The Divine Government of the Church

By Cecil Willis

The only way for us to get a correct concept of what the government of the church is like is by looking into the inspired history and divine instruction book for the church, which is the New Testament. It also should be observed that a church not conforming to the New Testament pattern of government of the church is, consequently, not the New Testament church, and therefore does not belong to Christ.

The Church: A Kingdom

The church is ruled by a king, and is therefore a monarchy. In many places in the New Testament, the church is called a kingdom. In preaching to prepare the way for the establishment of the church, both John the Baptist and Jesus preached that the kingdom was at hand (Matt. 3:1, 2; Mark 1:14, 15). When Jesus taught in parables, as he so frequently did, He often said the kingdom of heaven is likened unto this or that. In Matt. 13, he likens the kingdom to a man who sowed good seed in his field (v. 24). Again, he says “The kingdom of heaven is like unto a grain of mustard seed” (v. 31). “The kingdom of heaven is like unto a treasure hidden in the field” (v. 44). Many other such comparisons are made.

Jesus taught that some of the people alive in his time would live to see the building of the kingdom. “And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, There are some here of them that stand by, who shall in no wise taste of death, till they see the kingdom of God come with power” (Mk. 9:1). So again we see the church referred to as a kingdom, which describes its form of government. This passage in which Jesus said some of those people would live to see the kingdom come with power, if there were no other statement in all the Bible, would completely and forever explode the theory that the kingdom has not come as yet, but that it will be established here on earth when Christ comes again.

In John 18:36, Jesus tells us the nature of the kingdom. It is to be a spiritual kingdom, not a material one. “Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now is my kingdom not from hence.” Jesus plainly states that he plans to build a kingdom, but equally as plainly states that it will not be a material kingdom. Some people are not content to let Jesus do what he said he would do. One of the leading tenets of denominationalism is that Jesus, when he comes, will build a material kingdom here on earth, and will live and reign with the saints for a thousand years. But, my friends, Jesus, in no uncertain terms, says “my kingdom is not of this world.”

We could look at many, many other passages, but, these are enough clearly to indicate that the church is a kingdom. We read in Luke 22:16-30 that the Lord’s supper will be in the kingdom, and we all know that the Lord’s supper is partaken in the church. The church, being a kingdom, has a government that corresponds to that of a kingdom.

The Government: A Monarchy

The church being a kingdom as we have just seen, its government is a monarchy. A monarchy is a government in which a single person has all authority. Such is the government of the church. Jesus said, “All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18).

No other person, or group of persons, has authority in the church to make laws. This is a prerogative, belonging to Christ alone. He is the Monarch. He is the Sovereign. He is the King! Jesus acknowledged that He was the King of this spiritual kingdom he was to build. In John 18:37, we find this discussion: “Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end (Or for this purpose-CW) have I been born, and to this end am I come unto the world, that I should bear witness of the truth.” He was called the king of the Jews, for they thought he intended to build a material kingdom. Yet Jesus was a king, but a king over a spiritual kingdom.

But in a government where there is a king, He alone has legislative authority. All authority belongs to the king. Man has failed to recognize and respect the complete authority of Christ. Many denominational bodies confess they are not the body of Christ by their government. They admit they are not the kingdom of Christ because they have a legislative body other than the Lord Jesus. These denominations are ruled by ecclesiastical forms of government.

By this change in the form of the government of the kingdom, they ignore the King. Men have assumed they have the right of self-government in the church. They forget the church is a monarchy; it has a King. But they attempt to make the church a democracy, and instead of submitting humbly to the king, they set up a representative legislative body. Many religious organizations select a certain number of representatives by district and by vote, much as we elect our civil legislators, and in a general convention of some kind, rule as to the terms of admission into this particular denomination, establish its order of worship, and many other prerogatives which belong to the King only. To make a democracy out of a monarchy is to insult our King Jesus. These men have changed the act of baptism, added uncommanded items to the worship, changed the government of the church, removed the Lord’s supper from the weekly worship, set aside baptism as a condition of salvation, and yet claim to be the kingdom of Jesus Christ, the church of the Lord, when actually, if these men have ever complied with the terms of admission into the kingdom at all, and most of these have not, they are at best a group of insurrectionists in the kingdom of the Lord. In the kingdom, Christ’s will is law, and rebellion is treason, punishable by eternal death from the hand of the Lord.

Local Autonomy

In the New Testament, we find the word “church” used in at least two senses. In Matt. 16:18, when Jesus said “upon this rock I will build my church,” he used the word church in its universal sense. However, when Paul wrote to the church of God which is at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:2), he spoke of a particular local congregation. So the word “church” is used in the universal and local, or congregational, senses. We have spoken of the church and its relation to the King. The King has specified a certain form of government for each of these congregations. Each congregation had its own officers, the qualifications of which are stated by the Holy Spirit, and recorded in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1. We shall speak of these officers afterward.

But at the moment we want to observe that there was not ecclesiasticism in the New Testament church. Each congregation was independent of every other congregation. There was no federation of churches. But today virtually every denomination scruples not to form its state, national, and international organizations, all of which are unknown to the New Testament. The largest functioning unit known to the New Testament is the local congregation. No congregation exercised any authority over any other congregation. Antioch exercised no control over Jerusalem. The elders of one church had no authority over any other church. This is what is meant when we say that each congregation was locally autonomous. “Each church was free and independent, under the teaching of Christ and the apostles, to govern itself, carry on its own work, and manage its own affairs . . . All congregations had the same head, foundation, and mission; preached the same gospel; constituted the one body. But each was independent to direct its own work!” (Leroy Brownlow, Why I Am A Member of the Church of Christ, p. 40).

Notice how that “the wisdom of God is seen in such an arrangement for his churches. If one became corrupted in doctrine or affected by evil practices, other churches would not be so affected. If dissension arose in one, it would not spread to the others; if one perished, the others would not be dragged down. If a window is made of one large pane, a break injures the entire pane; but if it be made of several panes, it is not so bad to break one. The independence of the churches is a protection for each one” (H. Leo Boles, Gospel Advocate, Feb. 15, 1940).

Officers in the Church

The divine arrangement was that there should be certain men ordained as officers in each of these local churches. There are two kinds of these officers) those that oversee and those that are special servants, the elders and the deacons. At the moment let us speak of the elders in each church. The Holy Spirit ordained that elders should be appointed in each church. The historical narrative says: “And when they had appointed for them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23). Paul instructed Timothy thus: “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that were wanting, and appoint elders in every city, as I gave thee charge” (Titus 1:5). From these two passages we learn that there was to be a plurality of elders in every church. Elders are also called pastors, shepherds, overseers, and bishops in the New Testament. All these names refer to one and the same group of men. Today men have distinguished between elders, bishops, and pastors. In Acts 20:17, Paul called to him the “elders” of the church. In Acts 20:28, in speaking to these “elders” he calls them “bishops.” The words “elders” and “bishops” are thus to be used interchangeably. Denominational churches often will have elders in a local church, but a bishop over several local congregations, which is an unscriptural form of government. Then many others take another name for elders, the name “pastors” as used in Eph. 4:11, and apply that to preachers. The preacher is not a pastor. If he is, he should not be. The bishop is not to control several churches, but several or at least a plurality of bishops should have the oversight of a single congregation. And they have no authority outside their own local group. The apostle Peter commands the elders to “Tend the flock of God which is among you” (1 Pet. 5:2). The sphere of the authority of the elders is that of the local church.

When the apostle Paul addressed his letter to the church at Philippi, he mentioned specifically the “bishops and deacons” (Phil. 1:1). The deacons are another office in the New Testament church. The word deacon is not in itself an English word, but is an anglicized Greek word. It means a servant, and the word servant well describes the responsibility of a deacon. A deacon is not a little elder, with considerable authority, but not quite as much as the elder. The deacon is simply a special servant.


In summary let us note that the church is a kingdom. This implies a certain form of Government. It implies the King, which , is Jesus, has all authority. Each congregation, under Christ, is locally autonomous, having over it qualified elders, and with them qualified deacons. Any congregation differing from this order, if men are qualified, is not a divinely approved congregation. Any group changing this divine form of government is not the church of the Lord. The church organization is simple, but the divine plan has been abused. Every attempt to improve upon this plan has resulted in apostasy and ecclesiasticism. The divine church has a divine form of government which must be followed!

Truth Magazine XIX: 9, pp. 131-133
January 9, 1975