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Theology > Church > Church Government > Forms of Church Government


Historically the government of the Church has generally fallen under one of three categories: Episcopal; Presbyterian or Reformed; and Congregational.


The Greek word for “Bishop” is episkopos, meaning “overseer”; from the transliteration of this Greek word we obtain the word “Episcopalian”; the central point is that authority is understood in terms of the single individual, the Bishop; it is understood that there are pragmatic variations in those groups who practice this form of government.

The Episcopal form of Church government is the government of the Orthodox Church, the Roman Church, the Church of England and the Anglican communion, the Lutheran Church, the Methodist Church, and smaller groups that have separated from these major groups.

In an Episcopal system, the Bishop is supreme, with superiority and authority over Elders and Deacons in a specific geographical area, and over other layers of organization that may become established by the particular group; the authority of the Bishop is assumed to have been derived by apostolic succession from the original apostolate, and only the Bishop has the authority to ordain.

Some assert that Episcopacy is the essential characteristic of the Church, and without it there is no Church.

In the Roman Catholic Church’s expression of Episcopacy one Bishop, the Pope, is supreme, ruling over all of the other Bishops.

It is generally thought that the significance of a single Bishop arose out of the working of a plurality of Elders, with one individual inevitably assuming authority and responsibilities for the group and over the group; the development was not with evil intent but was merely the result of circumstances and personalities, that is, it was the result of expediency and human frailty.

Support is found in early statements from Ignatius, Polycarp, and Irenaeus that indicate a threefold ministry of Bishop, Presbytery, and Deacon existed at an early date; an illustration from Scripture is the prominence of James in Acts 15 at the Jerusalem Conference.

In opposition to this form of government are five points:

One, the forceful point that in the Scriptures there is no distinction between Bishop and Elder—they are one and the same person and office—the words are synonyms;

Two, with regards to James he may have been a leader among them but certainly not over them;

Three, statements of the Fathers indicate a close relationship between the Bishop and the Presbytery, similar to a chairman of a group, not a fixed hierarchy of separate authority that appeared later in Church history;

Four, in the early days of the Church, each local church was led by a group of Elders;

Five, the office tends to take precedent over the individual holding it.

Presbyterian or Reformed

The Greek word for “Elder” is presbuteros, meaning “older” or “more mature”; from the transliteration of this Greek word we obtain the word “Presbyterian”; authority is in terms of the group, the Elders; additionally, there is only one level of Elders—no hierarchy as in Episcopacy.  

This form of government is true of the Presbyterians and other Reformed groups, and was developed mainly by Calvin in his Institutes.

In the Presbyterian structure, the Elder is supreme, after being elected by the people; Elders and Bishops are not separate individuals or offices, but the words are synonyms; Elders rule through the group of Elders for each Church; usually a distinction, however, is made between teaching Elders and ruling Elders; the rule of Elders at the local church is called the Session or Consistory.

In addition to the Elders of the churches, groups of churches may be grouped into a Presbytery (ordination is at this level); a number of Presbyteries can form a Synod that exercises limited authority and review at times, depending on the circumstances—an example would be the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15; finally, at the national level would be the General Assembly.

While having some measure of freedom, each local church is under a local group and under expanding larger groups, but the larger groups (Presbytery, Synod, and Assembly) may not have the authority of discipline; the relationship of these entities is that of mutual accountability.

This form is similar to the organization of the Jewish synagogue with its Elder rule.

In support of this form are the references to Elder rule in the NT (I Cor. 12:28; I Thess. 5:12; I Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:7), and to the plurality of Elders (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Phil. 1:1; Tit. 1:5).

In opposition to this form are the following observations:

One, the fact that the layers above the local church find no justification in Scripture;

Two, at no place in Scripture do Elders have authority to rule except in the local assembly;

Three, it is also debatable whether a distinction should be made between ruling and teaching Elders.


In the Congregational form of Church government the congregation rules and makes the final decision in matters of faith and practice; each individual church is autonomous and is subject to no higher authority or level of organization; authority is understood in terms of the congregation.

The congregation does not enjoy an absolute independence but must be submissive to the leadership of Christ, who is the Head of the Church, and to the individual or individuals elected to govern the specific church.

This form of government is true of Congregationalists, Baptist, Anabaptist, Quakers, Evangelical Free, and most independent churches and non-affiliated groups; numerous congregations have a single Elder.

In some congregational models the local church, while subject to no higher level of authority or rule, may be ruled by a group of Elders, or even a single Elder, which is ultimately answerable to the congregation but to no higher authority outside or beyond the local congregation; the congregation elects or appoints its Elders who then rule or guide the congregation; ordination is at the local level; qualifications for voting members will vary from congregation to congregation.

Any association or fellowship with other churches and/or groups is voluntary and is non-binding on the local congregation which retains it independent status.

Support for this form is found in the headship of Christ (Col. 1:18) and in the priesthood of all believers (I Pet. 2:9) which is usually stressed more than the principle of democracy; ideally, decisions made by the local congregation arise from the Spirit’s leading of the congregation; Scriptural support is found in the action of the group or congregation in Acts 1:15-26; 6:1-7; 13:1-3; 14:27; 15:2-3.

Several points can be made in opposition to this form:

One, the question of whether a purely democratic principle, or decision by the majority, can be harmonized with the Biblical principle of Elder rule;

Two, congregational rule seems inconsistent with the concept of the headship of Christ, or rule from the top down through properly appointed leaders;

Three, the Scriptures record the fact that Elders were appointed for the churches by outsiders (Acts 14:23; Tit. 1:5);

Four, when there are disputes at the local level, there is no higher authority to which an appeal can be made, either for advice or decision.

Note: Of the three forms it seems that the most Biblical model is a model that places in some manner the election or appointment of Elders with the congregation, and then those duly elected by the congregation rule or lead the congregation in all matters; the decision of the Elders must be followed by each believer and by the congregation of believers.

Note: To the degree that the Church develops organizational structure—for whatever reason—to that degree it departs from its essential nature, that of a spiritual organism or fellowship.

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