More blood has been spilt during more business meetings than both world wars combined over this very issue (note the sarcasm). At least in America, people value their independence and loath the idea of submission. Yet is our American concept of liberty even valid thinking when it comes to church governance? Is the church designed as a democracy, a republic, or a dictatorship? How is the church supposed to be governed and does it matter? Before I answer the question of which type of church government I prefer or which I see as being the most biblical, perhaps we should establish our choices.
The first major type of church government is an episcopal structure of church government. This structure is a pyramid with one man at the top of the church, a layer of high-ranking officials (bishops or cardinals) who oversee large areas with many churches or parishes within that area. The individual churches within those parishes are controlled by a single pastor or priest. This group draws a strict line between what the Bible calls “elders” and “bishops.” The Church of Rome is probably the best recognized organization with this structure, but there are others like the Methodist Church (who don’t have a heretical background) that would also represent this type of government.
What I’m saying is, let’s not disavow episcopal government just because the antichrist uses it. Don’t get me wrong, we will disavow it, but it will be based on the Bible and what it has to say concerning episcopal government.
There are three things we should observe about this structure.
First, there is scant biblical support for it. Advocates of this type of government within the RCC appeal to Matthew 16:18 and demand that Peter and his successors make up the man at the top of the pyramid (the Pope). This "evidence" does not hold up to much scrutiny when we examine the text only to find that Christ could not be referring to Peter the man when he said "upon this rock I will build my church." The reference is to Peter's confession (Thou art the Christ!), not Peter himself.
Those outside of Rome (and thus do not interpret Matthew 16:18 with popish nonsense) that still hold to this form of government might appeal to Revelation 1. It is here that some recognize each church mentioned has a single “angel” (or pastor) in charge of it. But even if we interpret angel as “pastor” (and that interpretation is not at all a sure interpretation) it would not necessitate this hierarchy of structure known as episcopalianism. What little biblical "support" the advocates of episcopalianism were able to drum up quickly evaporates under the sun's scrutiny.
A second item to be noticed is episcopalianism's obvious resemblance to a human made construction. If man were going to invent a type of government, this is what he would invent. Nearly every military on the globe uses this type of government structure. It can be highly effective, but at the end of the day, it cannot be said to be biblical with only two (and neither of them defensible) biblical references for “support.”
Another form of church governance is called Presbyterianism. This type of church government takes the office of elder very seriously and sees no biblical reason to distinguish between what the Bible calls “elders” and “bishops.” In this, Presbyterians are correct, as the terms seem to be used interchangeably in the New Testament.
Beginning from the ground up, Presbyterians see the local church being governed by elders who have been elected from the congregation to represent them and rule over them. This small body of men will govern the church, but they are not in complete control. The Presbyterian system is indeed a network (ironically similar to that of the episcopal system) of hierarchy. The only real difference in the hierarchy (the local church is much different with a body of elders as opposed to single man in charge) is that there is a body of elders who oversees all of the smaller parishes. It’s still a pyramid scheme, just not as pointy.
Those within Presbyterianism would appeal to Acts 15 as a proof text for their government. They would claim that the church of Antioch recognized the elders of Jerusalem as their superiors and deferred to them concerning the issue of Gentile believers. The question is, does Acts 15 support connectionalism (the idea of each individual body being connected to a larger system whose head dictates policy)? Was there a mother church in Jerusalem who made decisions and then imposed those decisions upon other churches (in this case the church at Antioch)? Or is Acts 15 a report of history rather than a prescription of how to conduct business?
There are two things to keep in mind.
First, this event occurred before the completion of the canon of Scripture. Paul and Barnabas couldn’t find a chapter and verse to discuss this issue. This in of itself should demonstrate that this situation is not a model for the modern church.
Second, the appeal was made to the apostles, the men who wrote Scripture. I think that this is more of the recognition of the men who were with the Lord during his ministry and who will be tasked with the writing of Scripture. I think that it’s interesting how James has the final say in the matter (Acts 15:13-21) when it is very possible that his epistle may have been written and distributed at this time.
This is not a demonstration of connectionalism as is found in Presbyterianism, but is actually an appeal to Scripture and the men who wrote it. The biblical model is to submit to Scripture, not to men or counsels.
The third type of church government is completely different from the first two and is known as Congregationalism. While Episcopalism is known for its hierarchy and Presbyterianism is known for its elders plus hierarchy, Congregationalism is known for its autonomy.
Congregationalism comes in many different stripes and colors, but one thing about a congregational church is that it is not connected to other churches in any manner that would seem subservient or superior. Because of this independence, a congregational church may vary significantly in the way they govern themselves. They may have a single pastor who runs the show. They may have elders who run the church much like Presbyterianism, or the elders may defer to the congregation for the final decision. In fact, the congregation may vote on everything and the church runs like a true democracy (a horrid idea that has never seen success in any application; political, social or otherwise).
There are pros and cons to many of these individual governing styles but one thing must be said, the autonomy of the local church seems to be the biblical model. The Apostles wrote to many different churches who were operating in different contexts with different struggles. These letters were written concerning problems of internal strife, worship, government, dealing with persecution, dealing with sin, and a host of other problems. But one thing you will never read in any of the New Testament epistles is a command to submit to a hierarchy.
There is never a single person or a single body of people that is identified as the “ruling party” of the Church at large/universal. Perhaps this is considered an argument from silence, but I think this is a significant one.
Another thing that we should notice is the command for elders from the Apostles. Paul in particular commanded Titus to make sure that he leaves elders who are able to rule the individual and independent churches of Crete before he leaves (Titus 1:5). This was the main thrust of Titus’ mission to Crete. Paul makes sure to give both Titus and Timothy requirements and prerequisites for elders (Titus 1:7-9; 1 Tim 3:2-13) so that the qualified men are the ones in command. From this we see that autonomy is modeled. The training and implementing of elders is modeled. But there is one more thing that we should notice.
Paul, while obviously advocating for elders, writes to men and to the church at large, but never solely to a group of elders. Only when writing to the Philippians does Paul even mention the elders and deacons in the introduction to a letter (Phil 1:1). Paul does write to individual pastors such as Timothy and Titus, but never to an elder board. What I think this means is that the biblical model is autonomous, elder ruled, but pastor led. What I mean by that is not that the church should operate with an executive branch and a legislative branch to check each other, but that there is one leader among equals. The pastor, being an elder, is equal but also leads and trains these men.
Episcopalism is utterly indefensible from the Scriptures and should not be implemented. I see Presbyterianism as a step in the right direction in the break away from Episcopalism. But because they clutch to their hierarchy of connectionalism, this system also falls short of a biblical model. I would call my view a form of Congregationalism where the church is independent from other churches and the elders, who are led by the Sr. pastor, rule the church.
It's relieving to simply let the Word of God speak. Ours is not to invent, but to obey.