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Part 1 of a series on Church governmentIn terms of the source of its authority, the Church of Jesus Christ is an absolute monarchy. The plot gets thicker when the members of the church try together to obey the will of the King and apply his commands to their lives. At that point, some organized way of making corporate decisions must develop. The organized format a church adopts to obey their King is their church government. The New Testament does not give a blueprint for church government. Churches in the New Testament themselves have different terms and kinds of development. Indeed, some of the major forms of church polity come from the political and cultural contexts where they developed as much as from Scripture. For example, Episcopalian government developed during the Roman Empire. Presbyterian government developed with a representative form of government, and congregational government developed in a time of democratic governmental ideals.
Some look unfavorably on the organized church in any form, saying that the church is an organism, not an organization. They argue that church government does not matter to God since he has blessed and used churches with a variety of polities. But God’s blessing on different polities may actually indicate that the character of churches and their leadership is more important than the church government they follow. Character is important. Good polity helps.
True, the church is an organism, but the church organism still needs some organization (1 Cor 14:40; Col 2:25) with recognized leadership (Acts 13:1; 14:23; 20:17; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim 3; Titus 1), enough of an idea of membership that recognized those within and without (1 Cor. 5:12-13), regular meetings (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2; Heb. 10:25), on the first day of the week (John 20:19, 26), for worship and prayer (Acts 2:42, 47), receiving and accounting offerings (1 Cor 16:2), and breaking of bread (Acts 2:42; 20:7). They kept membership rolls (Acts 2:41; 4:4), practiced ordinances (Acts 2:41-2, 46), shared property (Acts 2:45; 4:32-37), conducted themselves with proper order (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:4-5; 2 Thess. 3:6-15), made corporate decisions (Acts 6:3; 14:23 implies election of elders), and enlisted deacons to care for the poor and widows (Acts 6:1-7) under their leadership whose occupation was the word of God and prayer. Practically, any time a group of people gather to act as a body, they much have some means of making decisions. It is unavoidable.
Early on, there was diversity in government in New Testament churches. That is to be expected in the beginning stages. To understand what the Bible teaches about church polity, we must look for the clues and follow them as well as we can. The lack of a detailed regimen for church government has helped the church adapt to cultures worldwide, but there are some important principles of polity in Scripture that seem most helpful for church health in all cultures. The bottom line is that the local church needs some leadership and organization to long endure.
While the early church’s organization seems decent and in order, the Bible alas leaves some ambiguity in church governance. New Testament terms like elder, bishop, overseer, shepherd, and deacon seem to be functional descriptions rather than positions or titles (Acts 14:13; 20:28; 1 Tim 3:1-13; Titus1:5-9; 1 Pet. 5:1-2). That ambiguity has led to several general forms of church government.
Types of church government
There are five forms of church government: (1) Monarchical (Roman Catholic) in which all authority resides in the pope at Rome, God’s vice-regent on earth; (2) Oligarchic (Eastern Orthodox), a federation of self-governing churches, each with its own patriarch; (3) Episcopal (Methodist) in which the authority of the church resides in regional bishops; (4) Republican (Presbyterian) in which the church’s authority is constitutionally delegated to its elected officials (the session of elders), who function as a ruling group; and (5) Congregational (Baptist) in which all authority rests with the congregation and officers are chosen by church membership and act in their name but are still subject to their authority. Some denominations combine elements of each form, creating a hybrid, such as some Pentecostal groups.