church spain cliffChapter Two: Biblical Church Government

True story: I was teaching at a writer’s conference and I met a woman who’d heard that I was working on a book about the church. She told me she had been on staff at a large church, and she published a book for women, a natural result of her work in women’s ministry.

The senior pastor then pulled her aside and said he couldn’t have her teaching people, because they should only be listening to HIM.  He fired her, but that wasn’t the worst of it.  At a staff meeting of more than 100 people, he pretty much said that anyone who took the woman’s side in the situation might as well resign.

So this woman was virtually shunned by the brothers and sisters of her church.  HOW WRONG IS THAT?  She said she’d seen church members at the grocery store literally walk past her and pretend not to know her.  Why? Because the senior pastor said so.



This sort of bullying behavior makes my blood boil with righteous anger because this is NOT what a biblical church is supposed to be and it’s NOT how biblical churches are supposed to behave.  That senior pastor, as a matter of fact, is NOT practicing biblical leadership. Biblical leadership SERVES, it does not demand or bully or castigate.  This sort of arrogance is SIN, yet who’s going to call him on it?  Not the staff members who fear for their jobs.  Not the congregation, who are not being taught or shown what being a Christian is really about.

This was not the only story I heard about bullying pastors.  Not by a long shot.

Let’s see what the Bible says about church leaders: who they are and how they are supposed to govern. You might be surprised to realize how far the contemporary church has strayed from the biblical model.

The early church was led not by one pastor, but by a group of wise men called elders. We see the biblical example in Acts 14:23:

They preached the gospel in that city [Derbe] and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said. Paul and Barnabas appointed [or ordained] elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.

Three biblical words describe this office of church leader. The first, elder, is from the Greek word presbuteros from which the word “presbytery” comes. The word elder emphasizes the office and the position of authority that lies within the office.[1]
A second term for the same office is bishop. The Greek word is episkopos, from which we get the “episcopal.” This term emphasizes the function of the office, general oversight of the church(Acts 20:28; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1–2; Titus 1:7; 1 Pet. 2:25).[2]
The third term used of the same office is the word pastor. The Greek word is poimanos, which emphasizes the aspect of shepherding and feeding the church (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 2:25; 5:1–2).[3]
These three terms are not describing three different offices, but one. The best way to prove this is to notice the Scriptures where these terms are used of the same body of leaders. For example, in Acts 20:17 and 28, all three terms are applied to the same leadership group. Another example is 1 Timothy 3:1–7 compared with 5:17 and with 3:4; again, these different terms are used for the same people. Other examples are Titus 1, comparing verse 5 with verse 7, and 1 Peter 5:1–2. Once again, these terms are used to refer to the same body of leaders.[4]
Furthermore, the concept of “elder” originated from the elders of Israel who had authority within the body of Israel. The elder form of church government naturally arises out of God’s previous dealings with Israel. Elder rule is not a singularly New Testament concept.[5]
You must remember that all the early church leaders and first church members were Jews who would naturally have included their Jewish frame of reference when the Church was born. Therefore, the concept of elder-rule arises from the nation of Israel. As the elders of the synagogue ruled the synagogue, so the elders of a church are to rule/govern/shepherd the church.[6]
The next question that naturally arises when considering elders and the church is how many elders should a church have? The biblical answer is: as many as necessary.
“The Bible never envisioned one pastor over a congregation,” writes Arnold Fruchtenbaum. “This is always dangerous and has led to some pastors becoming dictatorial over the congregants. Whenever the Bible speaks of a local church and its elders, it is always a plurality of elders, not a singular elder over many (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:5; Jas. 5:14). By having a plurality of qualified elders, there naturally exists checks and balances, so if one elder goes off on a tangent, he can be corrected by the others.”
In his excellent book Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem writes,

In a contemporary congregation, the “pastor” (or “senior pastor”) would be one among the elders in this system. He does not have authority over them, nor does he work for them as an employee. He has a somewhat distinct role in that he is engaged in the full-time work of “preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17), and derives part or all of his income from that work (1 Tim. 5:18). He also may frequently assume a leadership role (such as chairman) among the elders, which would fit with his leadership role among the congregation, but such a leadership role among the elders would not be necessary to the system. In addition, the pastor will ordinarily have considerable authority to make decisions and provide leadership in many areas of responsibility that have been delegated to him by the elder board as a whole. Such a system would allow a pastor to exercise strong leadership in the church while still having equal governing authority with the other elders.


The strength of this system of government is seen in the fact that the pastor does not have authority on his own over the congregation, but that authority belongs collectively to the entire group of elders (what may be called the elder board). Moreover, the pastor himself, like every other elder, is subject to the authority of the elder board as a whole. This can be a great benefit in keeping a pastor from making mistakes, and in supporting him in adversity and protecting him from attacks and opposition.[7]

He goes on to say:

. . .we must agree that a system of plural elders in which all have equal authority does not prevent one elder (such as the pastor) from functioning as a sort of “first among equals” and having a significant leadership role among those elders.
A common practical problem with a “single elder” system is either an excessive concentration of power in one person or excessive demands laid upon him. In either case, the temptations to sin are very great, and a lessened degree of accountability makes yielding to temptation more likely. . . . it was never the pattern in the New Testament, even with the apostles, to concentrate ruling power in the hands of any one person.[8]

I have been involved with several churches with a plurality of pastors, yet one is always considered the “senior pastor.” I don’t believe this contradicts the biblical example cited above if, as in Grudem’s example above, all the pastors are involved in governing the affairs of the church and each is allowed to openly and honestly share his opinions without fear of being called rebellious or even losing his job. Cooperation and unity are beautiful things; and we Christians are called to work together in unity.
However, if one pastor—or several at an administrative level—wields authority over the others to the point where they can make decisions without input from the others, or dictate to a pastor without so much as asking for his input, they are deviating from the biblical example. They are creating divisions among what should be an equal partnership, an elder board where each shares responsibility for overseeing, governing, and shepherding the flock. Creating levels of authority mimics the world’s system of management and has nothing to do with biblical leadership. Furthermore, it creates a climate of resentment and fear among those who are dictated to and treated as “underlings” when in reality, each elder is an under-shepherd to Jesus Christ.
I know one senior pastor who realized that something was amiss among his church staff. He spoke to his administrative pastor, but that man couldn’t define the problem. Finally the senior pastor hired a firm to come in and administer a 360-Degree evaluation, one that gathers feedback from everyone involved in a work situation.
Because the other staff members, those who had been under the authority of the administrative pastor, were finally able to speak freely, they did: and the pastor learned that his administrative pastor had been, to put it simply, a bully. He had not related the senior pastor’s heart and in some cases had even undermined his intentions. He had threatened and intimidated the other staff members until they were unwilling to even speak up in staff meetings.
With his eyes opened by this revelatory information, the senior pastor fired the administrative pastor.
I am aware of another church who hired an outside personnel team to come in and evaluate the church staff. The evaluator stood in a staff meeting and remarked that no one seemed willing to speak freely . . . and that was a problem. He suggested several changes, but rather than make them and upset the status quo, the church administrator fired the personnel evaluator.
Power corrupts, even Christian men, even in a church.
The church is not a business.
It is not an organization.
It is not an institution.
It is the body of Christ, and its members are equally important. Its elders are, too, and they share responsibility for leading/shepherding/governing the body.
Should the board of elders/pastoral staff hold all authority? Should they make all decisions and never call for a vote from the congregation?
Wayne Grudem provides a biblical, reasonable answer:

. . . though elders have substantial governing authority over the church, it should not be unlimited authority. Examples of such limitations might be suggested, such as: (1) they may be elected rather than self-perpetuating; (2) they may have specific terms with a mandatory year off the board (except for the pastor, whose continuing leadership responsibilities require continuous participation as an elder); (3) some large decisions may be required to be brought to the whole church for approval. Regarding this third point, congregational approval is already a biblical requirement for church discipline in Matthew 18:17 and for excommunication in 1 Corinthians 5:4. The principle of congregational election of elders would imply that the decision to call any pastor would also have to be approved by the congregation as a whole. Major new directions in the ministry of the church, which will require large-scale congregational support, may be brought to the church as a whole for approval. Finally, it would seem wise to require congregational approval on such large financial decisions as an annual budget, the decision to purchase property, or the decision to borrow money for the church (if that is ever done), simply because the church as a whole will be asked to give generously to pay for these commitments.
In fact, the reasons for placing some limitations on the authority of church officers may appear so strong that they would lead us to think that all decisions and all governing authority should rest with the congregation as a whole. (Some churches have adopted a system of almost pure democracy in governing the church, whereby everything must come to the congregation as a whole for approval.) However, this conclusion ignores the abundant New Testament evidence about the clear ruling and governing authority given to elders in New Testament churches. Therefore, while it is important to have some recognized checks on the authority of elders, and to rest ultimate governing authority with the congregation as a whole, it still is necessary, if we are to remain faithful to the New Testament pattern, to have a strong level of authority vested in the elders themselves.[9]

The Bible gives us clear examples about how a church should be governed, yet many of today’s churches are run through a business model: bosses and managers, associates and assistants on the pastoral staff. A pastor might need an assistant and a secretary, but why would another pastor be placed beneath him in authority or responsibility?
A large church is no excuse for requiring the elder board to establish unbiblical “levels of authority.” The church at Jerusalem was over five thousand strong, and yet they had a team of elders who worked together to oversee the people while a group of deacons worked to care for the widows and orphans. We do not need to adopt secular management systems in order to effectively lead a contemporary church.  More on that later.



[1] Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, vol. 106, The Messianic Bible Study Collection, 15-22 (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 1983).
[2] Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, vol. 106, The Messianic Bible Study Collection, 15-22 (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 1983).
[3] Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, vol. 106, The Messianic Bible Study Collection, 15-22 (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 1983).
[4] Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, vol. 106, The Messianic Bible Study Collection, 15-22 (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 1983).
[5] Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, vol. 106, The Messianic Bible Study Collection, 15-22 (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 1983).
[6] Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, vol. 106, The Messianic Bible Study Collection, 15-22 (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 1983).
[7] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 933 (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004).
[8] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 933 (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004).
[9] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 933 (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004).


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