Doctrine Ch.4 - Church Governance

Denominations use different systems of leadership, from powerful hierarchies to self-ruling congregations. The Bible isn’t clear about leadership structures in the first churches, but there are some clues.

During the same week in November 2012, Americans voted for their president, the Chinese were informed about their new Politburo leaders, and Coptic Orthodox believers had the identity of their new pope revealed to them by a blindfolded boy who picked his name from the three laid on an altar. It was a rather nice quirk of timing that highlights the different ways in which nations and churches are governed.

       Leadership styles divide the church now more than ever. The quaint method used by the Coptic church is actually the most Bible based, because this is roughly how the twelfth apostle was picked after Judas’ death (Acts 1:23-26). Other churches rely either on voting by members (to varying degrees) or on the decision of existing leaders. This difference creates a dividing line that cuts deeper than theology, because of what it says about the value of individual members. It also creates a division between denominations that is difficult to bridge.

       The Catholic and Orthodox churches are at one end of the spectrum, having strict hierarchies and a top-down chain of command. At the bottom-up end are churches such as the Mennonites, who prefer to keep discussing until a unanimous consensus is possible. Between these extremes is a huge variety of leadership structures.

       The church occasionally attempts to overcome such divisions. In 1972 the Congregational and Presbyterian churches of the UK decided to unite because they were theologically identical in almost all respects except church government: Congregationalist members voted on all big decisions, while decisions were made by the presbytery (regional elected elders) on the Presbyterian members’ behalf. The two denominations merged to become the United Reformed Church, with the agreement that congregations would vote on local matters, while the elders would vote on regional and national issues. This was hailed as a significant reversal in the Protestant tendency toward divisions and subdivisions. Unfortunately, several congregations from both sides disagreed with the compromise and refused to be a part of the United Reformed Church, so the two denominations merged and became three!

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What’s in a name?

As with most church divisions, disagreement about church leadership largely occurs because of Scripture’s lack of clarity on the subject. The New Testament names several titles, many of which we still use, and their Greek and Latin forms are also used in church terminology: deacon (Greek diakonos; Latin minister), elder (Greek presbyteros), bishop (Greek episkopos), shepherd (Latin pastor), and father (Greek and Latin pater, or intimately papa). The term “apostle” is only used in a few churches because it referred to the church’s founders and occasionally to actual “messengers” (Phil 2:25; 2 Cor 8:23). “Shepherd” is used only once for people other than Jesus and appears to be a role rather than a title (Eph 4:11). And according to Acts, “elders” are the same as “bishops” (Acts 20:17, 28).

       This leaves two main categories of early church leaders: deacons and elders/bishops. We might want to conclude that this demonstrates clearly that the standard leadership structure of the early church was based on these two types of leaders. But if this was the case, we would expect the two types to occur regularly together, whereas, in fact, deacons (often translated “servants”) are mentioned just once with elders and once with bishops (often translated “overseers”)—in 1 Timothy 3 and Philippians 1:1. Unfortunately, the only clear pattern in the Bible is that deacons occur mostly in Paul’s writings and elders occur mostly elsewhere.

       The likely explanation for this confusion is that church governance was still evolving in New Testament times, so different terms and structures were used in different times and places. By the end of the first century, however, writings such as Didache and First Clement clearly reflect a dual structure of deacons and elders, and, a little later, Ignatius assumes that several elders submit to a single bishop. As time went on, in the Latin church, the Greek word for elder was replaced by the Latin word for priest (sacerdos), and the Greek word for bishop was replaced with the Latin popa. Finally the popa of Rome became the Catholic pope, while others became patriarchs of various Orthodox churches.

A disappearing watch

Which system works best? Both appointments from the top and voting by church members can produce heroic and also disastrous leaders. When the elderly John XXIII was appointed as a caretaker pope in 1958, no one predicted that he would put in motion the most important modernization of the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council encouraged lay involvement in worship and Bible studies, the use of modern languages in the Mass instead of Latin, and replacing private confessionals with collective prayers.

       The head of the Russian Orthodox Church since 2009, Patriarch Kirill I, has a rather different track record. When he was seen wearing a $30,000 watch in a website photograph, he denied it was true, and certainly the watch was no longer visible when people rechecked the site. However, the highly reflective table at which he was sitting in the photo retained a clear image of the now-missing watch!1 And, in support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he pulled the whole Russian church out of the Ecumenical Patriarchate when it recognized the independence of Ukraine.

       Democratic church governance can go just as badly wrong when church members expect their leaders to cater to their desires. For example, just before the calendars ticked over from 1999 to 2000, one pastor was voted out of his job by church members who complained that he refused to preach warnings about the coming world disaster called the Millennium Bug (remember that nonevent?).

       My own selection for the ministry was not, I hope, typical. When I applied to a Baptist college, the administration asked my church and minister whether they recommended me for the ministry. The question was brought to the church meeting to be voted on. As I was relatively new in the area, not many church members knew who I was. However, at a recent church party I had organized a game where the winner was the person able to pronounce the words “chubby bunnies” with the most marshmallows stuffed into his mouth. So the church meeting was asked: “Do you recommend David for the ministry? You know—the one who entertained us with chubby bunnies!” All their hands went up. Hmmm …

       Nevertheless, ballots are a good way to help the silent majority have their say and hopefully to let common sense outweigh either improper influence or extremism. The Bible doesn’t tell us which system of church governance is best, but it does affirm the concerted opinion of the body of believers. According to Jesus, the whole congregation should be the final arbiter in matters of church discipline (Matt 18:17). The first deacons were chosen by the body of believers before being “appointed” by the apostles (Acts 6:1-6). There is even a hint in Acts 14:23 that elders were elected by the congregation, because the word most Bibles translate as “appoint” is actually the normal Greek word for “to vote.”

       Personally, I think it is wise to use some system of voting by the congregation to establish leaders. I especially like the double-vote system when choosing a minister, as it encourages unity. In the first vote, everyone supports whomever they prefer best. In the second vote, everyone considers whether God was speaking through the majority and whether they could affirm that choice. This often results in a unanimous vote—which is a wonderful way to start a ministry!

1^ Michael Schwirtz, “$30,000 Watch Vanishes up Church Leader’s Sleeve” (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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