Toward an Understanding of Church Governance


The goal of this brief article is to gain some insight into the idea of church governance.  Particularly, these thoughts reflect church governance related to independent, non-denominational churches.  The governance structure of denominational churches is easily observed and often clearly documented in formal ways through the specific denomination.  Independent, non-denominational church governance is not as easily observed and documented, so the purpose and explanations of this brief article will be aimed in that direction.

As an early disclaimer, this article is not intended to be academic in nature.  It is intended to be accessible and understandable to the average church member.  There are volumes written on each of the subjects or emphases that will be addressed below.  Thus, I will limit the boundaries of this article to some relatively high level points of emphasis that will provide insight into how our local church is governed within the framework of established Biblical principles (and, consequently, how other independent, non-denominational congregations might also structure themselves for governance).  This article will not exhaust the subject of church governance, will not argue for one singular pattern of structural church governance, and will not intend to answer every question or scenario proposed in church governance structures (and there are many).  As well, fitting within the framework of a more approachable style, the article will not offer specific citations in the body (outside of Scripture references).  Instead, a general bibliography of works consulted will be offered at the conclusion.

Modern Categories of Church Governance:

When reviewing the landscape of church governance, there are three primary categories of governance that emerge (note: the below is a superficial view of these church structures and is not intended to represent every facet or nuance of that particular structure):

  1. Episcopal Church structure – this particular type of governance is one that focuses on a structure of priesthood in a specific, local congregation or parish, with the local congregations being governed or overseen by bishops.  The term “episcopal” borrows from a Greek term in the New Testament to describe an “overseer, guardian, or bishop.”  This type of structure can be seen in the Episcopal church in America, and certainly in its British counterpart, the Church of England (or Anglican Church).  It is hierarchical in structure, but differs in structure from the Roman Catholic Church since it does not embrace the idea of the Papacy.
  2. Presbyterian Church structure – This type of governance is focused on being led by a team of “elders” at the individual local church level, and derives its name from a New Testament Greek term that means “elders” and is basically synonymous with the Greek term for “bishops”.  But, the local churches corporately are governed by “presbyteries” which are made up of a higher ruling association of elders.  Often the presbyteries are arranged into synods, and all of these eventually feed into the largest body, the general assembly.  Though local elders are appointed within the independent congregations, matters like ordination and opening or closing new churches must be approved by a higher body than the local assembly.  This type of governance came into prominence, at least in modern understanding, likely through the influence of John Calvin.  This structure can be seen in the Presbyterian denomination, as well as all manner of churches that identify themselves as “Reformed” (though, it must be noted, many of these are independent, non-denominational congregations; thus, the “higher body” governances would not apply).
  3. Congregational Church structure – this form of governance is one that is shaped by a Senior Pastor/Staff/Board of some kind that is accountable to the congregation at large.  Within this structure there are various sub-structures, and this type of governance has a broad range of structural differences based on the individual congregations and denominations.  This structure would highlight the New Testament idea of the “priesthood of every believer”, and would make the case for individual leaders that are accountable to the entire body of believers.  Examples of this type of structure would be Congregationalist and Baptist denominations among many others.

Is There a Biblical Pattern of Governance in the New Testament?

With these three primary forms of governance established, some natural questions emerge.  Which is the preferable structure?  Is one of these structures the “Biblical” way of governance?  Do all of them have some form of “Biblical” faithfulness?  If one of these structures is right, does that make the others wrong?

These are all fair questions that must be addressed by looking at the New Testament material available to us regarding this subject, as well as the surrounding Biblical history of the early church as recorded in the New Testament.  To do so, this article will briefly summarize the mention of church structure or leaders as recorded in the New Testament books arranged as they are in the canon.

~ The Gospels – Obviously, the gospels characterized the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus, and as such do not have much information about the structure of local churches (since the church had not yet been birthed).  What can be learned, however, is the expectation of Jesus relative to those who would lead others.  In both Matthew 20 and John 13 we see Jesus both giving instruction and a living illustration of what it means to be a servant leader.  This heart of leadership must characterize leaders in whatever governance structure of local churches they embrace.

~ Acts – This is the historical narrative of the birth of the Church, and thus provides many opportunities to see how the leadership structure emerged in the early church of Jerusalem and the blossoming church all throughout Asia Minor.  At the origin of the church, in Acts 2, we observe the Holy Spirit being poured out on all who had faith in Jesus, and we see a unity that emerges from those believers in the Way as they all utilized their gifts, abilities, and time to serve one another and serve the Lord.  Clearly, the first leaders of the Jerusalem church were the 12 apostles of Jesus.  But as the church grew, and some problems emerged (like the food distribution to the Hebrew and Hellenistic widows), a new structure came to the fore.  In Acts 6 we observe a group of seven men chosen by the congregation to oversee this activity of food distribution so that the apostles could stay focused on prayer and preaching the Word.  Of these seven, two of them (Stephen and Philip) actually carried out ministries similar to the twelve apostles of Jesus (note Acts 6:8-10 and Acts 8:5-8).  Eventually, the church of Jerusalem appointed elders of the Church in a new way from the historic elders of the Jews (see the use of the term change from Acts 6:12 related to the elders of the Jews to Acts 11:30 in reference to elders of the Church).  The other churches that were being birthed in different places outside of Jerusalem were also having elders appointed in those places, primarily by the Apostle Paul (see Acts 14:23).  Places like Antioch demonstrated a leadership that was diverse in gifting and function, and diverse in culture (Acts 13:1-3).  In Jerusalem, while there were elders, there appeared to be an elder who became the “lead” elder in some way, as evidenced by how James is referred to deferentially at the Council of Jerusalem and later by Paul (see Acts 15 as well as Acts 21:17-18).

~ Romans – There is no specific reference in this letter to structure, and no acknowledgment of elders, bishops, deacons, or overseers in the letter at all.  The only possible exception might be in Paul’s closing remarks in Romans 16:1 where Paul refers to Phoebe as a deacon/deaconess, and the much debated comments about Andronicus and Junia in Rom.16:7 (*note – the debate is referencing whether or not Paul referred to them as “apostles”.  Whether he did or not, it is immaterial to the focus of this article on structure and governance, and Paul would not have been making the case that they were apostles of the 12, but rather were “sent ones” by the Lord and/or the apostles).

~ The Corinthian letters – Although this church was carnal and immature, Paul does not reference any leaders or leadership structure in these letters (with the possible exception of 1 Cor.16:15-16 referencing the household of Stephanas – though they are not called by a structural title of leadership).  Instead of talking about structure and leaders, Paul insists that the believers work out their issues among themselves and Paul addressed the letters to the whole congregation.

~ Galatians – There is no mention of leaders or structure (although Paul encourages them to properly compensate and care for true teachers and to reject false ones – Gal.6:6).

~ Ephesians – If there was a book or letter where Paul should make his case for a universal rule of governance of the church, this would be it.  This is the mountaintop letter when it comes to describing the purpose, makeup, and heart of the church, yet the only mention of anything related to leaders is in Eph.4 where Paul outlines those who are gifts to the Church (apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, teacher).  No structural comments are included.  Interestingly, Paul actually comments on household structures in chapter five, but does not speak of local church structure at all.

~ Philippians – After greeting the “overseers and deacons” at Philippi in v.1, there is no mention of leaders or structure in the rest of the letter.  It seems, also, that Paul appeals to the members to solve the problem between Euodia and Syntyche instead of appealing for “leaders” to step in (note Philippians 4:2-3).

~ Colossians – There is no mention of leaders or structure in this letter.

~ The letters to the Thessalonians – There is a brief mention of those “who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you” (note 1 Thess.5:12-13) but these leaders are not afforded titles and no structural comments are mentioned.

~ 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus - *we will take up the contents of these letters in the next section

~ Philemon – No mention.

~ Hebrews – The only mention of leaders is in Hebrews 13 and it is an exhortation to willingly submit to and pattern after those leaders.  They have no specific titles and no context for structure is mentioned.

~ James – The only mention in this letter is calling for the elders to pray over the sick in James 5.

~ 1 and 2 Peter – In 1 Peter 5, Peter speaks of being a fellow elder and counsels elders to shepherd the flock lovingly and humbly (echoing the words of Jesus).

~ 1,2,3 John – In 2 and 3 John, the writer refers to himself as “The elder.”  There are differing opinions as to whether this is an age related statement, a statement related to John being the last living apostle at that time, or if it has leadership/structural/governance overtones.

~ Jude – There is no mention of leaders or structure.

~ Revelation – In chapters 2 and 3, the letters to the churches begin with “to the angel at the church.”  There is much debate as to what constitutes “the angel” – some argue that is characterizes the spirit of the church, while others argue that it is either related to the protecting angel of the church, the messenger who is bringing the letter, or the “pastor/elder” of the church.  In any case, it still does not specifically speak to governance or structure.

The Case of Timothy and Titus

Based on a summary of the New Testament above, the writers of the New Testament spent very little time dealing with the subject of church governance and structure.  In fact, outside of the evolving descriptions of how the church was structured in the book of Acts, most of the other books of the New Testament describe hardly anything at all about church governance and structure.  It simply is not a point of emphasis in the New Testament writings to the various churches.  It is assumed that there is a structure of some kind, since the Apostle Paul appointed elders in the churches he founded, but how the structure plays out methodologically is not of great concern to the writers of the New Testament.

The exception to that, however, is Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus.  In these letters, there are  clear, strict instructions as to how the church is to be structured and how leaders are selected and approved.  It is possible to just acquiesce to these letters as the formal template for church structure for all time, but it seems that these letters are so different than the instruction to the rest of the New Testament churches that maybe some other questions must be asked and answered.  To begin, it might be good to answer the question “Why were these letters written and to what churches are they addressed?”  Both parts of these questions can be answered as we look at the state of each of these churches.

  1. Ephesus – Paul made clear that he wanted Timothy to stay in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3) so that Timothy could deal with the very difficult problems facing the church there.  When we consult the supporting New Testament material, we begin to understand that Paul’s ministry in Ephesus may have been his most deeply challenging and the cause for greatest concern.  It is the church that he constantly weeps over (Acts 20:19, 31), is opposed by both Jew and Gentile (Acts 19), is the subject of an emergency meeting of the elders where Paul warns of both internal and external attacks as well as trying to clear his name from slander (Acts 20), is the place where he fought “wild beasts” (1 Corinthians 15:32), and is where he felt a pressure so deep as to despair of life (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).
  2. Crete – Paul wrote to Titus so that he would stay in Crete and bring some order to a chaotic church by appointing elders and rebuking those who fail to honor God (Titus 1:5).  Paul desired that these false teachers be “silenced” (1:11), and noted that the prophets of Crete understood rightly that the people there were “always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” (1:12-13). It seemed that Paul could only “silence” them through some kind of structural change and the appointing of leaders to carry out that task alongside Titus.

What becomes clear in looking at these churches, especially that of Ephesus, was that they were in deep crisis.  It seems that Paul’s letter to the Ephesians may have been written in preparation of this crisis, and that the later writing of 1 Timothy was when all hell had broken loose in the church.  Thus, it seems reasonable that both of these letters, to Timothy and Titus, were letters to take some type of emergency action to bring order in the church and withstand the attacks of evil from within and without.

Timothy likely had been traveling with Paul more than a decade at the point of receiving Paul’s letter, so it seems that he would have understood how people are to conduct themselves in the household of God (note 1 Timothy 3:14-15).  He had seen the appointing of elders, and the manner in which many of the churches were structured.  The situation in Ephesus, however, apparently required new information from Paul; in other words, Timothy needed to know how to structure things in the midst of a spiritual and doctrinal emergency.

Paul outlined for Timothy just who, and who could not, be a part of that leadership.  Women were immediately excluded (based on the well documented problem of women in Ephesus tied to the former way of life in the Temple of Artemis).  Single men were apparently excluded.  Married men without children were excluded.  New converts were excluded.  In addition, what should have been a list of fruits that were demonstrated in the life of every Spirit-filled believer became a prerequisite for leadership (which speaks strongly to the lack of spiritual maturity and development in Ephesus and the relative dearth of any of those types of people in the church).  At least some of these strict guidelines were new for Timothy.  For example, in the cities where Paul’s early churches were founded, virtually every elder in those places would have been a new convert. 

There were already elders in place at Ephesus (as we read in the account of Acts 20), but that structure was not getting the job done.  It required outside help (Timothy and Paul), and required stricter guidelines for leaders.  Effectively, this became a “circle the wagons” type of structure during a time of emergency in Ephesus for the purpose of saving the church and leading it back to health.  The same could be said, though in lesser degree, about Crete.

Principles Instead of Templates

Given the aforementioned summary of the New Testament, and the exceptional circumstances and remedies for the churches of Ephesus and Crete, it seems likely that the New Testament does not prescribe a one size fits all “template” of church governance and structure.  While the canon of Scripture provides every church with substantive and universal principles that will lead the church toward structural and governmental wholeness, it does not appear to prescribe a singular, universal structure. The concern of the writers of the New Testament is rarely focused on church leadership and governance (with the exception of the circumstances of Timothy and Titus), yet it assumes that these structures exist. Most of the New Testament church structures must be assumed to be healthy and functioning in support of the church’s ministry and mission.  But there is also a more prescribed action for churches that are in an emergency condition and crisis (like Ephesus and Crete).   So, there appears to be no universally binding church structure; instead, the structures of the New Testament churches morphed based on need (like Antioch), circumstance (like Ephesus), and, size (like Jerusalem).

Given these realities, it is fair to ask what principles undergird a healthy church governance structure.  This article will propose some principles for consideration while remaining mindful that there are likely others that could be added.

Principle 1Every member is a minister.

            The New Testament assumes that a healthy church consists of the people of God  functioning as a priesthood of believers.  Each person can access the Father themselves, can read, understand and obey Scripture, and can be used by God to share their stories of grace.  Contrary to a church where ministry is restricted to the hands of very few, the healthy church embraces the work of God for the whole of the Body functioning together (note 1 Corinthians 12-14).

Principle 2Every member is ministering based on their spiritual gifts.

            Because the New Testament teaches that every person that places faith in Jesus is endowed with a spiritual gift(s) (note 1 Corinthians 12:4-11; Romans 12:3-8; 1 Peter 4:7-11), each member has the responsibility to use those gifts in love for the building of the church and the extension of God’s mission in the world.  Contrary to a struggling or unhealthy church where only spiritual gifts displayed in the leadership are valued, healthy churches embrace the use of the gifts of God’s people offered in humility and love.

Principle 3Members primarily minister to one another and minister together to the world.

            The assumption of the New Testament is rarely to take problems to the leaders.  In fact, most of the problems that are addressed in the New Testament are addressed in a manner that assumes that the people of God can and should work it out among themselves (1 Corinthians 6:1-6; Galatians 6:1-2).  As well, the assumed unity of the Body (Ephesians 4:3-6) should mark the world in a transformative way as we, together, demonstrate that Jesus was sent by God to show the world His love (John 17:20-23).

Principle 4Church leaders exist to empower and equip members for ministry.

            The role of leadership has a primary function – to help mobilize and release the people of God into the world so that men, women, and children will come face to face with the gospel of Jesus (note Ephesians 4:11-13; Acts 13:1-3).  Contrary to a struggling or unhealthy church where leaders are endeavoring to keep people tighter and closer so that they can bring back order, healthy church leaders want to release people into the world for ministry.  As well, leaders should care at least as much about seeing the gifts of others utilized than they do the use of their own gifts.

Principle 5Leadership should be multiple, not individual.

            In every New Testament structure, there are multiple leaders instead of one singular leader.  When Paul appointed leaders in the early church, he appointed “elders” (plural).  Whether one calls them “elders” or “pastors” or “Board members” is not the primary concern.  What is of concern, though, is that these leaders do not make decisions in isolation.  It is true in some cases that “leaders among equals” will emerge (as can be seen, for example, in the case of James in the early church of Jerusalem).  But even in the case of James, the New Testament record is clear that he was a part of an eldership.  Even Peter, the apostle who became the most prominent of the original disciples of Jesus, referred to himself as a “fellow elder” (note 1 Peter 5:1).

Principle 6Leaders should be Christlike in character.

            Leaders should not be ones with just the most money, or the loudest voices.  Leaders should be affirmed because of their Christlike character.  Whether that is choosing them based on their faith and the fruit of the Spirit (like the choosing of the Seven in Acts 6), or whether it is choosing them in line with the spiritual maturity outlined in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, New Testament church leaders must be people with a discernible Godliness in life and character.

Principle 7: Leadership and governance should rise from within the local body instead of outside of it.

            In healthy churches, the leadership structure is one that flows out of the existing body.  In churches that are facing issues of strength or giftedness or spiritual health, there may be a need to bring in outside strength to deal with the issues at hand (much like Timothy and Titus were outside of those local contexts in which they ministered).  But the assumed relative health of the early New Testament churches outside of Ephesus and Crete leads one to believe that churches function best with leaders who emerge from that local context.

Governance Structure of The Chapel

The governance structure of The Chapel is a hybrid of the Presbyterian and Congregational forms for reasons consistent with Biblical principle, size, context, practicality, and mission.  A Board of Directors, consisting of 7 people, is elected to serve from within the greater church body.  They are limited to a maximum of two consecutive 3 year terms before they are required to rotate off the Board for at least one year.  They are to be qualified based on the spirit of 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, Acts 6, and Galatians 5.  In other words, they are to be of high Christian character, maturity, and integrity, and these Spirit-filled characteristics should be easily observed.  This Board functions in an “elder” type role, along with the Pastors of The Chapel, to form an interdependent governance of a multiplicity of leaders.  While the Lead Pastor and Pastoral team serves to provide leadership, they are ultimately accountable to the Board in matters both financial and spiritual. 

Since the context of local church in this era is different than that of the early church, there are different legal parameters and constraints that must be adhered to within our context.  Thus, duly authorized legal by-laws must be maintained by The Chapel.  These by-laws should not be held in the same regard as the foundational Scriptural principles for Church Governance, but should reflect them.  As well, should the by-laws become outdated due to the size of the church or scope of the mission, they should be appropriately amended to ensure that the church is postured to fulfill its Biblical purpose of sharing the good news of Jesus with every man, woman, and child within its geographical reach.

In day to day matters of decision making and execution, the Pastoral leadership team has freedom to act while understanding that the Board provides accountability, encouragement, prayer, and oversight.  Should a decision need congregational approval (such as the purchasing of land, building of a facility, installation of a new lead pastor, installation of a new Board member, etc.), then that decision will be unanimously submitted by the Board and Pastoral Leadership Team to the congregation for affirmation.

Thus, understanding this high level structure of The Chapel, the aforementioned principles can be applied to gauge the health, practicality, and vitality of the structure.  For principles 1-3 which deal with the members of the church, the structure of The Chapel should be suited for these to flourish.  Relative to principles 4-7 which deal with leadership, the structure of The Chapel seeks to undergird and support the outworking of these principles in the life of the Body.  The whole of The Chapel’s leadership structure rises from within the local body, consists of a plurality of leaders both paid and non, and concerns itself with measuring the Spirit-empowered character of the leaders.  As well, the culture of leadership is to help equip and mobilize God’s people for service in His mission in the world, and though that is happening imperfectly, it is happening in a multitude of fruitful ways.


Within the boundaries of the aforementioned principles, it appears there is plenty of latitude for structural variation.  As was mentioned at the beginning of this article, there is no reason to assume that the governance structure of The Chapel is the singular Biblical model.  It is not.  Some larger churches will need to structure differently than churches of small to medium size.  Some churches will need to be stricter in leadership roles than others since their context may require more remedial care.  Still other churches, if not most, would be wise to review their structure and organization every few years and make adjustments as necessary.  But in all cases, the goal of the church should be to structure in such a way as to provide health and an ability to fully engage the mission of God to share the good news of Jesus with every man, woman, and child.



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Smith, Dwight. Alone at the Top.  Columbia, SC., 2011.

 *note – the inclusion of the authors listed does not imply their agreement with this article in part or in whole.