Does the New Testament Teach
Congregational or Elder Rule?
There has long been a controversy over the question as to what the New Testament teaches should be the biblical form of church government. In practice, there are basically three types of church government. One is the Episcopal form of government as exampled by the Roman Catholic. The authority or rule of the Roman Church is a hierarchical as a universal church with its pope at the head, followed by lesser authorities and its traditions established in church counsels. It is not biblical because the New Testament does not teach there is a universal “church.” The New Testament word translated in our English Bible “church” is the Greek word “ekklesia” which refers to a local assembly. The Greek word "ekklesia" refers to a group of persons that are organized together for a common purpose and who meet together. The English word “church” cannot be translated back into Koine Greek because there is no word in ancient Greek that can be defined to mean what the modern word “church” does. Further the Koine Greek word simply refers to an assembly, and the word by itself does not identify who is meeting. In Acts 19:32,39,41 the word was used to refer to a civil assembly of local towns people of Ephesus which included idol makers. It is never used in the New Testament to refer to a universal church made up of all believers or churches collectively.
During the Protestant Reformation, the Presbyterian form of church government came into wide existence. This form of church government refers to what is termed “elder rule.” Churches that use elder rule believe that this is the form of church polity taught and practiced in the New Testament churches. It holds that the highest authority in a church rests in a plurality of ruling elders who are periodically elected by the congregation. In the plurality of elders will be a senior Elder (Bishop, Pastor) who is looked to for leadership, but does not have the final authority. The Elders collectively are the final authority in the local congregation. There is also an outside hierarchy or denominational headquarters that exercises its collective influence over the local ruling Elders. The denominational government is made up of elders delegated from local congregations who meet and make decisions that affects the whole of the denomination. The denomination or Synod does not actually legally have the final authority, but their local churches normally adhere to their decisions being represented by their delegates.
Locally, the individual church elects men from its membership who are appointed to a board of Elders. These Elders periodic meet and deal with matters both doctrinal and physical that relate to the ministry and workings of that church. When the Elders make a decision, it is not voted on by the membership of the church, but simply presented to the congregation at policy to be adhered to.
This paper will show that the New Testament teaches a polity of congregation rule.
The Titles Elder, Bishop, Overseer, and Pastor All Refer to the Same Church Leader.
In the New Testament the titles “presbuteros” (elder), “epsikopos” (bishop, overseer), and “poimen” (pastor) all refer to the same minister and leader in a local church. The title “elder” refers to an older, senior, and spiritually mature Christian leader.(1 Pet. 5:1-4) The word “bishop or overseer” refers one who has to the ministry or oversight over a local congregation.(1 Tim. 3:1-7) The term “pastor” or “pastor-teacher” refers to the ministry of teaching in the church. (1 Thess. 4:11-16) Thus, the one who overseers a local church has the multiple task of being a mature spiritual leader, who overseers, and teaches God’s word to his local church.
It Is the Holy Spirit Who Calls and Assigns Overseers in the Local Church.
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.” Clearly this passage teaches us that it is the Holy Spirit who calls and assigns and appoints the qualified overseer to the local congregation. (Also see 1 Cor. 12:28; Acts 13:1-3; Rom. 12:6-8; Heb. 13:17, 24; 1 Pet. 5:1-4)
The elders are to be teachers who spiritual feed the congregation God's word as 1 Peter 5:1-4 exhorts.
“The elders (presbuteros) which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder (presbuteros), 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 (episkopeo) thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords (katakurieuo) over God's heritage, but being ensamples (tupos) to the flock (poimnion). And when the chief Shepherd (archipoimen) shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.” (1 Peter 5:1-4)
God has given us clear instructions concerning elders in this passage. Those who hold to elder rule conclude, that because the word elders is plural in verse 1 the verse and most other passages in the New Testament that God is teaching God’s plan is a plurality of elders ruling within a local church. There is a simple explanation for this title being plural. It is a very simplistic view that is imposed on the word to conclude because the word is plural it is mandating a plurality of elder in an individual church who are to authority to rule over it.
The source of this view rests on the presupposition of those who practice elder rule, of it being biblical and seeking scriptural grounds for this perspective. However, 1 Peter is a General Epistle written to all the churches. The elder rule view fails to realize that in the New Testament period, there were multiple house churches (assemblies) in each city. For example, in Acts 8:1 Luke records the great persecution of the “ekklesia” at Jerusalem. The church in Jerusalem was not one big church meeting together, but was made up of an undisclosed number of small assemblies each with a overseer. Thus, word elder being plural denotes not necessarily mean there were several elders in one church, but multiple elders in multiple churches. There is nothing in the verse that addresses how many elders were in each of the churches of Jerusalem. We do know that the Apostles went “house to house’ teaching. Each house was an assembly of believers. Further, the early Christians went house to house fellowshipping together also.
This fact is substantiated by Acts 2:46 which records in Jerusalem “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” (Acts 2:46) Paul in Acts 20:20 states “And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house” (Acts 20:20)
Paul states he preached and taught them in these house assembles, which met in believer’s homes. Later in other cities, believers assembled in Christian’s homes as recorded in Paul’s letter to Philemon. “And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house.” (Philemon 1:2) Paul writing to the Corinthians mentions “churches” (plural) of God presumably in Corinth. Paul specifically uses the plural word “churches” in referring to those at Thessalonica. “Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church (singular) of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Thessalonians 1:1) Yet, in verse 4 uses the plural phrase “churches of God” referring to the churches in that city.
There is no mention of the number of elders who oversaw these house assemblies. Practically, the number of elders would be determined by the size of the congregation. A small assembly would have of necessity probably only one bishop or pastor. This pastor would perform all the functions needed of oversight, mature leadership, and preaching and teaching God’s word. Hundreds of thousands of churches around the world today have exactly that form of church polity and are certainly performing their ministries well and leading God’s heritage in God’s will. The man God calls to the oversight of an assembly certainly can perform all the ministries denoted by the titles elder, bishop, or pastor. These churches led by congregational rule with the oversight of called men of God have no deficiencies in their ministries and service to the Lord.
In Ephesians 4:11, Paul refers to there being “. . . apostles (apostolous);and some, prophets (prophetas); and some, evangelists (poimenas); and some, pastors (poimenas) and teachers (didaskalus).”
This verse is instructing these mature leaders to take the oversight of the congregation without being forced to. Therefore, doing so willingly and not for monetary gain, but being desirous of the calling. 1 Timothy 3:1 states “. . . If a man desire the office of a bishop (episcopal), he desireth a good work.” The word “episcopal” is made up of two parts: epi, meaning “over” and and scope which means “to look.” This was the person God chose to “over-look” Christians in a given place.
Note the word used is “oversight” which means to supervise or to diligently be looking out for the church’s well being. Vine states:
“episkopeo (1983), lit., “to look upon” (epi, “upon,” skopeo, “to look at, contemplate”), is found in 1 Pet. 5:2 (some ancient authorities omit it), “exercising the oversight,” RV (KJV, “taking …”); “exercising” is the right rendering; the word does not imply the entrance upon such responsibility, but the fulfillment of it. It is not a matter of assuming a position, but of the discharge of the duties. The word is found elsewhere in Heb. 12:15, “looking carefully,” RV. See Look.¶ Cf. episkope in 1 Tim. 3:1 (see Bishop, No. 2).” (Vine, W.E.; Merrill F. Unger Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville:Thomas Nelson, 1985).
1 Peter 5:3 then restricts the position of oversight as not being a “lord” over God’s heritage. Lordship refers to exercising “dominion over” thus these elders were not being instructed as having the control over the church, but rather being commended to be an example to them as the verse states. Nothing in the passage suggests having the elder having an authoritative rule over the church.
Some conclude Peter is saying he was a ruling elder in the churches, but again, that assertion has some problems. Peter states he was an elder, and then immediately states his qualifications by saying he was present with the Lord and was a witness to His sufferings and a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed. His comments attest to his qualifications as being a mature old and seasoned person who we taught the Lord Himself. He claims no superiority, but presents himself as a leader the same as those he is addressing in the churches. Being an apostle of Christ, he could have declared his higher position in the churches, but he rather identifies himself as a fellow elder, not being a lord over the congregation, but being an example. Nowhere in the New Testament is Peter elevated to a superior position over the churches other than his apostleship with the other apostles.(See Acts 10:25-26)
There does not exist in the New Testament any example of a group of men or elders ruling over a congregation. To the contrary, the example is that the congregation was not dictated to but ruled over itself led by the Holy Spirit.
Acts 20:28 Teach Concerning Leadership in a Church?
“For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God. 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.” (Acts 20:27-28)
As shown above the word “overseer” is not one of the exercising dominion over a congregation, but rather of providing them with leadership and setting an example before them. The elder is not a boss over a local congregation. Note that Paul exhorts the elders in the churches in Ephesus to first take heed of themselves. The phrase is a warning or exhortation toward personal examination. They admonished to fully consider and declare their calling “all the counsel of God” both personally and to those whom the Holy Spirit had assigned them as overseers. They were to specifically “feed” the church of God that Christ purchased with His blood. The emphasis in the last statement is to remind the overseer that the flock is not his, but Christ’s.
As stated before the use of the plural “yourselves” simply is the grammatically correct way to address the overseers in numerous churches. It cannot be determined from the plural use of the word in this context if a church had one or many pastors.
Does Acts 6:1-6 Support Elder or Congregation Rule? “And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch: Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.” (Acts 6:1-6)
The interpretive rule of “first mention” in scripture gives great importance to this passage in establishing church polity in the early church. The setting was in the Jerusalem church and there was a contention between the Greek and Hebrew Jewish widows. At this, there is no record of Christians outside of Jerusalem and there were no Gentiles yet saved. Cornelius was the first Gentile saved as Acts 10 records. Because the setting was in Hebrew city of Jerusalem, it appears the Hebrew widows were getting preferential treatment when served food.
The Apostles called the disciple of the churches in Jerusalem and explained to them that they should be attending to the word of God rather than doing menial tasks as serving food. Their duties would be to minister the word of God and pray. Note that the Apostles suggested to the church a proper solution would be to appoint or elect seven honest men who they could turn over the daily administration too. Their suggestion pleased the whole multitude which tells us the suggestion was communicated to all the disciples (believers) in Jerusalem. They meaning the congregation, chose the seven men and set them before the Apostles. The assembled church then prayed and laid hands on them. The laying on of hands was the Jewish way that showed public recognition and approval of their appointment.
Acts 11:22-23 records that after many were saved at Antioch, there was a need for leadership for these new converts. The Jerusalem congregation, who had earlier elected the first appointed servants (diakonos), on hearing of this need sent Barnabas northward to Antioch to minister to them. Barnabas, clearly sent by the church in Jerusalem, traveled to Tarus and returned with the Apostle Paul to help him. At the Jerusalem council, they also as a church, advised the church at Antioch on how to handle the issues that surfaced due to the mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles with different cultures. Later the Holy Spirit directed that Barnabas and Paul be sent on their first missionary journey. It is well to recognize that in Acts 14:26-27 states they reported to the church in Antioch of their missionary endeavors. Acts 14:26 says, "And thence sailed to Antioch, from whence they had been recommended to the grace of God for the work which they fulfilled." This establishes that it was the congregation at Antioch that "gave the up, surrendering them" giving them authority for their missions trip. In 2 Cor. 8:19, the churches (plural) sent an unidentified brother to accompany Titus in his ministry. Clearly, the early churches were making decisions concerning their ministries and there is no hint of any type of elder rule. Once again, the New Testament sets plainly the polity of a church and shows God's hand was in their decisions.
These are perfect examples of elders not dictating or ruling over a congregation. They did not meet and decide what should be done and then tell the church their decision. They, being mature, wise, and spiritual men suggested a proper solution to the church for their consideration and approval. This is a dynamic demonstration of leadership and oversight. There is no hint of the modern practice of elder rule domination in the church in Jerusalem.
What Does Revelation 2-3 Teach about Church Polity?
Letter is addressed to the church at Ephesus through its pastor. The word "angel" means "messenger" and is singular. The Epistle was not addressed to a number of “elders” but to their pastor. This shows there was one man, called of God to lead the others in the congregation. The word doesn't mean an angel as heavenly being, but it simply identifies one as the "messenger. If a congregation had multiple elders, one would have the primary leadership.
It is important to note that the pastors of the seven churches that are addressed derived their message from Christ. A church is ruled by Christ, who is its Head, which He brought it with His own blood. (Eph. 5:23, 25) The church that follows Christ will have no problem honoring and following God's messenger who faithfully preaches the Word of God and follows the Lord.
Christ addressing His message to the pastor (singular) was putting him and his position in the proper perspective to the church. Christ is the head of the church. Often church allows preachers (elders) to amass great power and glory unto themselves. Further, many churches allow a group of elders, deacons, trustees or committees to rule over a them. The point can be made here that God did not speak to any group in the churches, but spoke directly to the pastor whom he had appointed as the leader. God's leader then communicates God's message to the congregation. It cannot be ignored that God always, throughout the Bible, spoke to individuals whom He called to lead. He never spoke to or gave instructions to a group of people except through His appointed servant. The precedent is firmly established that He speaks to a church through their pastor, that He through the Holy Spirit, set as the overseer of the congregation. (Acts 20:28) A church that ignores this principle of Scripture is out of God's will.
God is not pleased nor will bless those that do not listen and follow His messengers. Throughout the history of Israel, their rebellion against God was directed toward God's messenger. (See Acts 7:52, Heb. 11:35-40) Often those whom God had not called, tried to elevate themselves, ignoring God's servant and taking leadership upon themselves. Miriam and Aaron rebelled against Moses' leadership falsely concluded that they were better qualified to lead Israel. However, in spite of Moses' shortcoming God's choice was Moses. (Numbers 12:1-16) God struck them down for their arrogance and disobedience. Korah also rebelled against Moses saying, "Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?" (Num. 16:3) He argued that the congregation of Israel did not need Moses, and that he could lead better. Without God's approval, he proceeded to take the leadership of Israel upon himself. God severely punished Korah for his error and destroyed him, his family and those that followed him and 14,700 people died. (Num. 16:1-50)
Leadership within a local church is set by God in the man whom He calls. The pastor is to lead, guide and set the example. (1 Tim 4:12) God's pastor should be warned not to abuse or to take their responsibility lightly. A church should not allow itself to usurp the pastors' role as God's undershepherd, nor should the pastor allow his God appointed position to be degraded by the church. (Heb. 12:17)
The Lord expressed His mind concerning those who would put themselves in a ruling position over a congregation. In Revelation 2:6 Christ commended the church as Ephesus because they hated the deeds of the Nicolaitanes which the Lord said He also hated.
The word "Nikolaites" (Nicolaitan) is made up of two Greek words, meaning "Niko” to conquer and “Laos” the people. It means simply this: The Nicolaitan's philosophy was that there was a difference between the "laity" who were the people in the pew, and the clergy that were the church’s religious leaders. The clergy is a group or body of ordained persons in a church that are distinguished from the laity who are the ordinary people in the pew. In truth, there is no difference in God’s eyes between the “clergy” or the laity. Each member of the local church is responsible that he remains faithful to what God has called him to. A steward, being a pastor, or any member of the church is to use his God-given gifts and minister to others. There is no hierarchy in a church as all are on level ground in their service to the Lord.
The false hierarchical system in the early churches eventually led to the establishment of popes and religious leaders ruling through a stratified church government. It is the idea that spiritual leadership can only come from an elite or special class of upper class officers in the church. These self-appointed people purport that only through these superior persons does God speak and gives authority to control and dictate to the congregation. It totally ignores the priesthood of the believer as being indwelled and being led of the Holy Spirit. Historically, the congregation at Ephesus and Bergamots did not purge themselves of this unbiblical idea.(Rev. 2:6, 14-15) Today it is still around in various forms in such apostate churches as the Roman Catholic and many Protestant denominations. It is also prevalent in the Christian cults.
Every member of the body of Christ is a minister responsible to his Savior for his own spiritual relationship to Christ. No one can intercede between a believer and His Lord. Every Christian is a believer-priest and needs no one to intercede on his behalf save Christ Himself. (See Hebrews 10:19-22) The institution of the local church (ekkleisa -assembly) was given by the Lord to edify, build up believers in the word of God and to evangelize the world. (1 Cor. 12:1-21) Each congregation is responsible to follow the Bible, God's word which alone is ". . . given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works" (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Christ says he hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans who sought to put a congregation in bondage to their authority. If Christ said he hated the deeds of these people who sought to rule over the congregation how can any denomination, church or believer condone being ruled by a hierarchy of men? John in his 3 John 9-11 spoke pointed in condemning Diotrephes who ". . .who loveth to have the preeminence."
It is clear to those who would follow God’s word that the modern “elder” rule is not of God and if not instituted of the Lord is out of His will. A man or group of men can do many things in the flesh, but if what they do comes from the flesh God is not a part of it. To ignore God's clear teaching on church polity is a serious error which will bring God's wrath.
God instituted the local church to be an assembly of born again, baptized, believers who voluntarily join themselves into a congregation to preach the Gospel, worship, fellowship, and to propagate the Gospel from their location to the uttermost parts of the earth. As exampled in His word in both the Old and New Testament God calls a man to lead His people and to deliver His message to them. There is no example in either the Old or New Testament of a people God is seeking to address receiving God’s word through anyone, but a single man who the Lord calls. God never addresses committees or a group of men (elders or other wise). The Lord speaks to a man who delivers His word, His instructions, and guidance to the assembly. A spiritual congregation being also lead of the Lord will see God's hand and wisdom and in unison with their overseer carry on God's work. Further, no man is given the authority to lord or exercise controlling authority over God’s people. He is simply God’s instrument to serve the Lord and the God’s people.
The man is called by God and the local congregation seeing God’s hand on him ordains him to lead them at God’s direction. The pastor is not called to be the authority over the church or to rule over it. God chosen leader is a pastor, a servant, and shepherd to the Lord’s flock. His and the congregation's authority is solely dictated by God’s word. God has given no one the authority to change His word, which includes biblical church polity. Together they follow the principles of the scriptures working in a cooperation. However, the ultimate authority to follow God’s word rests with congregational rule as they are lead by the Holy Spirit and adhere to God’s word.
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