The older I get, the more I study the Bible, and the longer I stay involved in church, the more I find myself amused by statements like,
“Well, the most biblical form of church government is _____________ (insert the form you use at your church, or the one you think should be used there),
“I just don’t like that approach to church government because it’s not biblical.”
I want to respond, — What do you mean, ‘biblical’? You mean there’s a verse in the bible that says how every church must be governed? Where’s that verse?
You can find lots of references to church government (if you want to call it that) in Paul’s letters, but you can also find other structures, methods, dynamics, and ways of doing things in the book of Acts. To be very strong about this point right up front, there is not one single model of how to govern a church that is static in the New Testament. There are just lots of examples of how early Christians got things done.
By the way, I think the central idea behind “forms” or “models” in the New Testament (if early believers even thought in such terms) was not about forms and models. It was all about mission. It was about how to process what God was doing among them in the most effective ways possible. It was not about setting up an organizational structure next to some ‘Biblical’ template that they all somehow knew they were supposed to use.
If I’m right, then the most biblical way to think about church government is something like, “What structures and methods would work best for us as we keep our unique mission and challenges in mind as a congregation?” In other words, I think it is actually unbiblical to prescribe something for a congregation that doesn’t actually help them with their mission, because the Christians in the Bible structured things for their functions, and not to serve the structures themselves.
Structure is the servant of function.
Structure is not the servant of structure.
Okay, moving on – what about all those models of Church government? What are they about, how do they work, and which one do you use (or prefer to use) when thinking about how to get things done?
Consider these four typical models of church government. And by the way, you can find amazing churches doing amazing things using these models, and you can also find horrible churches using these models. At the end of the day, my suspicion is that the difference between the two is – what kind of people are using the model, and NOT what kind of model are the people using? But you can decide for yourself if you think I’m right or wrong.
After you read the four models, jump into the comments and discuss the pros and cons of each model (or the one you want to focus on).
I. Apostolic (based on apostolos – One who has been sent by God):
Description: There is no external leadership. There is one Primary “Anointed” leader who serves as the “Man/Woman of God” for the whole church. He/she believes that God has chosen and sent them for this purpose. He/she decides who the other leaders are.
In Acts 1, the lens focuses on Peter (an Apostle) leading the rest of the group through a discernment process. In other places, such as 1 Timothy, 1 Corinthians, and Galatians, Paul emphasizes his right, as an apostle, to make decisions on behalf of the communities he started, even if the rest of the people (including other leaders) disagreed with him. In 1 Timothy, this involves installing an apostolic delegate (Timothy), in 1 Corinthians this involves administering doctrinal and practical correction, and in Galatians this involves defining the dogma of the church’s central message about Jesus.
This model is fairly common in independent churches especially where the pastor is the original founder of the church, and sees himself as the unique person called by God to lead the church forward.
II. Episcopal (based on episcopos – an overseer):
Description: There is a blend between external and internal leadership. Overseeing-Shepherds from outside the local congregation select an “Appointed” Leader to lead and serve within the local congregation.
Again, in 1 Timothy and Titus, this seems to be the “boots on the ground” model. Both Timothy and Titus were left in Ephesus and Crete respectively in order to set the churches in order, and had their responsibilities delegated to them by Paul. In both cases, these men were to re-constitute the leadership base of the local congregations with Elders and Deacons, and to establish the functions of ministry, teaching, giving, and relationships within these congregations. Knowing that their appointments to leadership might be rejected, Paul encouraged them to “Fight the Good fight,” and to “not be ashamed of me” and not to let “anyone look down on you because you are young.”
In this model, the local leader functions under the directives given to him/her by their overseer, and not based on the directives or governance of internal leadership. Internal leaders in this model serve under the leadership of the appointed delegate (usually a lead pastor).
This model is common in Catholic and Episcopal churches, Foursquare churches, and other denominations where the value is – “Sheep don’t appoint shepherds. Shepherds appoint shepherds.”
III. Presbyterian (based on presbuteroi – elders):
Description: There is little or no external leadership. Elders who lead from inside the congregation “Ordain” other leader(s) who care for the congregation, and typically choose their pastor.
Apparently, the role of Elders was strong in Paul’s christian communities, and central to their ongoing function. In Acts, he charged the Ephesian elders to watch over the flock, protect from wolves, and care for the people. In 1 Timothy and Titus, the end-goal was to leave the churches in the day-to-day care of godly elders who could teach, preach, lead, administer, and guide God’s people in the absence of Apostles and apostolic delegates.
In this model, there are wise, mature, godly, and seasoned believers who grow into positions of influence and ministry. They are usually officially recognized and appointed to serve in a leadership capacity by their fellow leaders, and this group usually reserves the big decisions about the direction of the church to themselves as a leadership team. Familiar language among these folks are the phrases “plurality of elders” and “leader among equals” with respect to the role of the lead pastor.
Obviously, the Presbyterian churches employ this model, but it is used by a huge number of congregations without the word “Presbyterian” in their name.
Description: There is little or no external leadership, and many layers of internal leadership. The congregation selects, installs, appoints, or hires those who work among them through democratic or committee-oriented voting procedures.
This model is used by a variety of churches, and vests the direction of the church (including choosing and hiring a pastor) in the hands of whoever happens to be a member of the church at the time the decisions need to be made. Acts 6 provides an instance of congregational activity, wherein the people complain about a problem, take the problem to leaders, but then are told to go back and solve the problem them selves by selecting people to address their issues. There was definitely an appeal to leaders, but the leaders tossed the ball back to the people for their action and collaboration (within a set of guidelines).
This model is used in Congregational churches, the Assemblies of God, and many independent churches.
Four Questions for Reflection:
1. How have you seen these various models employed, abused, successfully implemented, and affect the churches you’ve been part of?
2. Have you seen variations of these approaches in the churches you have been part of? What was good about them, what was bad, and what do you value/not value on the basis of your experience with each one?
3. Is there a difference between what the New Testament is “describing” as God’s people move along together, and what it is “prescribing”? In other words, can you see any functional and healthy pragmatism in the New Testament, or do these people seem to be using a prescriptive template for everything regardless of their particular circumstances? Maybe a bit of both? How do you see it?
4. How might the language of “The most biblical model of all” be a mistake when talking about church governance with these ideas in mind? Are you convinced that there is one primary model that the Bible is trying to give us, or are there other possibilities (such as multiple options for discernment and leadership depending on the needs and circumstances being faced)?