I would like to answer this question in five parts. First, we first need to look at the terminology used in Scripture to describe the church and the various offices of the church; Vines Complete Expository Dictionary, and Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary are the sources I have used for this part. Next, we’ll look at the Apostle Paul’s teaching on this subject, and examples we have from the book of Acts to learn how the Apostles set up the first century church. Next we’ll look at some very early extra biblical sources to give us insight as to how the early church interpreted the teaching of the Apostles on this subject. We will then look at the most common forms of church government we see today. In the last section I will make some closing remarks and observations.
Terminology: Church: Gr. ekklesia, the “called out ones” of God. The Apostle Paul never thinks of the church as a physical structure, but as a group of disciples of Jesus Christ; he refers to the church meeting within a house (Phlm. 2, Col. 4:15).
Apostle: Gr. apostolos, broadly refers to a “messenger, delegate,” or “sent one.” Luke uses the term almost solely as a designation for the Twelve. Apostles are God’s messengers with a unique status in the church. Every important decision was made by the Apostles. There were some who were called apostles outside the original twelve–Paul (Gal. 1:1), James (Gal. 1:19), (1 Cor. 15:5,7).
Prophet: Gr. prophetes, “A prophet can predict events beforehand (foretell), but its primary meaning is someone who proclaims the truth with God’s authority” (tell forth, or forthtelling). Prophets proclaim messages of encouragement (Acts 15:32), edification (1 Cor. 14:3), and foretelling (Acts 21:10-11). The congregation was to weigh and evaluate the words of someone claiming the gift of prophecy, as there were false prophets as well (1 Cor. 14:29).
Evangelist: Gr. euangelistes, Evangelists have “a gift of special empowerment whereby God blesses their evangelistic work with the fruit of conversions.”
Pastor: Gr. poimen, “a shepherd, one who tends herds or flocks.” The term is used metaphorically of one who feeds and looks after the needs of Christ’s flock, the church.
Elder: Gr. presbuteros, “a common term for older men as well as for the leaders in the synagogue and the church.” Elders and Bishops (Gr. episkopoi) are terms referring to the same office, cf. Titus 1:5-9. Bishop is used to describe the office and responsibilities of the position, and Elder is used to describe the character and experience of the one holding the office of Bishop (1 Tim. 3:1-7). Although the Apostle Paul uses the term bishop and elder synonymously, the church very early on made a distinction between the office of Bishop and Elder.
Bishop: Gr. episkopoi, “It’s two root words (epi plus skopos) literally refer to someone who ‘looks over’ or ‘watches over’ a group of people.” The Bishop is sometimes called “Overseer.” In 1 Tim. 3:1-7, Tit. 1:7-9 the Apostle Paul describes the qualifications for Bishop. The Apostle Peter describes Jesus as “the Shepherd and Overseer” of our souls (1 Pet. 2:25). In other words, Jesus is the chief overseer of our lives; all other church leaders function on His behalf and use His life as a model (cf. 5:1-4).
Deacon: Gr. diakonos, “servant, minister.” This word can refer to someone who serves, or someone who holds the office of Deacon in the church. Qualifications for a Deacon (many believe Deacons can be either male or female based on this text) are listed in 1 Tim. 3:8-13. Those chosen to help in the distribution of food in Acts 6:1-6 are commonly thought of as an example of the first Deacons in the church.
What does the Scripture teach concerning church government?
Christ is the head of the church:
There is universal agreement on this point among all christian denominations. The Bible clearly teaches that Christ is the supreme authority in the christian church. “He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (Col.1:18).
Apostles are the foundation of the church which is Christ’s building:
“I (Jesus) also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18).
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (Eph. 2:19-22).
“According to the grace of God that was given to me (Paul), like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:10-11).
“And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues” (1 Cor. 12:28).
The Apostle Paul established elders as leaders in the church:
“When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they (Paul and Barnabas) commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23).
“For this reason I left you (Titus) in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). Paul then gives Titus the qualifications for an elder in vs. 6-9. Here Paul uses the two terms “elder” in v. 6 and “overseer” (bishop) in v. 7 synonymously. Qualifications for overseer also given in 1 Tim. 3:1-7.
“The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17).
“Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the suffering of Christ…shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet lording it over those alloted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:1-3).
When Paul made his farewell address to the church at Ephesus, he called together the elders of the church (Acts 20:17) and charged them: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).
I think Scripture is pretty clear that it was the teaching and practice of the Apostle Paul to establish a group of men (elders/overseers) in each church as the primary governing body of the church. But there is also extra-biblical evidence that very early in its history the church made a distinction between the position of bishop (overseer) and elder (presbyter). I would like to quote one of the church fathers and the Didache to give us insight on this subject. Keep in mind that when the term bishop was used in the early church, they were referring to what we would most commonly call today the senior pastor. If we were living in the first few hundred years of the church, we would be calling our pastor “bishop.”
Ignatius of Antioch (c.35-107) is one of our earliest extra-biblical sources regarding the faith and practice of the early church. According to church historian Eusebius, Ignatius succeeded the apostle Peter as bishop of the church at Antioch of Syria. The church at Antioch became a base from which the apostle Paul launched his missionary journeys (Acts 13:1-3, 15:36-41, 18:22-23). We have seven letters from Ignatius which both Protestants and Roman Catholics consider authentic. Ignatius is thought to have been a disciple of the Apostle John, and this is reflected in his letters. What follows is a few quotes from Ignatius, who stressed church unity and obedience to the local bishop. Ignatius sees the local bishop as the representative of Christ to the local church, and he makes a distinction between bishop (overseer), presbyter (elder), and deacon. Quotes are from “A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs” which are referenced to various volumes of “The Ante-Nicene Fathers.”
“I have had the privilege of seeing you, through Damas, your most worthy bishop, and through your worthy presbyters, Bassus and Apollonius, and through my fellow servant, the deacon Sotio.” Ignatius, c. 105, 1.59–written about 105 AD, volume 1 pg 59 The Ante-Nicene Fathers.
“I exhort you to study to do all things with a divine harmony, while your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons.” Ignatius, c. 105, 1.61
“There is one bishop, along with the presbyters and deacons, my fellow servants.” Ignatius, c. 105, 1.81
“Let everyone reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ; and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father; and the presbyters as the Sanhedrin of God and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no church.” Ignatius, c. 105, 1.67
“Polycarp, too, was instructed by apostles, and he spoke with many who had seen Christ. Furthermore, the apostles in Asia appointed him bishop of the church in Smyrna.” Irenaeus, c. 180, 1.416
“According to my opinion, the grades here in the church of bishops, presbyters, and deacons, are imitations of the angelic glory, and of that arrangement which (the Scriptures say) awaits those who, following the footsteps of the apostles, have lived in perfection of righteousness according to the Gospel.” Clement of Alexandria, c. 195, 2.505
The Didache (Gr. teaching, pronounced DID-uh-kay) was an early instruction manual for pagan converts on how to lead the christian life. The exact date of its composition is uncertain, but was probably written between 50-110 AD. It was also called the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. The Didache is an important document, because it gives us insight into church life in this very early period of church history.
“Therefore, appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord.” Didache, c. 110, 7.381
The Most Common Forms of Government in the Church Today
There are basically three forms of government found in the church today: Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Congregational.
In this form of church government the principal authority in the local church is the bishop, followed by the presbyters (or priests), and the deacons. Some within this form of government see the position of the bishop as heir to the apostles. Some see Timothy and Titus in the role of bishops as they had authority to appoint elders (Tit. 1:5), as did the apostles in the churches they founded (Acts 14:23). Some proponents of this form of government argue from the historical perspective that this was the form of government handed down from the apostles since it was virtually uncontested from the time of Ignatius of Antioch up until the time of the Reformation.
Advocates of this form of government point out that presbyters in the New Testament occupy the most important place after the apostles; and the plurality of elders mentioned in scripture seems to argue for a plurality or committee of elders as the principle governing body. Often the minister or pastor of an elder-run church is himself an elder, but with no special authority over the other elders. Deacons in this form of government serve under the authority of the elders.
The Congregationalist form of church government began with the Anabaptists in the mid 16th century. Congregationalism places the decision-making authority in the hands of the entire congregation. Advocates of this form of government cite the universal priesthood of all believers (1 Pet. 2:9), and reject the notion of a “priestly class” between God and the layperson. They point to the fact that the church, alongside the apostles and elders, was involved in the decision-making process at the first church council at Jerusalem (Acts 15:22), and that Jesus pointed to the church as the final court of appeal in matters of church discipline (Matt. 18:17). Congregational churches can be led by a single pastor or by a board of elders or deacons chosen by the congregation.
In my view the Bible does not contain specifics as to exactly how a church should be governed, and there is good reason for this. Knowing that the church would endure for thousands of years, through multiple ages and cultures, and with variety in the size and spiritual maturity of various congregations, the Lord and the apostles left room for diversity in church government. From a house church in the first century to a large monolithic church in the fourth century to a village church in Latin America or in India in the 17th century to today’s mega-churches with thousands of members and viewers worldwide via satellite television and the internet, there needs to be room for flexibility in how the church is governed. The church is made up of people who come out of the culture they live in. Those living in a culture where they are acclimated to having great authority placed in their leaders such as a king or emperor may be more inclined to accept spiritual authority placed in the hands of a bishop in the local church. Those cultures who are more inclined to democracy such as the Swiss or the United States, may be drawn to a more democratic form of government in the church. And I realize that these are very broad generalizations.
There is a strong case to be made from scripture for a Presbyterian form of government. There is a strong case to be made from a historical point of view for an episcopal form of government. The weakest case (in my view for whatever that is worth) is for the congregational form of government. Each form of government has its strengths and weaknesses. The Episcopalian form tends to promote unity and is efficient in accomplishing tasks. The Presbyterian form promotes fairness, and guards against the corruption that can happen when authority is placed in the hands of a few. The congregationalist form also promotes openness, fairness, and guards against corruption.
Two things can be said with certainty: 1. The Bible teaches that God has called each and every believer to become part of a local church. The Scriptural evidence for this is overwhelming both in the Old and New Testaments. The person who claims to be following Christ apart from an association with a local church is either ignorant of the Scriptures or just fooling themselves. 2. There is no perfect church, as the church is made up of flawed–though saved–people. One of the first tests for those who decide to follow Jesus is whether we are willing to be a part of a community which is made up of less than perfect people.