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The purpose of this paper is to study the subject of church
government from a historical and Biblical standpoint. The focus
will be to analyze the claims of Biblical superiority made by
those proposing an "elder rule" type of government in
contrast to a congregational polity. To understand the spirit in
which this paper is being presented, please read the section
entitled Conclusion on
Page 19 of this paper.
There are two basic types of church polity (or government) being used in Bible-believing churches today. One group believes that God intends a church to have a "pastor--deacon--people" type of structure. This is called Congregational Polity. In this type of church the pastor who may be assisted by other pastors shepherds the flock. The deacons are godly men who help the church by relieving the pastor of various duties that enable him to spend more time in study of the Word and prayer. They are often used as valued counselors to the pastor in matters that affect the operation of the church. The congregation has the final human authority in all matters--Jesus Christ having the ultimate authority, being Head of the Church.
The other major segment of Bible-believing churches believes in an Elder Rule Polity. In this type of church, it is taught that there are two types of elders who bear most of the authority in the church: "teaching elders and ruling elders." Deacons are servants that do the physical work around the church but are not included in most discussions affecting the work of the ministry. In many cases the people have the final authority in that they are allowed to elect elders to their lifetime positions. There are several variations of this structure. In some the congregation has more authority and in others it has less.
Normally all the elders (teaching and ruling) in such a
church constitute a body called the church board
with each elder having one equal vote. The teaching
elders are the pastors of
the church. The ruling elders are
normally laymen who supposedly have
been specially gifted and ordained by God to have special
discernment in making decisions and in ruling a church.
The thrust of this paper is to show that elder rule as defined above is not the most Biblical form of church government as it is being proclaimed by some in this day. The format for this study will be to look at elder rule from both the historical and Biblical perspectives and then to draw some conclusions.
In studying this subject it is important to look objectively at all the evidence and not focus on one or two "proof texts". Many doctrines of the Bible would be in question if the focus should be placed on one or two "key" verses. For example if we focused only on Mt 16:14-20(1) one might be lead to believe that Peter was the rock of the church and thus its first pope. If we focused only on Acts 2:38(2) and Mark 16:16(3) we might conclude that baptism is essential for salvation. Likewise if we focused only on Lk 1:42(4) and 1:48(5) we might come to believe that Mary is to be adored and almost
worshipped by Christendom. The same is true in this issue. If a person focuses on a couple of verses that have been creatively interpreted, and then reads the verses in the Bible that speak of elders, one might conclude that elder rule polity should be the norm for New Testament local churches. However it is the contention of this writer that an honest survey of the entire New Testament teaching on this subject reveals that God intends that a New Testament church be a pastor led, Spirit directed, democracy where the final authority lies with the congregation not with the elders.
Please do not conclude that I think that all people in elder
ruled churches are spiritually proud or that such a polity is a
severe, fundamental and damning error. In truth, the difference
between churches with elders and those with a
pastor--deacon--people type government is normally very small in
actual practice. Often the major differences lie in the
definitions of words and the divisions of duties. Unfortunately
there are some in elder rule churches that are turning the issue
into one of major proportions claiming that their churches are
more Biblical and spiritual than those with the pastor-- deacon-- people polity. Such an assertion cannot be
maintained in light of honest and objective study.
A study of church history reveals that a number of denominations and movements today that have sprung forth from the Protestant groups of the reformation have retained elements of the Roman Catholic background from which they sprang. The "reformers" in their original intent were just that--reformers. Their desire was to correct the errors of the Roman Catholic Church--especially in the matters of salvation and corruption in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Men like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli were great leaders that were forced to separate from Rome and were able to throw off much of the Roman Catholic system. However, they were men of their times and their theology and practice still retained vestiges of error from their Roman Catholic upbringing. A few examples of this include:
1. Baptism of infants
2. Baptism by sprinkling instead of immersion
3. Lack of separation of church and state
4. Proneness of hierarchical leadership of churches
5. Failure to fully accept the "individual priesthood of the believer"
John Calvin was the first reformer to suggest that the "elders" in the New Testament church should be broken into two groups--teaching elders and ruling elders. He based this thought primarily on 1 Timothy 5:17.(6) Neither Calvin, Luther or Zwingli were ready for the individual priesthood of the believer. They all opted for a more hierarchical form of church government because of their backgrounds and their desire to avoid the excesses of some of the Anabaptist groups of their day. They were afraid of vesting too much authority in the wisdom of a church congregation.
For these reasons, these men as well as others have attempted to find in scripture a basis for creating an hierarchical structure for the government of the church in the New Testament. One way of doing this has been to take the various words used for the leaders of a New Testament church and turn these into names for special hierarchs in the church. The Roman Catholic church is the extreme example of taking terms from the Bible and simply using them to define another tier in the hierarchy regardless of how that word was used in the Bible--i.e. priest, bishop, deacon, etc. Doing this gives a semblance of being Biblical but is totally erroneous. Another example of this is the Episcopalian Church which is named after the Greek word episcopos(7) which is translated bishop in 1 Timothy 3:1.(8) Likewise the Presbyterian Church is named after the Greek word presbuteros(9) which is the word translated elder in the New Testament. Calvin did the same thing by dividing the elders into two groups establishing a four tier structure(10) of leadership above the people within the church and also by placing a denominational structure above the individual churches.
A few of the problems with elder rule polity are exposed by the following questions.
Laymen who are called ruling elders that meet once a
month to discuss church business sound very much like the deacons of most pastor--deacon--people churches except that they are shirking all but their advisory duties. It seems that the "work" duties are placed upon the "lowly deacons" who are expected to serve with no voice.
It goes without saying, that if a man is told that he is
specially ordained by God as an "elder" and such
ordination fits him to "rule" but he is not expected to
labor, admonish and teach as the overseers nor is expected to be
in the trenches working among the people like the deacons, great
temptations to spiritual pride enter. This system works well as
long as the deacons and the people in such churches remain
subdued with the thought that the "elders" are superior
to them both in wisdom and spiritual depth. Often this attitude
is maintained by engendering an attitude of spiritual pride
concerning their depth of wisdom.
Often the plurality of elders seen in the New Testament is offered as proof that the New Testament teaches two distinct types of elders--ruling and teaching. The argument goes like this: since there is more than one elder in many of the local churches seen in scripture, this is proof of the division between teaching and ruling elders. However, the fact of plurality can only allow an honest person to conclude one thing: there was more than one elder in a number of the churches in the New Testament age. It is impossible to be more specific than this.
Many of the churches in the New Testament had a plurality of elders. Two cities are specifically stated to have had a plurality of elders--Jerusalem(23) and Ephesus.(24) Additionally Paul and Barnabus are said to have ordained
elders in every church in the region of Galatia(25) and Titus is told to ordain elders in every city in Crete.(26) James tells the people he is writing to call for the elders of the church to pray over a sick person anointing him with oil--implying a plurality in the church or churches to which he was writing. Peter also implies a plurality in the church or churches to which he is writing in 1 Peter 5:1.
I believe an honest study reveals that the reason for a plurality in these churches was because of size not because of the need for two different types of elders. What if a church was small? Is there a mandate for having at least 2 or more elders in a church? It is interesting that in 1 Timothy 3 Paul uses the plural when discussing the office of a deacon but uses the singular throughout when talking about the bishop (overseer of the church).
Consider the fact of the rapid growth of Christianity in the early days. In Jerusalem 3000 were saved on the day of Pentecost. Five thousand men (possibly 10,000 total people) were saved a few days later(27) and people were being added to the church daily as they were being saved.(28) Some historians have suggested as many as 50,000 people were saved in Jerusalem. Certainly 20,000 is not hard to imagine. James and the apostles would have had a very hard time meeting the spiritual needs of that many people without God raising up many assistant pastors to help them. There is no evidence that the church at Jerusalem built a gigantic building to seat 20,000 to 50,000 people--or even 12 buildings seating 2000 each.
Acts 2:46(29) says that they met in the temple and from house to house. How many could meet in one house daily to break bread and be taught the word?--could 30? could 40? If each house could hold 50--then 400 house churches would have been operating in Jerusalem. Even if the apostles could go from house to house, many more "pastors" (called elders) would have been necessary. Even in churches today with beautiful buildings and modern communications and transportation, one assistant pastor for every 100 people is not out of the ordinary.
The same thing was true at Ephesus. Thousands apparently were saved as evidenced by the stir that was created among the silversmiths who were losing business making idols. Paul reminded the Ephesian elders that he had taught them from house to house.(30) Many "elders" would have been necessary to shepherd so many parts of this large flock.
Likewise great results attended Paul's work in the cities of Galatia; so much so that they met with strong opposition in many of those places because of their impact.(31)
I submit that the New Testament does not know of a group of laymen that met once or twice a month to "rule" who are called "elders". Such a group may appeal to an aristocrat but not to a genuine servant of God. Such a modern day
"elder" might argue that he does more than meet once
a month. But can he honestly look his pastor in the eye and say
that he deserves to be paid on a similar scale as the pastor as
1 Timothy 5:17 requires for elders?
Consider the practical aspect of a board of elders of which the pastor is one. Many have said that the pastor in such a set up has simply one vote--he is simply one voice. The laymen who meet once or twice a month with him have equal authority as he--since they are supposedly ordained by God as ruling elders. What if one of them disagrees with the message he is preaching? Should he restrain his message in deference to such a God ordained ruler in order to maintain peace in the church? Or should he continue to preach what he believes God has laid on his heart? Certainly Paul expected Timothy and Titus not to worry about those that would disagree with them.(32)
Practically speaking, if the pastor is a weak leader he will be run by the board and the church will have a frequent turnover of pastors. If the pastor is a strong leader he will dominate the board and will develop nearly total control.
From a responsibility standpoint, it is clear that God holds a pastor responsible for preaching the truth.(33) How could he take responsibility for a flock over which he does not have the authority to preach God's message boldly?
Several passages in scripture make it clear that the "Pastor", the "Bishop or Overseer" and the "Elder" are all one and the same person in the local church. Acts 20:17(34) says Paul called for the elders(35) of the church. In verse 28(36) he says that they were to do the job of a bishop, i.e. they were to "oversee".(37) They were also to "feed" the flock thus they were to pastor(38) or shepherd. Therefore we see that the same men who are called elders are also the overseers and the ones who do the work of pastoring. This seems abundantly clear. However we see the same thing in other passages.
Peter addresses fellow "elders"(39) in 1 Peter 5:1-3(40) and commands them to "feed"(41) (do the work of pastoring) the flock(42) and to take the oversight(43) (do the work of an overseer) of it. In simple terms Peter is exhorting those he calls elders to do the work God had called them to--the work of pastoring and overseeing. The words--elder, pastor, overseer--refer to the same men--the pastors of the churches.
In Titus 1:5(44), Paul tells Titus to ordain elders(45) in every city. He says in the next breathe that the bishop(46) then must be blameless...(verse 7).(47) He is plainly equating elders and bishops. It seems that the Bible is very clear that the elder is the pastor is the bishop or overseer. Nowhere does the Bible teach that an elder might be a ruler but not be the pastor nor the overseer.(48)
1 Timothy 5:17 reads as follows, "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine." Verse 18 reads, "For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn; and, The laborer is worthy of his hire."
Paul tells Timothy that the elders that rule well should be considered worthy of double honor. Then he says, especially those that labor in the word and doctrine. Double honor is defined by verse 18 as material remuneration (like an ox that treads out the grain--see 1 Corinthians 9:7-14.) Think of the possible meanings of this verse.
1. If this verse teaches two groups of elders as some say, then we must conclude that a good ruling elder should be paid the same as the teaching elder. He deserves double honor, i.e. generous remuneration if the church can afford that. I dare say that there is not one elder rule type church today that
obeys this verse--a tacit admission that they are either not obeying scripture or that they have misinterpreted God's intent with regard to who the elders truly are. If they are honest, the lay elders in such churches could not in good conscience be candidates for material remuneration since they are really not doing the work of the ministry.
2. The most normal way of interpreting 1 Timothy 5:17 is to see that in a church with several pastors who are doing a good job they should be treated well materially. The ones who do the bulk of the teaching and preaching, especially if done skillfully and excellently (1 Peter 4:11)(49) deserve double honor. Some assistants pastors (elders) who may be employed for visiting the sick, ministering in music, organizing the youth program, ministering to the senior citizens, promoting evangelism, knocking on doors, etc., are worthy of pay if the church is able. If each of these rule well in their sphere of authority and ministry, they should be well taken care of. However, it seems that the head pastor who labors hard in the word and doctrine should be especially rewarded. If the church has several locations as did those in Jerusalem and Ephesus, then there will have to be others who are also focused primarily on the duties of studying, praying and teaching the word and doctrine. If they do well, they should be well rewarded also.
In his commentary on 1 Timothy 5:17, Marvin R. Vincent summarized this view as follows,
"The comparison is with those Elders who do not exhibit equal capacity or efficiency in ruling. The passage lends no support to the Reformed theory of two classes of Elders--ruling and teaching. The special honor or emolument is assigned to those who combine qualifications for both."(50)
Both Homer Kent and D. Edmond Heibert say the same thing in their commentaries on this portion of scripture.
When the Bible is allowed to speak for itself, the
interpretation is very natural. When it is pushed to say
something it does not mean, the interpretation is difficult and
Calvin believed to an extent in allowing the church to vote, but the congregation in truth had little say. In Geneva, "Calvin never ruled in form, but ruled the proceedings in fact by his superior intelligence and weighty judgment."(51) In Calvin's organization of the church there were four officers(52)--Pastors, Teachers, Ancients (Lay-elders), and Deacons. To keep the people of the church pure he organized two other councils; the Venerable Company consisting of all the pastors in the area, and the Consistory or Presbytery. These two, especially the Consistory, were charged with exercising church discipline. Discipline often went far beyond simple excommunication. People were fined, jailed, expelled from the city, beheaded, executed, and burnt at the stake. From 1542 to 1546, 58 judgments of death were passed by this council.(53) Members of the council visited every home every year to check for sin.(54) What church member would have had the courage to exercise his belief in the individual priesthood of the believer in the face of such intimidation?
The point of this is that Calvin is the one who established idea of "elder rule" through his faulty interpretation of 1 Timothy 5:17. Knox the founder of Presbyterianism in
Scotland which then spread to America, spent several years in
Geneva under Calvin's instruction. These men were good men and
must be "understood" in their historical setting. They
were much more benevolent than the ruthless Roman Catholic system
from which they had come. However, prudence would caution us not
to jump with both feet into a doctrine or practice started by
these men without some careful consideration.
Dr. Douglas McLachlan's(55)
paper entitled, Who Leads the Church, is an excellent
study showing that God intended the local church to be a
"pastor-led, Spirit-guided, Bible-based democracy."
This thesis is defended in his paper by the following outline:
Having several pastors is a help for the work and for mutual encouragement but is not a mandate in scripture. However when it exists in a local church several benefits accrue:
The main purpose of this paper is not to condemn or criticize those that hold a view of church government differing from the pastor--deacon--people model. I have valued friends who practice elder rule polity. This is not one of the Fundamentals of the Faith.
Unfortunately, some with that polity are parading themselves
as those that are the most Biblical and that this matter is so
important that they feel led to deliver poor souls bound
in pastor-- deacon-- people type of churches. I believe that these
proponents of elder rule are misguided and often inconsistent for
It is interesting that while claiming to be champions of doctrinal truth, they would be members in an organization that has definite problems with neo-evangelicalism. If this polity issue is in truth so grave a problem as they make it out to be, are they not being inconsistent compromisers?
Could we not suspect another motive behind such an intense
promotion of polity differences? Could it possibly be the desire
to obtain people from other churches who are doing the work of
evangelism, follow-up and training without having to expend such
effort? Only God knows these things. But such inconsistencies
have a foul odor.
This paper may have other applications. As Pastors, are we guilty of subtly emphasizing small and inconsequential differences of doctrine or practice when we are talking to people from other churches in order to make ourselves and our church appear to be more correct than theirs? It is my view that we are sinning against a fellow brother who is laboring in God's vineyard and hurting God's flock in doing this. People who get in the habit of migrating from church to church will never know the joy of using their spiritual gifts to bear long term fruit in the Lord's work. We should learn the lesson of 1 Corinthians 3:5-9 and encourage the brethren because we are laborers together with God.
1. Matthew 16:18 "And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."
2. Acts 2:38 "Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost."
3. Mark 16:16 "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned."
4. Luke 1:42 "And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb."
5. Luke 1:48 "For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed."
6. 1 Timothy 5:17 "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine."
8. 1 Timothy 3:1 "This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work."
13. This passage requires the bishop (overseer-) be apt to teach. This is not a prerequisite for the laymen who are the ruling elders in elder rule churches.
16. Titus 1:9 "Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers."
17. Philippians 1:1 "Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons"
20. 2 Timothy 2:24,25 "And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth..."
21. 1 Peter 5:2,3 "Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock."
22. See discussion of this word on page 12 under the heading, The Elder, Bishop, and Pastor Are the Same Man in the Bible.
23. Acts 15:6 "And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter."
24. Acts 20:17 "And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church."
25. Acts 14:23 "And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed."
26. Titus 1:5 "For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee..."
27. Acts 4:4 "Howbeit many of them which heard the word believed; and the number of the men was about five thousand."
28. Acts 2:47 "Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved."
29. Acts 2:46 "And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart..."
30. Acts 20:20 "And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publickly, and from house to house..."
31. At Antioch--Acts 13:44 "And the next sabbath day came almost the whole city together to hear the word of God."
32. 1 Timothy 4:11,12a "These things command and teach. Let no man despise thy youth..."
1 Timothy 6:2-5 "...These things teach and exhort. If any man teach otherwise...from such withdraw thyself."
Titus 2:15, "These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no man despise thee."
33. 2 Timothy 4:2 "Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine."
34. Acts 20:17 "And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church."
36. Acts 20:28 "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood."
37. This is the verb form of the word "bishop or overseer" episkopos.
38. The word "feed" is the verb of the word shepherd=pastor poimeenµ.
40. 1 Peter 5:1-3 "The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock."
41. This is the verb form of the word pastor or shepherd poimeenµ.
44. Titus 1:5 "For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee..."
47. Titus 1:7 "For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not self-willed, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre..."
48. In this discussion we are talking about elders who are church leaders. The elder who is simply an older man or an elder in the nation of Israel are not being dealt with in this discussion.
49. 1 Peter 4:11 "If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever. Amen."
50. Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, Volume IV, page 266.
51. Philip Schaff, "The Swiss Reformation," History of the Christian Church, Vol. VIII, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910, Second Edition, Reprinted 1977), page 481.
52. Ibid, page 476.
53. Ibid., page 492.
54. Ibid., page 482.
55. Dr. McLachlan is Chairman of the Bible Department and Professor of Theology at Northland Baptist Bible College in Dunbar, Wisconsin.
56. Who is the angel (angelos) of Revelation 2 and 3? If this were a heavenly angel, what address would John put on the letter? If John could get the letter to the "angel of the Church of Ephesus", how would the angel convey the message to the church?
57. This sub-point is not in McLachlan's paper.
58. It is clear that the church of Jerusalem had numerous "elders" as stated in various scriptures such as Acts 15:2 and as explained in this paper on page 8 under, Plurality of Elders. However it is also evident that one man--James--was the ascendant leader of the church at Jerusalem as seen in the following verses.
Edited by cpl 01/03/16 02:51 AM