A church hierarchy is a general system of church government that ranks leaders into various levels of authority. For example, the Roman Catholic Church has a hierarchy: laity, pastors (priests), bishops, and the pope, with bishops being classified as bishops, arch-bishops, or cardinals, depending on their appointments and level of responsibility. Some Protestant denominations also have a hierarchy that includes laity, clergy, and bishops (but no pope). Independent churches and non-denominational church fellowships eschew all hierarchy outside of local congregations, considering the local church to be an autonomous, self-governing body.
The Bible gives basic instructions on how a church should be organized, but it does not indicate a global or regional church hierarchy. The two biblical offices are elders and deacons (Acts 14:23; 1 Timothy 3:8–13), with Christ as the head of the church and its supreme authority (Ephesians 1:22; Colossians 1:18). Since the word for “elders” is usually found in the plural in the New Testament, it seems that each church normally had a plurality of elders. The terms elder, bishop, and pastor are used interchangeably in Scripture.
The early church also had apostles, who were laying the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20). Part of their task was to appoint elders in each new church as it was founded. For example, on the first missionary journey, “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church [in Asia Minor] and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust” (Acts 14:23). Sometimes, these appointments were made via an apostle’s representative; for example, Paul charged Titus to appoint elders in the churches in Crete (Titus 1:5). It is clear that each church had its own elders, and, after the time of the apostles, that is as far up as the hierarchy went. The local church was meant to be autonomous, with the right of self-government and freedom from hierarchy.
The early churches worked together to meet needs. When the church in Jerusalem was suffering persecution and a famine, the church in Antioch sent relief: “The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:29–30). Note that there was no arch-bishop or regional director who was overseeing this action; it was simply the believers in Antioch who desired to help, and they did, sending gifts to the elders in the Jerusalem church. In Romans 15:26 and 2 Corinthians 8, the apostle Paul coordinated contributions for the Judean believers, but, again, the work of the apostles was unique to that era, and the unbiblical idea of apostolic succession cannot be used to support a modern church hierarchy.
The closest the New Testament comes to hinting at a hierarchy are the actions of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. To answer some questions about the keeping of the Mosaic Law in the church, believers from Antioch met with the elders and apostles in Jerusalem (verse 6). Arguments were heard, and “after much discussion” (verse 7), the council issued some guidelines in a letter for Gentiles in the growing church (verses 23–29). Some would point to this incident as supporting a hierarchy and centralized power in the early church. It is better to view Acts 15 for what it is: the apostles and elders giving guidance on an important matter. The decision was not handed down by one person but by a group of men who saw themselves as “brothers” to the disciples asking the question. The letter from the council began this way: “The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia” (verse 23).
The New Testament does not support an extended church hierarchy covering large geographical areas. No elder in the New Testament was ever given authority over another elder, and each local assembly had its own elders/bishops/pastors. Even the modern distinction between clergy and laity is a product of church tradition without scriptural basis (the apostles saw themselves as “fellow workers” with us, Philemon 1:24). No one except the apostles ever exercised authority over more than one church, and, after the first century, there were no apostles.