Church government (or sometimes church polity) is that branch of ecclesiology (study of the church) that addresses the organizational structure and hierarchy of the church. There are basically three types of church government that have developed in the various Christian denominations: the episcopal, the presbyterian, and the congregational.
Does the Bible prescribe a type of church government?
"It appears likely that there was no normative pattern of church government in the apostolic age, and that the organizational structure of the church is no essential element in the theology of the church." -George Eldon Ladd 
"It is not as much as hinted in the New Testament that the church would ever need — or indeed should ever want or tolerate — any other local leadership than that of the eldership group." -J. Alec Motyer 
- See main page: Episcopal (polity)
The episcopal form of government has been the polity of the Church catholic as early as Ignatius of Antioch, all the way down to the time of the Reformation. Advocates for an episcopal form of church government argue that the sheer fact that it went virtually uncontested until the time of the Reformation testifies to its claims of apostolicity, although not all contemporary episcopalian apologists argue from history rather than Scripture. A notable example is Ray Sutton, the Suffragan Bishop in the Diocese of Mid-America of the Reformed Episcopal Church, who has produced work arguing that the episcopal system is biblical.
Congregational polity draws its name from the independence of local congregations from the authority and control of other religious bodies. Paige Patterson has summarized congregational polity as follows:
"The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines "congregationalism" as "that form of Church polity which rests on the indepdendence and autonomy of each local church." According to this source, the principles of democracy in church government rest on the belief that Christ is the sole head of his church, the members are all priests unto God, and these units are regarded each as an outcrop and representative of the church universal." (Who Runs the Church?: 4 Views on Church Government, Steven B. Cowan, gen. ed., p. 135, Zondervan 2004)
Churches organized with a congregational polity may be involved in conventions, districts or associations which allow them to share common beliefs, cooperate in joint ministry efforts and regulate clergy with other congregations. Churches organized with a congregational polity generally disapprove of acknowledging authority in councils or other proceedings involving delegates or representatives from outside the local congregation. However, congregational polity does not prevent a local congregation's leadership from adopting the decision or position of another congregation or a council or other gathering.
Single elder/pastor led
In a congregational church led by a single elder/pastor, primary leadership in all decisions and doctrinal determinations is vested in a single leader. (Who Runs the Church?, p. 150-52) Typically, this leader also performs the duties of a senior pastor/minister and provides the preaching and teaching ministries for the church in addition to administrative leadership. Often, a congregational church led by a single elder/pastor was founded by that singular leader or by a previous singular leader who appointed the present leader.
Paige Patterson argues that, despite biblical evidence undeniably exists in support of a plurality of elders, several factors support the ascendancy of a principal elder as the singular leader of the congregation. Those factors include: 1) the general pattern in the Old and New Testaments (e.g. Moses, the judges, Peter, James the brother of Jesus); 2) teh pattern of the early church (e.g. John Chrysostom in Antioch and at Saint Sophia's in Constantinople, Augustine in Hippo, Jonathan Edwards in Northampton); 3) influence of the synogogue on the church, including adoption by the church of the "president of the synogogue" in the form of the "pastor/elder/overseer"; and 4) the psychology of human leadership. (Who Runs the Church, pp. 150-52)
Responding to Patterson, L. Roy Taylor raises concerns regarding the accountability of this polity. Taylor, writing as a proponent of presbyterian polity, comments, "[I]n my estimation, it si easier for a few knowledgeabel and determined people to manipulate a convention (congregationalism) than it is to manipulate a deliberative body." (Who Runs the Church?, p. 164) Writing as a proponent of plural elder congregationalism, Samuel E. Waldron points out that a single-elder congregational polity is precisely the model that led to episcopacy in the early church. (Who Runs the Church, p. 177-78)
Patterson's position addresses common practices by Baptist churches in America. It does not address single-elder congregational polity structures common in Pentecostal, Charismatic and congregations from other traditions. Though experience has brought about modification of the more extreme manifestations, single-elder congregatinalism in some of these traditions consolidated authority to the point of autocracy.
Concerns related to the more extreme forms of single-elder congregationalism has resulted in more accountability within Pentecostal congregations such as those affiliated with the Assemblies of God. Also, common experience with the consequences of unaccountable authority ranging from inappropriate use of church finances all the way to the tragedy in Jonestown are often relied upon by opponents of this structure in favor of increased accountability.
In a congregational church led by a democratically elected leadership board or council, final authority for all decisions and doctrinal determinations are vested in a plurality of representative leaders selected by the congregation. The titles of the individual leaders and the structure of the leadership board or council varies.
One common use of this structure involves the election of "elders" to an "elder board". The "elders" make business and spiritual decisions for the congregation by committee and serve individually as examples and mentors to the rest of the congregation. Often "deacons" are also elected to provide leadership within specific committees, ministries or administrative functions. Typically, "deadons" are subordinate to the authority of the "elders". In some congregational churches, "deacons" serve on a unified "board" with the elders with equal voting authority.
Another comon use of this structure acknowledges the "pastor" as the single "elder" for the congregation who participates in decision-making with a "deacon board" comprised of the "pastor" and "deacons" selected by the congregation. The "pastor" also typically serves as chief executive officer for the congregation in implementing the decisions of the leadership board on a day-to-day basis.
Terminology and titles vary from church to church.
In a congregational church led by a plurality of elders, final authority for all decisions and doctrinal determinations are vested in a plurality of elders acting in committee. This structure is very similar to the "elder board" approach to the democratic congregational structure, often differing only in the method used to select the elders and/or in the term of service of each elder. In some congregations, elders are appointed by someone or some entity respected by the congregation and allows this authority. In some congregations, elders serve until they resign, die or are removed by the congregation or their peers for doctrinal or moral failures. This structure can, but does not always, include the use of "deacons" or other leaders subordinate to the authority of the elders.
The biblical pattern
The three prominent forms of church government all appeal to the Scriptures as well as church tradition for support of their respective positions. Since the Bible is not silent on the subject, key elements in the biblical examples are germane. Greg Bahnsen has noted the following:
- There is no distinction between "elders" and "bishops" (Titus 1:5-7; Acts 20:17, 28); these represent the same office and order.
- Each congregation and center of leadership is to have a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Phil. 1:1), not one-man rule.
- These elders have oversight of the church (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2-3) and are thus responsible to rule the congregation (1 Tim. 3:5; 5:17; 1 Thes. 5:12; Heb. 13:7, 17, 24). They judge among the brothers (cf. 1 Cor. 6:5) and, in contrast to all the members, they do the rebuking (1 Tim. 5:20). Christ calls them to use the “keys of the kingdom” to bind and loose (Matt.16: 19; 18: 18; John 20: 23)—these keys being the preaching of the gospel (I John I :3), administering of the sacraments (Matt. 28:19-20; I Cor. 11: 23ff.), and the exercise of discipline (Matt. 18:17; I Cor. 5:1-5).
- The elders are assisted in their ministry by "deacons" who give attention to the ministry of mercy (Phil. 1:1; Acts 6:1-6; cf. 1 Tim. 3:8-13).
- The office-bearers in the church are nominated and elected by the members of the congregation (e.g. Acts 6:5-6), but must also be examined, confirmed and ordained by the present board of elders (Acts 6:6; 13: 1-3; 1 Tim. 4: 14).
- Members of the church have the right to appeal disputed matters in the congregation to their elders for resolution, and if the dispute is with those local elders, to appeal to the regional governing body (the presbytery) or, beyond that, to the whole general assembly (Acts 15). The decisions of the wider governing bodies are authoritative in all the local congregations (Acts 15:22-23, 28, 30; 16:1-5).
- Is Polity That Important?, by Stan Norman and Chad Brand
- New church governance book sets forth 5 perspectives, by David Roach
- Setting Things in Order: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Eldership, by Alex Strauch (full version here)
- Reflections on the Church by Reid Monaghan