Ecclesiasticism refers to church leadership, church government, and church organization. It comes from the Greek word “ekklesia” meaning “assembly” or “congregation.” In Christianity, the word is used to describe the organizational structure and administration of the church. Ecclesiology is the study of the theological understanding of church organization and hierarchy. Let’s explore what the Bible teaches about ecclesiasticism and church governance.
Church Leadership Roles in the New Testament
The New Testament mentions several leadership roles and offices within the early Christian church. Jesus Christ is described as the head of the church (Ephesians 5:23). The apostles, having been commissioned by Jesus, held a unique founding role in the establishment of the church after Christ’s ascension (Acts 1:21-26, Ephesians 2:20). Under them, local churches were led and managed by elders/overseers/bishops (m. Greek: episkopos) and deacons (m. Greek: diakonos).
Elders, also called overseers or bishops, were responsible for general oversight and care of local congregations (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:1-2). The qualifications for being an elder include being “above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach” and manage their household well (1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:6-9). Their primary roles were preaching, teaching sound doctrine, and pastoral care (1 Timothy 5:17, 1 Peter 5:1-2).
Deacons likewise had qualification requirements related to godly character and reputation (1 Timothy 3:8-13). They served the practical needs of the church including caring for the poor and marginalized. The word “deacon” comes from the Greek diakonos meaning “servant.” Deacons relieved the elders from administrative burdens so they could focus on shepherding and teaching (Acts 6:1-7).
Other leadership roles mentioned include evangelists (Ephesians 4:11, 2 Timothy 4:5) and elders/leaders distinguished by the gift of teaching (1 Timothy 5:17). Women also served in important ministry roles including prophetess (Acts 21:8-9), deaconess (Romans 16:1), and teacher (Titus 2:3-5).
Church Government Structures in the New Testament
The New Testament does not prescribe a particular model of church governance. However, some preliminary structures can be discerned. Decision-making authority rested with the whole congregation of believers, not just church leaders (Acts 6:2-6, 15:22, 1 Corinthians 5:4-5). Elders provided spiritual oversight for their local churches in a plurality, not individually (Acts 14:23, 20:17; Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:5; James 5:14). Deacons assisted the elders in practical service ministry. Although unique as eyewitnesses of Christ, the apostles passed on their teaching authority to the elders who shepherded congregations after them (Acts 14:23, 20:28-32).
This suggests a representative form of church governance during the apostolic era. Local churches were self-governing under a plurality of elders with the participation of the wider congregation, but were united with other churches by their common apostolic foundation and shared faith in Christ.
There are indications of networks of churches in regions such as Judea, Galilee, and Asia Minor. For example, the Jerusalem Council maintained communication with the church in Antioch (Acts 15:1-35). Paul’s missionary journeys established multiple churches that maintained connections with each other. However, there is no clear biblical mandate for hierarchical structures beyond the local church level during the New Testament period.
Biblical Images of the Church
The New Testament uses several metaphors and images to describe the nature and mission of the church. Each of these shapes an understanding of church organization and leadership roles.
- The Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) – The church functions as an organic, interdependent body with Christ as the head. Every member has a contribution with no part inherently greater than another.
- A Holy Temple (Ephesians 2:19-22) – The church is the spiritual dwelling place of God established on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.
- Bride of Christ (Revelation 21:9) – The church has an intimate, covenant relationship with Christ as his beloved and purified bride.
- Flock of God (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:2-4) – Church leaders are called to shepherd and care for God’s people like a shepherd tending sheep.
- Royal Priesthood (1 Peter 2:9) – All believers have equal access to God and shared privilege of service and ministry as priests.
- Ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20) – The church represents Christ to the world as authorized messengers of the gospel of reconciliation.
These images shape an understanding that church governance should facilitate intimate communion with Christ, unity and interdependence within his body, the ministry of every member, and the church’s mission in the world. Hierarchical authority is tempered by the call to servant leadership following Jesus’ example (Matthew 20:25-28).
Developments in Church Governance after the New Testament Era
In the generations after the apostles, church governance underwent significant development. By the 2nd century, each city had one bishop assisted by a body of presbyters (priests) and deacons. This monoepiscopacy was seen as a safeguard against heresy and division. The bishop exercised greater authority than local presbyters and represented the unity of the church in their city. Synods or councils of bishops from multiple cities and regions met to address challenges facing the early church.
In the 3rd-5th centuries, the metropolitan bishop of the capital city in each Roman province became predominant over other local bishops. The Patriarchates of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem emerged as preeminent. Disputes between major sees like Rome and Constantinople would eventually contribute to the Great Schism between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism in 1054 AD. However, even before this division there was increasing centralization of authority under the Bishop of Rome which laid the foundation for the papacy.
The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century was in part a protest against abuses and consolidation of power under the Roman Catholic papacy. It led to new denominational structures and ideas about church governance. Some key principles from the Reformation include:
- Authority of Scripture over church tradition
- Priesthood of all believers rather than clergy-laity distinctions
- Justification by faith apart from ecclesiastical works or sacraments
- Right of individual conscience on biblical interpretation
Reformation influences led to congregational church structures among Puritans and Baptists where local churches had autonomy. Presbyterian structures also emerged with elected elders governing through representative assemblies from the local to national level. Anglicans retained episcopal structures but rejected papal supremacy. Pentecostalism added challenging questions about spiritual authority, church unity, and the role of the Holy Spirit.
This history shows church governance involves balancing biblical principles for unity and mission with pragmatic needs. As Christianity diversified, structures developed to facilitate wide-scale organization. How much authority should be centralized versus remaining with local congregations still sparks debate across denominations.
Key Takeaways on Ecclesiasticism
In summary, the Bible teaches some key principles about church governance and organization:
- Christ is the head of the universal Church.
- Church leaders are called to servant leadership following Christ’s example.
- Decision-making involved the participation of the whole congregation.
- Local churches were led by a plurality of elders/overseers assisted by deacons.
- The Body of Christ is an interdependent, Spirit-empowered organism.
- There are diverse gifts but one Spirit at work in the church.
- Preserving apostolic teaching and unity between churches is important.
- No one particular structure is commanded, allowing diversity in practice.
The New Testament provides principles more than a detailed system of governance. As the church grew exponentially, new structures developed to meet changing needs. There is wisdom in evaluating ecclesiastical traditions in light of Scriptural teaching. Most importantly, the mission of making disciples must remain central no matter what organizational structures may exist.