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What does the Bible teach about church structure?

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There are four basic forms of church government in existence today. They are episcopal, presbyterian, congregational, and non-governmental, but it should be noted that those terms are by no means restricted to their corresponding denominational name (e.g., some Baptist churches use a presbyterian form of government). Although these forms are not specifically laid out in the Bible, we do have some guidelines that we can apply.

Church Structure - Head of the church
If we were to create an organizational chart, Jesus Christ would fill the positions of Founder, President, CEO, CFO, and Chairman of the Board. In biblical language, Christ is “head over everything for the church” (Ephesians 1:22; cf. Colossians 1:18). The church is “his body, of which he is the Savior” (Ephesians 5:23). Jesus’ relationship with the church is very close and loving, for “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). He desires “to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27).

Church Structure - Church offices
The pastor (literally, “shepherd”) is the human head of a church. In the early church, it seems there was a plurality of elders, also called “bishops” or “overseers.” It is the elders who lead the church and are responsible for teaching the Word and guiding, admonishing, and exhorting the people of God. (See 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Acts 14:23.) The man who fills the duties of a pastor/teacher is actually one of the elders.

The other office in the church is that of deacon. Deacons are men who handle the practical concerns of the church, such as caring for the sick, elderly or widowed and maintaining buildings or other property. (See Acts 6:1-6 and 1 Timothy 3:8-12.)

Church Structure - Relationship between the offices
Deacons were first chosen by the church in Jerusalem (see Acts 6). The apostles, who functioned as elders there, appointed the deacons and set out their duties. Thus, deacons have always been under the authority of the elders.

While the teaching pastor shares responsibility for spiritual oversight with the other elders of a church, Paul indicates the position carries an added obligation. “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). Thus, the pastor and other elders are equal in authority but not in duty.

The average Protestant church in America has a paid pastor who preaches and shepherds and often a paid assistant pastor who can “direct the affairs of the church well.”

Church Structure - Relationships between churches
Paul was concerned with how various churches supported each other, especially since each church is “the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Paul praised the Philippians for sharing with him “in the matter of giving and receiving” (Philippians 4:15), which means they supported him financially so he could strengthen other churches. Paul also facilitated the collection of aid for the beleaguered church in Jerusalem (Acts 24:17; Romans 15:26-27; 1 Corinthians 16:3; 2 Corinthians 8-9). Throughout the New Testament, churches sent each other greetings (1 Corinthians 16:19), sent members to visit and help other churches (Acts 11:22, 25-26; 14:27), and cooperated to reach agreements on right doctrine (Acts 15:1-35).

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022