AG00299_Chapter Three: Contemporary Church Government

We have discussed what Scripture tells us about early church government, yet it’s clear that few churches are governed the same way today. In most situations we have “evolved”— or perhaps “devolved”— into forms of government that look more like secular management systems than the functioning, unified body presented in Scripture.
Though this book is centered on people who have been wounded in evangelical churches, I believe we need to see the difference between what the church was intended to be and what it has become in order to see the reasons for many of those wounds. And this series would be incomplete if I didn’t remark on other forms of church governments. No form of church government has proven immune to causing hurt among its people or the world at large, because church leaders are human, and humans are prone to sin if we take our eyes and hearts off Jesus, the true head of the church.
The Catholic church, which implements worldwide government under a pyramidal power structure: the pope, cardinals, bishops, and priests, may not experience the same sort of problems as an independent church, but a scandalous record of pedophile priests assures us that scores have people have been wounded by the Catholic church as well. If we looked over the historical record and studied the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the reigns of several intolerant kings and queens, we’d find that the record of the Catholic church is as spotted as any other form of church government.
Types of Protestant church government can be placed into three broad categories: episcopalian, presbyterian, and congregational.
The episcopalian system features government by a group of leaders known as the priesthood. An archbishop will have authority over many bishops, and the bishops will have authority over a “diocese,” or the churches within a geographical area. The officer in charge of a local parish is a record or vicar, and they are subject to the bishops and archbishops. This system has been in place for hundreds of years, but nowhere in the New Testament did the apostles elect elders to be over several churches—the New Testament example of church government is one set of elders for each local church.
J. Vernon McGee points out that a bishop in the early church, however, never had authority over other bishops or elders. He did not have authority over churches. You cannot find such a practice presented in the scriptures. Even Paul, who founded a number of churches, never spoke of himself as the bishop of a church, or as the one who was ruling a church in any way whatsoever. Therefore, the minister is one who is to serve the church, not rule over it.[1]
The only “ruler” of a biblical church is Jesus. He is the head of the body.
The presbyterian system allows local churches to elect elders to a session, and the local pastor will be one of those elders. The session has governing authority over the local church, and each elder’s vote, including the pastor’s, is equal in authority. The elders are also members of a presbytery, which has authority over several churches in the region. And some of the members of the presbytery are members of the “general assembly,” which will have authority over all the presbyterian churches in a nation or region.[2] One problem with this type of government is that if false doctrine finds its way into the General Assembly, local churches may be forced to accept it.
For example, the Presbyterian Church has split several times because of doctrinal disagreements:

Bible Presbyterian Church and Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Formed in 1936 by a group of dissenters under the leadership of J. Gresham Machen against the growing liberalism of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. First known as the Presbyterian Church of America, the name was changed (after an injunction was brought against the use of the name by the parent body in 1938) to Orthodox Presbyterian Church. In 1983, an internal split led to the creation of the Bible Presbyterian Church. Both are thoroughly fundamentalist and strongly Reformed. They oppose all forms of social gospel and liberation theology and refuse to cooperate with those who compromise on the orthodox doctrines of historic Christianity. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church has published the Trinity Hymnal to supplement the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Founded in 1810 as an outgrowth of the great revival of 1800 by three ministers: Finis Ewing, Samuel King, and Samuel McAdow. The group disavows predestination.
Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Formed in 1981, it is a conservative denomination. It is Presbyterian in polity, Reformed in theology, and evangelical in action. It emphasizes world missions and church planting.
Presbyterian Church in America. Founded in 1973 as the National Presbyterian Church in opposition to the prevailing liberalism of the parent church, the Presbyterian Church in the United States. In 1982 it was joined by the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod. It is firmly committed to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Catechisms.
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Born in 1983 through the merger of the two largest American Presbyterian churches: United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and Presbyterian Church in the United States. Both churches trace their origins to the first American presbytery founded in Philadelphia in 1706. The first general synod met in 1729 and adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith together with the Larger and Shorter Catechism. Under prominent preachers, as William Tennent, Sr., the church grew, aided by the revivalism of the Great Awakening. Even disputes between the New Side and the Old Side during the Great Awakening and the New School and the Old School in the early 1800s did not slow the pace of expansion. Marcus Whitman drove the first team and wagon over the South Pass of the Rockies into the great Northwest, heralding a vast building program of churches, schools, colleges, and seminaries. Princeton and Union Theological Seminaries were among the scores of seminaries built between 1812 and 1836.
Its doctrinal position is found in the Book of Confessions with these creeds and/ or catechisms: the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, the Scots Confession of 1560, the Heidelberg Catechism, Westminster Confession of 1647, the Shorter and Larger Catechism of 1647, the 1934 Barmen Declaration, the Confession of 1967, and Brief Statement of Faith.
Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. Founded in 1798 under the name of Reformed Presbytery. The first synod was constituted in Philadelphia in 1809. It emphasizes the inerrancy of Scriptures and the lordship of Jesus Christ. No instrumental music is permitted in worship services, and members may not join secret societies.
Second Cumberland Presbyterian Church in the United States. A black group founded in 1869 as the Colored Cumberland Presbyterian Church. It follows the Westminster Confession with some reservations.[3]

In 2012, another schism developed over homosexual clergy members. The Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) only ordains men, but the Presbyterian Church of the USA ordains men, women, and non-celibate homosexuals and lesbians. The PCA is theologically conservative, the PCUSA tends to believe that “men inspired by God wrote the Bible and sometimes went overboard.”[4] The difference between the two groups is huge, for one accepts the entire Bible as the basis for its beliefs and practice; the other accepts only the parts of the Bible with which they agree.
The third Protestant system of church government is congregational government. As its name suggests, in this system a church is ruled by the congregation, but the extent of that self-rule depends upon whether the church is led by a single elder/pastor, plural elders/pastors, a corporate board, or as a complete democracy.
The single elder/senior pastor system is most commonly found in Baptist churches. Often the senior pastor is the only pastor in a church, and he is assisted and served by a group of deacons. The congregation elects the pastor and the deacons. This system is often found in small churches who have neither the funds nor the need for a board of pastors with varying gifts. Their pastor, therefore, must have the gifts of teaching and administration, for nearly all of the work and responsibility will fall upon his shoulders.
Wayne Grudem points out that while this system can work, a system of plural elders will work better. “How can churches say that the qualifications for elders found in [1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-7] are commanded for us today but the system of plural elders found in these very same verses is not commanded?. . . When the New Testament shows us that no church was seen to have a single elder (“in every church,” Acts 14:23; “in every town,” Titus 1:5; “let him call for the elders,” James 5:14; I exhort the elders among you,” 1 Peter 5:1), then it seems unpersuasive to say that smaller church would have had one elder. Even when Paul had just founded churches on his first missionary journey, there were elders appointed “in every church) (Acts 14:23). “And “every town” on the island of Crete was to have elders, no matter how large or small the church was.[5]
“A common practical problem,” Grudem notes, “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.”[6]
How many problems could be solved within the church if pastors worked together with other men with the same authority! Shared responsibility would lessen the burden and keep pastors from becoming too exhausted to neglect necessary time in prayer and Bible study. Shared accountability would ease a pastor’s temptation to purchase personal items on the church credit card or seek solace with a female other than his wife. Shared authority would prevent megalomania and arrogance while ensuring that a cult of personality would not develop around one pastoral leader.
In the plural elder system of government, the “senior” pastor does not have authority on his own over the congregation, nor does his vote count any more than any other elder’s. He is responsible to the other elders just as they are to him.
In a “corporate board” system, a board of directors (in essence, if not in name)elects a pastor who has the authority to run the church as he sees fit, much as a corporate CEO would run a business. If he does well, the board is pleased. If he does not meet the board’s expectations, he is fired and the board hires a new pastor.
This type of system has nothing to do with the New Testament examples of church governance. It prevents the pastor from accepting personal responsibility for the flock under his charge, and it turns a spiritual endeavor into a business arrangement. The goal becomes something tangible—membership growth or money raised—instead of the intangible goals such as spiritual growth, discipleship, and evangelism. Furthermore, writes Grudem, “the members of the board are also members of the congregation over whom the pastor is supposed to have some authority, but that authority is seriously compromised if the leaders of the congregation are in fact his bosses.”[7] Would a pastor confront a board member who has fallen into sin if the pastor is worried that he might lose his job?
The “pure democracy” form of church government chief downfall is its ineffectiveness. The larger a church grows, the more details must be brought before the congregation, and no church has the time or energy to consider and vote on every detail. While this form does emphasize and recognize the fact that the church is the body of Christ, it doesn’t follow the New Testament pattern, which sets forth a board of ruling elders and serving deacons.

Perhaps the largest difference between New Testament church government and contemporary church government is the rise of the single, authoritarian pastor, and this shift has created some of the most troubling and and most visible problems in the church today. Not only have single pastors wielded their power to wound church members, but when those problems are revealed to the public, the reputation of Christ suffers as well.
How can anyone forget the scandals involving television pastors like Jimmy Swaggert and Jim Bakker? Two or three times a year I open my newspaper and read of Pastor So-and-So, who led thousands in his mega church, who has resigned his position because of some “moral failing.”
How do these moral failings occur? Anyone can fall at any time, but it’s much easier to succumb to temptation when you are the head of a powerful organization and you’re surrounded by people who do not question your decisions. I’ve personally watched people set aside their common sense out of a sense of deference to a senior pastor. They smile and nod and agree with everything he says, and they question him when they are safely out of his hearing. I’ve even heard some people declare that it’s not right to question a pastor because the Bible says, “Touch not the Lord’s anointed.”
Well, not exactly. They are alluding to the story of David and Saul, when Saul went out to kill David and took shelter in a cave. That night David found the sleeping Saul and could have killed him, but instead told his men, “The Lord knows I shouldn’t have done that to my lord the king,” he said to his men. “The Lord forbid that I should do this to my lord the king and attack the Lord’s anointed one, for the Lord himself has chosen him” (1 Samuel 24:6).
Correct—you should not murder your pastor if you disagree with him. But when your pastor has allowed his focus to be turned away from following the Lord Jesus Christ, if your pastor has fallen into sin of any sort, it is right to confront him with Truth. Samuel did that exact thing to Saul on several occasions.
David was a man after God’s own heart, a king, a warrior, a mighty man. Yet he was not infallible, and he sinned. So the prophet Nathan, another brave man, dared to go before the king and tell a simple story that pointed an accusing finger at David. We read the complete story in 2 Samuel 12, and the Scripture tell us that it is right to go to a brother, even a king or a pastor, and confront them if they have sinned.
Disciplinary action may also at times be necessary against an elder according to 1 Tim 5:19–20.49 An elder is not a “super-saint” who never sins. He is subject to the same frailties and failures as are all of God’s people. Yet he is unique in that he holds an official church position. The apostle Paul sought to balance these two factors and provide the necessary safeguards. Elders may be disciplined, yet if such charges are ever made, they must be handled with great care. If an accusation (v 19 : κατηγορία51) is to be considered, it must be substantiated by two or three witnesses. Assuming that this charge proves to be valid and worthy of disciplinary action, public action (v 20 : ἐνώπιον πάντων / ‘before all’) is to be taken. In this case, the discipline takes the form of a rebuke (v 20 : ἐλέγχω). “The imperative ‘rebuke’ means more than a reprimand; it denotes an admission of guilt and the subsequent conviction of the sinner. The errant elder must become aware of his wrong and be convinced of it.” This also serves as a warning to the other elders (οἱ λοιποὶ), of whom there were a plurality at Ephesus (Acts 20:17).[8]

We are to submit ourselves to the elders of the church, to respect their God-given and God-ordained positions, and to obey them . . . unless they begin to lead us astray or into false doctrine. Far too many churches have become cults because pastors demanded obedience from followers who obeyed blindly, never having been taught biblical truth and not being able to discern truth from falsehood.
“There are cases where subjection to elders is not necessary,” writes Arnold Fruchtenbaum. “There are limitations to the authority of elders. The authority given to elders is in matters dealing with the local church. It is the elders who make decisions concerning which missionaries or mission boards they will support, what is going to be taught in various Sunday School classes, what is going to be the series of messages in the Sunday morning service, how the morning worship service is going to be conducted, when and how communion is going to be served, among other things. However, they have no authority in a believer’s personal spiritual life. An elder cannot tell one whom to marry or not to marry, where to work or not to work. The elder’s authority ceases outside the local church.”[9]
Thomas Schreiner writes, “We have seen elsewhere that Peter understood submission as the responsibility of believers to those in positions of authority (cf. 2:13, 18; 3:1, 5). The purpose is not to encourage obedience no matter what leaders might say, for if leaders give counsel that contravenes God’s moral standards or violates the gospel, then they should not be followed. Nor is the verse suggesting that leaders are exempt from accountability before the congregation. We have already observed that elders are admonished not to use their authority as dictatorial rulers but are to serve those under their charge. Conversely, those who are under leadership should be inclined to follow and submit to their leaders. They should not be resisting the initiatives of leaders and complaining about the direction of the church.[10]”
“Smooth relations in the church can be preserved if the entire congregation adorns itself with humility. When believers recognize that they are creatures and sinners, they are less apt to be offended by others. Humility is the oil that allows relationships in the church to run smoothly and lovingly. Pride gets upset when another does not follow our own suggestions. Peter grounded this admonition with a citation from Prov 3:34, which is also quoted in Jas 4:6. The citation is closer to the Septuagint than it is to the Hebrew text, but the meaning in both cases is essentially the same. Believers should heed the injunction to be humble because God sets his face against the proud, but he lavishes his grace upon the humble. Those who submit to God’s sovereignty in humility will find that he will lift them up and reward them.[11]”

Power Can Corrupt
As I write this, Mars Hill Church has been in the news. Trouble apparently erupted when a reporter revealed that the best-selling status of pastor Mark Driscoll’s book Real Marriage had been achieved through fraudulent means. (He hired a company to buy thousands of copies of the book and make it appear as though the book had been purchased by people across the United States, thus propelling the book to the number one slot on the New York Times best-sellers list).[12] Though at first Driscoll and leaders at his church defended their actions, Driscoll later renounced the deceptive marketing campaign and vowed to “re-set his life.”[13]
Update: On October 15, 2014, after 20 years as pastor of Mars Hill, Mark Driscoll resigned.
The dishonest marketing campaign was only one sign of a ministry gone astray. Former pastors at the church have written online about being fired and having to sign non-disclosure agreements or possibly facing “legal action and loss of severance pay” to keep the former staff member quiet. Quiet about what? What sorts of things would a church be doing that must be kept secret from other members? If he were fired for a moral failing of some sort, he’d be the one most likely to ask the church leaders to keep quiet, not the other way around.
It wasn’t until I read Jonna Petry’s story[14], which included details of how pastor Mark Driscoll had the church bylaws rewritten, that I began to understand what had happened to the Petry family. After Jonna’s lawyer husband Paul dared to express his reservations about the changes in the by-laws, he was fired from his position as a church elder, and church leaders actually posted a note on their web page telling members to shun Jonna and Paul. The Petrys lost their livelihood, their friends, and their church home. Why? Because a pastor distanced himself and his church from the biblical model of church government and then demanded obedience from church members.
“In shock and heartbroken,” Jonna writes, “Paul and I tried desperately that first half-year to bring about some level of reconciliation. We so longed to be restored to our friends, to have our name and reputation exonerated, and to have peace in our relationships. This had become our family that we loved and served and ministered to as our own dear children and as brothers and sisters. These were our dear friends. How could they do this to us? Words do not adequately describe the shock, horror, betrayal, and rejection we felt. The weight of the loss was excruciating.”[15]
Unfortunately, Jonna’s story isn’t the only one I’ve read about pastors who couldn’t tolerate a dissenting opinion. Often those who dare to disagree are dismissed and charged with disloyalty or even rebellion. Yet Scripture tells us that one elder is equal to another in authority, so disagreement is not disloyalty. It’s safety. It’s iron testing iron.
“The wise are mightier than the strong,” Solomon tells us, “and those with knowledge grow stronger and stronger. So don’t go to war without wise guidance; victory depends on having many advisers” (Prov. 24:6).
Any leader who surrounds himself with yes-men is only feeding his ego, not growing his effectiveness. As a friend of mine once told me, “If we agreed all the time, then one of us would be unnecessary.” We need other people. We are all only part of the body, and we need input from the other parts.  And then, having heard that input, we pray and seek unity in the Spirit.

Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken. (Ecc. 4:9-12).

Don’t fall into the trap of saying that a body only has one head, so it needs a single pastor to lead it. No, the head of the church is Christ Jesus. The elders have gifts—teaching and administration—but they are subject to the leadership of Christ as evidenced by the Holy Spirit and the Word of God.

What is the biblical model for church government?

The biblical form of government is that each church is totally independent from another. There is no hierarchy of authorities over many churches, and no denominational structure. The various evidences that are used to support a congregational form of government are really evidences for the independence of the local church. There is no higher spiritual court of appeals than the local church.
But what about the government within each independent local church? Each local church is to be ruled by a plurality of elders and they are the authority of the church. The authority does not reside with the congregation, as is taught by the congregational form of government. The relationship of the elders to the people is often that of shepherds and sheep. Yet in a congregational form of government, the sheep are the ones who are telling the shepherd such things as how much he can eat, what he can or cannot do, where he can live. This is hardly a biblical relationship. Each local church is ruled by elders, not a singular elder who can let power go to his head and become a dictator, but rather each local church is ruled by a plurality of elders who are coequal.
Examples of groups that are following this form of church government are Brethren Churches and Independent Bible Churches. I pray that many other churches who call themselves “Bible-believing” will adjust their structures and return to the biblical model. Doing so would solve many present and future problems.



[1] J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible Commentary, electronic ed., 1 Ti 3:1–2 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997).
[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994). p 925-26.
[3] George Thomas Kurian, Nelson’s New Christian Dictionary: The Authoritative Resource on the Christian World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001).
[4] Stephen Magagnini, “Presbyterian Church schism over gay ordination splits congregations,” Scripps Howard News Service, May 11, 2013.
[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 929-930.
[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 931.
[7] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 935.
[8] vol. 9, Grace Theological Journal Volume 9, 262-79 (Winona, IN: Grace Seminary, 1988).
[9] Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, vol. 106, The Messianic Bible Study Collection, 13-29 (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 1983).
[10] Thomas R. Schreiner, vol. 37, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, The New American Commentary, 231-38 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003).
[11] Thomas R. Schreiner, vol. 37, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, The New American Commentary, 231-38 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003).
[12] Warren Throckmorton, “The Signed Contract that Helped Get Mark Driscoll’s Real Marriage on the New York Times Best-Seller List,” March 6, 2014, accessed at
[13] Jeremy Webber, “Mark Driscoll Retracts Best-Seller Book Status, Resets Life,” March 17, 2014, accessed at
[15] Jonna Petry, “My Story,” accessed at


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