(The basis of church government and administration)

by Robert W. Smith

The church is characterized in the New Testament as a living organism, designed to function very much like the human body with it's intricate interrelationship of many parts and functions.

This figure is consistently presented, particularly in Paul's New Testament letters about the church, as in Ephesians 4:15, ".. .we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love."

Our present study will focus around the phrase, "every joint with which it is supplied." For just as in the human body, the church which is the body of Christ must have joints and tendons and sinews which hold it together and enable it to function as a coordinated whole. In the local church the joints and sinews are the administrative links which enable everything to hang together and operate smoothly, without which the church functions poorly and ineffectively.


Twentieth century church life and government is often characterized by one of two patterns: (1) the church is "run" by a dominant personality, usually the pastor, but sometimes even a dominant female figure in the congregation, or (2) it is governed by democratic procedures and committees.

Neither of these even approximates the biblical plan of church government. The "dominant figure" brand of church government is mentioned in the New Testament only in negative terms, as being condemned. In one instance, Diotrephes is cited as one "who likes to put himself first," (3 John 9). In another, the Nicolaitans, in teaching and deeds are clearly rebuked by the Lord in Revelation 2:6 and 15. The only clue we have to their error is in the meaning of the name. "Nicolaitans" is a term derived from the Greek words nikao meaning to conquer, and laos, people. It thus portrays the "dominant figure" type of church operation. This is a concept which incurs the strong censure of the Lord in His word: " hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans which I also hate," (Rev. 2:6). And " also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore..." (Rev. 2:15-16). So the "dominant figure approach is not God's way.

And nowhere in the New Testament is the church set forth as a democracy: To say that the church is not a democracy in democratic America is like being against motherhood, but if we really are committed to the New Testament as our source-book and standard we need to face the problem squarely and check out the source information. Admittedly, it is hard for us to stop defending our own preconditioned ideas on this matter, but we appeal to all to let the New Testament be our final authority--not our personal preconceptions or ecclesiastical traditions.


To set the scene for understanding the biblical pattern, perhaps we should first recall that the Lord Jesus is presented in the New Testament as the Chief Shepherd (I Peter 5:4) and the Great Shepherd of the sheep (Hebrews 13:20). So we need to ask the question, "Who leads the flock, the shepherd or the sheep?" The answer is readily apparent. No one ever expects a flock to lead its shepherd. Then, too, Christ is set forth as the head of the church which is his body (Ephesians 1:22-23). And it is obvious that orders proceed from the head to the body--not vice versa. So we see that the church is not designed to be a democracy, but a theocracy, with its rule coming from the Lord Jesus Christ, its exalted head (Colossians 1:18; 2:10, 18-19).

It seems from this that a theory of church government is quite clearly spelled out in these concepts. But how is this worked out in practical detail? What human agency of governing authority has been stipulated in the New Testament? And could not the head communicate directly to each member of his body and govern through democratic procedures?

To answer the last question first, there is no doubt that he could govern through a democratic structure, but that's not what he chose to do. Rather, he chose to say through his apos-tles, "appoint elders in every town" (Titus 1:5), and "let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor" (1 Timothy 5:17-22). Even as early in church history as Acts 20:17, Paul was able to call together the elders of the Ephesian church and charge them, "Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you guardians, to feed the church of the Lord which he obtained with his own blood." (Acts 20:28)

Notice it is called "the church of the Lord" and the leaders are appointed as "guardians" to feed the church." Also, it was the spirit of God who appointed them--not a democratic electoral process. Two words used in this text describe those whom God made responsible for governing the church: elders, and guardians. The word elder (presbuteros, in Greek) speaks of maturity, in this case spiritual maturity--an obvious necessity for those who rule. And guardians (episkopos, in Greek) are those charged with the responsibility of oversight, to see to the welfare of the flock and to care for the well-being of God's people.

In the book of Hebrews the writer says, "Remember your leaders who spoke to you the word of God..." (Hebrews 13:7) and, "Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls as men who will have to give account. Let them do this joyfully and not sadly...." (Hebrews 13:17).

Thus, the biblical pattern of church government is laid out for us in terms of men who were called and appointed to the office of governing and leading the flock of God. But who appoints these elders or guardians? In actuality, the Holy Spirit does the appointing. He is the one who has given gifts for ministry. He knows who has the spiritual maturity and the leadership qualities which he himself imparts. Thus he alone is qualified to make these appointments. "But," you say, "this is still mysterious. What human agency does he use to let us know who it is he wants to lead and rule? Could he not still do this through a democratic election?" We hasten to answer, "Yes, he could--but what did he do?" Let's check the record.


The first appointment of an elder in the New Testament is reported in John 21 in the well-known scene between the Lord Jesus and the apostle Peter. It reads like this:

"When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter: "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you. ' He said to him, 'Feed my lambs. ' A second time he said to him, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you. ' He said to him, 'Tend my sheep.' He said to him the third time, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me?' Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, 'Do you love me?' And he said to him, 'Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you. Jesus said to him, 'Feed my sheep'..."

We will not attempt a detailed study on this, but would like to highlight certain features that impinge on our present question. There are careful and exquisitely expressive shades of meaning in the Greek of this text which we would like to examine.

Note that our Lord changed the wording each time he charged Peter. In John 21:15 he said "feed my lambs." In 21:16 he says, "tend (literally shepherd) my sheep." And in 21:17 he says, "feed my sheep." It is significant to observe that the primary charge, that is, "feed", is twice repeated, and in-between it is, "shepherd my sheep." The emphasis is clearly that feeding the flock is the main business of the elder, but not the total of his responsibility. It is also his job to care for the sheep, just as the Chief Shepherd himself does The following chart might help to visualize this:



John 21:15

"feed"- involves expository teaching of God's Word. "As newborn babes desire (for them) the sincere milk of the word, that you may grow
thereby." I Peter 2:2 AV

"my lambs" - has in mindthe young believers (new Christians) as an object of primary concern.


John 21:16

"shepherd" - includes trainmg, discipling, counseling, comforting, encouraging, protecting, restoring, healing, etc.

"my sheep" - in the Greek a special qualified formexpressing endearment, as
"my dearly-loved sheep".


John 23:17

"feed" - same as (1) above, for "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." Mt. 4:4 and Deut. 8:3 RSV.

"my sheep" - same as (2) above. Note - both timesthis includes all the flock, young and old alike, as distinct from (1) which has in view
new believers in Christ.

Here is a clear assignment of responsibility, which Peter himself recognized was his, as seen in his first letter: "So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed. Tend the flock of God that is in your charge not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory." (I Peter 5:1-4)

Note, in passing, that these two New Testament passages (John 21 and I Peter 5) associate the term elder and pastor and relate them to the same person, in this case Peter himself. In John 21:16, "shepherd my sheep," is equivalent to Peter's appointment and assignment to be a pastor, or what we might call his ordination into a pastoral ministry. Peter's command to, "tend the flock of God" (I Peter 5:2) is literally "shepherd the flock...." From this idea we get the term pastor. A pastor is to be a shepherd of God's flock.

To summarize, we have in the term elder the basic qualification for leadership specified, that is, spiritual maturity. In guardian we have set forth the responsibility of oversight and accountability to the Lord. And in the term pastor, we have reflected the heart attitude necessary to fulfill the job. That is, a pastor must be one who really has the care and feeding of God's flock on his heart and is willing to lay down his life for the sheep as the Good Shepherd did--not necessarily in dying for them, but as a living sacrifice.

Note that in all this there is accountability only in one direction, that is, to the Chief Shepherd. No mention is made of any accountability to an electorate.


The next step in tracing the appointment of elders leads us to the history of the early church as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. One of these acts was clearly the appointment of elders. For instance, the apostles Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14:14 & 23: "...when they had appointed elders--they committed them to the Lord." (Acts 14:23) As God's representatives, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the early church. Again there is no hint of an election.

It is clear from references in Acts 15:2,4,6,22, and 23 that there were already elders in the Jerusalem church as well. They are mentioned in all these Scriptures in addition to the apostles. So we see additional evidence of an emerging structure of church administration and government. These elders, in company with the apostles, were consulted in the early problems of church life, making binding decrees without benefit of congregational approval, as seen in the account of the first church council recorded in Acts 15.


The next thread of evidence in the New Testament comes from Paul's instructions to Titus and Timothy in the Pastoral Epistles of I and II Timothy and Titus.

Paul instructs Titus, "This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective and appoint elders in every town as I directed you...." (Titus 1:5)

This moves the appointment of elders down one succeeding step to those whom the apostles themselves designate, in this case Titus.

Continuing in this passage through Titus 1:9, we have the Apostle laying down the qualifications of elders or guardians. The word bishop here, in some versions, and overseer, in others, is the same Greek word translated guardian in other places mentioned previously. The instruction in Titus is augmented by that in I Timothy 3:1-7 and I Peter 5:1-4. In the emerging church order reflected by these Pastoral Epistles it seems apparent that these specifications were recorded for future reference, not just for passing interest. So, in the first century and down to the twentieth, we have in these passages God's specification sheet outlining the requirements for leadership in the local church.


In the twentieth century church it would appear, by deduction from this assembled New Testament data, that in each emerging church situation elders should be appointed. In the case of existing denominational situations this appointment should perhaps be made by the denominational authorities responsible for the establishing of the new church. In the case of the non-denominational church it seems obvious that the leadership which the Lord has put together for the founding of that local church should become responsible for its leadership in its continuing growth.

In actual cases we have seen it to be quite apparent whom the Lord has appointed to assume this responsibility. And in each situation it has been viewed as a responsibility that cannot be taken lightly, nor for the fulfillment of personal ambitions. In questionable cases, however, it would be wise to avoid any conflict of interest inherent in self-appointment by consulting some independent, spiritually-minded persons to review the available candidates for local church leadership. This would provide additional safeguard against faulty appointments.


However, the best safeguard is self-evaluation by God's standards, by reviewing the qualifications from the Scriptures themselves as to what God expects from those in positions of spiritual leadership. Simply reading through these Scriptures has a very sobering and salutary affect. Let's try it right now! Listen to God's "spec sheet" for aspiring leaders:

"...appoint elders in every city as I directed you, namely, if any man be above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion. For the overseer must be above reproach as God's steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict." (Titus 1:5-9) NASB

"It is a trustworthy statement; if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, uncontentious, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?); and not a new convert, lest he become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he may not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil." (I Timothy 3:1-7) NASB

"Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow-elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; not yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory." (I Peter 5:1-4) NASB

Here' is what it looks like in summary form with a brief explanation of the terms.







(1) Above reproach

(2) Husband of one wife

(3) Having believing children

(4) Not self-willed

(5) Not quick-tempered

(6) Not addicted to wine

(7) Not pugnacious

(8) Not a money-lover

(9) Hospitable

(10) Lover of good

(11) Sensible

(12) Just

(13) Devout

(14) Self-controlled

(15) Holding fast the Word

(16) Able to teach sound doctrine

(17) Able to refute objections

Not open to censure, unimpeachable integrity.

A one-wife kind of man--no philanderer. (Doesn't necessarily rule out widowers or divorced persons)

Children are Christians, not incorrigible or unruly.

Not arrogantly self-satisfied. Not prone to anger, irascible.

Not overly fond of wine or drunken.

Not contentious or quarrelsome. Not greedy for money.

A. stranger-lover, generous to guests.

Loving goodness. Self-controlled, sane, temperate.

Righteous, upright, aligned with right.

Responsible in fulfilling moral obligations to God and man.

Restrained, under control. Committed to God's Word as authoritative.

Calling others to wholeness through teaching God's Word.

Convicting those who contradict the truth.

Additional from

I Timothy


(18) Temperate

(19) Gentle

(20) Able to manage household

(21) Not a new convert

(22) Well thought of by outsiders

Calm and collected in spirit, sober.

Fair, equitable, not insisting on his own rights.

A good leader in his own family.

Not a new Christian.

A good representative of Christ among non-Christians.

Additional from

I Peter


(23) willingly, not under compulsion

(24) According to God (in some Greek texts)

(25) Not for shameful gain

(26) Not lording it over the flock

(27) As an example

(28) As accountable to the Chief Shepherd

Not serving because he was talked into it against his will.

By God's appointment.

Not money-motivated.

Not dominating in his area of ministry (a shepherd is to lead, not drive the flock).

One who is a pleasure to follow because he is an example of Christ.

There is a crown to be gained--authority to reign with Christ.

After studying these passages it would be appropriate to ask each man if he felt the Lord wanted him to serve as God's appointed guardian of the flock. Each man should answer the question for himself: "Am I God's man for this job?"

As we review the specs it would seem as if no one qualifies--until we reflect that God is not demanding perfection but rather a quality of life consistent with the character of Christ. God knows how imperfectly we perform, but he is concerned with our heart commitment to his standards and a willingness to be conformed to this pattern, as men under construction. As a matter of fact, he is so serious about this office being fulfilled with honor that he gives special instructions and a solemn charge about the treatment of elders:

"Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, 'You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing, 'and 'The laborer is worthy of his wages. ' Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. Those (elders) who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also may be fearful of sinning. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality." (I Timothy 5:17-21) NAS

In view of this charge it seems that we should treat the matter of church government and administration with equal seriousness, seeking to fulfill God's pattern, so that

"the whole body joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love." (Ephesians 4:15)

Written by Robert W. Smith in February, 1973.
Posted August 11, 1996. Corrections, email to
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