Governance in the Church

A Biblical Study on Church Polity

The old Jewish axiom “ask three Jews and you get four different opinions” most certainly applies in kind to the topic of Protestant church polity among theologians and scholars.  There are nearly as many opinions on this issue as there are denominations.  It appears that every biblical scholar has opined on the subject, and seemingly differs from every other scholar as to the biblical evidence.  The questions that need to be answered in this debate are these:  Does the Bible give clear and authorized instruction or inference relating to the governing of local churches, and if it does, what form does it take?

Before answers can be forthcoming, however, determination must be made on whether this is a valid and worthwhile subject to pursue.  Those involved in debate and argument on this theme even have divergent views regarding the importance of this issue for the modern church.  Paul F. M. Zahl states, “There is no one governing New Testament ecclesiology” (Brand and Norman 212).  Robert L. Reymond argues that “the Christian Scriptures teach us much about church government” (Brand and Norman 90).  These are the extreme views, yet others promote the median position that the Bible gives some guidance, but not complete authority, on church polity.

Thomas N. Ralston, in his book Elements of Divinity, rightly observed:

“Assuming that Christ and his followers laid down for the Church which they reared ‘no particular form of government,’ many have proceeded to erect and organize ecclesiastical fabrics, according to their own conceptions of propriety or expediency, until Christendom has become severed into an almost endless number of dissimilar institutions, resembling each other as little as the diversified systems of political rule throughout the known world” (874).

Ralston goes on to point out the illogical absurdity of: 1) assuming an organization without a government, 2) no particular form of government, and 3) a form of government in preference to another (875-876).  Based on Ralston’s words, church polity is not only a worthwhile subject, but a necessary issue to pursue.

Modern-day Church Models

Church polity is presently a hot-button topic in Protestant circles.  Among Protestant groups, at least five different forms of government may be delineated.  (The following distinctions appear in the book Perspectives on Church Government.)  The most common among Methodists, Anglican, Lutherans, and Episcopalians is known as the Episcopal form of government.  In this structure, the church has a three tier group of ordained offices:  the bishops, who uniquely set or maintain church doctrine and ordains all other offices; the elders/priests/clergy, who are the leaders in the local congregation; and the deacons/stewards, serving in some capacity as lay leaders or elders in training.

The Presbyterian form of church government is the norm for most Presbyterian groups.  This type of government has three ruling courts:  the local session is made up of ruling and teaching elders together with deacons, who serve the physical and spiritual needs of the congregation; the presbytery is made up of elders from various churches and exercises authority over a group of churches; and the general assembly, or synod, consists of elders from various presbyteries and serve the denomination as the ultimate authority.

Some Baptist and Methodist denominations, including Southern Methodism, employ the Democratic Congregational model of church polity.  In this arrangement, all decision-making authority for the local church is vested in the congregation.  The elder, or pastor, serves in an advisory and exhortatory capacity.  The congregation extends a call to a qualified person to serve as their pastor.  Deacons may be laymen elected by the congregation to serve as a leadership and service-oriented board, but still under the direction of the congregation; or they may be pastors serving under the direction of elders.  The congregation is often in a denomination network in which they share resources and leadership, but with each local church maintaining control of its own assets.

The Single Elder-led Congregational model is utilized by independent Baptist and some non-denominational churches.  This model promotes the authority of the elder, or pastor, of the congregation.  Though the church may assemble for the conducting of business, the elder quite often has the final authority.

An emerging model of church polity is the Plural Elder-led Congregational form of government.  The general idea is that the congregation is led by more than one elder, a board of elders, who by mutual cooperation direct the affairs of the church.  The congregation, by consensus, supports the leadership of the elders.  In some groups elders are elected by the congregation, while in others the elders are appointed by other elders.

Biblical Study of Church Leadership

An evaluation of the previously depicted models of church polity will be best accomplished through a thorough study of the New Testament.  The book of Acts appears to illustrate a form of government, with the epistles providing prima facie evidence for that form.  To begin with, terms commonly used as designations for leaders must be defined in their New Testament usage, not just by general definitions.

The term “elder” used in the New Testament is the translation of the Greek word πρεσβύτερος, “presbyteros.”  This word is the primary word used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew word ‏זָקֵן, “zāqēn.”  While many may allude to the New Testament elder as an exact equivalent to an Old Testament elder, there are some functional differences.  Stephen Renn, in his Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, explains that the Hebrew word “zāqēn highlights the civil and legal office of God-ordained authority in Israelite society” while “presbyteros is used similarly, with the focus not on a geographic, linguistic, ritual or socio-political entity, but on the God-ordained spiritual leadership of local congregations of believers” (Renn, WORDsearch).  Moulton and Milligan in their classic work The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament point out that the word presbyteros “familiar to us first in [its] Jewish, and afterwards in [its] Christian usage, had been commonly employed before, in a precisely analogous sense, in Graeco-Roman civic life,” and was also applied “to the priests of pagan temples” (Moulton and Milligan 535).  Therefore the word was easily applicable to Jewish and Greek churches because both were already familiar with the word.  As is the case with so many words used by New Testament writers, this word was glorified to a new level of usage.  It was adapted to the specific need of the newly established church and given a greater and grander meaning.

The great majority of scholars are in agreement concerning the equivalency of the words presbyteros and episkopos.  The latter word is the transliteration of the Greek word ἐπίσκοπος, which translated is “overseer” or “bishop.”  According to Smith’s Bible Dictionary, this expression “signified an ‘overseer’ or spiritual superintendent,” and “denotes one who exercises the function of overseeing” (Smith’s Bible Dictionary at  It was extensively used in Greek culture to indicate those who were in charge of projects and the well-being of organizations.  Paul uses elder and bishop as transposable words in Philippians 1:1 and Titus 1:5-7.

Another word used of leadership is ποιμήν, poimēn, which translated means “shepherd” or “pastor.”  This term is only translated “pastor” in Ephesians 4:11, where it is connected by the Granville Sharpe rule to the function of “teacher.”  Its use represents men who are given the care and concern of people.  To summarize:  elder may refer to the dignity of the leader, overseer or bishop to the duty of the leader, and shepherd or pastor to the discipline of the leader.

Several scriptural references capture these terms as synonyms.  When Paul called the Ephesian elders together, he charged them, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).  Peter exhorts, “To the elders among you . . . Be shepherdsof God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers” (1 Peter 5:1-2).  Evidently these terms were used interchangeably, but church history indicates that the word elder was the commonly used term.  Philip Schaff in his work The History of the Christian Church says concerning the words elders and bishops:

“The interchange of terms continued in use to the close of the first century, as is evident from the Epistle of Clement of Rome (about 95), and the Didache, and still lingered towards the close of the second. With the beginning of the second century, from Ignatius onward, the two terms are distinguished and designate two offices; the bishop being regarded first as the head of a congregation surrounded by a council of presbyters, and afterwards as the head of a diocese and successor of the apostles (Schaff, WORDsearch).

Something must be said concerning the term deacon, from the Greek διάκονος, diakonos.  The literal meaning of the word is “one who waits on tables,” referring to a servant.  In Acts 6, the Hellenistic Jews began to complain that their widows, when compared to the Jewish widows, were being neglected or overlooked.  The Twelve Apostles, not wanting to neglect their own ministry, instructed the gathered disciples to choose seven men to whom they could entrust this aspect of ministry.  The seven men chosen are not here called deacons.  In fact, later Luke only refers to them as the Seven (Acts 21:8).  Later, however, a settled office or ministry must have developed in local churches, for Paul gave Timothy instructions concerning qualifications and duties for deacons, twice mentioning their “service” as deacons.  It appears this was not so much a leadership role as it was a service role, perhaps under the direction of the elders.

The Biblical Inference

Although each modern-day church model is based by its proponents on the Bible, logic and common sense dictate that not all can be true unless the Bible allows the church to decide its own form of government.  If that is indeed the case, then the study of church polity in the biblical record becomes a moot point.  The church would of necessity benefit from the study of more important doctrinal issues.  Again, Ralston states (emphasis his): “To suppose that Christ and his apostles established the Christian Church, and yet that they prescribed no rule, nor order, no fixed principle, for the transaction of business, no government for the regulation of the ecclesiastical body which they created, is a position which, judging a priori, we must consider exceedingly improbable” (Ralston 876).  So, does the Bible prescribe a form of government, describe what that form is, and ascribe that form to the church today?

Though there is little direct instruction concerning Church polity, there are inferences in the Scriptural record.  A pattern seems to emerge, and a pattern observed may be a pattern prescribed.  One pattern observed in the book of Acts is the normal and easy use by Luke of the term elder.  When the council in Jerusalem is convened in Acts 15, around 44 A.D., the office of elder already seems to be a set institution.  In Acts 11:30, the church in Antioch wanted to help those affected by famine in the Judean area, and sent their gift to the elders there; interestingly, no mention is made of the Apostles.  On the return trip of their first missionary endeavor, Paul and Barnabas revisited the towns where they had new converts and appointed elders (Acts 14:23).  When the dispute arose in the Antioch church concerning imposing Jewish regulations on Gentile believers, the matter was referred to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem (Acts 15:4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4).  Paul, on his way to Jerusalem, stopped in Miletus and called for the elders of Ephesus to visit him (Acts 20:17).

One verse must be carefully noted.  In Acts 15:2, when the decision was made to seek the counsel of the leaders in Jerusalem, an interesting construction appears when it speaks of apostles and elders.  The Granville Sharp’s rule in Greek sentence structure states that when “and” is used to connect two nouns of personal description which are in the same case, and an article appears before the first noun and not the second, the two nouns relate to the same person or group (Granville Sharp p. 8).  In this verse, that construction is found, linking apostles and elders together as referring to the same group.  It could be translated, “the apostles who are also elders.”  Could this be an indication that since the office of apostle was non-transferable that the Apostles had adopted the use of the word “elders” for themselves?  Peter refers to himself as an elder in 1 Peter 5:1, and John calls himself an elder in the opening salutations of 2 and 3 John.  That there were elders in Jerusalem also appears to indicate that the Apostles had appointed men to leadership positions, perhaps to take their place when they were gone or maybe as an example to be duplicated elsewhere.  Though much of this is conjecture, it nevertheless conjures up questions that must be answered.

Further study concerning Paul’s teachings to Timothy and Titus is necessary as well.  While Paul lists the qualifications for “bishop” in 1Timothy 3:1-7, he lists nearly the identical qualifications for elder in Titus 1:7-9, the differences perhaps reflecting the different locations in which they ministered.  Elsewhere in the first letter to Timothy he refers to elders (4:14; 5:17, 19), and calls elders overseers in his letter to Titus (1:7).  Of significance is the fact that Paul informs Titus that one of the reasons he left Titus in Crete was to “appoint elders in every town” (1:5).  As this was a common practice of Paul, it is fitting that fellow missionaries Timothy and Titus, trained by Paul, would be counted on to continue the practice.

What must be determined is whether this regular practice is a pattern to be repeated by the modern church.  Fee and Stuart, in their excellent guide How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, state concerning whether a pattern is repeatable or not, “The strongest possible case can be made when only one pattern is found . . ., and when this pattern is repeated within the New Testament itself” (Fee and Stuart 124-125).  The idea of multiple elders in churches is a pattern in the early church that cannot be denied.  The practice in Acts and the instructions by Paul to Timothy and Titus concerning elders certainly bears consideration as a repeatable pattern for the church today.

As a side note, the Presbyterian model of clerical teaching and lay ruling elders cannot be truly supported in Scripture.  The usual reference to support their teaching is 1 Timothy 5:17, “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.”  This verse, however, does not appear to support two classes of elders, especially when put in context.  Paul indicates that all elders were to be leaders (1 Timothy 3:4-5) as well as being able to teach and preach (1 Timothy 3:2).  Paul is stating here that those elders who do both well, as compared to those who do not, are certainly worthy of a greater honor.

The one issue that is of great concern is how the office of elder is conferred.  First, were they ordained or appointed?  “Ordained” is the translation given in the KJV for the two words used in Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5.  The best understanding of these two words is the idea of “appoint,” as it appears that ordination was not an established rite in the early church.  The design seems to be that God had already appointed them, and that the act of Paul was the human outward manifestation of the divine work.  The passage in Acts magnifies this thought when it further elaborates on the appointment when it says that they “with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.”  The prayer and fasting was their seeking to know God’s will concerning these individuals who had already demonstrated their faith, and then committing them to the work to which God had already appointed them.  Paul speaks of his own divine appointment in 1 Timothy 1:12 and 2:7, as well as 2 Timothy 1:11.  Thomas Wakefield said,

“It will be evident, if we consult the New Testament, that the power of ordination was never conveyed by the people. The apostles were ordained by our Lord, the evangelists by the apostles, and the elders in every Church both by apostles and evangelists. Nothing is clearer in the New Testament than that all the candidates for the ministry were judged of by those who had been placed in that office themselves, and that from them they received their ordination. So also, after the death of the apostles and evangelists, the presbyters of the Church continued to exercise this prerogative.

Second, who appoints elders to office?  Some call for appointment through election by the church, while others clamor for them to be appointed by the other elders.  There appears to be no Scripture which gives a set directive concerning this topic.  On the other hand, there is a passage in Acts which may be instructive on this subject.  In Acts 6, when the matter of the caring for the widows among the Hellenistic Jews arose, a pattern of decision-making appears.  The Apostles, who were the leaders at the time, established a directive, namely, to choose men from among themselves who were “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom (6:3).  The church participated in searching out and selecting the men who met these qualifications established by the Apostles.  The final act was the approval and installation of the men by the Apostles themselves.

Is this, then, the decision-making pattern that is to be repeated in the church?  If it is, this would directly contradict any Congregational model of polity.  Several other Scriptures support this design.  In Acts 15, when the question from the Antioch church was sent to the Jerusalem church for a decision (primarily because the Apostles were there), the Apostles and elders made the final decision (15:6, 23).  The only decision in which the church as a whole was involved was which men would be sent with the message (15:22).

Other instructions from Paul are enlightening on the idea of churches following the decisions of their leaders:  (1) “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you.  Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).  Another way of interpreting “over you” is “reside over you.”  (2) “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17).  A literal translation of the first sentence is “Allow yourselves to be persuaded by the governing ones and yield to their authority.”  One major objection often voiced against the Democratic Congregational form of government concerns the equal vote that both novice and mature Christians would share:  Would that be a biblical idea, especially since novice Christians are not to be placed in leadership (1 Timothy 3:6)?

Warranted Conclusions

A re-examination of the present models of church polity in light of biblical evidence, and perhaps precedent, is necessary.  The Episcopal form is not acceptable based on the biblical record, which equates the word “bishop” with “elder,” and on the extra-biblical record that the office of bishop as separate from elder came about later.  The Presbyterian form is unjustifiable based on the strict interpretation of elders as being a single body rather than be classified into two; also, though not dealt with here, their contention that there are different ruling courts is unseen in the Scriptures.  A Democratic Congregational model of any kind is unwarranted when the major decision-making appears to be clearly in the hands of the body of elders rather than in the power of the congregation.  A Plural-elder led Congregational model, as long as the elders are not elected by the congregation, fits the biblical record more closely than any other.  In this model, the church would continually seek out persons who not only desire the office of elder (1 Timothy 3:1), but who are qualified (1 Timothy 3:2-7).  The elders would then have the responsibility of determining, through prayer and Scriptural examination the worthiness of such a man, and to appoint him to the office.

Much more study must be conducted on the biblical record because many issues are left unresolved.  Nevertheless, what has here been presented cannot be ignored, nor should it if it is truly based on sound hermeneutical principles.  This study will definitely impact the “business as usual” policy of many who blindly ignore the biblical precedents for the traditional mandates of church history.