Is Congregational Government Biblical?

May 31, 1992 | Ray Pritchard

In approaching a topic like this, it helps if the pastor has no illusions. I candidly admit that most people don’t have a great interest in the subject I am tackling. In fact, over my 30 years in the ministry, this quesiton has only come up a handful of times.

So why deal with an arcane subject like church government? I offer three reasons:

1. Calvary has always been an independent congregation, free from denominational oversight or control. From Day One we have chosen to remain independent, although there are several denominations we could have joined. There must have been good reasons for remaining independent–reasons which are worth examining after 77 years of experience.

2. Although our self-chosen government is congregational, it is good from time to time to examine the biblical basis for our way of doing things. Our constitutional revision offers us a good chance to think about these issues.

3. Since our congregation comes from a wide variety of church backgrounds, it is useful to compare and contrast our form of government with other points of view. Such a comparison helps us understand who we are, where we came from, and how we differ from other churches.

I. Basic Presuppositions

1. Jesus Christ is the head of the church no matter how it is organized. To go a step farther, any view or method of church organization that obscures the direct headship of Jesus Christ over his church is not likely to have strong biblical support.

2. The visible church includes all those who follow Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord whether or not they follow our form of church government. In discussing this matter, it is important to remain charitable toward our Christian brothers and sisters who function in other forms of government. While I do not think we need to apologize for our basic congregationalism, I also think we should recognize that many fine Christians belong to churches that are organized much differently than ours.

3. Some organization is always necessary in any church. There can be no such thing as a pure democracy, although I suppose some churches descend to the level of “pure chaos.” Every church must have some form of leadership structure–formal and informal– whether that structure be elaborate, moderate or minimal.

In order to make matters as simple as possible, we can summarize what is at stake in the issue of church government by asking four simple questions:

1. Who owns the property?

2. Who chooses the leaders?

3. Who sets the doctrine?

4. Who controls the money?

There you have it in a nutshell–property, leaders, doctrine and money. That’s the “stuff” of ordinary church life. The way you answer those questions determines what kind of government you have.

A. Episcopal

Across the centuries three primary forms of church government have developed. For the purposes of this study, I am going to briefly sketch the primary features of each system. In so doing, I will ignore the many variations and combinations that may be seen in contemporary churches. Be assured that this survey is just that–a cursory look at the fundamental issues involved in all three systems of church government. Let’s begin by looking at the Episcopal system.

1. Definition–”Rule by bishops.” Based on the concept of a 3-fold leadership system: Bishops/Elders/Deacons. Elders and deacons function much as pastors and deacons do in our system, except that “elders” are usually called priests. In the Episcopal system, bishops are spiritual leaders who are given major responsibility for a group of churches (or parishes) in a given geographic area.

2. Examples–The Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, the Orthodox Church, the Lutheran Church, and to a lesser extent, the Methodist Church. In a pure episcopal system the authority comes from the top down, not from the bottom up. The Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church have the most fully developed episcopal system. The Catholic Church is organized like the military with the lines of authority coming down from the Pope in Rome. Although the Pope has ultimate authority, one of his many titles is “Bishop of Rome.”

3. Biblical Support–This system is not without its biblical support. For example, the apostles in the New Testament do indeed seem to operate with absolute authority over the local churches. When they speak, the churches must obey because the apostles speak with the authority of Christ himself. One might also note that the same kind of authority seems to have been passed on (perhaps in lesser form) by the apostles to Timothy and Titus–who also clearly had great authority over various local churches. I Timothy 4:14 speaks of Timothy having received his gift by the laying on of hands by the elders (another term for the apostles?). Such passages gave rise to the doctrine of Apostolic Succession, which suggests that divine authority was passed from Christ to the apostles (and especially to Peter), and from them it was handed down to the next generation, who in turn handed it on to the next generation, and so on, so that the divine authority of Christ now rests with the Pope in Rome, who is the successor to the apostles and thus able to speak with divine authority. Not everyone who follows the episcopal system believes in Apostolic Succession.

4. Pros and Cons–


Very Ancient

Widely Practiced

Produces Strong Leaders

Unifies Diverse Churches


Bishop = Elder in NT

Squelches Priesthood of Believer

Clergy-Laity Gap

Tends to Authoritarian Leadership

From our point of view, the first point on the negative side is absolutely decisive. Most scholars agree that it is virtually impossible to see any real difference between “bishop” and “elder” in the New Testament. Both Peter and Paul appear to use them (in various forms) interchangeably. If there is a difference, “elder” seems to refer to the character of the office, while “bishop” refers to the function. But the two words seem to describe the same person. If that is correct, then the biblical underpinning for the episcopal system is difficult to see. Furthermore, we would argue strongly that the unique authority of the apostles ended with the passing of the first generation and with the writing of the New Testament. Today we don’t need leaders with absolute authority because we have a book which has absolute authority–the Bible! Finally, there is no question that for many centuries the Roman Catholic system was so authoritarian that it virtually took the Bible and the ministry out of the hands of the laity and placed it in the hands of an elite group of leaders. It was that “gap” between the clergy and the laity that led in large part to the Protestant Reformation. Luther and Calvin “protested” that the Bible must belong to the whole church, not just to a privileged few.

While this evaluation is necessarily negative, it is not meant to overlook the positive points mentioned above. The episcopal system can produce leaders who function very effectively–especially in times of trouble when strong leaders must speak the truth forcefully.

B. Presbyterian

1. Definition–”Rule by elders.” Typically churches that follow this system are involved in a connectional form of church government . Each congregation chooses its own elders and pastor (the “Teaching Elder”), who then provide basic leadership to the church. Usually the pastor and one of the lay elders represent the church at the local presbytery. Representatives from the presbytery serve at the regional synod. Finally, representatives from the synods and presbytery serve as delegates to the General Assembly, the ultimate decision-making body. In most Presbyterian systems, church property is ultimately owned by the denomination, not by the local congregation. The General Assembly also sets the doctrinal parameters, which local congregations are supposed to follow.

2. Examples–Nearly all Presbyterian and Reformed churches follow some version of this system.

3. Biblical Support–Defenders of this system point to the many New Testament passages that speak of elders as the basic leadership structure of the local church (Acts 20, I Tim 3, Titus 1, I Peter 5). They also argue that Acts 15 presents an early church council that functions very much as a General Assembly does today. Hebrews 13:17 speaks of “rulers” who must be “obeyed.” In contrast to the Episcopal system, the Presbyterian system makes no claim to Apostolic Succession, or to any kind of continuing tradition passed down across the centuries.

4. Pros and Cons


Clear Biblical Base

Team Minister Concept

Interdependence of Churches


May Stifle Local Church Initiative

Local Church May be Forced to follow False Doctrine Imposed from above.

Again, looking at things from a congregational point of view, we would say that we find ourselves in much closer agreement with the Presbyterian system. For instance, we strongly agree that elders should lead the church. We also agree that promoting interdependence among Bible-believing churches is a very positive point. On the other hand, Acts 15 does not seem very much like a General Assembly. The meeting itself seems to have been voluntary, not mandatory. It was led ultimately by the apostles, not by local church representatives. However, we do agree that Acts 15 lays the foundation for a broader base of cooperation outside the local church.

Our major complaint with the Presbyterian system is that it–like any denominational system–may stifle local church initiative by forcing a local congregation to support programs and to use literature it doesn’t really believe in. In its worst form, this system may force local churches to follow certain edicts and decisions simply because they were voted in by the General Assembly. That may ultimately cause the local church to either rebel or to submit to teaching it regards as false and heretical.

I have mentioned this point at some length because it was precisely this point that brought Calvary Memorial Church into being in 1915. Our church started because of a small group of believers who were dissatisfied with the false and liberal teaching they were receiving in various local churches. They wanted a church that would be a. Evangelical b. Evangelistic and c. Free from denominational control. They felt the only way to insure doctrinal integrity was to maintain independence from any system of outside control.

Having said that, it must be noted that we feel a much closer affinity to the Presbyterian system than to the Episcopal system–in part because we believe the former is more biblical than the latter and also because the Presbyterian system generally leaves more room for local church decision-making, a principle dear to the heart of all congregationalists.

C. Congregational

1. Definition–”Rule by the congregation.” This means that the congregation serves as the final seat of authority on all four issues mentioned above. The congregation owns the property, chooses its own leaders, sets its own doctrine and handles its own financial affairs. For example, the current revision of our church constitution states that the government of the church shall be vested in the congregation who serve as the seat of final authority. It further notes that the government will be administered by the elders, “men chosen from, elected by, and accountable to the congregation.” This means that our proposed system of government includes elders within a basic congregational structure. The elders have no authority except that which is delegated to them by the congregation.

Here are two helpful definitions of Congregational government:

“The concept of a congregational church is that a local congregation determines its own affairs, elects and ordains its own ministers, and directs the use of its own treasury.”

Lewis Sperry Chafer/John F. Walvoord

“Basically the congregational form of government means that the ultimate authority for governing the church rests in the members themselves… . Additionally, it also means that each individual church is an autonomous unit with no individual or organization above it, except Christ the Head.”

Charles Ryrie

2. Two Helpful Clarifications

1. Congregationalism is sometimes misunderstood as being anti-denominational. That is not necessarily correct. What congregationalism opposes is any tendency by a denomination to control or interfere in the affairs of the local church. On the other hand, the largest Protestant denomination in America–the Southern Baptist Convention–is a voluntary federation of churches following a congregational form of government. Churches are free to join and to leave at their own initiative. In addition, each local church owns it property, chooses its own leaders and handles its own financial affairs. The same is true for smaller groups such as the Evangelical Free Church and the Baptist General Conference. The key point is that in a congregational system, affiliation with a denomination is a purely voluntary affair in which governing authority rests with the local congregation.

2. Others have thought that congregationalism means that each member has an equal voice in every decision affecting the church–i.e., a pure democracy. Robert Lightner has a good word on this point:

The congregational form of government does not mean the congregation decides on every single matter. There is no such thing as pure congregationalism, any more than there is a pure democracy. The New Testament church appointed leaders who had specific responsibilities. They were responsible ultimately to the congregation, however, and of course the congregation was responsible to Christ.

3. Examples–All the various Baptist groups follow a congregational form of government, as do most of the smaller evangelical denominations, and nearly all the independent Bible churches.

4. Biblical Support–Basic support falls into three major categories of evidence:

A. The Headship of Christ–The teaching that Christ is the head of the church most naturally comports with a congregational understanding of church government. When Christ is the head, why should any group of men be elevated to a place of special authority over the rest of the body? The church does not need two “heads.” If Christ is the head, then we the people are free to go directly to him for instruction and guidance. We do not need intermediaries to act with absolute authority over us. Does this mean that churches should have no leadership? Not at all! It does mean that if Christ is the head, then any members of the body who serve in leadership must be seen as having delegated authority and not inherent or transmissive authority. We would argue strenuously that no member of the body should be exalted over any other members of the body, and that the leaders should be seen as coming from within the body, to serve the body, to whom they must ultimately give account for their actions. They are members of the body who serve the body–not despots who rule the body in an authoritarian manner.

B. The Priesthood of the Believer–We believe that only congregational government fully preserves the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of every believer. See I Peter 2:9. Congregationalism asserts that the youngest believer, the least and humblest church member, has a God-given right to have a voice and a vote in determining the direction of the church.

C. The Practice of the Early Church–Congregationalism may be seen in a number of ways in the New Testament: 1. The congregation chose the first “deacons” (Acts 6). 2. The responsibility of church discipline is given to the entire church (Matthew 18; I Corinthians 5; II Corinthians 2). 3. The ordinances were committed to the entire church (Matthew 28; Mark 16; I Corinthians 11). 4. Many of Paul’s letters were written to entire congregations–not to church leaders (Romans, I Corinthians, II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, I Thessalonians, II Thessalonians). 5. The congregation chose its own representatives (Acts 11; Acts 13; Acts 15).

E. Pros and Cons–


Churches Appear to be Independent in New Testament

Recognizes Significance of Each Individual Believer

Democratic in Best Sense

Preserves Local Church Autonomy


May Foster Overly-Independent Spirit

Lacks Sense of History or Continuity with the Past

May Lend Itself to Charismatic Leaders Accountable to No One

Possible Doctrinal Quirkiness and Easy Church Splits

May Tend to Discount Godly Leadership by Making the Church Captive to Carnal or Immature Members

Because our church has chosen congregational government, it is crucial that we look at our own system honestly. Congregational government is not perfect. Like any other governmental system, congregationalism is only as good as the people within the system. And as long as we live in a fallen world, abuses will occur. Some of them are obvious. Congregationalism may cause a local church to ignore the rest of the body of Christ. It may tend to ignore the lessons learned through 2000 years of church history. It can allow charismatic leaders to arise who wield ungodly influence because there is not outside authority who can step in and intervene in an unhealthy situation. Congregationalism has given us Billy Graham, Paul Cedar, Chuck Swindoll and John MacArthur. It has also given us Jim Jones, Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. And of course, our churches sometimes split very easily since the final authority rests in the hands of the people. A disgruntled minority can pull out rather than working through a problem. Congregationalism can also descend to a level of pure party politics.

It sounds awful, doesn’t it? But that’s the risk you take when you give people a say in the future of their church. Abuses can occur, but in my opinion the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. No other system fully recognizes the true priesthood of every believer. Nor does any other system protect a congregation from unwise or unbiblical edicts passed down from some hierarchy outside the local church. Congregationalism allows a congregation to function in fellowship with other good churches while at the same time remaining true to its own basic principles. I for one am more than willing to risk the problems in exchange for that freedom to follow the Lord’s leading. The people of God should be free–under the leading of the Lord–to follow the Holy Scriptures according to the light God gives them.

* * * * * * * * *

In coming to this conclusion, I must state again that there are good Christians who use all three forms of church government, and there are churches and denominations that use various hybrid forms that are hard to classify. Some churches combine elements of the Presbyterian and the congregational systems. Some “elder rule” churches are totally independent.

IV. Conclusions

1. It is possible to find elements of all three forms of church government in the New Testament.

2. Having said that, I believe that the ultimate authority in the church should rest with the congregation itself. Robert Saucy offers this helpful summary of the question:

The biblical data presents a basic congregational form of church government with local autonomy and a basic democracy. It is evident, however, that no detailed and full-orbed organizational pattern is presented in the New Testament. Rather, the governmental structures provide basic principles of church order which may be adapted for different requirements.

I agree with every part of that statement because I believe it fairly reflects what we find in the New Testament. While there is no “full-orbed organizational pattern,” I do believe that when all the evidence is tallied, the result will be a basically congregational form of government.

3. In the congregational system, it is crucial for the leaders to remember that any authority they have is delegated authority, which may be revoked by the congregation at any time.

4. Congregations must remember that leaders are fallible human beings who will occasionally make mistakes. Nevertheless they must delegate enough authority so the leaders can get the job done.

5. Since there is obviously a delicate balance between leaders and the congregation in the congregational system, an atmosphere of mutual trust must be fostered and maintained.

6. When godly leaders and a spiritually-minded congregation band together to do the work of God, great things can be accomplished for the Kingdom, no matter what form of church government is followed.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?