4. Church Government

Old Baptist Meeting House, Winslow, BucksI’ve often heard people say that the New Testament does not present us with a prescribed model for church government. Usually they mean we are free to organise the church however we wish, which is definitely not the case since there are clear patterns and principles in the New Testament.

As we have seen in the other articles in this series, the New Testament church made provision for the congregation to give its opinion, made provision for leaders to urge a way forward and for their opinion to be respected. It also establishes the need for at least two, possibly three or four, kinds of leadership (deacons, elders bishops and apostles). Over the years various branches of the church have emphasised one part of the Biblical pattern over against the others.

Oversight in the early church

Early in the life of the church the need for “oversight” was established but was seen as a general part of the duties of the local elders. By the end of the first century BC churches in larger communities were appointing a presiding elder who “oversaw” the life of the local Christian community and carried the title of overseer – in Greek, episkopos. From this title we get the words “bishop” and “episcopal”.


By the 1500s, blatant corruption on the part of many bishops aroused widespread dissatisfaction and led to the Reformation and the establishment in reformed churches of a “Presbyterian” approach where the authority was given to a council of elders. Soon after, groups in the second wave of the reformation,as a result of studying the scriptures, became aware of the Greek word ekklesia and its roots in Greek democracy.  Mennonites, Congregationalists, Baptists and Quakers then began to favour a more democratic approach which placed the final authority in the church in an assembly of church members.

All of these approaches acknowledge that the ideal for the church is theocracy, for Jesus himself to govern the church through his Spirit. But how does God show his will to the church? And how do the various levels of authority fit together?

Acts 15 – how the elders and the assembly work together

Acts 15 is a crucial chapter in showing the various foci of authority. Some Jewish Christians from Jerusalem visit Antioch and start teaching that the Gentile believers must be circumcised. Paul and Barnabas are sent down from Antioch to submit the matter to the apostles.  The apostles and elders meet to consider the question (see v 6). Verse 15 in the NIV wrongly calls this meeting “an assembly”, implying that the ekklesia is a meeting of elders, however, the word ekklesia is not present in the Greek. The apostles and elders together listen carefully to both sides of the question (v.7) and then there are two important contributions, one from Peter (v.7 – 9) who brings the testimony of prophecy and experience, recounting the vision God gave him before he was called to visit Cornelius and the way that the gentiles in Cornelius’ household had been baptised in the Spirit. The other contribution is from James who brings the testimony of scripture, quoting a passage from Amos. The apostles and elders come to a decision and send a letter to the believers in Antioch from the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. Although the letter is addressed as from the apostles and elders, verse 22 says they acted “with the whole church” which implies that they sought the agreement of the congregation before sending the letter.

When the messengers arrive in Antioch they gather the whole church (v 30) to hear the letter.

The whole process shows the elders and the two congregations working together with mutual respect. The elders do not impose their will on the congregations, or act without consulting them, nor does one congregation impose its will on another. However, the elders take responsibility for teaching and giving a lead and the congregations treat their recommendations with respect.

Photo: The old Baptist meeting house in Winslow, Buckinghamshire, UK.
Photo © copyright Michael Jobling