A Look at Church Government, or Polity

Many churches are in a place of needing to make some decisions regarding how to develop the leadership structure.  I prefer to call it a chain, or architecture, of care.  Following are some basic definitions and descriptions of function…

Greek Words for Deacon, Bishop, Elder, and Pastor

1. Deacon: Gk. DIAKONOS. Used 57 times in the New Testament. Translated various times (K.J.) as serving, ministry, administrations, service, and servant. Strongs Concordance defines DIAKONOS as, “an attendant; or one who runs errands.” The function of a deacon is to serve (Acts 6:2). Bishops, elders, and pastors (see below) are directive in ministry function while deacons are directed. The office of a deacon may or may not be a “stepping stone” to eldership. 1 Timothy 3:13 states, “for those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.”

The next three words seem to be used interchangeably in Scripture

2. Bishop: Gk. EPISKOPE. Used 11 times in the New Testament. The function of a bishop is thought by most scholars to be administrative in nature. The word EPISKOPE is translated in Hebrews 12:15 (K.J.) as “looking diligently.” Two additional synonyms for bishop are overseer and superintendent.

3. Elder: Gk. PRESBUTEROS. Used 70 times in the New Testament. The function of an elder is to impart counsel, unity, and doctrine as one who expresses the character of the message of reconciliation. In the Greek, PRESBUTEROS literally means older or senior.

4. Pastor: Gk. POIMEEN. Used 18 times in the New Testament and usually translated in many versions as shepherd. The Greek word POIMAINO is used 11 times; 7 times translated (K.J.) as feed and 4 times translated (K.J.) as tend. The function of a pastor, then, would primarily be to feed and to tend the flock of God (Pro. 27:23). One author states that, “The pastoral ministry is not so much an ‘instructing-in-the-principles-and- precepts-of-God’ ministry as it is a personal ‘guiding-in-the-way’ ministry. ” 43

Historical Perspectives of Church Government (or Polity)

There are basically three forms of church government, with variations on each.

1. Congregational: Congregationalism can be traced back to the Pilgrim societies of the United States in the early 1600s. Congregational polity strictly forbids pastors from ruling their local churches by themselves. Not only does the pastor serve by the approval of the congregation, but also committees further constrain the pastor from exercising power without consent by either a particular committee, or the entire congregation.

2. Presbyterian: With the emergence of John Calvin’s ministry around 1530AD, came the form of government in which elders had the authority and governed the church. The word Presbyterian is adapted from the Greek word PRESBUTEROS (see above). Each Presbyterian church is governed by a body of elected elders usually called a session or consistory.

3. Episcopal: Episcopal polity is a form of church governance that is hierarchical in structure with the chief authority over a local church resting in a bishop – or lead pastor. The word Episcopal is adapted from the Greek word EPISKOPE (see above).

Historic Vineyard Polity
Historically the Association of Vineyard Churches has functioned with an episcopal model of church government. The prevailing belief is that it is most in keeping with the model of the early church. The pastor of the church functions as a bishop. S/he is called of God and functions with multiple elders, deacons, and staff. (Additionally, it is thought that Martin Luther, who is credited with initiating the Reformation around 1521AD, functioned episcopally, but the Lutheran church became far more congregational when it came to America — which it remains.)

Upsides and Downsides
Congregational polity is not seen as a viable option, primarily because it is thought to be a reaction to the abuses of the church government in England from which pilgrims and Puritans were escaping. Congregationalism places the power into the hands of the voting members and the pastor can be reduced to functioning as an employee and spiritual leadership can be reduced to personal preferences and political pressures from various members.

Episcopalian and Presbyterian polities have opposing upsides and downsides. With Presbyterian polity there is strong accountability yet it can take a long time to get things done. This is reversed with Episcopal polity – there can be insufficient accountability for the “bishop,” yet decisions can usually be made quickly.

As Acts 6 seems to indicate, there needs to be some form of “team,” pragmatic fluidity, those who direct, and those who are directed, prayer and the ministry of the word, and some process/es wherein the congregation can have input to signify approval. Each church should thoroughly study the Scriptures as well as seek the input of whatever network, or denomination, they are a part of.

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