There are three major forms of church government in Christianity today, namely, Episcopal, Congregational and Presbyterian. Some may adopt a hybrid of these systems, but the main systems can be classified essentially as the following:


The term episcopal comes from the Greek word episkopos which means “overseer” or “bishop”. An Episcopal Church is ruled by one man. Authority is vested in the “highest-ranking” bishop who makes all the decisions with regards to governance and delegation of duties to the lower-ranking clergy.

One important characteristic of Episcopal churches, especially those from the Anglican denomination, is their belief in the doctrine of “apostolic succession”. This doctrine teaches that the authority of the highest-ranking clergy is derived from the original twelve Apostles. However, this teaching is based on creeds and tradition rather than from the Bible It is thus most interesting that Paul F. M. Zahl, an Episcopalian, admits that the Episcopalian system cannot be substantiated from the Word of God. This teaching of “apostolic” succession should thus be rejected as false and unbiblical.

The Anglican and Methodist churches subscribe to the Episcopal form of church government.


In the congregational system of polity, authority is vested in the people (i.e. ruled by all). The final authority on any decisions pertaining practice or doctrine lies in the people, even though some members may be still babes and novices in the faith. Churches who hold on to the congregational form of polity include Baptist and Brethren Churches.

Some Congregational Churches may appoint elders to lead in the spiritual direction of the church. Nevertheless, unlike Presbyterian Churches, the final decision lies with the people. The weakness in such a system is that the elders often function more like advisers than overseers. The people have the power and authority to reject any decisions that are made by the elders. It is the congregation which ultimately governs the life of the church.


In the Presbyterian system of government, the authority is vested in some men who are called elders or presbyters. The name “Presbyterian” comes from the Greek Word presbuteros which refers to one who is aged. In the context of church polity, a presbuteros is one who is spiritually matured and qualified to govern the church (Titus 1:5).

As we study the use of the term presbuteros in the Bible in relation to church governance, we observe the following:

    • The term presbuteros (elder) and episokopos (overseer/bishop) is used inter-changeably (c.f. Tit 1:5, 7; Acts 20:17, 28). The term episkopos focuses more on the duties and responsibilities of the elder, whereas the term presbuteros focuses on the honour and graveness that is attached to the office. The elders are thus not just “advisers”, but are leaders with authority and responsibility vested to them by God to have oversight of God’s people. Thus, members should not adopt a lackadaisical attitude with regard to exhortations given by the elders if they are according to the Word of God.
    • The term presbuteros is always in the masculine. The elder is a man and not a woman.
    • There should be a plurality of elders governing the church. (Acts 11:30; 15:2, 4, 6; 20:17; Phi. 1:1; Tit. 1:5; 1 Pet 5:1-2)

Biblical wisdom dictates the need for a plurality. Firstly, the responsibility and burden of the ministry may be too onerous for one man and he may be easily worn out. It is thus most needful and expedient for the burden to be shared among qualified men (see Deuteronomy 1:9-17 and Exodus 18:1-27). Secondly, Proverbs 11:16 and 24:6 teach us that “in the multitude of counsellors there is safety”. If the board of elders are made up of those who are spiritual, we can be assured that God will lead this group of men to do much for the extension of His Kingdom. As such, it is essential that only qualified men be appointed as elders. The qualifications of elders are discussed chiefly in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. Failure to adhere to these qualifications can lead to the destruction of the church.

Two Types of Elders

The Bible teaches us that there are two types of elders. “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.” (1 Timothy 5:17). Thus, the Form of Government of the Bible Presbyterian Church states in point 2 of Chapter IV, “We believe the government by two kinds of presbyters, ministers and ruling elders, who are joined in the oversight of the Church, is founded upon and agreeable to the Word of God, and is highly expedient.”

Firstly, there is the ruling elder whose duty is to govern. Ruling elders “are the particular representatives of the people, chosen by them from their own number, for the purpose of joining them with the pastors or ministers in the government and discipline of the Church.” (Form of Government of the Bible Presbyterian Church, Chapter VI: Of Ruling Elders)

Secondly, there is the teaching elder whose duty is to both govern and teach the Word of God. He is also known as the pastor-teacher (Eph. 4:11). “The office of the minister is first in the Church, both for dignity and usefulness. The person who fills the office has, in Scripture, obtained different names expressive of his various duties. As he has the oversight of the flock of Christ, he is termed bishop. As he feeds them with spiritual food, he is termed pastor. As he serves Christ in his church, he is termed minister. As it is his duty to be grave and prudent, and an example of the flock, and to govern well in the house and kingdom of Christ, he is termed presbyter and elder. As he is sent to declare the will of God to sinners, and to beseech them to be reconciled to God through Christ, he is termed ambassador. And, as he disposes of the manifold grace of God, and the ordinances instituted by Christ, he is termed steward of the mysteries of God, and in humility he is the servant of Christ, separated unto the Gospel of God.” (Form of Government of the Bible Presbyterian Church, Chapter V: Of Ministers)

The pastor, together with the ruling elders, form the Board of Elders (BOE). The BOE together with the deacons will form the Session. The pastor-teacher is necessarily the moderator of the Session because he sets the spiritual direction of the church as one who is tasked to be the minister of the Word. However, as moderator of the Session, he should not act like a pope or arch-bishop for he is not higher than the other elders in the BOE.

Presbyteries and Synods

The BOEs of associated Presbyterian churches in a district or state are usually linked together by what is often termed as a Presbytery. The Presbytery will decide on various administrative and doctrinal matters of the associated churches. In larger countries, all the presbyteries will come together to form a Synod. The Synod will then decide on the various administrative and doctrinal issues of the associated Presbyteries. An example of such a system in action can be seen in the Jerusalem council in Acts 15.

Sadly, the Synod of the Bible-Presbyterian Church dissolved in 1988 due to disagreements over Charismatism and Biblical Separation. With the dissolution, every Bible-Presbyterian Church is now independent and free to do what is right in their own eyes.


As Bible-Presbyterians, we follow the Presbyterian form of government because it is closest to the system of governance that is taught in the Holy Scriptures. A church that adheres to the Biblical pattern and principles of church government can be a powerful witness for the Lord Jesus Christ. It is our prayer that this will be the case for Tabernacle Bible-Presbyterian Church. Do strive in your prayers for the Session of the church that all things may be done to the glory of God.

Lovingly in Christ,
Preacher Clement Chew