Who governs the church?

by Robert Strivens7 July 2015

Church government has been a vexed issue for Christians since the time immediately following the apostles. An examination of the Greek terms used in the NT will not solve every question, but it does shed considerable light on the issue. Four Greek terms, in particular, are closely intertwined in this context.

Firstly, it seems clear that the foundational principle, as practised in the NT, was for each church to be governed by πρεσβύτεροι (presbyteroi), usually translated ‘elders’. This term is first encountered in the context of church leadership in Acts, where Luke recounts how the church at Antioch committed to Barnabas and Saul the money they had collected to relieve famine in Judea. The collection was to be handed over to the presbyteroi (11:30): these were the authorised representatives of the churches for whose benefit the collection was made. Later, when Paul and Barnabas returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch in Pisidia, where they had previously preached, it was presbyteroi that were appointed ‘in every church’ (14:23). When they later went up to Jerusalem with the burning question concerning Gentile circumcision, it was to the apostles and presbyteroi in Jerusalem that they were sent (15:2). When Paul wished to speak with the leaders of the church at Ephesus, on his last visit to that region, it was the presbyteroi that he called to meet him in Miletus (20:17). It was presbyteroi that Titus was to establish in every town in Crete (Tit. 1:5), for whom Paul set out the qualifications. It was to presbyteroi that Peter addressed himself at the end of his first letter (5:1) and whom, according to James, the sick were to call for prayer (5:14). Throughout the NT, then, we see that the general expectation was that churches would be governed by presbyteroi, elders.

Secondly, though, examination of the Greek words used demonstrates that the term ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos) is closely connected with the function of the presbyteroi. The common translation today for episkopos is ‘overseer’, though it is usually rendered ‘bishop’ in the AV. The qualifications that Paul gave Titus for presbyteroi are very similar to those that the apostle gave Timothy for an episkopos (1 Tim. 3:2), so much so that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the two terms are interchangeable. This impression is reinforced and confirmed in Paul’s address to the presbyteroi in Miletus, when in the course of that speech he tells them that the Holy Spirit made them episkopoi of the church. Paul addressed his letter to the Philippians to the saints in Philippi, with the episkopoi as well as the deacons. The failure here to mention presbyteroi strongly suggests, again, that the two terms are interchangeable. Peter confirms this too, by instructing the presbyteroi to ‘oversee’ (using the verb form, episkopein) the flock of God (5:2).

Thirdly, shepherding terminology is used in the context of church government, from which we have the term, ‘pastor’. The Greek noun for shepherd, ποιμήν (poimēn), is used, in fact, only once in the NT to refer to the person whom we often call ‘pastor’, in  the list of gifts that Christ has given the church (Eph. 4:11). Three times in the epistles, the word is used of the Lord Jesus himself (Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 2:25; and as ‘chief shepherd’, ἀρχιποίμην, in 1 Pet. 5:4), and in John chapter 10 the Lord used the word to describe himself as the ‘good shepherd’. However, the verb, ποιμαίνειν (poimainein), is used to describe the work of the presbyteroi, in Acts 20:28 and in 1 Pet. 5:1. In addition, the Lord Jesus is described by Peter, also in his first letter (2:25), as not only our poimēn but also as our episkopos. The elders, who are overseers, are to shepherd. And our great shepherd is also our ultimate overseer.

These three terms, then, presbyteros, episkopos and poimēn, are closely linked in the NT vocabulary of church leadership. Presbyteros seems to be the usual, foundational term. Oversight and shepherding describe their function in relation to the flock, the church of Christ. Is there then any distinction in the NT between the presbyteroi of a single church or congregation? Paul strongly suggests that there is, when he speaks to Timothy of those presbyteroi who ‘labour in word and teaching’ (1 Tim. 5:17). These seem to be some, not all, the presbyteroi. This introduces the fourth essential term in a consideration of church government, that of ‘teaching’, διδασκαλία (didaskalia). The notion of teaching is found throughout the NT, as the primary means by which the church of Jesus Christ is to be instructed and by which it grows. And it seems that, while in one sense every believer is to be a teacher, there is a particular responsibility on some, not necessarily all, of the presbyteroi to teach the church. This impression is confirmed by the close conjunction of the terms ‘pastor’ and ‘teacher’, poimēn and didaskalos (διδάσκαλος) in Eph. 4:11. Perhaps this justifies the common use of the term ‘pastor’ today to refer to the elder(s) with special responsibility for teaching within the church, while the term ‘elder’ is generally used to refer to the others who also share in the oversight and shepherding of the flock of Christ.

In summary, then: the churches are to be governed by presbyteroi, who are to oversee (episkopein) and shepherd (poimainein) the flock. Amongst these, there will be pastors (poimenes) who have the particular responsibility for the teaching (didaskalia) of the church. They are all subject to the great shepherd (archipoimēn) and overseer (episkopos), the Lord Jesus Christ. 



About the author

Robert Strivens

MA (University of Cambridge, Corpus Christi College)
ThM (Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia)
PhD (University of Stirling)

Having trained for the pastoral ministry at LTS, Robert pastored an evangelical church in Banbury for 8 years. Prior to training for the ministry, he was a solicitor in private practice, working in London and Brussels. He has been involved in training pastors in French-speaking West Africa. He teaches New Testament and Greek and also lectures on Contemporary Issues. His doctoral research was on Philip Doddridge and early 18th century Dissent. He is married to Sarah and they have three sons.