Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan. Previous article in this series: July, 2005, p. 416.

Churches err in church government not only when they allow the State to have authority in the spiritual matters of the church, but also when they pattern their church government after the governments of the nations of this world. The church is a heavenly kingdom; it is not like the kingdoms and nations of this world. Therefore, the principles of her government are markedly different from the principles that man invents and follows when building a structure according to his own will.

One fundamental principle of church government is that nothing comes between Christ and His church, that is, between the Head and His body. The State may not come between them, nor may an officebearer or an ecclesiastical assembly. Many place “higher ranking” officebearers or “higher” ecclesiastical assemblies between Christ and the instituted church. This is hierarchy, after the example of the governments of this world, and is contrary to the instruction that our Lord Himself gave to us.

A hierarchy refers to a government system in which individuals are ranked in levels of increasing authority, with a single individual or a small group of individuals at the top. Such an arrangement is very common among the nations and businesses of the world, but must not be found in the church of Jesus Christ upon earth. The church has one Head and Husband. No one, be it an individual or a group of individuals, can come between Him and His bride.

Officebearers Not to Lord It Over Others

During Jesus’ ministry upon this earth, He tasked his disciples to go around preaching that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. As they not only preached this, but also began to contemplate more the meaning of this, they entertained the notion that there would be a hierarchical structure in Christ’s kingdom. While Christ was telling them about His approaching crucifixion, they were busy arguing among themselves as to who was going to have the highest rank in this kingdom. Jesus Himself had made no such appointments, so they began to take matters into their own hands. James and John even came to Jesus and said, “Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory” (Mark 10:37). When the other ten disciples heard about this, they were much displeased with James and John. It was at this time that we read that Christ took His disciples aside and gave them instruction concerning a central principle of church government:

42. But Jesus called them to him, and saith unto them, Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them.

43. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister:

44. And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.

45. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.

Here Jesus clearly contrasts His kingdom with the kingdoms of this world, setting forth for us a principle that must be understood and maintained if a church on earth is going to reflect properly the heavenly glory of Christ.

No officebearer is given authority to lord it over others. When the text speaks of those who “exercise lordship over” or “exercise authority upon” others, it is referring to those who lord it over others, forcing others into subjection to their will. Christ said that the officebearers in His church do not have this right. They are to be servants, ruling not according to their own will but the will of God, and seeking to glorify not themselves but the God who has saved them.

The Development of a Hierarchy

After the death of the apostles, churches gradually began to make changes in the matter of church government, changes that were contrary to the principles found in Scripture. Some officebearers became known as priests, when no such office had been instituted by Christ for the new dispensation. God’s people as a whole are a royal priesthood (I Pet. 2:9). But many, going back to the Old Testament types and shadows, taught that there was a special priesthood distinct from the body of the people. Secondly, contrary to the biblical instruction that bishops and elders are one and the same, the term bishop began to be used for a separate office, and that office was said to be over that of the other officebearers.

Gradually more and more power was ascribed to the bishop. First the office of bishop was simply distinguished from the office of elder, and then the office of bishop began to be viewed as higher than the office of elder. As time went on, a bishop was said to have authority over all the people of God in a certain region, known as a diocese. To him was ascribed the authority to ordain officebearers and to discipline within his diocese. Later the bishops themselves were arranged in a hierarchical structure, with the bishops located in the chief cities being placed over the other bishops. Eventually the bishop of Rome was singled out as being over all the others, and was given the title of pope.

Some thought such a hierarchical structure would help to ensure that the churches remained united. A powerful individual whom they could see and under whom they could unite would serve to keep the people together, so it was thought. Man by nature desires a leader he can see. Old Testament Israel, for example, was not content having the invisible God as their King. They wanted a visible king like the other nations had, a single man under whom they could be united. It was similar in the early centuries of the new dispensation. The King of the church was in heaven; He could not be seen, and some of the people began to long for a leader they could see with the eye of the body.

Although the history is quite involved, the issue can be broken down to a few fundamental questions, two of which are these: Is the office of bishop to be distinguished from the office of elder? And, secondly, has Christ instituted an office in which the bearer of that office has authority, as an individual, to ordain and discipline others. Let us take a look at each of these questions in turn.

Bishop versus Elder: An Unbiblical Distinction

The distinction between bishop and elder was basic to the construction of the entire Romish hierarchy. Today many who reject the papal form of church government still commit the error of distinguishing the offices of bishop and elder, claiming that the bishop is higher than the elder. Episcopalians, Methodists, and the Eastern Orthodox churches are examples of denominations that do this. These denominations may differ as to what they say constitutes the higher authority ascribed to the bishop, but they nevertheless all commit the same error.

In church history there has of ten been a debate over whether there are two or three distinct offices in the church of Christ.¹ Many say there are three: bishop, elder (or priest), and deacon. Others say there are two (elder and deacon), with the minister being referred to as the teaching elder, and the other elders as ruling elders. We often speak of three offices, but not in the sense in which the first group mentioned above does. We say the three are the offices of minister of the Word, elder, and deacon. But we insist that the term bishop and elder are two terms for the same office. Ministers of the Word are elders. They are referred to in I Timothy 5:17as the “elders … who labour in the Word and doctrine.” Although they are distinguished from the other elders who do not labor full time in this work, both kinds of elders are referred to in Scripture as “elders” or “bishops.”

There are two terms in the New Testament that refer to one and the same office. One is the term elder and the other is the term bishopor overseer. The first term refers to the honor of the office and the second to the work of the office. The elder is one placed in an honorable office and is to be spiritually mature, and his work consists of overseeing the spiritual life of the members of the congregation.

That the words elder andbishop (i.e., overseer) refer to the same office can be clearly demonstrated. When Paul said farewell to the “elders” at Ephesus (Acts 20:28), he referred to them all as “bishops” (KJV—overseers). When he began his letter to the church at Philippi (Phil. 1:1), he greeted all the saints there along with “the bishops and deacons.” If the elders were officebearers distinct from the bishops, it would be strange for Paul to neglect mentioning them. In Paul’s letter to Timothy, we read of the qualifications for bishops and the qualifications for deacons, but we do not find a separate section listing the qualifications for elders. Similarly, we read of the ordination of elders and of deacons, but nowhere of the ordination of bishops in distinction from elders. Obviously this is because the bishops and the elders are one and the same. Finally, we see this very clearly inTitus 1:5-7, which reads:

5. For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee:

6. If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.

7. For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not self-willed, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre;

After Paul speaks of leaving Titus in Crete in order that he might ordain elders in every city, he proceeds to give the qualifications for these elders. And when he does so, he refers to these elders as “bishops.” From these and other passages we can see that the office of elder is to be identified with the office of bishop.

The Church, Not an Individual, Given Authority to Ordain and Discipline

Those who desire to exalt the office of bishop over that of elder have to explain what additional authority the bishop has that the elder does not have. Some have said, in answer to this question, that it is the bishop who has the authority to ordain officebearers and to discipline within his area of jurisdiction. But this is giving authority to a man that in Scripture is always given to the church. It is the church that ordains and disciplines, working through the body of elders.

When we look to Scripture, we see that the church, through her elders, has been given the authority both to ordain and to discipline. In Scripture we read of the body of elders, also referred to as the presbytery, ordaining officebearers. In I Timothy 4:14, the apostle Paul says to Timothy, “Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.” Here we see that the church has received authority to work through her body of elders to ordain officebearers.

The instituted church has also been given authority to discipline, which again she does through her elders. As was set forth in a previous article, the instituted church is the one who has received the keys of the kingdom, one of which is the key of Christian discipline. The inspired apostle Paul exhorted the church at Corinth to excommunicate a member who was walking in sin (I Cor. 5:4). This authority is given not to an individual, but to the instituted church as a whole, who performs this work through her elders. In fact, when a person is excommunicated, the entire body of believers gives their tacit approval, and thus is involved in the discipline process.

Christ: The One Officebearer over All Others

There is only one Officebearer who is over all the saints and all the special officebearers in the instituted churches. That Officebearer is Christ, who is called “the Shepherd and Bishop” of our souls (I Pet. 2:25). We cannot now see Him with the eye of the body, but He is the One who is leading us, protecting us, and keeping us united. May we never seek to have leaders like those of the nations of this world. Submitting to our King who is in heaven, following the instruction He has given concerning all things, including the government of His church, we will show clearly to others that our confidence is not in man, but in God.

¹ There has often been debate about a fourth office, the office of teacher. But this will not be discussed here.