Gary Ray Branscome

    While the New Testament makes various statements about certain facets of congregational government, it does not specify a particular organizational structure. However, that does not mean that we are free to simply interpret what the Bible does say in any way we please (2Peter 1:20). The reason the apostles saw no need to specify exactly how a congregation should be governed lies in the fact that the first Christian congregations were organized along the same lines as the synagogue, and most of the early converts to Christianity already knew how synagogues were governed.

    To put it briefly, each synagogue had a board of directors that managed the day to day affairs of the congregation. The members of that board were usually unpaid, and they were chosen by the congregation to serve in that capacity. The board would then choose one of its members to preside (usually on a yearly basis) at its meetings. However, the presiding elder (president) was not above the other board members, but was simply the foremost among equals. Furthermore, because it was important for those in leadership to know how to get along with people, care was taken to choose men who were not self-assertive, men who would serve the congregation rather than trying to impose their will on others (Titus 1:7, 1Peter 5:3).

    The job of these elders was to see that the place of meeting was ready for worship, see that bills were paid, and engage personnel (hire a rabbi). While the rabbi was usually regarded as an honorary member of the board of directors (overseers), because the other members hired him, he was viewed as the lowest ranking member. [In other words, the pastors (board members) outranked the teacher (rabbi), see Ephesians 4:11.]

    While the rabbi was respected because of his knowledge of God's Word, his role was to advise the other members as to what was in accord with God's law, not make decisions. In short, he was the primary employee of the congregation, and was in charge of religious instruction, not the congregation itself. While those who were in charge (the board members) often sought his advice, he could not to impose it on them (Titus 1:7).

    Therefore, when Paul sent for the elders of the church at Ephesus, he was sending for the congregational board of directors not paid ministers (Acts 20:17).


    While the board of directors (presbytery) of the congregation would oversee the day to day affairs of the congregation, the authority rested with the men of the congregation. It was the men who chose the elders (bishops) and delegated to them the responsibilities that they carried out, and it was up to the men to censure them if they abused their office. Therefore, in a Christian congregation, we can say that the Great Commission authorizes believers to choose a board of directors (bishops), and delegate to that board the right to carry out the work of the great commission on the part of the congregation (Matthew 28:19).

    However, due to the “mystery of iniquity” by which the carnal desire for preeminence drives some men to seek authority over others, the death of the Apostles was followed by a power grab (2Thessalonians 2:7). As a result, the word “bishop,” which originally applied to the entire board of directors, came to be identified solely with the president of the congregation, while the rest of the presbyters came to be known simply as priests (the word “priest” is an abbreviation of presbyter). [See “History of Theology” by Bengt Hägglund, Page 22.]


    Even though Christ strongly rebuked self-seeking, and strife over who should be preeminent, because human nature has not changed that sort of carnality is with us today, and every congregation has to deal with people who insist on having their own way (Mark 9:34, Luke 2:24). Furthermore, even though the Bible bars such people from congregational leadership, they, all too often, wind up in the ministry. And, when that happens, they generally try to intimidate anyone who questions their authority.

    For that reason, let me make it clear that the Bible nowhere says that ministers have been called by God. In fact, the only references to being called of God have to do with the priesthood (Hebrews 5:4,10). Therefore, the idea that all ministers have been called by God is tradition (not doctrine), and tradition conveys no authority. Furthermore, the words, “Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock,” tell us the role of an “overseer” (bishop) is a role of service, not a role of lordship (1Peter 5:3). Of course, facts will never stop the power hungry from claiming otherwise.

    Let me also make it clear that the rite of ordination does not give anyone any special status or authority. Although ordination began with the Jews, and Christ used it to endorse those whom he had trained, it is not required, and there is no divine promise connected with it (John 15:16). Furthermore, the words, “One is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren,” tell us that all believers (ordained or not) are equal (Matthew 23:8). Therefore, ordination is nothing more than a Jewish custom that was carried into the church, and the idea that it conveys some spiritual power or Divine endorsement is a medieval myth (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5).

    It should also be understood that the job of the pastor is to serve, not to control. The words, “One is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren,” make it perfectly clear that pastors do not have any authority over the congregation (Matthew 23:8). The congregation simply delegates to them certain responsibilities, and they are to carry out those responsibilities as stewards of God (Titus 1:7, Luke 22:25-26). In short, Christ is to be the authority in the congregation, not man (1Corinthians 7:23, 1Peter 5:3).


    The words, “Jesus Christ, who… loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood… hath made us kings and priests unto God” tell us that every Christian is a priest of God (Revelation 1:5- 6). Furthermore, as priests, Christ’s great commission empowers us to do whatever needs to be done to carry out that commission according to the guidelines that set down in His Word (Matthew 28:19). In addition, Christ’s call to “beware of false prophets,” gives every one of us the authority to oppose false teachers (Matthew 7:15). Just as we are not to teach false doctrine, we should not allow it to be taught. However, God’s Word must be the standard! When dealing with controversy, interpretations must yield to what the Bible explicitly says. Those who read their own explanations and ideas into the Word of God are adding to the Word of God, and those who contradict what the Bible says are rebelling against God (Isaiah 8:20, Romans 3:4, 1 John 4:6, Proverbs 30:6). [Revelation 5:10 and 20:6, 1Peter 2:5,9, Galatians 1:15, 1Corinthians 10:15, Isaiah 8:20, Acts 17:11.]

    Since all believers have received the same commission, all are equal and decisions are to be made by the congregation as a whole (Matthew 23:8). In fact, that is essentially what Christ was saying when He said, “tell it unto the church,” and what Paul was saying when he called upon the congregation (not its leaders) to discipline an unrepentant member (Matthew 18:15-18, 1Corinthians 5:1-5). Consequently, any authority wielded by the officers of the congregation is delegated to them by the congregation, is to be administered in service to the congregation, and can be recalled by the congregation (Matthew 23:8, 11, Philippians 2:5-7).

    Furthermore, because all believers are equal, the officers of a congregation have no authority other than that which is delegated to them by the congregation (Matthew 23:8). The congregation alone has the authority to call someone to fill an office, and the congregation has the authority to remove them from office if there are Scriptural reasons to do so (Matthew 7:15, Titus 3:10).

    It was the congregation, not the Apostles, who chose a replacement for Judas (Acts 1:15, 24,26). It was the congregation (multitude), not its leaders who chose the first seven deacons (Acts 6:3,5). It was the congregation (not its leaders) that was expected to judge issues and make decisions (1Corinthians 5:12 and 6:2-3). And, it was to congregations that Paul wrote, when problems needed to be corrected.

[Note: The New Testament applies the word “kletos” (called), from which we get the word “clergy,” to all believers (Romans 8:28, Matthew 20:16, Romans 1:6-7, 1Corinthians 1:1-2).]

[Note: Following the day of Pentecost, many believers continued to worship in the temple and in the synagogues (Acts 2:46 and 3:1-3). The Apostle Paul often worshipped and taught in the synagogues (Acts 9:20, and 13:14,42,43). The first Christian congregations were organized along the same lines as a synagogue (Acts 14:1 & 17:1,4, Acts 17:10,17, Acts 18:4,7-8,19,26, Acts 19:8). And, James referred to a Christian place of worship as synagogue (James 2:2, translated “assembly” in the KJV).]


    Men who seek to impose their will on the congregation, are opposing the will of God, and are not qualified to hold a congregational office (1Peter 5:3, Matthew 23:12, Titus 1:7). God expects the members of a congregation to work together like a team instead of striving for preeminence, every member has a role to play, and the team functions best when it is set up according to the New Testament pattern (1Corinthians 12:13-25, Matthew 23:8).