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FOUR KINDS OF CHURCH GOVERNMENT

By Curtis Pugh


Several factors may exist that have given rise to the four types of church government: tradition, expediency, misunderstanding etc. In such a brief space we can only examine each briefly and give at least one passage of Scripture for or against each one.

First of all there is a form of church government which is basically a monarchy: the rule of one man over a church. Regardless of the titles given, in essence such a man rules as a king over a church (or churches). The Bible speaks against this system in 3 John 1:9-10 as follows: “I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church.” This man, Diotrephes, took unto himself authority over the congregation when he had no right to do so. He wanted first place and did what he could to obtain and maintain it to the detriment of the church and the work of missions.

The second form of church government is an oligarchy: government by a few. Whether called “ruling elders,” “elder board,” or “deacon board” or some “committee” or whatever, whenever a few hold authority over the membership (this few often choosing their own successors and fellows) this is an oligarchy. Peter wrote against this when he said: “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock,” (1 Peter 5:2-3). Peter was addressing the elders (ordained preachers) among the congregation. He warned against an oligarchy saying they were not to be “lords over God's heritage” - the few ruling over the many. Whenever a church has “ruling elders” or a governing “deacon board” such a thing constitutes “lords over God's heritage.”

The third form of church government is anarchy: absence of active government or proper authority. Whenever the membership rules without being submitted to Christ as Head over the church this is anarchy. Often such churches appropriate to themselves authority beyond that given by Christ to His churches. Besides Christ-given executive authority (the right to carry out Christ's instructions) they take unto themselves a fuller judicial authority than He gave and then proceed to usurp His authority by taking it upon themselves legislative authority which is rightfully Christ's. Colossians 1:18 says: “And he [Christ] is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.” Christ left to His churches executive authority: the authority to carry out His commands. He left to His churches limited judicial authority in the matter of church discipline, but even then there are rules to be followed. But He gave His church no legislative authority. No church has a right to make rules or issue commandments: Christ is the Head and Law-giver and He alone.

The church of the Laodiceans was in terrible spiritual condition as recorded in Revelation chapter three. The two Greek words that make up the name of this city are “laos” and “dike.” “Laos” (from whence “laity”) means the people while “dike” means “right” or even “lawsuit” and has been taken by some to mean the rulership of the people. If that is accurate then the result of the rule of the people apart from obedience to Christ is seen as a part of their desperate spiritual condition. Christ was outside! Is this not the case whenever a congregation refuses to submit to His authority and in effect throws Him out?

The fourth kind of church government is democracy under Christ: an equal brotherhood of all members subject to and seeking to obey Christ in all corporate decisions and actions as well as in their personal lives. Ephesians 5:23 says: “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.” A husband is not the organic head of the woman for she has her own head. So each church may have an organic “head” for some members are likened to an “ear,” and “eye” and a nose (“smelling”) in 1 Corinthians 1216-17. (We can hardly think of an “eye” or an “ear” or “smelling” existing apart from a head). The organic head of a church, it seems to me, ought to be the spiritual leader, “elder” or pastor of the flock: the one with the responsibility of feeding that flock. The one who must give an answer to Christ. Such men are to be obeyed in their teaching and preaching of the Word of God. “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you,” (Hebrews 13:17). But such an organic head is not “the Head” or King or Governor over the church. That governmental head is to be Christ!

We find in the New Testament that the choice of “diakonos” (deacons) was evidently by voting unless we are willing to ascribe disorderly mob rule to the Jerusalem ecclesia. We read the apostles' solution in the following passage: “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 6:3-6). No lesser men than the apostles did not take it upon themselves to choose men for the office of deacon. The congregation was instructed with the words “look ye out among you” and they did that. The congregation “chose” or elected men in an orderly manner we can be sure. How else could it be known that “the saying [words of the apostles] pleased the multitude”? These chosen men were brought before the apostles and they, based upon the choice of the congregation, appointed them as deacons or servants to the church. Is this not democracy under the Headship of Christ?

A careful examination of Acts 1:15-26 also shows the democracy under Christ of the first congregation. Peter sets forth the qualifications necessary for one who was to replace Judas as an apostle. His Christian experience had to begin with John's baptism and he had to have kept company from that time with the apostles. Understanding that the phrase “gave forth their lots” (v. 26) is different than the casting of lots portrays for us the choice (election) of Mathias by the “disciples” whom Peter addressed and who are said to number about one hundred and twenty (see vs. 15-16). (The word “men” in the phrase “men and brethren” (v. 15) was “used generically generically of a group of both men and women”).

As previously shown, democracy apart from the Headship of Christ is anarchy. But the careful and responsible choices and determinations made by men and women – members of the ecclesia - who are living in obedience to Christ is that which characterized the first congregation in Jerusalem. And it seems clear that this ought to be the kind of church government in the Lord's churches.

This kind of church government does not hinder the spiritual leaders from exercising the gifts God has given. I does not take anything away from the rightful authority and leadership of the pastor. It does not imperil the God-given liberty of the saints, but rather provides order in the house of God.

One disadvantage to this kind of democratic church government under Christ is its relative inefficiency time wise. It requires time for prayerful consideration and even fasting if we follow the example of the Jerusalem congregation. An absolute monarchy is the most efficient form of church government as far as speed or time is concerned. One man can make up his mind much faster than a congregation – especially an ecclesia seeking the mind of God on a matter. So also is an oligarchy a faster moving decision making body and an anarchy (which is a kind of mob rule) is likewise faster than the prayerful contemplation of the Scriptures as our guide for obedience to Christ our Head. But it is the slower form of the obedience of the congregation as to what Christ would have the church do or not do that God has set in His churches.

After all, the most efficient of government is that of a beneficent despot. The problem with despotism (monarchy) today is sin. A truly beneficent monarch cannot be found: one whose only thought is the welfare of his people. But there is One coming who shall reign as the Beneficent Despot: the King of Kings who not only has the good of His people constantly in mind, but who also has the power to carry out all He deems good and proper. And He, the Lord Jesus Christ, is now the only Head and Law-giver over His churches. After all, they are His! And as the potter has power over the clay, Christ has the right to do with each of His churches as He sees fit. The job of each ecclesia is to do what her Head says do!


Grace Bible Baptist Church
26080 Wax Road
Denham Springs, LA 70726

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