Primary Texts and Modern Examples of Church Organization and Government

August 31, 2020

I recently did some study of elders, deacons, and church government. This was a topic I studied while in Seminary, 1 and  and I wanted to freshen up some of my beliefs about what the Bible says on these topics.

Below is a brief outline of my studies (with guidance Dr. Nathan Holsteen) and various views the different church denominations have. 

I.          ORGANIZATION OF THE CHURCH

A.        Elders

1.         Primary Texts are 1 Timothy 3:1-7, 5:17-21; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:1-5

2.         Qualifications of Elders

Elders are required to have certain character (1 Timothy 3:2-3; Titus 1:6-7), specific abilities (1 Tim 3:2; Tit 1:9), godly relationships (1 Tim 3:2, 4), experience (1 Tim 3:6), and a specific desire for service (1 Tim 3:1; 1 Peter 5:2-3).

3.         Responsibilities of Elders

Elders are supposed to shepherd (1 Peter 5:2) and teach (1 Tim 3:2).

4.         Plurality of Elders

There seems to be sufficient data in the New Testament to suggest that a plurality of elders was the custom and should be implemented. See Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2; 20:17, 28; 21:18; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 5:17; Tit 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1-2

B.         Deacons

1.         Primary Texts Are 1 Timothy 3:8-16 and Acts 6:1-6.

2.         Qualifications of Deacons

A list of qualifications for deacons is given just after the qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3:8-13.

3.         Responsibilities of Deacons

Acts 6:1-7 is the only location we see deacons doing ministry.

II.        GOVERNMENT OF THE CHURCH

A.        In the Bible

1.         In the Book of Acts

The church in the book of Acts was in a transitional state, but it had an organized structure. A careful reading of Acts reveals that the church had a doctrinal confession (Acts 2:42), practiced baptism (Acts 2:41), had the Lord’s Supper (Acts 2:42, 46), had some levels of membership (Acts 2:14, 41; 4:4), helped people in need (Acts 2:44-45), and appointed leaders for specific tasks (Acts 6:1-7).

2.         In the New Testament Letters

The church in the Pauline and general epistles showed more organization than the church in Acts. Church officers were in place (Titus 1:5) and there was an enforced order within the church (1 Corinthians 14:40).

B.         In the Modern Church

1.         Episcopalianism

a.         Description

Government by a hierarchy of bishops. There are three layers of leaders: bishops, presbyters (or priests), and deacons. Only the bishop can ordain priests and deacons. It has the strongest emphasis on clergy and laity distinction. The local church does not own its property.

b.         Examples

Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglican Communion (such as Episcopalian churches), Methodist Church

2.         Presbyterianism

a.         Description

Governed by “elders” (presbuteros) in the form of church courts. Congregation chooses it’s pastor and elects elders. Places power of local church in a group of elders, not in one minister who derives authority from a bishop. The local church does not own its property.

b.         Examples

Presbyterian churches, reformed churches

3.         Congregationalism

a.         Description

The local church is an autonomous unit. Christ in the only person above a congregational church. The ultimate authority of the church rests in the members of the church. Can be “elder” led or “deacon” led. Each church calls its own pastor, approves its own budget, purchases property, and has ownership of its own property.

b.         Examples

Baptist churches, Bible churches, Plymouth Brethren Churches, Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA), Church of Christ (restoration movement churches)

 

Notes:

  1. Special thanks to Dr. Nathan Holsteen of Dallas Theological Seminary. Some of this blog post has been adapted from the notes from his “Ecclesiology” class I took under him.

Christopher L. Scott

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Christopher L. Scott is a local church pastor and freelance writer. He frequently writes articles for various magazines and a local newspaper. His articles have appeared in Pacific Magazine, War Cry, The Lutheran Digest, New Identity Magazine, NET Results, The Christian Journal, and Bible Advocate. In 2020 more than 300,000 copies of his articles have been printed and distributed. Most articles are posted online and available to readers worldwide for free. He's a graduate of Fresno Pacific University and Dallas Theological Seminary.

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