Church Government Part 2: Overview

When we consider church government, three historic forms tend to shape the conversation. Each claim scriptural support, and each can be found in the various church movements in history. Most modern churches pull from several of these traditions when shaping their polity.

This article is part two in a series (if you haven’t read part one, stop now and go read it first) and will provide an overview of the forms of government. The next articles will analyze each form in more detail, including both core Biblical foundations and modern examples.

Episcopal—This is the oldest form of church government. Its development is seen emerging in the first two hundred years of church history and grew in formality over successive generations.

Bishops lead the church within an Episcopal structure. They represent apostolic authority and can make decisions for the churches under their care. Most models have priests (or pastors/rectors) who lead individual congregations within a parish under the authority of the bishop, and then archbishops who hold authority over the bishops.

The system has three tiers: Bishops, Elders (priests), and Deacons (priests in training).

Generally, there is a council or congress of bishops which hold authority over the denomination. Final authority varies within each tradition. The Catholic church has the Pope who holds the final say, whereas in Anglicanism there is no direct authority.

This is the form of government for Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Orthodox, and some Lutherans. In modern times, the Vineyard movement, Four Square, and many Charismatic and Pentecostal churches have adopted this form of government.

Presbyterian—This model originated (at least in modern times) in the years following the Reformation, specifically in the Reformed church tradition. Authority rests in the hands of the Presbytery, or elders.  

It is a two-tiered system: Elders and overseers (Bishops) are understood to be interchangeable terms and represent one group of leaders, and Deacons represent the other. Deacons are generally lay leaders responsible for overseeing mercy ministries but do not exercise authority.

Local churches choose elders to govern the church. A select group of elders then join with elders from other churches to form a Presbytery. Then a select group of these elders join with a Snood, and so on. The system of graded courts is empowered to make binding decisions on behalf of individual churches. There are variants to this model based on the authority given to the extra-local Presbytery. Some places all authority in the courts while others keep most authority local.

This is the form of government for the Presbyterian churches; however, in modern times, the elder structure is extremely common in virtually all modes of Evangelicalism, but the graded courts are rare outside formal Presbyterian denominations.

Congregationalism—This model emerged in the various Puritan and Anabaptist movements at the end of the Reformation, and especially within England and then the United States. It places all authority in the Congregation and eschews any ecclesiological structure higher than the local church. Individual congregations may choose to associate with like-minded churches, but they retain the ultimate authority within the membership.

This form of government is also a two-tiered system, with Elders/Overseers considered to be an interchangeable term for the same people, and then Deacons describe a separate office. In theory, Deacons lead the mercy ministries, but often emerge as de facto elders who exercise considerable authority. Many Congregationalist would consider the lead pastor to be the only elder, and they are supported by a deacon board to assist in leading the church. Crucially, the voting members hold the authority to call or remove the pastor. Modern variants will vote on elders, but then delegate authority to them to lead the church.

This is the form of government for Baptists, many Bible Churches, and the Church of Christ.

Each structure provides compelling Scriptural support. I believe there are a few important questions to consider when evaluating polity:

  • To what extent is the Book of Acts prescriptive for future generations? Do the various governmental forms we read about describe the churches, and thus serve as a model for us? Or do they prescribe the church, in which we are commanded to adhere to every detail? The Puritan tradition calls this regulative principle, in which we can only do what we see explicitly stated in Scriptures. Other traditions believe the church is given freedom, but it must be based upon the authority of Scripture and cannot contradict it. I hold to this view—we should not prescribe where the Bible does not. Furthermore, Acts isn’t written as a legal code, instead describes a passionate Church sacrificially embracing mission. I’d rather follow their example then get caught up trying to perfectly mimic their structure.
  • What is the role of the apostolic today? The Presbyterian and Congregational traditions would each consider this gift to have been limited to the early church. The Episcopal (and later Pentecostal) traditions believe this gift continues today. I clearly believe it continues today, but how it continues needs to be clarified because it holds major implications.
  • What is the distinction between local governance and denominational oversight? Many churches today pull from two different traditions, using the Presbyterian model locally and the Congregational model extra-locally—in other words, they’re autonomous, elder-led churches who voluntarily associate with other churches in a network. Some also grant a nearly Episcopal authority to their lead pastor, but do not recognize a bishop who exercises authority over the church. Antioch fits this model.
  • How do we best empower every believer into the priesthood? Does a gifted apostolic father or mother call people up? Does an elder team provide order for this to emerge? Does Congregationalism allow space for this to most naturally emerge? There is probably space for all of these answers, but we need to recognize the significance of releasing the whole church for ministry.

I will analyze each model in more detail in the coming article, including the Biblical support and what I perceive to be relative strengths and weaknesses.

Two books have helped inform my viewpoints: Perspectives on Church Government and Who Runs the Church?

Both are a series of essays and critiques from proponents of each structure. It’s quite helpful in understanding the discussion. However, before you read them, let me provide a few considerations: Both books are limited to a specific denominational perspective (Anglican, Baptist, and Presbyterian). It’d be interesting to hear the Catholic, Methodist, and Church of Christ position. Secondly, neither book reviews emerging modern forms, such as the non-denominational, Charismatic, and church-planting networks that have all exploded in size in recent decades and arguably shape the modern discussion as much as their historical fore-bearers.

Finally, before diving into forms, I’ll be upfront with my personal perspectives: I do not believe the Bible teaches a decisive form of government, but instead provides key principles that must be incorporated. As such, I believe each form holds important truth which must be incorporated into any model. I also believe we must learn from church history in evaluating our approach, not holding tradition on par with Scripture, but also not neglecting it entirely. Lastly, I trust the leadership of Jesus and the activity of the Holy Spirit in guiding the Church. Any system of man will be flawed due to sin. This is unavoidable. But we serve a God who redeems sinners and is made powerful even in our weakness. We should labor to lead the Church well and establish structures that lead to lasting health, but we must also walk in peace and faith in the God who is in control.

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