Section 8: The Church
Week 3: The Government of the Church
Day 5: What Is the Appropriate Structure for Church Government?
There are three main forms of church government: episcopalian, presbyterian, and congregational.
The episcopalian form of government has a hierarchical structure. It takes its name from the Greek word “episcopus”, which means bishop. At the bottom level is the local congregation, headed by an ordained priest. At the next level is the diocese, which is made up of a number of different local congregations. A bishop has authority over each diocese. At a still higher level are the archbishops who each have authority over a group of bishops. The Catholic Church, Anglican Church of England, and Episcopalian Church of America, are examples of this form of church government.[i]
The presbyterian form is similar in that it also has a hierarchical structure. However, in the episcopalian form of government, authority at each level is vested in an individual. In the presbyterian system, that authority is shared among a group. In this system, the first level again is the local congregation. Each congregation is governed by a group of elders, which includes the pastor. At the next level is the presbytery. It is comprised of elders from multiple congregations. At the highest level, sits the general assembly. It consists of the members of the various presbyteries and has authority over the presbyteries of a particular region.
What both the episcopalian and presbyterian forms of government have in common is the fact that ultimate authority exists in a particular group outside the local church. However, the picture we see in the New Testament is one where the congregation itself had authority over the affairs of the local church.
In Acts, for example, the Apostles tell the congregation to choose seven men from among themselves to deal with the problem that had developed regarding the distribution of food to the widows (Acts 6:1-3). Similarly, it appears the whole church in Antioch was involved in the decision to send Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journey (Acts 15:22).
Further support is seen in the book of Revelation. Christ addresses local churches individually rather than some outside governmental body. That is significant because Jesus is specifically criticizing them for various ways in which they deviated from the truth. Jesus thus holds each church individually responsible for maintaining orthodox teaching and practice. If a hierarchical structure of some sort had been in place, you would expect Jesus to address those higher up the chain since they would have been the ones responsible for keeping churches in line.[ii]
The New Testament picture, therefore, seems more consistent with a congregational form of government, which vests authority in the local church. The church then delegates some of that authority to various leaders (i.e., elders and deacons).
Summarize the various church governmental structures.
Do you think one form better fits the New Testament pattern? Which one bests fits the structure of your church? What elements would need to change to bring it closer to the pattern we see in the New Testament?
[i] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, Second Edition, Grand Rapids: Baker Books (1998), 1081.
[ii] Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church, Wheaton: Crossway (2012), Part 4, Chapter 8, eBook.