Priests, Bishops, Elders, Pastors, Popes, Archbishops, Elders… Congregation?

It seems like there are as many church titles as their are churches but you may be surprised to hear that in the Bible their are only two offices given to the church, elders (also called pastors) and deacons.  You may be even more surprised to hear that God has made the individual members of the church responsible for what goes on in the church, not simply the leaders.  So with all the different churches with their own branded form of leadership and decision making, what is the biblical patter of church government? The first issue with church government what are the biblical church offices.

Pastor/Elder

The terms elder, overseer, and bishop are used interchangeably in the New Testament (NT) to refer to the same office in the church (See Acts 20:17-38 and 1 Peter 5:2-5).  These terms refer to the same office of Pastor emphasizing different aspects of it.  Churches in the scriptures always have a plurality of elders who oversaw the church in many aspects. The qualifications for this office are given in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9.

Deacons

Next there are deacons who are the church servants.  These individuals did not take part in the official leading of the church like the elders but were in charge of taking care of the physical needs of the congregation (Acts 6:1-6, 1 Tim. 3:8-13).  Many churches have deacons who serve as leaders in the church and this is simply not biblical and unhealthy.

What about Apostles?

Apostles were existent in the early church though this office fell out of use after the eyewitnesses of Jesus all passed away as this was one of the requirements to be an apostle (Acts 1:21-22).  This office was part of the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20) laid in the first century, not intended to continue to the present day.  Even thought there are no more apostles living, a faithful NT church is still led by the apostles through their writings now gathered into the NT.

Who Makes Decisions?

The NT pattern seems to suggest it was the responsibility of the church members to install and remove church leaders (Acts 6:3, Acts 15:22, 1 Cor. 5:4). This fits into the congregationalist form of church government which makes the congregation the final court of appeals when it comes to the decision making of the church.  This reality is seen most clearly in the fact that the congregation is always responsible when there is false teaching in the church (Gal. 1:3), immorality in the church (1 Cor. 5), or the need to excommunicate a member of the church (Matt. 18:15-20 esp. v. 17).  These things are never merely left up to the leaders of the church.  The elders (pastors) of the church are never charged with these things or rebuked for failing to do these things, the congratulation itself was called to do them.  In this form of government, the elders lead the church and present things to the church but the church votes as the final court of appeals.  This means the the elders (pastors) lead and teach the church, the deacons take care of physical needs, and the congregation moves forward with decision making under the guidance and leadership of the elders.

Episcopalian Alternative

Contrary to this form of structure there is the Episcopalian form of government which includes Archbishops, bishops, and priests who preside over the congregations in that order of authority.  This form is built off of presumed church tradition rather than the scriptures as these offices as they are used never appear in the Bible.

Presbyterian Alternative

Then you have the Presbyterian form of Church Government which includes a teaching elder and lay elders that form a session in each congregation and some of these elders are part of a regional presbytery and some of these are part of a general assembly which presides over the local churches.  This form of government is argued largely based on the example of the Jerusalem counsel that is formed in Acts 11:1-18 which was made up of the churches “throughout Judea” (v.1).  This group came to a conclusion that was accepted by the churches through Judea and beyond.  This form of government also is meant to bring visible unity to the global church, stability and protect against false teaching though this is not always effective (look at the PCUSA for example). A big problem with this view, though more biblical than the Episcopalian view, is that the local church in the NT is given responsibility to make decisions under the authority of Christ.   Each local church was autonomous and was responsible to Christ, not to a body of higher leadership.  My opinion, based on what I see in the Bible, is that denominations are good for cooperation, not for control or governing. You can find a more in-depth explanation of this position from a Presbyterian pastor here.

Woman Pastors

The final issues when it comes to church government relates to women in pastoral ministry.  According to the scriptures, the teaching and leading role in the church is reserved for men, not because they are superior in value but rather because God made men and women different in roles both in the home and in the church (1 Tim. 2:11-14, 1 Cor. 14:33-3 1 Tim. 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, Eph. 5:25-33).   This practice is rooted in creation as is made clear in 1 Timothy 2:11-14, not in culture or preference. As the text says

“Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” (1 Ti 2:11–14)

Notice the reason that Paul gives here. “For Adam was formed first, then Eve”. This makes clear that Gender roles are not a result of the fall but are rooted in the goodness of God’s creation and in the wisdom of God in creating Man in Woman as equal is worth but different in function.  Furthermore, Paul points to the fall as another basis for gender roles as he says “and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor”.  This is by no means saying that the woman was gullible and the man was not.  Paul is pointing out that the serpent did not go to the man and try to deceive him.  Rather the serpent usurps God’s good creation order and goes to the woman who is the helper (Gen. 2:20), instead of the man who was called to protect and lead.

I hope this article go your mind thinking about the way God intends his churches to be ordered.  We should be thankful for God’s clarity on this issues and be zealous about patiently bringing purity to the church in this area.

If you are interested in reading more about this issue, check out this book of Church Government that I recommend.  Also check out these books below: