Friday, 14 November 2014

Church Government a la Scripture Alone

Biblical Church Government
by Richard Storey
It is sad that the majority of sincere Christian congregations today do not hold to the same form of church government as was clearly held to by the original New Testament congregations of the 1st century.  
By church government, I mean the prescribed way in which God would have us appoint authority in the congregation to maintain order (1Corinthians 14:40).

The foundation of Christ and the apostles
Before we begin, we must lay the foundation of this subject by affirming the foundation of all authority in every church.  The church is built upon the foundation of the Lord Jesus Christ and the apostles whom He sent to establish individual congregations:

Ephesians 2:20-21  And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone;
In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord…

It is important for us to remember that Christ is both the absolute foundation of our church and is indeed the head over all the congregations:

Colossians 1:18  And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.

Therefore, Christ, as the supreme authority, first established this foundational layer of the apostles to the construction of His church.  The apostles primarily served to fulfil two main aims of God:

1.  To establish the geographically separate congregations (i.e. one per city):

Titus 1:5  …thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee…


2. To provide the body of Christ with the commands and directions, not only for how Christians should behave in this ungodly world, but also for how the congregations should be governed and administrated:

2Thessalonians 2:15  Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.
2Peter 3:2  That ye may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us the apostles of the Lord and Saviour…

So, the foundation of the apostles was laid, with the congregations established.  And we, today, can receive the same direction in how we must live and gather for worship as Christians because, with the laying of that apostolic foundation, came the completion of God’s Word and the full revelation of His commands through the apostles’ epistles.

Church officers
The way in which God directs us to order our congregations is with church officers who take the responsibility to execute the various procedures involved in Christian worship and fellowship.

Firstly, there are the elders.  The Greek word for elder is ‘presbuteros’ and this system was in use in the Old Testament, in the synagogues, with the elders representing the children of Israel in various instances; the same Greek word is used for this office in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament.  The elders can go by various other names, as Thayer’s Lexicon tells us: ‘[t]he NT uses the term bishop, elders, and presbyters interchangeably’ in the King James Version of the Bible.   

Peter confirms for us that the office of ‘bishop’, that is, of a pastor or overseer is synonymous with the term ‘elder’.  Peter describes Christ as being the church’s ultimate Shepherd and Overseer and later, in that same epistle, he calls for the elders to shepherd Christ’s sheep in the role of a pastor:

1Peter 2:25  For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
5:1-2  So I exhort the elders among you…shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly…

And in Acts, the elders who are gathered are called pastors:

Acts 20:17 & 28  Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. 
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

So we see that the elders and the pastors or overseers are considered to be the same office by God.  This is why Paul describes the ideal qualities of a pastor just after calling Titus to appoint suitable elders in Crete:

Titus 1:5 & 7  This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might…appoint elders in every town as I directed you—
an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach…

It is important to note that the congregations of the New Testament had more than one elder as the word is typically used in the plural, speaking of the ‘elders’ of particular congregations:

Philippians 1:1 
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons
1Timothy 5:17 
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in preaching and teaching.

The writings of the early church in the 1st century show that they initially held to a plurality of elders, without distinguishing the role of a single pastor.  
However, very quickly, this doctrine was corrupted and one particular elder was singled out to be the sole bishop of a congregation and was to be obeyed in this dictatorial position.  Then the pastors of the five major cities of the Roman empire adopted the title of ‘pope’ to further denote some imagined superior status, eventually adopting control over other congregations and their elders.  Then, because the pastor of Rome claimed that his pastorate was nothing less than a continuation of Peter’s apostolic authority, he won out and adopted for himself the blasphemous title of ‘universal bishop of bishops’.

This is summed up by Protestant historian, Kelly, who notes: ‘In the late 2nd or early 3rd cent. the tradition identified Peter as the first bishop of Rome. This was a natural development once the monarchical episcopate, i.e., government of the local church by a single bishop as distinct from a group of presbyter-bishops, finally emerged in Rome in the mid-2nd cent.’[1]

The responsibilities of an elder are to lovingly shepherd Christ’s sheep to live godly lives and to teach them from the Scriptures:

Ephesians 4:11  …pastors and teachers… (NASB)
2Timothy 2:24  And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil…
Hebrews 13:7 & 17  Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God…for they are keeping watch over your souls…

Secondly, we have the deacons.  The Greek word from which we derive ‘deacon’ means to get dirty from running about performing errands or just simply a ‘servant’, according to the Lexicons of Strong and Thayer. The responsibilities of a deacon are to handle all the practical and administrative matters of the congregation, particularly financial distributions and preparing the Lord’s Table for the Lord’s Supper. We see the office of deacon created by the apostles in Acts when they conclude that such a position is necessary so that they, as apostles, can continue their spiritual work and, thus, freeing the elders to do so too.

Acts 6:1-4  Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”  (NASB)

Many contend that Phoebe, who delivered Paul’s epistle to the Romans, was a deaconess, as she is given this title in Romans 16:1, thus declaring that women can undertake the office of deacon.  Whether the word ‘deacon’ is used here in the general sense of serving, as it sometimes is in the New Testament, or whether this is referring to the actual office of deacon is debated.   

But, there is some historical evidence to justify the latter view: In a letter of Pliny, governor of Bithynia, to the Emperor Trajan, written early in the second century, he describes how he tortured ‘two female servants who were called “deaconesses”.’[2]  Also, in The Apostolic Constitutions (4th century), there is a ceremonial prayer for the officiating of a deaconess.[3]  Furthermore, there are early church writings which speak of deaconesses being appointed by churches to help other women prepare for baptism etc.  And, although Paul speaks of being ‘the husband of one wife’ with regards to deacons in 1Timothy 3:12, he might also have declared another category of female deaconesses:

1Timothy 3:11  Women — in like manner grave, not false accusers, vigilant, faithful in all things.  (Young’s Literal Translation)

 It can very well be argued that women are included as potential candidates for the office of deacon.  Dr. Gill describes this argument more succinctly: ‘Some instead of "wives" read "women", and understand them of deaconesses, such as were in the primitive churches; whose business it was to visit the poor and sick sisters of the church, and take care of things belonging to them’.

Therefore, we have sufficient evidence to conclude that congregations which allow women to take the responsibilities of a deacon should not be rashly dismissed as disorderly, liberal or disobedient.  Nevertheless, it is explicitly taught in Scripture that women are not to be elders and are not to teach in Christian assemblies for worship and fellowship:

1Timothy 2:12  I do not permit a woman to teach

Church discipline
The duty of church discipline is not necessarily the duty of the church officers but, truly, it is every Christian’s duty to lovingly encourage one another and to discourage from sin.  The Lord Jesus sets out the procedure for church discipline:

Matthew 18:15-17  “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector...”
And, as we have already shown, the final authority for Christian behaviour, by which we must judge ourselves and each other, is the New Testament; therefore, the command of love given us by the Lord Jesus must be at the centre of even our church discipline:     

2Thessalonians 3:14-15  If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.

Appointing church officers
Elders and deacons appear to be recommended democratically by the congregation:
Acts 6:3, 5-6  Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
Their aptitude for the role is then judged by the elders, according to the guidance given us by God’s Spirit in 1Timothy 3 and Titus 1.  For example, we are told to give deacons a probationary or test-period before appointing them:
1Timothy 3:10  And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless.

Fellowship between congregations
Although we have seen that congregations are independent, being directed by Christ through his Word and not by some para-church organisation or authority, is there any fellowship or communication that can or should occur between congregations?

Firstly, it is important to understand what unites congregations to begin with.  In most evangelical congregations, there is no liturgy as we do not see a specific order of service set down in the New Testament or any employed in the historical records we have of the early church.  What one can expect from a worship service tends to differ from congregation to congregation, so this is not what binds Protestant congregations.

The congregations are collectively the body of Christ and what unites them is the same thing which unites each individual member of Christ’s body – being a new creation in the Lord Jesus, sharing the same Father in heaven and desiring to obey Him.  Naturally, when one is born again and a congregation is filled with those made alive in Christ, their understanding of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith automatically fall into place.  It is these essentials which, in the midst of many false teachers, false doctrines, heresies and persecution, unite the people of God who alone worship Him in Spirit and truth.
Such congregations can have fellowship with one another but it is important to note the meaning of fellowship.  Thayer’s Lexicon defines the Greek word ‘koinonia’ as ‘association, community, communion, joint participation, intercourse’ and a part of this of course being ‘a gift jointly contributed, a collection, a contribution’.  We see the brethren doing just this in the New Testament:

Romans 15:26  For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem.  (NASB)

But fellowship is more than just assisting one another financially, there is also seeming continuous communication between the churches in which they share spiritual material also and commend members of their own congregations to be accepted as members in another congregation:

Colossians 4:16  And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.
2Corinthians 3:1  …letters of recommendation…
Acts 18:27 
And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him…

Furthermore, when some false brethren began stirring up false doctrine in Antioch and then in Jerusalem, declaring that the Gentiles had to be circumcised, Scripture tells us that they hold a conference in Jerusalem and the church at Antioch send Paul and Barnabus who were acting as supernumerary elders:
Acts 15:1-2  But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.
And after the conclusion of this council, they return to Antioch with more brethren from the congregation at Jerusalem and to communicate their response to this heresy.

Acts 15:22-23  Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.

Puritan commentator, Matthew Henry, notes what we can learn from this council: ‘Here is a direction to the pastors of the churches, when difficulties arise, to come together in solemn meetings for mutual advice and encouragement, that they may know one another's mind, and strengthen one another's hands, and may act in concert.’

Even though we live in a time when church history allows us to see that most heresies are just the recycling of old ones, there are still issues which affect our congregations which we should discuss:
Proverbs 11:14  Where there is no guidance the people fall, But in abundance of counselors there is victory.  (NASB)
Furthermore, with the technological capabilities of our day, there has never been such a blessed time in terms of communication.  However, it should be noted that any conference conducted does not bear the same authority of the council at Jerusalem as the conclusion of that council was directly inspired by the Holy Spirit and given through the authority of the apostles.  Whilst no such authoritative council can occur today, congregations can still come together to seek wisdom and advice.

So congregations can and should be in constant fellowship with each other, communicating their needs and supplying one another’s needs, recommending new members and edifying spiritual material and also warning against false brethren, teachers and doctrine.  And, as the need arises, conferences can be held in which elders discuss certain issues to prayerfully arrive at a Biblical resolution.

Other proposed forms of government
The form of church government presented so far is known as Congregationalist and, being based solely on the prescribed New Testament order, stands in opposition to the Episcopalian form which was devised over time, currently used by Methodists, Lutherans and Anglicans and also by apostate Romanism, Eastern Orthodoxy and the Copts.  The other manmade form of church government is the Presbyterian system, created during the Reformation and used by various Reformed churches.  These both present a system of authority above the local congregation to replace the overarching authority the apostles once exercised, rather than simply allowing the finality of their epistles to govern us, as the Spirit of God intended.  The reason for this is purely a supposed practical convenience; this can be seen by the typical argument brought against the independent congregation which answers only to Christ and His Word.  They say that under a single pastor-led system, there is no authority which can readily remove the pastor if he were to become a heretic or continue in some sin.  This obviously then can make life very difficult for congregation members and can result in much conflict and stress as the situation is resolved, all the time without receiving any guidance from a pastor.   

Whilst this is so, the single pastor-led congregation is also unbiblical and historically not the practice of the early church, as we have seen, but rather a plurality of elders is the New Testament pattern; so, if one elder becomes ungodly in doctrine or walk, the congregation under the leadership of the other elders can shun the ungodly elder from membership.

The argument for single pastor congregations is usually defended by the ambiguous interpretation of two verses.  


Ephesians 4:11  And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers  (NASB)

Here, it is said that pastors and teachers are two separate offices, dividing the elders into the two categories of those who preach and those who just focus on house-visits etc.  However, as Vincent’s Word Studies notes, ‘The omission of the article from teachers seems to indicate that pastors and teachers are included under one class. The two belong together. No man is fit to be a pastor who cannot also teach, and the teacher needs the knowledge which pastoral experience gives.’  The clear meaning of the Greek is confirmed by the learned Meyer, among other notable commentators, and can be shown to be the historical interpretation of this verse by the writings of Augustine and Jerome.

1Timothy 5:17  Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in preaching and teaching.
The assertion here would be that not all elders are required to preach from God’s Word and that this duty should be given to just one of the elders.  Again, Vincent’s Word Studies confirms that this verse is not dividing the office of elder into two categories: ‘No special emphasis attaches to the word [labour] - hard toiling in comparison with those who do not toil. The meaning is, those who faithfully discharge the arduous duty of teaching.’  From the context of this verse, this can only be referring to those who not only exercise their other responsibilities well, ‘who rule well’, but also put a lot of effort into their preaching too; this is not distinguishing elders who preach from those who do not.  As we have already seen, a pastor/teacher is the same thing as an elder, according to Scripture; moreover, the Holy Spirit declares that every single elder must not only be able to teach, even though not all are quite so zealous in the studies, but they will have exercised the command to teach:
1Timothy 3:2  Therefore an overseer must be…able to teach
Hebrews 13:7 
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God…
One other argument employed is practically self-refuting; it is suggested that a single elder is indicated by the fact that the generic term ‘a bishop’ (an elder) is used in 1Timothy 3:1-2 and Titus 1:7 (KJV).  However, the context is clear that Paul is describing the elder as an office, rather than an individual.  Professor Daniel Wallace, in his excellent article, quotes J. W. Roberts, a Greek grammarian, to conclude the matter: ‘A case in point where wrong use has been made of the generic article is in reference to 'bishop' in 1Timothy 3:2. This has often been used to prove the existence of the monarchal bishop at the time of the writing of the Pastorals. A majority of the commentators, however, agree that the usage is generic.’[4]

Therefore, the argument for a single pastor-led congregation is redundant when seeking Scriptural justification and the historical evidence indicates that it was a later development and not the apostolic order for the church.

When a plurality of elders are employed, there is nothing impractical about the Congregationalist, New Testament pattern of church government at all and, actually, it is the other forms of government who, rather than allowing the Spirit of Christ to rule independent congregations, proudly believe that they must take matters into their own hands, otherwise chaos will ensue.

According to the direction of the New Testament, the local church must be independent of any governing authority other than God.  That includes being utterly separate from the state.  However, congregations may meet together to discuss doctrinal points and to advise one another.  The church is governed by a team of elders and served practically by deacons; their ultimate guide in this service is the living Word of God and the Spirit of God who applies it to our hearts.  New officers are suggested by the congregation as a whole, with their suitability and potential appointment determined by any existing elders.  

All Scripture verses taken from ESV unless otherwise stated

[1] Kelly, J.N.D.(1986), The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, Oxford: Oxford University Press
[2] Letter 10
[3] Book 8, chap 19

[4] Wallace, D. (2004) Who Should Run the Church? A Case for the Plurality of Elders - (31/05/2013)


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