Church Governance

The Refuge Church practices a plurality of elders for church governance. Although some have argued that different forms of church government are evident in the New Testament, a survey of the relevant texts shows the opposite to be true: there is quite a consistent pattern of plural elders as the main governing group in New Testament churches. For instance, in Acts 14:23 we read, “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting, they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed.” This is on Paul’s first missionary journey, when he is returning through the cities of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. It indicates that Paul’s normal procedure from the time of his first missionary journey was to establish a group of elders in each church shortly after the church began. We know that Paul also established elders in the church at Ephesus, for we read, “From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church” (Acts 20:17). Moreover, Paul’s apostolic assistants apparently were instructed to carry out a similar process, for Paul wrote to Titus, “This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). Shortly after a church has been established, once again we see elders being established in office, in “every town” in which there was a church. And Paul reminded Timothy of the time “when the elders laid their hands upon you” (1 Timothy 4:14).

James writes, “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (James 5:14). This is a significant statement because the epistle of James is a general letter written to many churches, all the believers scattered abroad, whom James characterizes as “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (James 1:1). It indicates that James expected that there would be elders in every New Testament church to which his general epistle went—that is, in all the churches in existence at that time.

A similar conclusion can be drawn from 1 Peter. Peter writes, “So I exhort the elders among you … Tend the flock of God that is your charge …” (1 Peter 5:1–2). First Peter is also a general epistle, written to dozens of churches scattered throughout four Roman provinces in Asia Minor (see 1 Peter 1:1; Bithynia and Pontus constituted one Roman province). Far from expecting different kinds of church government when he was writing (around a.d. 62, more than thirty years after Pentecost), Peter assumes that all these churches, whether founded by Paul or by others, whether predominantly Gentile or predominantly Jewish or evenly divided in their make-up, would have elders leading them. Moreover, there were elders in the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:30; 15:2), and, though the word elders is not used, there is a plurality of leaders in the congregation to which the epistle to the Hebrews is directed, for the author says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account” (Hebrews 13:17).

Two significant conclusions may be drawn from this survey of the New Testament evidence. First, no passage suggests that any church, no matter how small, had only one elder. The consistent New Testament pattern is a plurality of elders “in every church” (Acts 14:23) and “in every town” (Titus 1:5). Second, we do not see a diversity of forms of government in the New Testament church, but a unified and consistent pattern in which every church had elders governing it and keeping watch over it (Acts 20:28; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:2–3).