divine revelation.

When it comes to church government there is greater consequences for selecting a form of government that moves further from the New Testament pattern.  Church history has revealed to us that the more commonly accepted systems of church government have brought a grave separation between leaders and members, thus hindering the effectiveness of Christ body. These leaders accepted a position more closely related to the Old Testament Aaronic priesthood. They became known as priest or clergyman, while members were relegated to a different class called laymen.  This order was not necessarily originally grounded in unhealthy motives, but as we have come to see, thoughts and ideas have great implications. The object may have been to give proper respect to those who have been ordained into pastoral responsibilities and to form clear lines of leadership, but over the years, it has created two different categories of people in the Church.

I should point out that it has become too easy to point fingers at the Roman Catholic Church for separating the clergy and laity.  When the Reformation came about, it brought a transformation in doctrine, but little difference in church government.  Protestant churches are as priest-ridden as the Orthodox or Catholic churches.

Our church leaders are often discouraged because of the lack of ministry involvement of their members not realizing the members have been excluded by the very order in which they operate. In the reformers’ zeal to protect the rediscovered gospel, they soon established their own leadership structure in the churches.  For most of the Reformed churches, the pastor was responsible for protecting the doctrine and carrying out the ordinances or administering the sacraments.  Even the great Reformer John Calvin established an Ecclesiastical Ordinance, which set forth four rigid offices in the church; pastor, teachers, elders, and deacons. His Ordinance was fully adopted by the Geneva city council. The sixteenth-century Reformation was a milestone in church history. It introduced believers to the biblical concept that all are priests through the High Priest, Jesus Christ.  Though the Reformation began a great new movement among the people in the church, it was incomplete.  Because of the rigid ordering of the institutional church, the clergy-laity chasm was never fully bridged.[1]

It is common to refer to members in the church as layman. [2] This is an Old Testament term used to refer to those who cannot participate in the holy things of God.  When members are seen as non-ministers; then only the hired professionals are perceived as capable of doing ministry. Thus, the separation between clergy and layman is made.  We must guard against this traditional means of segregation.

In rejecting an artificial division between clergy and laity, I am not saying there should not be great respect given to elders who labor in the Word. Neither am I overlooking the true biblical order of elders serving in an oversight position of the church. The Bible plainly teaches that we are to submit to those who are in authority over us (Heb 13:7), and to esteem them highly in love for the sake of the work. However, these leaders should be more appropriately seen as coaches and the members as players who have been trained and equipped for participation. Unfortunately, what is more commonly practiced is that the leaders are the ones qualified for ministry thus that is their job leaving the members to sit idle.  Largely, most churches in American and unfortunately elsewhere, have accepted this traditional order of church structure. The member’s responsibilities are relegated to attending church services and giving in the offering. Under this order of function, a faithful member is one who sits on several committees and attends regular meetings. The living organism of the church is straddled with the democratic rule of order and a secular means of operation. The thought of every member a minister, responsible for discipling others, and helping to carry the spiritual burden of the church, is a foreign concept. Today’s church might be able to comprehend a professional staff developing a department of evangelism and a well-organized Sunday School, in which their friends can attend, but they have a difficulty in seeing themselves as active disciplers and ministers of the New Testament

How Did The Church Get To This Point?

Most Christians are surprised to discover that the center concepts and practices of what we call “church” are not rooted in the New Testament, but in patterns developed after the first century church. While there are many disagreements among church historians about issues related to the first three hundred years of church history they all agree that the Church took some major ecclesiastical shifts.

First, the church in the New Testament was a dynamic organism, a living body of many parts, each one involved in ministry. Ordinary people did extraordinary task for Christ.  Members sacrificed their lives to evangelize their world. It was not until the second century that the institutionally hardened church began to emerge with a complex hierarchy.

Second, the early church was marked by the  “many-membered” body of ministers.  Just a quick glance through the New Testament reveals the member-centered responsibilities of ministry. Edification and care for each other happened organically by the brethren.

For the first three hundred years, meetings were held in homes or rented places.  That is not to say, that we should abandon modern church buildings, because they are simply tools, but rather to highlight that every member in the New Testament was seen as a minister and was given responsibility to shoulder the care of the church.

“When Justin Martyr (c.150) was executed because of his Christian faith, the Roman official asked him to reveal the homes where the Christians worshiped.  Justin answered, ‘Where each wills and can. Do you really think that we all meet in the same place?’  The Prefect became more specific, ‘Tell me, where do you meet, in what place do you gather your disciples?’ Justin’s final comment is indicative, ‘I lodge above the house of Martin . . . and during all this time I have known no other place of meeting but this house.’”[3]

Third, the Church suffered great persecution and hardship for the first and second centuries.  With the advent of Constantine, the Church become protected and sanctioned by the state of Rome. It was at this point that the embedded form of Roman church structure was too well established and thus the church began a decline in power and vitality.

Fourth, the Spirit led Church of the New Testament depended upon the Holy Spirit to continue the work after the death of each apostle. Later, the church trusted in itself as a very powerful institution, along with many rules, rites, and offices to secure visible unity among its adherents and to assure its organizational continuity. The church moved from a theocentric (God-centered) approach to ministry to an ecclesiastical (Institutional-centered) focus.

“The first Christians did not think of the Church primarily as an organized society; to them it was the faithful Remnant consisting of the heirs to the divine promises; it was the New Israel and its members were therefore the elect or chosen of God; it was the Temple of the divine presence indwelt by the Spirit; it was the Body of Christ, a new creation transcending distinctions of race, class, or sex.  It was a divine-human organism, established by the direct action of God in history, and those who belonged to it were unconcerned about the questions of constitutional order.”[4]

The rise to a hierarchy of monarchial rule began with the separation of the office of the bishop (elders) into two offices of “bishop” and “presbyters.” This was the beginning of the modern day church government. “During the second century it seems to have become common for the Elders in a congregation to choose one of their numbers to preside over them, and to apply to him the designation of Bishop.  Even then he was not considered as of higher rank, but simply ‘first among equals.’” [5] This structure was natural and appropriate because it fit the description of what we see in the church in Jerusalem with James having the lead role among the brethren.[6]

“Eusebius (A.D. 300), writing of the time of the Apostles, used the terms Bishop and Presbyter interchangeably.  This is the common writings of the early Fathers.  However, with the subtle change of order and the change of meaning in similar words, we see the rise of the monarchial Bishop (spoken of a ‘monepiscopacy’), above and distinct from the eldership.”[7] We cannot make the motivation for these actions to be suspect, because it was probably for the preservation of pure doctrine.  In order that the church would be unified in doctrine, these lead elders were placed as bishops.  Over time, however, this order of government began a separation of the other elders in the city and created two distinct offices.  Thus, there became the office of the “elder” or presbyter and the office of the “bishop.”  This is when the system of church government became extra-biblical.  It resulted in the Church moving from the living and flowing organism of Christ body to hardened inflexible institution.

“The power of the Bishops over the Elders and congregation continued to expand in the third and fourth centuries.  We see then not only the Bishop over a local congregation and over a city, but the rise of metropolitan Bishops.  These became Arch Bishops, wielding great power over all and sundry.  As the Bishops took more power to themselves and became ‘Priest,’ of and for the people, believers lost their ‘priesthood ministry’ and thus we have the creation of the ‘clergy and laity,’ or a ‘priest-craft and people.’”[8]

In the New Testament, we find no emphasis upon one person occupying the office of the bishop over other elders.  This separation by office did not exist between elders.  Each elder was a bishop.  However, as I have already inferred, we do find chief or lead men such as James in the church of Jerusalem.[9] This indicates a structure that has several leaders accountable to each other with a leader among them, but not an extra-biblical office that sets one over the other elders.  It is crucial to understand this difference.  The Bible speaks of a plurality of elders[10] with a leader, but not different offices of authority.  Elders serve as a team of equals recognizing that individuals are not equal in gifts and anointing.  There will be spiritual authority and leadership among elders, but this is different from an ordained distinction.  It is a co-equality of office and persons, but not a co-equality of gifts or divine ability.

Common Forms of Church Government

Most common forms of church government seem to fall under one of three categories of Episcopal, Presybterial, or Congregational or a combination thereof.

(1) Episcopal —this form of government has one elder who stands in the office of the priest or clergyman.  Major decisions are often made at levels higher than the local church.  Rulers in the higher levels serve as bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and the Pope.  This system of church government considers the bishop as the principal officer and he ordains the local priest or elder.  This system has the greatest distinction made between the clergy and members, called laymen.

(2) Presbyterian — this form of government acknowledges the elder and bishop to be the same, but the elders do not serve as pastors.  One called a minister or pastor serves with the elected elders to make up a presbytery.  This pastor is generally brought in by the presbytery and elected to serve.  The ordination is done by a presbytery or plurality of elders called a session.  The elders are chosen by the congregation through a democratic form of elections.  There is often a distinction made between a ruling and a teaching elder.  The highest court for appeal is the General Assembly which overseas the entire denomination.  This structure has a division between clergy and layman.

(3) Congregational — this is an autonomous form of government by the local church, generally by a democratic philosophy, which allows a local congregation the freedom to determine what it considers the will of Christ for the church in most matters.  The congregation governs its affairs.

Some denominations use a combination of the models of church government mentioned above.  They may have a congregational vote to choose the pastor and deacons, while the church and senior pastor is in some form of subordination to an elected official in the denomination.  This is a combination of the Presbyterian and Congregational form of government.  The Assemblies of God, Pentecostal Holiness, and other Pentecostal denominations use this structure.  Baptist and Congregational churches use the Congregational form of government.  Elections are used to decide all offices and in some cases even Sunday School teachers, along with most decisions in the church.

[1] Thom Rainer, Giant Awakening, Making the Most of Nine Surprising Trends that Can Benefit Your Church (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1995) p. 91-92

[2] Layman – others besides the priest.  New American Standard Translation, Numbers 1:51; 16:40; Exodus 29:33; Leviticus 22:13

[3] Searching Together. Volume 21:1-4, 1993 Edition

[4] Ibid. p. 13

[5] Kevin J. Conner, The Church in the New Testament (Portland, Oregon: City Bible Publishing, 1982) p. 91

[6] Acts 15

[7] Kevin J. Conner, The Church in the New Testament (Portland, Oregon: City Bible Publishing, 1982) p. 91

[8] Ibid. P. 91

[9] Acts 15

[10] Paul called for the elders of the Church at Ephesus (Acts 20:17).  Other scriptures reveal that elders are plural. (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2; 1 Timothy 5:17; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1)

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