Many people mistakenly think of the Church as an organization. This understanding of the Church is mistaken because it is inconsistent with what Scripture says about the Church. Rather than an organization, the New Testament clearly teaches that the Church is a living organism of which Christ is the Head giving direction to believer’s who are His Body. Yet as a living organism, all local congregations or assemblies must be governed.
Three types of church government emerged:
(1) Episcopal. Under this type of government, bishops govern local congregations; typically one bishop will govern a group of congregations. The simplest form of this type of church government can be found in the Methodist church while the more complex form can be found in the Roman Catholic Church. This type of church government is not seen in the first century, it originated in the second century. Proponents point to James, Timothy, and Titus for biblical support.
(2) Presbyterian. In this form of government, a plurality of elders (the session) governs the local congregation. The elders are elected by the people, therefore the elders represent the people, and it is a representative form of government. Above the session is the presbytery which is made up of all the teaching elders (ordained ministers) and one ruling elder (lay elected elder) from each congregation in a district. Above the presbytery is the synod and above the synod the general assembly which is the highest court in this form of government. Both the synod and the general assembly are comprised of ministers and ruling elders. There is very strong biblical evidence that supports this form of church government in terms of a plurality of elders; however, the New Testament says nothing about such organization beyond the local congregation.
(3) Congregational. In this form of government, the authority rests on the entire local congregation rather than on someone who is appointed or elected to represent them as in the presbyterian form of government. These local churches are autonomous; meaning no authority outside that local body of believer’s has any power over that church. These churches are also democratic, meaning all believers who belong to that particular church make the decisions that guide and govern it. There is strong biblical support for this form of government in the New Testament since we find many passages that clearly indicate that all members of local congregations should be involved in the decision-making process (Acts 6:3-5; 11:22; 14:23; 15:25; 1 Cor. 5:12; 2 Cor. 2:6-7; 8:19; 2 Thess. 3:14; 1 John 4:1).
Since elements of both the presbyterian and congregational forms of government find strong support in the New Testament, perhaps the best form of church government would be the combining or bringing together of those elements that have strong biblical support. For example, there is no doubt that the local churches in the New Testament were governed by a plurality of elders (presbyterian form of government), on the other hand, the New Testament also shows that these local churches had no outside authority with power over them, in other words, they were clearly autonomous and democratic (congregational form of government).