Elders function within church structures which either enable or hinder their work. This article explains the different types of church government (Papal, Episcopal, Congregational and Presbyterial), drawing conclusions about the best approach to church government.

Source: Diakonia, 2007. 7 pages.

The Elder and Church Government


What does church government have to do with eldership? Much in every way! As an economist needs to know the economic system in which he is working, as a politician needs to be aware of the surrounding po­litical structures and setting, so an elder needs to have some knowledge and understanding of basic church governmental principles, as well as of church offices and assemblies.

The absence of such an understanding will have a detrimental effect on how he sees and performs his task. It will also hamper him in his work in the congregation, as well as in his cooperation with his fellow office bearers.

1. The broader context🔗

  1. Different types of church government🔗

  1. The papal🔗

This type or form of church government is fundamentally hierarchical in that the pope of the Roman Catholic Church is considered to be the supreme ruler of the church.

This claim is based on a limited and narrow interpretation of Mt. 16:18; Jn. 21:15-17 in that it regards Peter as the first among the Twelve and the popes of Rome as his successors.

In it all power flows from Christ to Peter to the pope and from him down through the cardinals, bishops, priests to the members.

Interestingly, some of the great Protestant mega churches of today have affinities with the papal system in that all of the power is vested in the famous and influential head pastor or preacher.

  1. The episcopal🔗

This type teaches that government of the church resides in a college of bishops. It rests on the assumption that "the episcopate was created out of the presbytery" (see: J.B. Lightfoot, The Christian Ministry. London 1879, p. 227). Other like C. Gore (The Church and the Ministry, London, 1882) disputes this saying that presbyters never had the kind of power that the bishops had.

The most well-known example of this type of church government among us may well be the Anglican Church of Canada, or the Episcopal Church in the United States.

As for the Archbishop of Canterbury, he is considered to be the first among equals and the head of the worldwide Anglican communion. His power is limited and his influence is more a matter of personal presence and reputation.

  1. The congregational🔗

This type holds that the government of the church rests with the members and that all of the members are directly responsible to Christ. These members elect their own officers, determine their own worship and decide on who shall or shall not be received into their fellowship.

Many of the assumptions of congregationalism rest on independency which is the view that each church is an independent entity. It sees the church as either universal or local, and never regional or national. It rejects all external control and all centralized organization. It insists that local rule rests with the local members alone.

See: R.W. Dale's Congregational Church Polity (1885) as the best source. Also see: John Owen, The True Nature of a Gospel Church (1689).

  1. The presbyterial🔗

This type of church government teaches that it are the elders (presbyters) who are to rule the church (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Tim. 3; 4:14; 5:17; Titus 1:5; 1 Pet. 5:1).

It also insists that all of the elders are equal in authority and that together they form the consistory or session of the church.

On the basis of 1 Tim. 5:17 — "The elders who direct the affairs of the church are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching," these elders are often divided into two types: those who preach and teach and those who rule.

  1. The foundational principles of Reformed church government🔗

Although Reformed church government is presbyterial in nature, it is not identical in every aspect to the government that prevails in many Presbyterian churches.

Many Presbyterian churches go out from the view that the church is regional and that elders who preach and teach should be members of this regional church and have their credentials there and not in the local church that they pastor. Reformed church government dissents and insists that pastors are to be members of the local church they serve.

These differing views rest on a difference of interpretation as to the structure of the churches in Galatia. Was this a regional church with local branches or was it a federation of autono­mous local churches? The Presbyterians choose for the former; the Reformed for the latter.

The following principles adopted by the United Reformed Churches in North America and now also adopted by the Church Order Committee working on a merger between the URCNA and the Canadian Reformed Churches shed added light on the nature of Reformed church pol­ity.

  1. The church is the possession of Christ, who is the Mediator of the New Covenant.
    Acts 20:28; Ephesians 5:25-27
  2. As Mediator of the New Covenant, Christ is the Head of the church.
    Ephesians 1:22-23; 5:23-24; Colossians 1:18
  3. Because the church is Christ possession and He is its Head, the principles governing the church are not a matter of human preference, but of divine revelation.
    Matthew 28:18-20; Colossians 1:18
  4. The universal church possesses a spiritual unity in Christ and in the Holy Scriptures.
    Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 2:20; 1 Timothy 3:15; 2 John 9
  5. The Lord gave no permanent universal, national or regional offices to His church. The office of elder (presbyter/episkopos) is clearly local in authority and function; thus, Reformed church government is presbyterial, since the church is governed by elders, not by broader assemblies.
    Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5
  6. In its subjection to its heavenly Head, the local church is governed by Christ from heaven, by means of His Word and Spirit, with the keys of the kingdom which He has given it for that purpose; and it is not subject to rule by sister churches who, with it, are subject to the one Christ.
    Matthew 16:19; Acts 20:28-32; Titus 1:5
  7. Federative relationships do not belong to the essence or being of the church; rather, they serve the well-being of the church. However, even though churches stand distinctly next to one another, they do not thereby stand disconnectedly alongside one another. Entrance into and departure from a federative relationship is strictly a voluntary matter.
    Acts 15:1-35; Romans. 15:25-27; Colossians 4:16; Titus 1:5; Revelation 1:11, 20
  8. The exercise of a federative relationship is possible only on the basis of unity in faith and in confession.
    1 Corinthians 10:14-22; Gal. 1:6-9; Ephesians 4:16-17
  9. Member churches meet together in consultation to guard against human imperfections and to benefit from the wisdom of a multitude of counselors in the broader assemblies. The decisions of such assemblies derive their authority from their conformity to the Word of God.
    Proverbs 11:14; Acts 15:1-35; 1 Corinthians 13:9-10; 2 Timothy 3:16-17
  10. In order to manifest our spiritual unity, local churches should seek the broadest possible contacts with other like-minded churches for their mutual edification and as an effective witness to the world.
    John 17:21-23; Ephesians 4:1-6
  11. The church is mandated to exercise its ministry of reconciliation by proclaiming the gospel to the ends of the earth.
    Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:8; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21
  12. Christ cares for His church through the office-bearers whom He chooses.
    Acts 6:2-3; 1 Timothy 3:1, 8; 5:17
  13. The Scriptures encourage a thorough theological training for the ministers of the Word.
    1 Timothy 4:16; 2 Timothy 2:14-16; 3:14; 4:1-5
  14. Being the chosen and redeemed people of God, the church, under the supervision of the elders, is called to worship Him according to the Scriptural principles governing worship.
    Leviticus 10:1-3; Deuteronomy 12:29-32; Psalm 95:1, 2, 6; Psalm 100:4; John 4:24; 1 Peter 2:9
  15. Since the church is the pillar and ground of the truth, it is called through the teaching ministry to build up the people of God in faith.
    Deuteronomy 11:19; Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Timothy 4:6; 2 Timothy 2:2; 3:16-17
  16. Christian discipline, arising from God's love for His people, is exercised in the church to correct and strengthen the people of God, maintain the unity and the purity of the church of Christ, and thereby bring honor and glory to God's name.
    1 Timothy 5:20; Titus 1:13; Hebrews 12:7-11
  17. The exercise of Christian discipline is first of all a personal duty of every child of God, but when discipline by the church becomes necessary, it must be exercised by the elders of the church, the bearers of the keys of the kingdom.
    Matthew 18:15-20; Acts 20:28; 1 Corinthians 5:13; 1 Peter 5:1-3

2. Basic Bible passages examined🔗

Acts 20: 28-31a🔗

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!


  • The first duty of an overseer is to keep watch over himself and his own spiritual condition and walk of life
  • The second duty of an overseer is to watch over the flock
  • The Holy Spirit has put him in charge
  • This overseeing takes the form of shepherding
  • The flock is precious
  • The flock will come under attack from without and within
  • Vigilance is a daily duty

1 Peter 5:1- 4🔗

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ's sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers — not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to  be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away


  • Peter considers himself to be an elder sharing in suffering and glory
  • The flock is under the elders care
  • The elders are to examine their motives and see that they include: willingness, service, modeling
  • The elders may be confident that one day Jesus will reward them graciously as only He can

1 Timothy 5:17🔗

The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.


  • Elders direct church affairs
  • Those who do it well receive double honour, meaning also financial support (cf. v. 18)
  •  Financial support is meant especially for those who preach and teach

Hebrews 13: 17🔗

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advan­tage to you.


  • Although the word "elder" is not used here, the reference to "keeping watch" as used in Acts 20: 28 would appear to refer to them.
  • There is here a stress on the authority of the elders. This means that the elders of the church are more than just role models and examples. They have been invested with the right to govern and direct the affairs of the church.
  • Members are urged to "obey" them and so make their work a joy
  • Members who do not obey will find their leadership a burden.

3. The Church Order on "the office of elder" (Article 22)🔗

The specific duties of the office of elder are, together with the ministers of the Word, to have supervision over Christ's church, that every member may conduct himself properly in doctrine and life according to the gospel; and faithfully to visit the members of the congregation in their homes to comfort, instruct, and admonish them with the Word of God, reproving those who behave improperly. They shall exercise Christian discipline according to the command of Christ against those who show themselves unbelieving and ungodly and refuse to repent and shall watch that the sacraments are not profaned. Being stewards of the house of God, they are further to take care that in the congregation all things are done decently and in good order, and to tend the flock of Christ w


  • Doctrine
  • Life


  • Comfort
  • Instruct
  • Admonish

Christian discipline

  • Unbelieving and ungodly
  • Refuse to repent
  • Watch over the sacraments


  • Decently and in good order


  • Ministers of the Word

4. The elder in relation to🔗

  1. Fellow elders
  • Esteem them
  • Work cooperatively with them
  • Speak well of them
  • Pray for them
  1. The deacons
  • Support them
  • Do not lord it over them
  • Consult with them
  1. The pastor
  • Pray for him
  • Offer constructive criticism
  • In the area of preaching
  • In the area of teaching
  • In the area of visitation
  • In the area of leadership
  • Defend him in his office

5. The elder and the consistory🔗

  • The elder has a responsibility to see to it that the minutes and decisions of previous meet­ings are properly and accurately recorded.
  • The elder should insure that matters on the agenda are ecclesiastical and proper.
  • The elder should partake in the discussions and especially in those that are on matters of a weighty nature.
  • The elder should maintain confidentiality.
  • The elder may make use of mutual censure but only after he has first spoken privately to his fellow elder about his concerns.
  • The elder should report on his visitations as soon as feasible and in as brief a manner as possible.
  • The elder does not need to inform his fellow elders of everything that happens in his ward, but only of those matters that need their advice or oversight.
  • Elders should do their utmost to see themselves as team members and to work together as such.

6. The elder and the church council🔗

  • In some churches the deacons, elders and minister meet once a month as a rule and are called with the Consistory with the Deacons or the "Council" (cf. Article 30, Belgic Confession).
  • In other local churches the Deacons only meet with the elders when nominations for new office bearers or financial matters are on the agenda.
  • When the Consistory with the Deacons or the Council meets regularly, the elders must be mindful of the fact that they are not allowed to conduct themselves as supervisors or superiors over the Deacons.
  1. The elder and various issues:🔗

  1. Two Office versus Three Office View
  2. Term Eldership or Lifetime Eldership
  3. The "Blessing" Elder

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