Church Government

For the past week my family and I have been reading about church government in our after-breakfast Bible reading. We read parts of what Wayne Grudem says about forms of church officers and about church government in Chapter 47, “Church Government,” of his Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994) and most of an Assemblies of God position paper on the role of women in ministry. I’ll share here some of what we read.

Church Officers

Grudem defines a church officer as “someone who has been publicly recognized as having the right and responsibility to perform certain functions for the benefit of the whole church” (page 905). The New Testament gives information about one church office which was limited to the early church, the office of apostle, and two church offices which continue through the church age, the offices of elder and deacon.

The New Testament identifies as apostles the twelve (with Matthias replacing Judas, Acts 1:26)), Barnabas and Paul (Acts 14:14), James the brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:19), and possibly a few others. Their qualifications included having seen the resurrected Christ (Acts 1:21-22), winning converts for him (1 Corinthians 9:1-2), and exercising the gifts of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:12). Grudem observes that they “had unique authority to found and govern the early church” and “could speak and write words of God” (page 911).

Elders were the main governing group in New Testament churches. Acts 14:23 says that Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders for them [the disciples or believers] in every church” (ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV). Other names used for elders in the New Testament are pastors (Ephesians 4:11) and bishops or overseers (1 Timothy 3:1). Their major roles in the New Testament were to govern or rule and to preach and teach (1 Timothy 5:17). Paul lists their personal qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:2-7 and Titus 1:6-9.

Deacons are distinguished from elders in Philippians 1:1, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers [elders; see above] and deacons.” The word for “deacon” is translated “servant” when it is used in contexts not dealing with church officers, suggesting the function of deacons. Although the seven men appointed “to serve tables” because of the neglect of Hellenist widows in the daily distribution of provisions to the needy in Acts 6:1-6 aren’t referred to as deacons, they are generally considered to be the first deacons. Paul lists the personal qualifications of deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-13.

Forms of Church Government

Churches today have many different forms of government, ranging from the Roman Catholic Church with its world government under the Pope to independent churches with no government beyond the local congregation. However they can be grouped into three main categories–episcopalian, presbyterian, and congregational.

In the episcopalian form of church government the chief ministers are bishops. The Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, the Church of England (known as the Anglican Church in Canada and as the Protestant Episcopal Church in United States), and the Methodist Church have this form of church government. They vary in the number of levels of ministers. The first level is priest or rector, who administers a local congregation or parish. The second level is bishop, who administers a church district called a diocese. The third level is archbishop, who administers a church district called an archdiocese. The episcopalian form of church government is not found in the New Testament, but its proponents claim that it developed naturally from the New Testament church.

In the presbyterian form of church government the chief ministers are elders. At the Reformation the Presbyterian leaders thought that they were restoring the original form of church government. In the system each local church elects elders to a session, which governs the church. A church’s pastor is chosen by its session but ordained by its presbytery. The members of the session are also members of a presbytery, which has authority over several churches in a region. Some of the members of the presbytery are members of a general assembly, which has authority over all the presbyterian churches in a country or region. Reformed churches have a similar form of church government but use different names for the governing bodies: consistory instead of session, classis instead of presbytery, and synod instead of general assembly.

In the congregational form of church government ultimate authority rests with the local congregation. Grudem distinguishes among five varieties of it which he calls single elder or single pastor, plural local elders (with one of them being the pastor or senior pastor), corporate board, pure democracy, and “no government but the Holy Spirit.” Congregations may enter into cooperative affiliations but these are strictly voluntary in nature. Congregationalism as a system appeared after the Reformation. Major denominations with the congregational form of church government are Baptists, Congregationalists, and most Lutheran groups.

Grudem gives extensive arguments for and against each form of church government, but instead of reading them in our family Bible reading we read the description of the organizational structure of the Assemblies of God by Michael L. Dusing in Systematic Theology: A Pentecostal Perspective (edited by Stanley M. Horton, Springfield, Missouri: Gospel Publishing House, 1994, pages 551-52). I won’t share from either here, but if you have a question about them ask it in a comment on this post and I’ll answer in a reply to your comment.

The Role of Women in Church Ministry

Because Grudem argues that women should not function as pastors or elders within the church but the denomination to which my family belongs allows them to do so, we read an Assemblies of God position paper on the role of women in church ministry, The Role of Women in Ministry as Described in Holy Scripture, instead of Grudem’s discussion of it. Basically it concludes that the Biblical and historical examples of women in ministry and the Holy Spirit’s distributing spiritual gifts to women as well as to men indicate that women should be allowed to minister and provide spiritual leadership. Thus it explains the New Testament passages that seem to prohibit them from doing so, 1 Corinthians 14:34-36 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15, as dealing with specific local problems that needed correction rather than prohibiting women from functioning as pastors or elders.


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