On Church Government

By Steve M. Schlissel
February 01, 1997


Christianity is the world’s largest religion with 34% of its inhabitants claiming Jesus as Lord and Savior. Of these 2 billion self-described Christians, roughly half are Roman Catholic. Then there are the 218 million “Orthodox,” the 70 million Anglicans, and the 276 million “others” (including non-Roman Catholics, marginal Protestants, crypto- Christians and adherents of African, Asian, black and Latin-American indigenous churches). This leaves about 400 million Protestants.

Protestant denominations (including Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Reformed, Baptist, Evangelical, Mennonite, Moravian, Pentecostal and scads of others) generally justify their particular existence by pointing out differences with other denominations which may generally be subsumed under one or more of the following three headings: Doctrine, Worship, Government (there goes that Prophet, Priest and King motif again!).

Presbyterian and Reformed churches, which have elevated division to the level of an art, if not a science, have roughly 400 denominations constituting their small slice of Christendom’s pie. Reformed Churches which confess essential revelational truth can put forth a good Biblical argument for insistence on maintaining that truth through confessional union of some sort. Churches which seek to preserve or advance a particular sort of worship may also do so successfully if they properly sort through all of Scripture’s instruction regarding worship. Arguing for a particular kind of worship, however, necessarily involves broader consideration of history and culture than does argument for a propositional truth of Scripture. Truth, as such, does not evolve.


Those who argue for the superiority of their form of government, however, ought to do so with the most humility. That is to say, they may do so if they justify their form of government because of its general conformity to the Word of God, or because of its utility, or its qualities of expediency. But to insist that allegiance to a particular form of church government is the will of God, so much so that to fail to pledge such allegiance is equivalent to heresy, is not only to go too far, it is to sound very much like a fool, and an ignorant one at that. Our tolerance should be narrowest concerning doctrine, a bit wider at worship, and widest in form of government.

This point can be illustrated by switching the subject for a moment to civil administration. When the people of Israel opted out of a decentralized judge-rule to a centralized monarchy, they rejected the better for the lesser. Nevertheless, Samuel told them that despite their sin, they should be resolute in fearing the Lord and serving Him faithfully. God was less concerned with the form of administration than with which law was being administered and which God was being served (read 1 Samuel 8-12). So also with church government. One may be best, another may be less than best but better than others, still another worse. (Prelacy, incidentally, is far and away the dominant form of church government in Christendom.) The overriding concern under any form must be: Is it Christ’s Word and Law that the church government is seeking to advance?

Certain features of presbyterian church government can be Biblically justified with ease. Yet it is perhaps telling that most modern defenses of the system root themselves not in Scripture, but in the Reformation. When appeal is made to Scripture, however, those making the appeal sometimes ask God to say more than He actually has on the subject. As Christian Reformed minister, J. L. Schaver, wrote in a 1947 defense of Reformed polity, “The study of New Testament church polity reveals that it is characterized by simplicity and is opposed to precise delineation . . . [Many] either underestimate or overestimate the importance of Scripture in determining church polity [bold words!-S.M.S.]. [For] the Scriptures do not contain a polity in any sense approaching a complete scientific treatment. . . And as to the making of laws touching on church polity there is a remarkable self-restraint that characterizes the apostles, which their followers, also today, do well to imitate.”

Rev. John Macpherson, in a thoughtful and concise defense of presbyterian polity (1898), pointed out that “In the very earliest Christian times, when believers were few, all the [adult male] members of the church were called on to preach, and to exercise generally what came afterwards to be regarded as strictly clerical functions.”

This is a huge statement (concession?); especially coupled with Macpherson’s acknowledgment that codification of order in the early church was not a priori but rather in light of “the ever-growing need of the church.” Doctrine comes before the church, and defines her. Worship is the primary spiritual activity of the church, growing out of doctrine. But government comes after the church, and it grows out of need.


Macpherson (properly, I believe) sees the church developing out of the synagogue model (the first churches in Israel were called Christian synagogues) and so suggests that “we may reasonably look to the arrangements of the synagogue for enlightenment,” especially when customs in worship or office are spoken of in the New Testament without explanation. This is the smart move. Beginning an argument about polity from the church circa 1645 can only establish an argument from tradition. This is not necessarily bad, so long as it does not pretend to be more.

Topics: Government

Steve M. Schlissel

Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children  and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.

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