Is a form of church government prescribed by the New Testament?

In the comment thread on my post about the validity of the autonomy of local churches, Chris Wettstein wrote:

“I agree that church ‘structure should serve mission’ – however, since the mission of the church is the same in every generation & culture, I don’t see this as an argument against upholding (as norms) the offices of ‘elder & deacon.’ In fact, I think that this helps to promote the mission of the church – to affirm that God is the One who builds & regulates his church, even regulating those church offices which greatly give shape to the ‘family dynamics’ of church life.

I personally think & feel that it makes a positive difference, to be part of a church where we regard our ‘offices’ as ordained by God in Scripture, rather than regarding our ‘offices/roles’ as either ‘traditionally’ or else ‘pragmatically’ defined.”

My thesis

Chris may be right, and he is in excellent company, but I want to explain briefly how I see the matter. I do not think that the New Testament prescribes a fixed system of officers or their titles. Rather, in my own reading of the New Testament, I find: (1) principles concerning the government of the church which we should apply in the structuring of churches, and (2) a clear description of the church’s mission which should be served by the structure we establish. So, my thesis is that: within the limits of Scripture’s principles for the government of the church, and in pursuit of more effective ministry, churches may reorganize themselves as their situation changes.

General New Testament principles for church government

I operate with the following 8 principles:

1. Christ is head of the church, so that the authority of all officers within the church is derived from Christ.

2. Christ exercises his authority in the church through the Scripture and the Holy Spirit, so that officers must be people who can be relied upon to do their work in a biblical and Spirit directed way. Given that all church members, but within the context of respect for their leaders.

3. Every member is an officer/minister. They are all prophets, priests and kings under God, so that appointed leaders should be attentive to what members hear from God, as the church together seeks to discern God’s will and to do it.

4. The universal office does not eliminate special offices, and so the church “recognizes gifts of the Spirit that require public recognition for their proper exercise” (Edmund Clowney, The Church, 57). The function of biblical leaders is not to do the work exclusively but to provide a model and an example in the areas of corporate responsibility, and also to train and lead the members in the exercise of their own gifts (Eph 4:11-12).

5. The nature of biblical leadership is servanthood. This is explicit in the purpose of the Spirit’s gifting, which is for the common good (1 Cor 12:7). The authority of Christian leaders is “the moral authority of those who show the most interest in and do the most in the way of loving service for others” (Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today,  296). Leaders are therefore esteemed, not because of their office but because of their work (1 Thess 5:12-13; 1 Cor 16:15-16; Heb 13:17). Consequently,  an “office” in the church is not aimed at making people “officials” or giving them titles, but at giving them a task, a ministry, or a service to perform (E. Ferguson, 297).

6. “Ordination” to a leadership task is an appropriate thing if it is correctly understood. My own understanding has been particularly influenced by the work of Fisher Humphreys, who has a fine description of four ways in which ordination has been understood within the Christian church. I concur with his conclusion that the New Testament best supports a combination of two of these: the church may ordain institutionally as installation and communally as confirmation and blessing (“Ordination in the Church,” in Paul Basden and David Dockery, eds. The People of God. Essays on the Believers’ Church, 295-96).

I do not find a prescribed pattern in the New Testament for the selection and appointment of church officers. Some early church leaders were selected by God directly and the church was notified of this through inspired prophets (e.g. Paul and Barnabas [Ac 13:1-3]; possibly Timothy [1 Tim 1:18; 4:14, if E. Ferguson is correct as to the proper translation of 4:14, namely: “Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you on account of prophecies (not ‘through prophecy’) with the laying on of hands of the council of elders” (311)]; and possibly the bishops of Ephesus [Ac 20:28] of whom Paul says “the Holy Spirit made you bishops” [but “the joint actions of the Spirit and congregations in other places (e.g., Acts 6:1-6; 13:1-3; 15:22-28) leave open the possibility that men chosen in some other way but with the approval of the Holy Spirit could be described as placed in the church by the Holy Spirit” (E. Ferguson, 311)].

Some leaders were selected by the founding missionaries  and evangelists (Ac 14:23; Titus 1:5). Sometimes the whole church  made a choice (e.g., in selecting the 7 [Acts 6:5]; representatives to accompany Paul [2 Cor 8:19]; Judas Barsabbas and Silas as messengers to Antioch [Acts 15:22]).

The epistles identify the spiritual qualifications which are appropriate to church leaders for various forms of ministry, but the description of life in the first century congregations does not provide us with a fixed pattern, as to the number of officers or their relationships, and so I concur with George Ladd that there was probably no normative pattern (A Theology of the New Testament, 534 in the original edition). In regard to “elders,” for instance, there seems to have been a plurality in a number of passages (Acts 20:17; Phil  1:1; Tit 1:5; 1 Tim 4:14), prompting Everett Ferguson to say that elders “always appear as a collegial group in Christian congregations (Acts 14:23; 21:18; 1 Tim 4:14; Jas 5:14; cf. Phil 1:1)” (322). But I find it unclear whether elders of the several congregations in a large city, such as Ephesus, constituted a single presbytery for the whole city, or whether those whom Paul asked to meet him in Miletus (Acts 20:17) were simply the elders from the various congregations in the city, some of which groups might have had more than one elder. We are not told how the various congregations or their elders related to one another. Everett Ferguson observes that “the word ‘bishop’ suggests more a singular role than a plural role, so when one chief elder emerged in some churches at the beginning of the 2nd century, it was natural that this was the  term used for this person” (323). That strikes me as a plausible suggestion, but I see nothing prescribed or proscribed in this regard.  Part of our being the church semper reformanda (always being reformed) is that we are free to reorganize our structures when a new structure would serve in reformation of the life of the church and foster greater health within it.

7. The offices of the church have to do with necessary functions and function should determine form. The functions are variously described, but generally they break down into three categories: teaching, serving/mercy, and ruling. The particularly forms that we observe in first century churches seems to have been informed by structures in the Jewish temple and synagogue, rather than to have been specified by God, and particular offices emerged as the church needed them. As I see it, the way in which these three basic functions is exercised in various churches may vary according to needs and circumstances, but whatever structure we establish should foster effective ministry in all three areas.

Geoffrey Bromiley has helpfully pointed out that the fact that there must be presbyterate (i.e., ruling) does not necessitate a Presbyterian structure and, though there must be diaconate (i.e., serving/mercy), this does not stipulate a Congregational structure. “The three orders need not conform to a single pattern either in themselves  or in their interrelationshps” (Christian Ministry,82). What matters is that the three essential functions are fulfilled, and that there is balance and harmony in the carrying out of the tasks. The order used to concretize these three basic aspects is always relative and reformable, so there should be flexibility and responsiveness to the developing needs and the   prompting of the Holy Spirit (Bromiley, 85), but also a certain element of unity and  continuity because the three basic functions must be carried out. This sensitivity becomes particularly important in cross-cultural situations.

I like E.J. Carnell’s observation: “As long as rulers are filled with the Spirit and wisdom, any form of government will do. And if rulers lack these virtues, even the most  cleverly devised polity will be found wanting. Too much government leads  to tyranny, whereas too little government leads to anarchy” (in Carl F. Henry, ed. Basic Christian Doctrines, 254).

In Acts, there was no uniform pattern of government. Leadership was an historical development in which the apostles, elders and congregation shared (cf. G.E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, [p. 352 in the original edition which has more recently been recently expanded and updated, in the edition to which I have linked]). In regard to Corinth, no mention is made of designated officers, but Paul speaks of  gifted “apostles, teachers, prophets and people with gifts of administration” (1 Cor 12:28). At Philippi, and in the Asian congregations to which the Pastorals were written, there were “overseers” and “deacons” (Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:1-13; Tit 1:5-9). To Thessalonica, Paul urges that they respect “those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you” (1Thess 5:12).

8. The relationship between churches should express both independence and interdependence. In the associating of churches for the sake of the fulfillment of the task of the  church, there will necessarily be some surrender of independence. But this is not a  problem, as long as it is done deliberately and as long as the authority for continuing the association resides in the local church.


This is a barebones description of my understanding, but it is the basic framework I would bring to a church planting context, and I think that it would translate well cross-culturally.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

One reply on “Is a form of church government prescribed by the New Testament?”

Thanks for this Terry. I become suspicious when we hold one form (of governance/leadership) as more biblical than another. I suspect that we prefer one or another particular form more for cultural and personal reasons, and then give it biblical sanction. So your suggestion of presbyterial function (rather than necessarily a prebytery) makes good sense to me. We have various ways of fulfilling principles derived from Scripture. Better to fulfill those principles than to imitate forms without understanding the principles.

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