Among the many issues that differentiate churches and denominations is the basic issue of church government. After many centuries of mostly Episcopal (hierarchical) rule the Reformation saw changes that started Presbyterian and Congregational rule in the churches.
Initially the center of Christianity was Jerusalem. But right after the church’s beginning the Dispersion happened where the believers were forced by Roman rule to leave Jerusalem. Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch became church centers and oversaw the development of churches in those areas. Since that time many churches follow the form of an ecclesiastical hierarchy where the church or denomination has a central leader (with perhaps a leadership body or council under it), and exercises power over churches under its influence. Within this church is a direct and distinct chain of command. The local church and its minister are overseen by a bishop or overseer who may be under another overseer who may be under another overseer up to the chief overseer of the denomination. This is called Episcopal polity.
In contrast to Episcopal polity the local autonomous method of church government says that each local church is purely self governing without any power outside the local church that can overrule it. Within each autonomous church the church may be governed by the believers, or it may be governed by the elders, the pastor, or any combination of the three.
A church governed by its body of believers is called Congregational. As many world governments had instituted national religions believers looked to gather together under their own rule. The Pilgrims brought congregational churches to America.
The church governed by its elders is following a Presbyterian system, although not all churches governed by elders are in the Presbyterian denomination. The elders together form a court which rules by committee. Of course, the Presbyterian Church is the namesake of the Presbyterian system.
The Episcopal polity is seen in the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern orthodox church, and in many of the national churches, like the Anglican Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, and so forth. Baptist churches, as well as “Bible” churches, independent churches, Congregational churches, and many others follow the self-governing method where each church is autonomous unto itself under its membership.
Also significant is that while self governing churches are autonomous, they are frequently part of conventions or associations that require certain standards. Examples are The Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, and the vineyard association of churches.
Biblical Basis Of Church Government
As with so many other issues there is no clear Biblical specification that church government should be of the Episcopal (ecclesiastical hierarchy) polity, the Presbyterian, or the congregational.
Here is a section of Scripture where it is shown a collection was received for food relief, and sent to elders in Jerusalem for distribution.
And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be a great famine over all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius.
And the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren that dwelt in Judea:
which also they did, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. [Act 11:28-30ASV]
The Greek word for elders is “presbuteros”. From this we get the English word presbyter, and this is the groundwork for the Presbyterian form of government, which simply means that the church is ruled by a body of elders. Biblically, elders were ordained. While Peter initially appeared to be the spiritual leader of the new church, and perhaps later Paul, James is implicated as the organizational head at Jerusalem. Still, this section of scripture shows some support for a Presbyterian system as it appears that the Apostles oversaw the church as a body of elders.
And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, and to Iconium, and to Antioch,
confirming the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God.
And when they had appointed (ordained) for them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they had believed. [Act 14:21-23ASV]
This section supports seems to also support Presbyterian polity as “elders” (Presbyters) were ordained in the churches they left behind.
The epistles written to Timothy are called the “pastoral” the epistles because there is a lot about pastoring in these epistles. In the first book of Timothy, for example, we have:
Faithful is the saying, If a man seeketh the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.
The bishop therefore must be without reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, orderly, given to hospitality, apt to teach;
no brawler, no striker; but gentle, not contentious, no lover of money;
one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity;
(but if a man knoweth not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)
not a novice, lest being puffed up he fall into the condemnation of the devil.
Moreover he must have good testimony from them that are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.
Deacons in like manner must be grave, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre;
holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience.
And let these also first be proved; then let them serve as deacons, if they be blameless.
Women in like manner must be grave, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things.
Let deacons be husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.
For they that have served well as deacons gain to themselves a good standing, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus. [1Tim 3:1-13 ASV]
Similar, less extensive instruction is given in the book of Titus:
For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that were wanting, and appoint elders in every city, as I gave thee charge;
if any man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having children that believe, who are not accused of riot or unruly.
For the bishop must be blameless, as God’s steward; not self-willed, not soon angry, no brawler, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre;
but given to hospitality, a lover of good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled;
holding to the faithful word which is according to the teaching, that he may be able to exhort in the sound doctrine, and to convict the gainsayers. [Tit 1:5-9ASV]
Notice that in each of these cases there is an overseer, a bishop, who must be the husband of one wife with children that believe, and whose houses are well ruled. They must be apt to teach, and hospitable. A list of vices to be avoided in ministers includes being self-willed, short tempered, a fighter, and greedy.
These preceding sections of Scripture strongly suggest that ecclesiastical hierarchy is prescribed by Scripture. However, there is evidence to suggest that the Holy Spirit, and not the church hierarchy is the ruling force in Scripture:
Now when they had gone throughout Phrygia and the region of Galatia, and were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia,
After they were come to Mysia, they assayed to go into Bithynia: but the Spirit suffered them not. [Act 16:6-7 ]
For more examples look at Acts 1:8, Acts 4:32, Acts 8:29, Acts 10:19, Acts 11:28-29, Acts 16:6-7, and Acts 20:23.
Many people assume that Peter was the first overseer because of his acts of leadership. Peter stands up in Acts 2 and becomes the spokesman. Yet we see when we look at acts that it was James who is actually the head of the church. Notice that when Paul went in to present himself to the church it was to “James” and the elders.
And when we were come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly.
And the day following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present.
And when he had saluted them, he rehearsed one by one the things which God had wrought among the Gentiles through his ministry. [Act 21:17-19 ASV]
This appears to be a case of Paul presenting himself to leadership, in this case, James who was in charge of the Apostles.
For I delivered unto you first of all that which also I received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;
and that he was buried; and that he hath been raised on the third day according to the scriptures;
and that he appeared to Cephas; then to the twelve;
then he appeared to above five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain until now, but some are fallen asleep;
then he appeared to James; then to all the apostles; [1Co 15:3-7ASV]
Here we clearly have an appearance, at least, that James was in charge, therefore Jesus spoke with him before he spoke to the apostles as a group.
But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother. [Gal 1:19 ASV]
The James in question is generally accepted to be James, the Lord’s brother.
The true leadership of the church was the leadership of the Holy Spirit who directed many actions:
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said unto them, Ye rulers of the people, and elders, [Act 4:8ASV]
And the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot. [Act 8:29ASV]
So where does the case for congregational polity come from? The following paragraph comes from the Center for Baptist studies at Mercer University.
“Theological Bases for Congregational Polity
GEORGE W. TRUETT, longtime pastor of First Baptist Church Dallas, Texas, delivered a sermon on the steps of the United States Capitol in 1920. This sermon has become a classic presentation of Baptist heritage, particularly concerning religious liberty. Truett insisted that all Baptist beliefs hinge on the Lordship of Christ. “That doctrine is for Baptists the dominant fact in all their Christian experience,” argued Truett, “the nerve center of all their Christian life, the bedrock of all their church polity, the sheet anchor of all their hopes, the climax and crown of all their rejoicings.”
“From that germinal conception of the absolute Lordship of Christ,” said Truett, “all our Baptist principles emerge. Just as yonder oak came from the acorn, so our many-branched Baptist life came from the cardinal principle of the absolute Lordship of Christ.”
The Baptist understanding of the church is profoundly shaped by the principle of Lordship in Truett’s estimation. “Christ is the head of the church,” continued Truett. “All authority has been committed unto Him, in heaven and on earth, and He must be given the absolute pre-eminence in all things.”4
Related to the principle of the Lordship of Christ are two significant New Testament concepts: soul competency and the priesthood of all believers. Soul competency is the idea that God has endowed individuals with the ability to decide matters of faith for themselves. The principle of believer’s baptism assumes soul competency.
Baptist dissenters in England asserted that baptism “requires faith as an inseparable condition.”5 It assumes that people can be convicted of their sin, can repent, and can respond to God freely in faith. Soul competency is not merely self-sufficiency; rather, it is a gift of God. Every individual has the freedom to hear God’s call and to respond to that call in faith because God has provided the opportunity.
Not only do Baptists affirm that an individual’s soul is competent to decide issues of faith; they also affirm that people have free access to God through the sacrifice of Christ Jesus. Martin Luther described this principle of free access to God as the priesthood of all believers.
Baptists readily adopted this Reformation principle because of its biblical foundation. The New Testament refers to all believers as priests (1 Pet. 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:6, 5:10). When Jesus died on the cross, the veil of the temple was torn (Mark 15:38). The symbol of the division between people and priest was removed.
Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, believers no longer needed a priest to speak to God on their behalf. Baptists are to be priests to one another, intercede for one another (1 Tim. 2:1-2), and offer sacrifices to God (Rom. 12:1).
Congregational polity grows from the two seeds of soul competency and the priesthood of all believers. Baptist congregations make decisions for themselves. They do not require a bishop, or a priest, or an external church organization because they, like all people who will claim it, have direct access to God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Members of the congregation are competent and responsible to govern themselves. Through the encouragement and leadership of the Holy Spirit, Baptists work together to govern the life and work of their churches.” 
Notice that while there are several biblical references there are no precedents given to show that Christians in the New Testament operated this way. While in the book of Acts, as shown above, there are numerous evidences that the Holy Spirit led individual believers to great deeds, the holy spirit also led the believers to establish a hierarchy. And in theory, congregational polity violates verses like:
Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch over 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]
However, in practice, congregational polity is not purely followed. For example, Baptist pastors are clearly in charge of their flocks. Where the congregational polity comes into play is if there is a problem with the pastor. Then the congregation decides whether or not to discipline the pastor.
Summary And Conclusion
There are three prevalent forms of church government today. The examples that we have in the book of acts show ecclesiastical elements and presbyterianism. There is much evidence to show that bishops were ordained, deacons were ordained, and elders were in charge. There is little evidence that shows that independent believers got together and voted their leadership. There is some inferences to show, however, that independent groups did spring up spontaneously, and that the Holy Spirit was at work in doing this. This appears to be the exception, rather than the rule. Just because it is the exception, however, it should not be ruled out. When the leadership of a church errs, how else can God work but to work in other individuals to follow his will? When the Roman Catholic Church is selling indulgences, and selling the office of bishop in cities, God worked in the reformers to correct this. When the church did not repent, new churches were formed. This is the work of God.
© copyright 2009 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.