How is the Church Governed and Led?
Four weeks ago we embarked on a journey to study the doctrine of the church. Thank you to all of the readers who have joined us along the way!
Today we will bring this study to a conclusion by discussing church leadership and polity (government). The three main forms of church government today are Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Congregational. Most churches use one of these structures in one way or another. In what follows, I will advocate for a congregational church government under the leadership of a church’s pastor or pastors (or elders).
As a reminder, these posts on the church were part of an assignment for one of my recent doctoral classes. The following is what I submitted regarding the leadership of the church:
The only proper place for this section to begin is with the headship of Jesus Christ. The church, both local and universal, is His. He is the Chief Shepherd who died for His church and continually cares for her. One day He will come back for her, as a groom comes for His bride.
Under the headship of Christ, each local church should appoint leaders. The New Testament uses three terms, presbyteros, episkopos, and poimen, to describe church leaders. While English Bibles often translate these words respectively as elder, overseer, and pastor, they refer to a single office within the church. “Elder” does not mean that a church leader must be of any certain age. “Overseer” indicates that oversight is one of the functions of such leaders. “Pastor” involves the metaphor of a shepherd taking care of his flock, which in this case is the members of the church.
The pattern of the early churches, seen in Acts 14:23; 15:4, 22; Phil 1:1; and Ti 1:5, indicates that each church had a plurality of elders. Churches today should replicate this pattern and establish multiple pastors/elders/overseers. This may look somewhat different in every church. While the senior pastor will certainly be an elder, some churches may consider ministers besides him, such as the music, youth, or children’s ministers, to be elders; other churches may not view these staff members as elders. Some churches may employ all of their elders, other churches will employ only a certain number of them, the rest being “lay” elders who work outside the church. The key is that churches have a plurality of elders.
Pastors/Elders/Overseers must meet and maintain certain Scriptural qualifications in order to fill their office. These qualifications are listed in 1 Tm 3:1-7 and Ti 1:5-9. The two lists are similar, each including matters pertaining to both personal character and skill/ability. One of the key characteristics of an elder is the ability to teach (1 Tm 3:2; Ti 1:9). Although not all of the elders in a church, whether clerical or lay, will have regular teaching roles, all must be able to teach. 1 Tm 5:17 distinguishes elders who work hard at preaching and teaching, indicating that all elders do not have to teach. Nevertheless, they must be able to.
Beyond the pastor/elder/overseer, the office of deacon is the only other church office described in the New Testament (Phil 1:1 clearly distinguishes between these two offices). Many view Acts 6:1-6 as the origination of the office of deacon, though only a verbal form of the word diakonos is used. Here seven men were chosen by the church to make sure that all of the widows were being taken care of, allowing the apostles to focus on preaching. Yet in the chapters that follow, we are told that two of the seven—Stephen and Philip—also performed signs, helped spread the good news, and baptized converts. This indicates that they did much more than wait on tables, and that this may or may not be the origin of the office of deacon.
The Greek term diakonos means servant or minister and occurs twenty-nine times in the New Testament. English translations such as the NASB, HCSB, and ESV only translate it as “deacon” in three places: Phil 1:1; 1 Tm 3:8, 12. The 1 Timothy passage includes the qualifications a deacon must meet and maintain. The list is similar to the one for pastors/elders/overseers, yet does not include the ability to teach. Herein lies the key difference between the two: elders lead by teaching and deacons lead by serving (of course this does not imply that elders do not serve, for they certainly do). Church members have various needs, and if the responsibility to meet every one of them falls on the elders, they will not have ample time to preach, teach, and fulfill their other duties. Therefore the role of the deacons is to see to the physical and material needs of members within the church.
Both pastors/elders/overseers and deacons should be properly set apart by the church. This is normally done through a practice known as ordination. The New Testament does not use this term, but it does mention the laying on of hands (Acts 6:6; 13:3; 1 Tm 4:14; 5:22; 2 Tm 1:6; Heb 6:2). In an ordination ceremony the church lays hands on and prays for a man they feel has evidenced a call to the office of either pastor or deacon. Through this act he is set aside for the service of the church.
The church is led by pastors/elders/overseers and served by deacons, but it is to be ruled by the congregation—what we call congregationalism. The Bible depicts pastors as teachers, leaders, overseers, and managers, but not as rulers. The final authority of the church rests with the congregation as a whole, including the pastors and deacons. The role of the church in making decisions can be seen in several New Testament passages. Mt 18:17 and 1 Cor 5:4-5 show that church discipline can only be handed out when the church is congregated together. When the seven “deacons” were selected in Acts 6, it was done when the apostles had gathered “the whole company of the disciples,” that is, the church (Acts 6:2-3). It seems that in Acts 13:1-3 Paul and Barnabus were sent on their first missionary journey by the local church at Antioch. Beyond these specific examples pointing to congregational decision-making, it should also be noted that there is no New Testament evidence of a ruling body above or outside of the local church. Furthermore, this practice makes sense in light of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.
Congregationalism places a great amount of responsibility upon churches and church members. If every member has a say, the church must ensure that it practices biblical church membership. Individuals must not be extended membership if they have not professed faith in Christ and made their faith public through baptism. This is known as regenerate church membership, and without it, congregationalism will fail the church. If non-believers are allowed membership, then non-believers are given a say in the church’s business. Churches cannot allow non-Spirit-filled individuals to be a part of their decision making.
For this reason, churches, and especially pastors/elders/overseers, must take church membership seriously. Before becoming members, individuals should meet with a pastor/elder/overseer, who will inquire about the person’s faith, baptism, and knowledge of the Bible/theology. Once this has taken place, potential members should be presented to the church for a vote. In this way, churches can ensure that only like-minded believers become part of the ruling body.
Yet practicing regenerate church membership is not the sole requirement for congregationalism to function properly. Further responsibilities lie on both the leaders and the congregation. On the one hand, church leaders must work hard to educate their members regarding the Bible, theology, and specific matters that will be discussed during an official business session. Church members, on the other hand, must prepare for these meetings by earnestly seeking the Lord’s will for their local church.
In putting the preceding thoughts together, we see that a church ought to be plural-elder led and congregationally ruled. How do these two elements work together? It begins with the congregation, who elects their pastors/elders/overseers into service. Then it becomes the role of these pastors/elders/overseers to seek the Lord’s will for the church and to lead the people accordingly. But then, when a decision is to be made, it is placed by the pastors/elders/overseers into the hands of the congregation. This being said, the congregation should trust its leaders. In fact, more than trusting them, the author of Hebrews says that church leaders are to be obeyed and submitted unto (Heb 13:17). Pastors are overseers who will one day give an account for the people they lead. Unless it is the case that the elders are leading the church into sin and/or heresy, the congregation should trust, obey, and submit to its leaders.
We began by noting that the church exists because of Christ. We end by noting the church exists for the glory of Christ. Christ will be honored and the church will function properly (that is, biblically) when it is led by pastors/elders/overseers, served by deacons, and ruled by the congregation. Each of these three positions is both important and necessary. A church needs pastors/elders/overseers, a church needs deacons, and a church needs a congregation. Each group plays a different role, but a difference in role does not always equate to a difference in rank. In the end, the church as a whole must submit to the Lordship of Christ Jesus.
Thoughts? What form of government does your church practice?