You asked me last week about a fun and exciting (can you sense my sarcasm) ecclesiology issue: church governance structures. While every model has some biblical merit, there is no perfect solution. The problem with every church governance structure is that it’s always comprised of men, and we, of course, are inherently sinful.
So, I wanted to first lay out the general descriptions of each church governance structure with the biblical texts often used in support of them. Then, consider each structure in light of some biblical mandates for the church and realities of leadership to help explain how I formed my own opinion about what is both most biblical and most practical.
Think of possible church government models and structures as points along a spectrum. On one end you have consolidated authority in the hand of a pastor (often referred to as the “Moses” model). On the other end would be diffused, shared leadership where a church leader (not necessarily a pastor) has essentially no real authority at all (such as congregational models or those in the Churches of Christ). In between the two, you have a variety of models (elder-led, deacons, advisory boards, etc). I’ll lay out each structure and then talk about the strengths and weaknesses of each below.
In general, though, you have four models of church government: Episcopal, Mono-Episcopal (Moses), Presbyterian, and Congregational. The Alliance is some mix of Presbyterian and Episcopal polity.
An Episcopal church structure is a more hierarchical structure where Bishops (or Superintendents) play a prominent role. Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, and Lutherans fit pretty well into this category. Bishops appoint pastors to serve in churches and can decide the length of their service there. Bishops have a great deal of authority and congregations and their leadership are basically “along for the ride”. An Episcopal polity sees Scriptures like Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 5 as the New Testament basis for their structure, and would go back to Moses in Deuteronomy as Old Testament evidence. When Paul instructs Titus and Timothy to appoint elders in the church, he is seen as functioning as a Bishop: appointing Titus and Timothy to lead their local congregation.
Mono-Episcopal (often referred to as “The Moses Model”) would be what many non-denominational churches are nowadays. Essentially, one man begins a work and functions as its “Bishop”, or overseer. In contrast to the Episcopal polity (which has a Council of Bishops), this Mono-Episcopal leader has no colleagues and exercises pretty much unilateral oversight of the church. The leader could appoint elders in the church, or have an advisory board or something else, but basically it’s their work to lead because God called them, gave them a burden for the work, and raised them up for it. He may bring in others to help with the work, but the burden of leadership (and, thus, the decision-making authority) rests with them. Moses is obviously cited as the basis for this model of leadership. He was selected and appointed by God to lead His people (Exodus 3) and served as the mediator between God and man, declaring to them the Word of the Lord (Deuteronomy 5). Just as Moses had judges to help him in his work (Exodus 18), so these men have those to help them in their work (basically elders and deacons as outlined in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and Acts 6). However, like Moses, they have been uniquely called by God to lead.
A Presbyterian church structure is one which places a heavier emphasis on the role of local church elders. Presbyterian churches (surprise!) and many identifying as “Reformed” fit pretty neatly into this category. Basically, the emphasis of leadership is on a group of locally elected (as opposed to appointed) elders (in contrast to a Bishop, pastor, or congregation). A Presbyterian polity sees the role of elders as described in Titus 1, 1 Timothy 3, and 1 Peter 5 as being carried out by a group of locally elected men. Depending on the church or denomination, these elders can serve as part of a larger group of elders (a Synod, for example). But, this is not seen as a higher or greater level of authority, but as delegated authority from the local body of elders. Pastors are one of the elders but do not hold any more weight, influence, or leadership than the rest of the group. Essentially they are “SME’s” in theology, preaching, or religion but don’t bear the burden of local church leadership.
A Congregational church structure is one which places the local church and its unique polity as the higher form of authority. There are, generally speaking, no conventions, Synods, districts, or other broder bodies which have any authority or influence over the local church. Baptists and Churches of Christ of course are quintessential examples of Congregational churches. They may still have pastors, elders, and/or deacons…but they may not. Most Baptist churches would have locally elected elders and/or deacons and church pastors according to their views of Titus 1, 1 Timothy 3, and 1 Peter 5. Churches of Christ, though, may not have a pastor at all and may be led entirely by locally elected elders and deacons based on their interpretation of those same passages. Specifics of church composition and polity (like everything else) is left up to each local congregation.
So, while each of these have some basis in Scripture, it’s not simply a matter of saying, “for the Bible tells me so” when it comes to church government structures. They each look at the same Scriptures and have different interpretations of what that looks like. There’s another really important aspect of church governance that, in my opinion, I would put at least on par with the Scriptures listed above. To me, the more important question is this: What church government structure best enables the church to live out the mission of God in the world? To answer this question, there are several important factors to consider.
I believe in the biblical role and purpose of ordination. Ordination is a biblical practice that goes all the way back to the Old Testament. Interestingly, it always involves three things: the laying on of hands, an acknowledgement of God’s calling, and the setting apart for some exercise of spiritual leadership. Moses famously laid hands on Joshua (Numbers 27 and Deuteronomy 39) to set him apart as the next spiritual leader of Israel. This is an indication not of Moses selecting Joshua, but of Moses’ acknowledgement that God had selected Joshua. We see this same pattern in the New Testament, too. In Acts 13, God tells the church to “set apart” Barnabas and Paul. The Greek there indicates that God has called them for a separate and distinct purpose than others. Much like Moses and Joshua in the Old Testament, we then see Paul and Barnabas laying hands on others for the same reasons. In Acts 14:23, elders were “ordained” for the churches. This is a different Greek word than in the previous chapter and it means “to take particular charge of a duty, either by appointment or election”. So, while Barnabas and Paul were “set apart” by God for a calling, the elders in Acts 14 seem to be appointed by Paul and Barnabas to carry out their functions as elders. This is the same word used for Titus’s ordination in 2 Corinthians 8:19. Titus being instructed to appoint elders in Titus 1 also seems to carry the same connotation as Acts 14 (that is, being elected or appointed to carry out the functions of an office).
So, I believe in the biblical practice of ordination. I believe God calls and sets apart certain people for spiritual leadership. This calling is then affirmed by other men of God with the laying on of hands. So, I believe there is an important place for biblical leadership within the church.
The mission of God for the church demands leadership. In addition, I also see where leadership is needed/demanded within the church for the mission that God has given the church. God’s mission for the church is to GO! We are to go into all the world as ambassadors for Christ and His Kingdom and make disciples (Matthew 28; 2 Corinthians 5:20). However, you and I both know that in our humanity we are inherently selfish and sinful (Jeremiah 17:9) and in constant need of both rescue from sin (Romans 7:24) but also redirection toward the heart and mission of God (Romans 12:1-2; Psalm 51).
In theology, we call it “sin”...that which tends to constantly draw us away from God and from which God constantly redeems us. However, this principle is not limited to just theology. We find it at work all around us everyday. In science, it’s called “entropy”. The idea is that things tend toward disorder and chaos. In parenting, it’s called “Clean up your room…again!”. In the military it’s called “PMCS” because vehicles and equipment break down without constant interruption by people. In project management it’s called “scope creep”, because projects tend to get away from their original purpose and design. With people it’s called “aging”. In the business world it’s called “management”. In education, it’s called “administration”. You get my point!
What I’m saying is that people tend toward contentment with the status quo and not toward fulfillment of God’s heart and mission. Thus, the very mission of God for the church demands leadership. So, I believe that God calls and sets apart certain people, gives them a calling, burden and capacity for leadership, and places them within the Church according to His good will and pleasure. So, church systems that do not have a place for spiritual leadership will inevitably tend toward consensus around the status quo, entropy, and bear increasingly little fruit.
Spiritual leadership is modeled throughout Scripture. I would suggest that you see plenty of examples in Scripture of spiritual leadership, both by individuals and groups (such as elders). In Acts 15, for example, you see a group of apostles and elders (the Council of Jerusalem) coming together to seek the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and deciding the answer to a tough, divisive spiritual question. You also see elders as those who teach the church (1 Timothy 3), both encouraging those who believe and refuting those who oppose (Titus 1). You also see very strong leadership, though, by individuals.
Check out the language in 1 Corinthians 4:18-21 Paul used to address the Corinthian church: “Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or shall I come in love and with a gentle spirit?” While his heart is clearly pastoral - and he had no doubt shepherded them lovingly, patiently, and graciously - He obviously has understood and recognized leadership over this church family.
Ephesians 4, while affirming that all Christians are called to the work of ministry, notes that some are called to be leaders of God’s people. Some have been called to be apostles, pastors, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Couple these types of passages with those above regarding individual ordination and what that means, and I don’t think you can just dismiss some level of individual leadership within churches.
How does this all fit together? While Christ is the head of the Church (Colossians 1:18), He has called some to lead. Those whom He calls, we recognize through ordination (which is an intentionally slow and deliberate process). When those who have been called and affirmed go out, they are ideally supported by local elders who help them lead the church. However, I can see in Scripture where those who have been “set apart” have a greater burden for leadership. This, I believe, is affirmed by churches when they call pastors to serve and lead them. So, I believe some deference ought to be given to their voice and latitude for their leadership.
However, men are also inherently sinful and, left unchecked and without accountability, can easily become toxic and very un-Christlike in their leadership (just consider the Mars Hill podcast we’ve been listening to). These men need to lead as part of a group for this reason, but also considering all that the New Testament has to say about elders shepherding together as a group. So, the best I can figure is this:
Episcopal polity understands the importance of leadership but moves the center of gravity too much toward the bishop and not enough toward the local church pastor and elders. Pastors and local elders do not have much room for exercising leadership in this framework.
Mono-Episcopal polity is the most dangerous to me because it offers the fewest “checks and balances” for a pastor while also allowing the least for the exercise of various gifts. With the right man, this can be a great structure, but with the wrong man it can be catastrophic.
Presbyterian polity seems to be the closest thing to allowing the church to be what Scripture affirms it to be. It allows for real leadership at the local level while also holding churches accountable to a larger body, which they often need for good reasons (encouragement and support) and bad reasons (correction and discipline) alike.
Congregational polity understands the importance of local leadership, but lacks in two important areas. It doesn’t necessarily allow a pastor (if he even exists) to exercise leadership when it is necessary, and it also doesn’t have any input mechanisms for voices outside the immediate church (like encouragement, support, correction, and discipline).
There is no perfect system. I have seen both bad leaders hold a church back or bring it down and good leaders be fleeced and crippled by the inability to actually exercise leadership. Mark Driscoll serving as a Mono-Episcopal leader can be devastating to a church. But, I have also seen a church that desperately needed leadership (like a local, congregational Baptist church) run a good man out of town because they refused to follow Him, even though it is exactly what they needed. At the end of the day, the church is the Lord’s and we lead it the best we can, with who we have, where we are.
I do firmly believe, though, that churches need leaders. Perhaps I’m biased because I am a pastor and colored by my experiences, but I believe that there is a place for pastoral leadership that is somewhat distinct from a group of totally co-equal elders. Here’s a real example for you: I found an old letter I wrote to my elders in Whiteville expressing my frustration about this. They desperately needed to make some changes, and I was trying to lead them through those changes the best I could, but I was meeting very stiff resistance. This had been true of previous pastors at this church as well, so I knew it wasn’t personal. It was deeper and more systemic than that. This church needed leadership, but the system (and people) in place weren’t allowing for it. Understand that this was me communicating my feelings to these men about our church at that time and place. Don’t read this as some doctrinal statement, but rather expressing the tensions of trying to lead within that framework. A portion of that letter reads like this:
There is an unhealthy view of the pastor that stands at odds with the interpretation and practice of the C&MA. (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; Ephesians 4:11-13; 1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6)
a. The pastor is a “temp worker”.
i. This comment came from one of our elders in regards to his own view of the pastor. This comment is eye-opening and concerning in and of itself. What is of even greater concern is that not a single elder challenged that viewpoint. It is no wonder that pastors have been met with stiff resistance from our church leadership (which has been largely unchanged over several pastors) if the pastors are not viewed as leaders at all.
b. The pastor is simply “one of us”.
i. When asked multiple times about the relationship between the pastor and lay leadership, this has consistently been the answer. The pastor is an elder whose voice is no louder or more authoritative than any other. Essentially, the voice of the pastor is 20% (or less) of a group. This would be an uphill battle in and of itself, but it is near insurmountable when the majority of voices are either related or have deep bonds of friendship and partnership forged over a longer period of time than the pastor has been alive.
c. The primary, and sometimes only, roles of the pastor are to preach on Sunday mornings, visit people in the hospital, and chair church meetings.
i. This view allows no room for spiritual or organizational leadership. When biblical, pastoral leadership is exercised, it seems to be viewed as the pastor “exceeding his role” and is met with resistance. Positive change, of course, then becomes only a vain and fleeting hope.
I decided to include that just to give you some “real-world” context to the tensions within church polity structures. Wherever you go, and however you serve, there will be challenges. The system won’t be perfect. But, you serve faithfully and exercise leadership with love and humility, trusting in the sovereignty of God.
I hope some of this helped.
Just a man trying to save his thoughts and correspondence