Bible Basics: Church Government

By Earl Robertson

What was the nature and character of the government of the early church? Was that government universal or local? Was it diocesan and hierarchical in function? These questions must be considered in a discussion of church organization.

Christ “is the head of the body, the church” and is, therefore, the One to whom every member must submit (Col. 1:18). However, in the early church we read that under divine guidance they “ordained them elders in every church” (Acts 14:23). This reveals clearly that each congregation had the same need for government. These churches had only recently been established and Paul was returning to Antioch to report what God had done with them. On the return trip they visited these churches and at this time ordained elders in every church.

The fact that each church had elders not only emphasizes mutual local need but it also restricts the oversight of local government. Peter says, “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof . . .” (1 Pet. 5:2). In this, the apostle names the realm of oversight: “among you.” This nominative and the participle “taking the oversight thereof” makes definite the flock for which those elders were responsible. These congregations, like the one at Philippi, had “saints . . . with the bishops and deacons” (Phil. 1:1). Early church government was not diocesan or hierarchical; it was local-limited to one congregation. The early churches were not tied together in government; they each were independent and autonomous. They functioned without outside control or interference!

This is the way it was then! But, like so many other things, some churches seemingly no longer believe this because, they do not practice it. Often we see one church (the elders) running the affairs of another congregation. Whether this sinful action is within the same city, county, state, or nation is immaterial. The fact that the actions of one eldership are limited to that one congregation of which they are members makes all Bible students know that they cannot exercise oversight within another congregation. Yet, some audaciously run the affairs of other churches-especially if they are giving support to a man to preach at that other congregation. The Bible makes plain that each eldership is limited in its oversight. Popish behavior among elders God condemns and brethren should say so!

Truth Magazine XXIII: 14, p. 231
April 5, 1979