5 varieties of congregational church government

My main source for this article is Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology.  You might be surprised that all the churches that you like might govern differently.  George Ladd said that you can not read the Bible and conclude that a certain form of church government to "the model".  I favor the congregational, plurality of elders model, with every member ministry, and full body-life.  But, I also believe that every model can work and be fruitful, in Christ.  Abuse and dysfunction can occur in any of these models.

Before we get into the five varieties of congregational church government, let’s peek at the other two: Episcopalian and Presbyterian.

In the Episcopalian ‘system’, we have a powerful group of people who are ‘the priests’.  And the most powerful priests exercise their authority outside of local churches and over geographic areas.  One word that describes Episcopalians is hierarchy.

In the Presbyterian model, each local church elects elders to a "session".  A session means a sitting or to sit on a board.  The pastor of the local church is also one of the elders, theoretically equal in authority.  Some or all of these elders are also members of a presbytery, which is a group that has authority over churches in a region.  A smaller subset or elders are part of a larger regional or national authority. 

Here is how Greg Bahnsen, OPC scholar, described Presbyterianism:

Presbyterianism is the rule of the church by multiple, elected elders—not the dictates of one man, nor those of the whole congregation. These elders must be chosen by the people from among themselves (men to whom they are willing to vow submission), but also examined and confirmed by the present governing board of elders in the congregation or regional body of elders (the presbytery).

In Episcopalianism, we have a powerful singular priesthood.  By contrast, theoretically; in Presbyterianism, we have a powerful eldership, and in Congregationalism, we have a powerful congregation, often led by elders.  And this is an oversimplification.  

Another way of explaining the differences is that in the E system, there is a big clergy/laity divide.  That divide is still very powerfully there in the P system, but in the C system, is is less and in some cases not at all.  In the C system, elders are all about their role, whereas in the E system, we have priests in the office.  And in the P system, we have elders who are officers and are also in their role.  

One last way of contrast is that you are more likely to see "the priesthood of all believers" in C congregations than E and P congregations, and a shorter shrift on "equipping the saints for the work of the ministry".  

The 5 varieties of congregational church government, in a nut-shell

1. Single elder, single pastor

One elected or selected elder, sometimes with a board of deacons; elected by the congregation, who serve under the pastor and support him.  The authority of the pastor varies from church to church and usually grows over time.  The deacon board’s authority is ‘advisory’.  Many decisions are brought to the congregation for a vote.

The NT does not require a plurality of elders, but more than one elder is seen or practiced when the size of a congregation grows.  A small, one pastor, one elder church could grow to have more than one.

Keeping to one pastor, even after a church is growing, is seen as an advantage by some people, but is not Biblical.  The qualification for elders passages speak of elders in the plural.  It can be extrapolated that a normal church has elders, plural.  

Proponents of the single or solo pastor/elder may also bring up the word ‘bishop’ used in 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:7 to buttress their argument.  Bishop is used here in the King James, and the Revised Standard Version, and translations that follow these (NKJV, NRSV, etc.).  Other popular translations say, ‘overseer’, which is what a bishop and an elder are.  In these two verses, Paul is speaking of one among a group.  The church in Ephesus, Timothy’s church, had elders (plural), according to Acts 20:17.  And Paul speaks of elders (plural) in 1 Tim. 5:17.   And the context for Titus, verses 5 to 7, tells us Paul is telling about elders (plural), but singles out what a bishop is.  It is a stretch to say Paul is here teaching the solo elder or pastor model.  And it appears that bishop and elder and pretty much synonymous.

Proponents of the single pastor, whether he is part of the episcopate or the presbytery; sometimes see and teach that the angels referenced in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation chapter two, are ‘the pastor’ of those churches.  We know that angel means messenger, and yes, John was called a messenger, using the same Greek word.

Are the angels mentioned in Revelation 2 angelic beings, the pastor, or someone else?  There simply is not enough evidence to support the notion that these angels are the pastor.  I believe that the angels mentioned are the recipients of each church’s letter, who’s responsibility was to carry the special message from Christ to these churches.

And the word elder is usually used plurally:  “call the elders”, James 5:14, “I exhort the elders”, 1 Peter 5:1; “Appoint elders”, Acts 14:23.  Although Apostle James seems to be the spokesperson for the church in Jerusalem, Acts 15:2 says there were elders in the church in Jerusalem.

There is also something called “the Moses model”, where the pastor, is either a solo pastor/elder; or has pastors under him (under shepherds) that he is the boss of; when the church grows.  This person may also function as a CEO.  A church board may be installed, who offer support and council to the pastor and aid, especially when crisis arises.  

In the single/solo pastor/elder model, he may have helpers, who are functionally elders, but may not hold the office.  There might be pastors ‘on staff’, who function as elders, but do not claim the title.

There is a very common blend or half way point between solo elder and plurality of elders, called, ‘first among equals’, where the pastor, who is an elder, serves beside other elders, but holds more power and responsibility in that he regularly preaches and leads the church in a visible function.  In other words, he is the face of that church.

Besides the single or solo elder/pastor being problematic, because of the concentration or power and temptation, coming onto the shoulders of one person; and his lack of accountability; this model has no support in the New Testament, just like the ‘single bishop’ of the Episcopalian model doesn’t.  These hierarchical models seem more based on practical precedent, rather than a careful examination of the New Testament.  Even the apostles did not govern in this manner, which should make this an open and shut case, but the church has continued to follow the ways of the world.

2. The Corporate Board

This is called the “you work for us” model, based on the business world; where the pastor or any other ministers, work for (hired/fired/guided) a board, who are often members of the church, who sometimes are hidden from most other congregants.  This is unbiblical.

3. Plurality of elders

We have a group of elders (two or more), who govern the (local) church, with the authority bestowed by Christ, who is the head of the church, and by the Holy Spirit.  You can have a ‘pastor’, or a ‘senior pastor’, who is one of the elders; and he is not the boss of the other elders and they are not his boss, but he has a distinct role or ‘preaching and teaching’.  And all the elders must be able to teach.

In this system, the pastor, who preaches and teaches, and leads the church; while maintaining equality with the other elders, may be the only one of them who is ‘full-time’, and paid a salary.  More than one elder or all the elders may or may not work full-time and take a salary.  All or some of the elders may also be bi-vocational.  And, perhaps none of the pastors take a salary, for various reasons.

The senior pastor, or preaching elder; may have powerful delegated authority, that is given by the whole of the group of elders, who he is accountable to and who also defend and support him, functioning in unity under the authority of Christ.  Ideally, the one, more visible elder, will never be able to function as a dictator, because of the shared power.  In other words, even though he might be the point person or the face and voice of leadership, he still only gets one vote, when the elders make decisions.

Is the power of the elders unlimited?  First, the bar is high to become an elder.  Second, the congregation must vote in an elder.  Third, there may be a limited term of office, or mandatory sabbatical years.  The preaching elder may be exempt from these, but have a different schedule of sabbaticals or mandatory rests.  Fourth, many large decisions will be brought to the congregation for approval, including calling a new pastor.

4.  Pure Democracy

This is the logical extreme of congregational government, where every decision goes through the congregation.  This takes a part of how the Bible teaches church government and makes it the whole, resulting in endless arguments and decision paralysis.  This is unbiblical.

5.  “Holy Spirit Governed”

Consensus is arrived at through everyone’s sensitivity to the Holy Spirit in their lives.  This model is not faithful to the scriptural prescription for church authority, and very prone to abuse.

You might have noticed that there is a continuum or spectrum in the these five.  Pure Democracy and then Holy Spirit Governed are the most radical and furthest away from the Episcopalian top-down model and Single Elder is sort of like Episcopal, in that the power is concentrated on one person.

After reading all this, you might have a question like this:  If plurality of elders leading is in the middle, with the episcopate on one side, that has been redressed as the solo or senior pastor; and the pure democracy model whether it is dressed as Spirit governed or 'power to the people'; what is the difference between congregational, elder-led and Presbyterianism?

An article at SBETS said this about the church led by a plurality of elders:

In many ways, this polity could be called “poor man’s presbyterianism.” The church is ruled by her elders, but there is no presbytery or classis beyond the local congregation. This polity also frequently makes a presbyterian-like distinction between teaching elders and ruling elders; only the former are considered pastors.

Obey your leaders?

A verse worth considering and mentioning, because it can be misunderstood is Hebrews 13:17

Obey your leaders and submit to them, since they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account, so that they can do this with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.

When the CEB translation came out, I noticed they had a different way of doing Hebrews 13:17

Rely on your leaders and defer to them, because they watch over your whole being as people who are going to be held responsible for you. They need to be able to do this with pleasure and not with complaints about you, because that wouldn’t help you.

What is going on here in the original language?  Tony Reinke wrote a piece on this:  

What follows are a few important thoughts on this passage, beginning with a closer look at the idea of “obeying.”

Here is how W. E. Vine defines the Greek word “obey” (πείθο):

In Hebrews 13:17, believers are commanded to obey their leaders. The word used is peithō which has the usual meaning of “convince” or “persuade.” The “obedience” suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion. Peithō and pisteuō, “to trust,” are closely related etymologically; the difference in meaning is that the former implies the obedience that is produced by the latter.

Peithō, “to persuade, to win over,” in the passive and middle voices, “to be persuaded, to listen to, to obey,” is so used with this meaning, in the middle voice, e.g., in Acts 5:36-37 (in v. 40, passive voice, “they agreed”); Rom. 2:8; Gal. 5:7; Heb. 13:17; Jas. 3:3.

The “obedience” suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion. Peithō and pisteuo, ‘to trust,’ are closely related etymologically; the difference in meaning is that the former implies the obedience that is produced by the latter.

In other words, when “one allows oneself to be convinced by someone: one follows and obeys him” (EDNT).

Submission here, when we look at the Greek in the text and the context of the whole NT, is to Christ and his word.  If one is bent out of shape about submitting to their church leaders (elders) because these guys might abuse their authority and then we're in some kind of a cultic thing, there is nothing to worry about, because what the verse really means is submit to Christ and his word.  I submit to an elder as (key word) I submit to Christ.  And if I don't submit to Christ I will not be able to submit to a man who is acting as Christ's under-shepherd.  And if I can not or will not submit to Christ and his word, I am not a Christian.

Even though it sounds like it, Hebrews 13:17 does not advocate authoritarianism.

Notable Denominations who are congregational:

Most Baptist churches
Assemblies of God
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Christian Churches / Churches of Christ
Church of God in Christ
Church of the Brethren
Evangelical Covenant
Evangelical Free
Plymouth Brethren
Quakers / Friends


Notable churches and their government:

Foursquare: “Modified Episcopal”
Calvary Chapel: “Moses Model”
Christian & Missionary Alliance: Presbyterian
Church of the Nazarene: Episcopal
Evangelical Lutheran: Episcopal
Lutheran Church Missouri Synod: Presbyterian, but Congregational in many functions
Moravian: Presbyterian
Salvation Army: Episcopal
United Methodist: Episcopal
Wesleyan: Episcopal