As I write this article, I am no longer in the pastorate, but I am involved in two churches which are both currently between pastors. (Of course, this could change before I finish this project!) But in both cases there is some interest in church government. ‘What a stale topic!’ you might say. And may I respond by saying that it can and usually does (maybe even always) affect the long-term health of the local church. It will have a great affect on the unity or division of the local church. It will have an impact on the spiritual growth of believers in that church. And it will to a large extent determine what kind of testimony that local church will have before a watching world.
This topic is not really very difficult. Nothing that I share here is a secret that I have somehow unearthed. As Paul said in Ephesians 3:4, if you read the Bible you should have no trouble understanding the material. But as someone else noted, everything God has instituted has been perverted by man. And so it is with the government of the local church: in many cases we have taken our lead from worldly, secular systems of rule around us, and those may have little semblance to God’s design. And that diversion on our part has had its disagreeable consequences on earth without even mentioning the consequences in heaven.
In the last church where I served as pastor for twenty-five years, I had the privilege with the board of that church to do an exhaustive study of elders in the Bible. It was tremendously insightful! It became obvious that God’s design for government is elders--they appear throughout the Bible on a variety of levels. There are elders of a large household, elders of nations, elders of cities, elders of the priests, elders of the church, and elders in heaven. There are 182 verses that mention elders--121 in the Old Testament and 61 in the New Testament. You can see that there is good representation in both Testaments given that the New is much smaller than the Old. So we do not have a lack of information with which to begin.
We should note at the outset that God’s design for church government is very simple. It should be clear that the needs of local churches may differ somewhat, so that the development may go varying directions. However, every church may and should begin with God’s design, and that should stay in place, not only nominally but with actual qualification and function, regardless of what is needed in any given locale. What I intend to say is that 100 churches which all seek to follow faithfully God’s instruction will flesh out His design and yet at the same time look slightly different. It will be the same design with variations to meet the local needs. So we praise God that His design is definite and yet allows flexibility. But in order to implement that we must begin with the Bible whether we are just beginning in planting a new church or seeking to correct a government already in place.
We should also note a difference between churches today and those of the New Testament. Those of the New Testament had no buildings and grounds. That was pretty much the reality until the time of Constantine around 312 A.D. So, much of what involves the time and energy of people today in a local church would not have been even a thought then. Another difference is that most of the church leadership of that earlier time would have had little formal education aimed at a career as pastor in a Christian church. The schools just did not exist. Even just these two differences demonstrate a huge contrast between churches then and now. We can hardly conceive of it. We may in some way desire to return to that ‘pristine’ time, but it really is impossible, and there were problems in that time, too.
It is clear when reading Acts that the apostles were the leaders in Jerusalem when the Church began. It was under their leadership that what can be considered as proto-deacons were chosen in Acts 6 to solve the practical problem of serving widows. When they returned in Acts 15 for that first church council to deliberate how to include Gentiles in the Church, there were functioning elders in Jerusalem aside from the apostles. I have been particularly fascinated to see that the elder, James, rather than an apostle, provided the definitive statement which was accepted as the solution. It is also clear that a church was considered to be self-sustaining once elders were in place, as Acts 14:23 indicates, and the apostles were free to continue their missionary work elsewhere. All of this is in keeping with the history of elders in the Israelite nation (Num. 11:16, 24, 25, 30; 16:25; 22:4, 7, etc.) and other places in prior history; it was not new or novel to those people.
Certain synonyms are used for the term ‘elders.’ The term itself suggests mature individuals who would excel in experience and self-control, and therefore, wisdom. 1 Peter 5:1-2 indicates that elders shepherd. ‘Shepherd’ is the same as ‘pastor,’ so those terms are synonymous. A pastor looks after the health of the flock through proper feeding (teaching) and (doctrinal) protection. Another term referring to the same individuals is ‘bishop’ or ‘overseer,’ as Titus 1:5, 7 shows. All three terms come together in Acts 20:17, 28 where the apostle Paul is visiting the elders from Ephesus. He tells them they are overseers and their job is to shepherd the church of God. The overseers do just what their title says in that they superintend the life of the church; there is no one above them under Christ.
It can be quickly observed that churches have a variety of church governments. Often there is a kind of pastor/dictator with a board of his choosing under him. Leaving that kind of CEO pastor aside, a church may have a council, a board (without further description), a trustee board, an elder board, a deacon board, and perhaps other versions. The term ‘elder’ always appears in the plural form when associated with a church (Acts 20:17; 15:4; Jas. 5:14; Phil. 1:1). There are reasons for that. One reason must surely be that the local church cannot be led by one man simply because Jesus Christ is head of the Church. A group of elders, at least two, must be in place to help protect the headship of Christ over that congregation.
In my youngest years my family attended a church which had one pastor, one deacon, and several trustees. At another time in my youth the church we attended had a council and no deacons, at least to my knowledge. Another church where I served as pastor had two elders (besides the pastor) and one deacon, but they were in name only; the church had a different power center. Still another church where I served as pastor had a nondescript board, and yet there were men on that board who served as elders and deacons without the titles. The idea of trustees truly comes from outside the church and is patterned after secular organizations. So there are many variations. Some appear more or less biblical on paper, but what is on paper may be different than reality, and that in a good or bad way.
To have some named as elders in itself may mean nothing. Sometimes the power center is somewhere else in the church. God is not fooled by naming some as elders just to satisfy a cursory acknowledgement of what the Bible says. Elders are to oversee under the headship of Christ. That’s why they need to be able to teach the Bible accurately and be humble under Christ's leadership in life and ability.
To both Timothy (ch. 3) and Titus (ch. 1) Paul wrote lists of qualification for elders. These should be observed. If elders do shepherding, as we have seen, then potential pastors should be held to these standards. Yet in my experience from more than one vantage point, many churches fail to engage these qualifications and eventually run into troubles that could have been avoided. It is not enough to say we will hear a sermon, have a prayer, and take a vote when considering a potential candidate. The Bible God gave us could have been a bit smaller if that was to be the approved process. But, of course, these qualifications should be required of an elder whether or not he serves as an official pastor. And if you know the leaders in your church, you will also be aware of whether they qualify. If they don’t, they have no business leading the church that belongs to Christ.
We have spent most of our time and space dedicated to elders, and it should be so. But you will notice in 1 Timothy 3 that there is another group involved in the local church’s government, namely, deacons. The word ‘deacon’ actually means ‘minister’ or ‘servant.’ We can probably derive some direction from Acts 6 in which the apostles would give themselves to prayer and teaching the Word while the deacons managed the distribution of food to the widows. So the deacons were the ‘hands-on’ men who took care of the details which enabled the local church to function smoothly and maintain an attractive testimony to a watching world. Deaconesses would also fit in here especially in tasks where men might be inappropriate. But notice that there are qualifications for deacons just like for elders. They are not meant to be chosen in a popularity contest, and the number is likely dictated by the need--in Acts 6 seven were sufficient.
So, is the local church’s government meant to be directed by the elders from the top down so that only they have a say? Or should it be directed by the congregation from the bottom up so that decisions are democratic? Another way of asking this is: does a group of elders properly reflect the leadership of Christ, the Head of the Church? or does fifty-one percent of the congregation properly reflect the leadership of Christ?
Throughout church history there have been abuses in any form of church government. But we have a constructive example in Acts 6 where the ‘proto-deacons’ were chosen. In verse 3 the apostles listed the required qualifications and the congregation located and chose the men. There was a beautiful cooperation in that the overseers provided the criteria and the congregation applied them. They both had a stake in it, and, if you read on through verse 7, you will notice a great testimony to the world around. So there can be a reasonable division of responsibility so that both carry the load of governance. To have the congregation assemble for every decision to be made would be cumbersome. But even here some check and balance can serve well for the order and maintenance of the local church.
I have no idea what the various state governments require from local churches, because my experience is limited. In three of the churches I served I was not aware of a state requirement, and this involved two different states. In a third state our church was registered in the state capital probably because of corporation status, and once a year we sent in a form which included the names of the current officers and the required fee. But the state in no way infringed upon our organization of that local church. The state was secondary, and what they required for organization was arranged under the superior biblical requirements. It seems to me that that can be the case for any church, especially if the church is simply being the church and not engaging in non-church activities. Any positions required by the state can be arranged under the elders as is appropriate so that the divine model is in place and the state is also satisfied.
Anyone who wants power in the church will want it structured so he or she can apply their own preferences. That is a clear usurpation of the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church. If we want something other than the apostolic teaching and example, then we need to reexamine our relationship to Christ. What is He to me? Is He truly my Savior and Lord? Or am I like the person of 1 Timothy 6:5 who sees his involvement in church as a means of getting ahead? The local church by definition belongs to Christ, and its organization should reflect that.
For further discussion, you may contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.