Ask Steve: Church Government

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Question: Steve, 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’s your view of church government and why do you hold to your view and not the others?  Just how important is holding the right view of church government?

Answer: Holding the right view of church government is important for a couple of reasons. The first is the issue of integrity to God’s word. Depending on what form of government the church practices reveals much about the church’s philosophy of ministry and how they view commitment to Scripture. Do they faithfully submit to what the Bible teaches about everything, including church government, or are they more guided by reason, tradition, and pragmatism? Another reason this issue is important is that depending on what form of government the church practices could make or break a church. In many ways, this goes back to the first reason, because lack of faithfulness to the instruction of Scripture leads to disorder, unjust autocracy or democracy, and disunity that leads to divisions, conflicts, and splits. This is not to say that the most biblical formula will always lead to peace and success, but that obedience to Scripture at most times produce good fruit because it is God’s commanded will.

The most practiced forms of church government are Episcopal, Presbyterian, and congregational. My view of the church is that which is most consistent with what is depicted in Scripture and the practice of 1st century Christianity, which is congregational, plurality elder rule. The reason I abide by this form of church rule is that it is the one that has the most weight of evidence in Scripture. We are given a good guideline in the epistles on how to shepherd the body of Christ, and since I truly believe in the inspiration, inerrancy, and sufficiency of Scripture, I also believe in the form of church government illustrated in the New Testament. I don’t believe that it is outdated or annulled by more pragmatic or creative forms of operating a church today. I believe in faithfulness to God’s word, trusting in Him for the results, and belief that blessings will come to the church as a result of such faithfulness. 

If we examine the elder rule of government, we see that it is not only biblical, but it captures the essence of a proper relationship between elders and laity in terms of authority and submission. Just as the Son submits to the authority of the Father and wife to the husband and civil subjects to the government, so laity are commanded to submit to the faithful rule of the appointed elders in the church (1 Peter 5:5). Scripture states that Christ is the head of the church and its supreme authority, therefore no single person or group of person can claim such authority over the church (Eph 1:22; 4:15). Second, the local church is to be autonomous and free from any external control or authority, which includes freedom from civil government control or a hierarchy of individuals within a church or other organizations (Titus 1:5). Third, the church is to be shepherded by leadership consisting of two groups of people: elders and deacons.

Elder rule was even the form of government during the time of Moses, in which they made political decisions and decided on spiritual matters (2 Sam 5:3; 17:4). It seems reasonable that elder rule would constitute the government of the church in the New Testament as well. Each church is comprised of multiple elders, one being appointed as the main pastor/teacher of the flock (Eph 4:11). This plurality of elders, being assisted by qualified deacons, are identified as the bishops and overseers of the local congregation (Acts 11:30; 1 Tim 5:17) and do not exercise their authority over other churches or subchurches. There can be no dictator over a universal church (Episcopalian Model). Furthermore, it is not ideal to have a single elder over the local assembly (Single Elder Congregational Model) or to have a collective group rule over several churches (Presbyterian model).

I am not in favor of certain forms of congregational rule. For example, congregational church government can allow power to be in the hands of the local congregants and not necessarily in the elders or leaders (Pure Democracy). Although Scripture speaks against unjust monarchy or dictatorship over the laity, it does blur the distinct roles of elders and laity. Lay people are never given the authority in Scripture to be the ones to appoint the deacon board and the single elder (pastor) of the church. Church government is not a democracy. When the congregation is given too much power to execute such a task, one of the dangerous consequences is that they may make decisions that are not biblically based, but more driven by emotions, biases, or what is pragmatic. The biblical solution is that laity are called to faithfully submit to the elders as much as subjects as expected to submit to the government (Romans 13). Elders must be qualified according to 1 Tim 3:8-13 and be the godly representatives to make biblically sound decisions as a committee. In turn, elders are to shepherd and guide with love and discernment, and the plurality of elders is used as a measure against the abuse of power against any one individual within the church leadership.

I also do not fully favor Presbyterian form of government, although it is somewhat closer to the elder rule principle. In Presbyterian government, “gifted elders” can use their wisdom to govern more than just one local church (which is not mentioned in Scripture). This form of government can be national or even worldwide, which supposedly shows the unity of the body of Christ (Scripture makes a distinction between the universal church and the government of local churches). Such a system is able to supposedly prevent an individual congregation from falling into doctrinal error much more effectively than any small group of elders in a church (the opposite can very well be true, when the denomination adopts a false doctrine and puts great pressure on local churches to conform to it when they have biblical grounds to reject it).

It is important to hold a right view of church government because the very health of the church very well depends on it. If you practice an unscriptural form of government, no matter how brilliant or politically correct it may seem, it is doomed to failure. It is prone to weaknesses, internal strife, and conflict. The church is prone to false teaching, pride, and sin. A church government that places too much emphasis on the authority of a single individual or organization can lead to tyranny or unjust rule. On the other side of the spectrum, too much power placed in the hands of the congregants leads to divided interests and a church ruled by carnality, naivete, and self-interest. That is why a proper form of church government is important. And Scripture provides us with such an outline with the government of elders and deacons who faithfully shepherd one local church, which is the best remedy against abuse of power, rise of heresy, dictatorship, and divisions within the church. I am not saying that the elder rule will always make a healthy and conflict-free church, but it is a good first step in putting together a healthy local assembly of believers, the reason being that it faithfully abides by the principles taught in Scripture.

Recommended Resource: Biblical Eldership by Alexander Strauch