Church Government: What are the various forms, and why are we elder led?
Question: Can you help me? I grew up in a church where the congregation voted on all the major decisions. Then I went to a church with a Presbyterian form of government. Now I go to a church where the elders make the big decisions. What are the different views of church government and why are we elder led?
With so many different denominations and types of churches in our society today, it is easy to spot differences in the various forms of church government. Some churches have a very rigid and structured system of hierarchy, while others operate under virtually no leadership at all. Some choose to stick closely to the Biblical example of governance, yet others seek a more mystical approach and forsake the rigidity of both Scripture and tradition. But, of all the competing views, surely there must be a correct one. Which one is it? As in all difficulties relating to matters of Christian faith and practice, the answers can be found in the pages of Scripture. Let’s take a moment to examine the three major types of church government and see how they differ. Afterward, we can compare each of these models to what is recorded for us in the New Testament.
The first type is the Episcopalian form of church government (from the Greek word episkopos, which is usually translated as bishop). This type of government draws a distinction between the bishops and the elders (presbyters) and recognizes the bishop as the one in whom the ultimate authority resides. Local churches, which are led by elders or presbyters and served by deacons combine to form a diocese, which is then governed by a bishop. The bishop is the one who, in turn, appoints or delegates the ministers or priests. This form of church governance is seen in not only the Episcopal churches, but also in the Roman Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church, and even in some Pentecostal churches. Many who would hold to this form of church government do not view Scripture as being sufficient in matters of ecclesiology, and therefore do not consider the model of church government to be one of great importance. Instead, their pragmatic approach adopts a mixture of Scripture and tradition, and operates according to an ever-changing set of guidelines and regulations. The Roman Catholic Church, with the Pope presiding as the chief bishop, has become the most easily recognizable example of the Episcopalian form of government.
The second form of church government to consider is the Presbyterian form (from the Greek work presbuteros, which is usually translated as elder). This type of church is generally governed by elders and deacons, but is not to be confused with a similar model found in the congregational approach. In the Presbyterian form, local churches join together to form presbyteries, and the presbyteries collectively form a synod. This type of church differs from the Episcopalian church in that there are no bishops. The highest office is that of elder, whether this is a teaching elder or a pastor. These teaching elders or pastors can exercise authority over several churches. An example of this form of church government would be the Lutheran church.
The third form of church government to consider is the congregational form. Generally speaking, this is a type of church government that emphasizes the autonomy and democracy of local congregations with varying degrees of member voting privileges. As autonomous fellowships, these local congregations are not typically held accountable to a larger governing body. This broader form consists of several subcategories, each of which must be examined independently.
The first subcategory is Single-Elder Congregationalism. In this model, the congregation elects or appoints an elder to serve as pastor of a local church and exercise full authority in that particular congregation.
The second subcategory is known as Democratic Congregationalism. In this scenario, the pastor provides spiritual direction and leadership to the congregation, as well as the handling of general church functions, but the congregation still retains authority in both the choosing of pastor and other leaders (often deacons, as is seen in churches belonging to the Southern Baptist Convention), and the overall direction of the church.
The third subcategory is Multiple Elder Rule Congregationalism. In this form of church government, the elders of a local church retain complete authority of their church, and make decisions as a group. In this form of government, the pastor generally serves as an elder, but has no greater authority than any of the other elders. A team of deacons (diakonos) is often appointed by the elders to help with areas of service within the church.
Now, I understand this can be a lot of confusing information to process, and it may be difficult to assess which form of church government aligns most closely with Scripture. Entire volumes have been devoted to this topic, and there is no way that we can fully expound on it in this short treatment. But, I believe there is one in particular form that has Biblical support.
Those who embrace an Episcopal form of church government usually point to Matthew 16:18-19 as support for their view. But, this passage does not deal with ecclesiological or governmental structure. The nature of this passage concerns the foundation upon which the church is built, and this foundation (the rock mentioned in 16:18) is not an individual, but rather the revelation that Christ is the Son of God. In addition, the Episcopalian view equates tradition with Scripture, which demonstrates a denial of the sufficiency, authority, necessity and primacy of Scripture. So, in my estimation, this particular view of church government is lacking Biblical support. The Presbyterian form of church government is much like the Episcopalian form in that it, too, has a hierarchical structure. This is problematic since the hierarchical structure is rooted not in Scripture but in tradition.
The final form we must consider is the Congregational form of church government. As mentioned earlier, there are a few subcategories within this broader form (Single-Elder Congregationalism, Democratic Congregationalism, and Multiple Elder Rule Congregationalism). Each of these three appoint qualified individuals from the congregation to serve in positions of leadership. As you might imagine, there are problems with the Single-elder approach due to a lack of leadership accountability. Conversely, there are problems with the democratic approach as well because of an overabundance of leadership positions and/or committees. My opinion is that the Multiple-elder approach fits what is modeled in Scripture. In fact, it is the only pattern for church leadership given in the New Testament.
Each of the churches represented in the New Testament had elders who provided oversight, direction and correction to the church, and that is the model for us today. Of the elders, there is generally one individual who serves as the preaching pastor/elder, but all of those who serve as elders share equal authority in the local congregation. The authority does not (and should not) belong to one individual. The truth is that there are no churches listed anywhere in Scripture which were shepherded by a single pastor / elder.
Scripture provides the guidelines for leadership within the local church, and a plurality of elders is the method demonstrated consistently throughout the New Testament. Paul, in providing instruction to Titus, said to “appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:5). Likewise, James referenced the elders of the church (James 5:14). Paul and Barnabus appointed elders in every church (Acts 14:23). Most notably, Paul gave great instruction to Timothy concerning the church at Ephesus, and referred to the elders of the church (1 Tim 5:17; Acts 20:17). The case for a plurality of elders is strengthened by the fact that all instances of presbuteros in the Greek New Testament are in a plural form, with three exceptions. The Apostle John used it of himself (singularly) in both 2nd John and 3rd John. Peter also used it of himself (singularly) in 1 Peter 5:1. With the exception of these three personal references, every other usage was in a plural form.
The charge given to the group of elders is that they should provide guidance and oversight to the church, so that the church can fulfill its mandates of righteousness, evangelism and worship. Elders are supposed to lovingly shepherd God’s people (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5:2) and have charge over them (1 Thes 5:12; 1 Tim 5:17), because they must give an account for their souls (Heb 13:17; 1 Pet 5:3). Understandably, elders are accountable only for those who belong to the local assembly, who have submitted to the leadership through church membership, and not every individual who would visit or only attend sporadically.
Although Scripture speaks of pastors (poimen), elders (presbuteros) and overseers (episkopos), essentially they are indifferent, and the terms are used interchangeably. Each must adhere to the same Biblical standards and provide the same level of leadership and guidance as the rest. 1 Peter 5:1-2 shows the use of all three terms wherein Peter writes, “Therefore, I exhort the elders (presbuteros) among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd (poimaino) the flock of God among you, exercising oversight (episkopeo) not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God.” So it becomes clear, in light of this, that these terms speak of different functions or roles within the group of elders, but not different levels of authority.
In a future issue, we will look at the role of Deacons and how they differ from Elders. There has been much confusion on these issues, but thankfully, a close examination of Scripture gives us what we need to govern the church in the way God intends. Rest assured that the governing body of this church takes these issues seriously and seeks above all to bring honor to the Lord by properly shepherding His church.